By MeLinda Schnyder
When Botanica opened to the public in 1987, it was a small yet beautiful 9.5-acre garden near the Arkansas River in the Riverside neighborhood, serving mostly as a place for garden clubs to meet. As the nonprofit celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it does so as a regional attraction that last year welcomed 220,000 visitors to enjoy 28 themed gardens on 17.5 acres, as well as entertaining and educational events and activities scheduled through all four seasons.
Regular visitors have their preferred season and their favorite spot to visit, though none will argue that the 26th themed garden has had the biggest impact on transforming Botanica into one of the community’s top year-round attractions. In 2011, Botanica opened the $3 million Downing Children’s Garden and immediately doubled its membership base and tripled its annual visitors.
“The Downing Children’s Garden changed everything for Botanica with more and more young families taking part in Botanica,” said Marty Miller, Botanica’s executive director since 2008. “The name ‘children’s garden’ does not do this area full justice.”
The 1-acre themed garden features imaginative and interactive elements like a 20-foot-tall monster head tree that guests can climb inside, a farm with a working water pump and a musical maze.
The newest themed garden opened in 2015: The Chinese Garden of Friendship is Botanica’s first sister cities garden, representing the relationship between Wichita and Kaifeng, China. It is structured after a scholar garden that would have existed 800 years ago in Kaifeng, with representations of plants, water features, rocks, structures and art.
Botanica’s staff and volunteers work year-round to offer programming and special events that will appeal to all ages, from drop-in craft activities for kids to monthly adult programs like wine tastings or photography classes to summer concerts to the spectacular Illuminations light display each December.
“Whether it is flowers, art, music, parties, butterflies, family time, education or relaxation, Botanica offers something for everyone,” Miller said.
VIP: What’s new at Botanica for 2017?
MM: We are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year and each of our special events (botanica.org) will have a special celebration incorporated. We are also adding a fairy garden to our Woodlands. Guests will be able to walk through the garden to see what the fairies are up to. Our fairies are very busy and always changing, so each time you come visit Botanica, the fairy garden will have something new.
VIP: It’s been said that every season is beautiful at Botanica for different reasons. What can guests expect to see each season?
MM: Each spring Botanica comes alive with flowering trees, thousands of daffodils and 64,000 tulips. In late spring the tulips are removed and replaced with tens of thousands of beautiful flowering annuals. During summer the pond lilies dance on the waters with dazzling color, and the butterfly house is occupied by beautiful tropical butterflies and colorful flowers that provide food for the butterflies during the months from June through September. During the fall months, hundreds of chrysanthemums line the walks until the first freeze. During the holiday months almost 70,000 guests visit the gardens to view almost 2 million lights, making Illuminations a family tradition.
VIP: How does Botanica rate among the region’s botanical gardens?
MM: Botanica is recognized as one of the best horticultural displays of flowering species in the country. There are many other gardens in the Midwest that are larger but that is what makes Botanica unique. Within 17.5 acres, 28 themed gardens are compacted that allows guests to enjoy the entire garden in a few hours and still see something new during every visit. We also have the only butterfly house in the Midwest region, open from June to September.
VIP: Who owns and operates Botanica?
MM: The land Botanica occupies was donated by Coler Sim to the city of Wichita in 1917. Botanica was incorporated in 1985 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In 1987, Botanica opened its doors to the public in a building that once housed the Sim Golf Course club house, with an addition that was built for flower shows. The Botanica board of trustees operates the organization and it is managed by the executive director under the oversight of the Wichita Park and Recreation department.
VIP: How is Botanica funded?
MM: Operating expenses are funded by special events (40 percent), gate admissions (15 percent), memberships (15 percent), rentals (15 percent), retail sales (10 percent) and education programs (5 percent). Botanica is very fortunate to have received generous support from our members, donors, volunteers and staff. However, the bottom line is not measured in dollars, it is measured in the number of smiles we make.The smiles that we see on our guests, including children and adults, are the rewards Botanica receives from the work we do.
VIP: What should we watch for at Botanica in the next few years?
MM: What is next for Botanica is simple: maintaining and updating our current gardens while focusing on enhancing the experiences people can enjoy through future exhibits and permanent additions. The Botanica Carousel Project is underway with a goal of being open to the public in spring 2018. Other potential additions are the remaining two sister cities gardens: the Mexican Garden and the French Garden. The Joyland merry-go-round is one of the three remaining Allan Herschell carousels and was donated to Botanica in January 2014. Since then artist Marlene Irving has been restoring the 36 carousel horses. The $4 million project will not only include the complete restoration of the carousel, it will also include a magnificent building that will house the carousel. The building will also have room for parties and verandas to view activities in the garden. The landscape around the building will include a grand lawn with a performance stage large enough to hold concerts performed by the symphony.
VIP: Besides becoming a member, attending events and visiting the gardens, how can readers support Botanica?
MM: We are currently in the midst of our carousel project and are offering a community raffle with all proceeds supporting the project. Two of the restored, painted carousel horses are being raffled. Tickets are $25 for one and $100 for five. If you’re a winner, you can take your horse home, display it at the office or donate it back to Botanica and a recognition plaque will be displayed in your honor.