8 essential botanical gardens and arboretums in Belgium

We’ve gone countrywide and put together a selection of eight essential botanical gardens and arboretums to pepper your summer bucket list.

Photographer Joke De Wilde (c)

Bokrijk

Genk’s Bokrijk arboretum was laid out in 1965, its reach extending to a total of 18 hectares. The planting was initially arranged systematically and according to the taxonomic insights of the time, resulting in an entirely scientic-led construction. However, in 1983 a new philosophy took hold: an arboretum or botanical garden also had to offer something to the average citizen, a mainstream appeal if you will. From then on, and with the stated aim of catering to tourists, the collection was gradually transformed into a beautiful and pleasant landscaped garden. Meanwhile, the arboretum also became a member of the Belgian Association of Botanic Gardens and Arboreta and Botanical Gardens Conservation International, which encouraged every affiliated institution to build reference collections – meaning, in simpler terms, to specialise. Bokrijk opted for the holly genus, magnolias, woody grasses, and rhododendrons; all very decorative or amenable, and a suitable match for the envisioned tourist destination. In addition, the arboretum is emblematic of the rich horticultural tradition of the area, as is apparent with the arboretum’s impressive collection of Ghent azaleas. They’re also very proud of their ecological management approach in housing biotopes from all over the world and, perhaps more importantly, being known as Europe’s largest reference collection.

1 Bokrijklaan (3600)
bokrijk.be

Ghent University Botanical Garden

Established in 1902, the Botanical Garden of Ghent University covers 2.75 hectares, of which a quarter consists of both heated and unheated greenhouses. Founded on the grounds of a genuine botanical garden, cultivated between 1797 and 1903, it is currently located between the University’s Ledeganck complex and the outskirts of Citadel Park, just a stone’s throw away from contemporary art powerhouse S.M.A.K. The garden easily houses 10,000 plant species, and during your visit you can get acquainted with a wide assortment of unusual plants, learning not only about their biology but also their symbiotic relationship with mankind, or simply enjoy a peaceful stroll through the beautiful setting. With an impressive range of 6,000 species, the garden also contains an herbarium, a systematically arranged collection of dried plants as well as a seed bank. The living collection consists of an arboretum, a Mediterranean department and a rock garden, amongst others. The aforementioned greenhouses consist of the Victoria greenhouse – which contains een Victoria’s water lily (Victoria amazonica), foxnut (Euryale ferox) and Victoria cruziana – the tropical and subtropical greenhouse, as well as the succulent greenhouse. The garden and its greenhouses (with the exception of the succulent house) are thankfully not limited to academic use only and are open to the public everyday – and for free at that. 

35 Karel Lodewijk Ledeganckstraat (9000)
ugent.be/we/en/services/garden

Arboretum Kalmthout

Kalmthout’s arboretum, located in the northern corner of the Antwerp Province, has built a solid reputation for itself both within and beyond our borders, even going as far as to receive several international awards. Established in 1856, it currently is home to over 7,000 plant species from all over the world, spread over a generous domain of 12.5 hectares.The arboretum is primarily dedicated to trees and shrubs, although it also hosts a number of herbaceous plants. Far from your conventional manicured garden, it avoids systematic plant beds or aligned rows, and steers away from categorisation based on plant origin, family or gender. Climbing plants and lianas swing about the trees, while the bushes and perennials provide plenty of layered vegetation. An entirely uninhibited natural garden, some species originated in their own garden while others were transplanted directly from nature. All the plants are registered and noted down for their scientific and educational purposes, and their progress is even closely monitored in extensive “personal files” accompanying each species. Kalmthout’s team carefully rejuvenate the plants in time so that their continuity is ensured, besides harvesting seeds, planting seedlings and distributing new ones to other plant gardens and nurseries. In fact, several unique plants have been preserved since the plant nursery’s founding in the 19th century, now cherished as ancient monuments. It is not their intention to have a complete collection per se, such as with a stamp collection. Selecting plants is a continuous process – after all, every plant must be tested, compared and evaluated over time.

8 Heuvel (2920)
arboretumkalmthout.be

Leuven Botanical Garden

Leuven’s Botanical Garden is the oldest of its kind in Belgium. Indeed, as a result of Professor Hendrik Rega’s personal effort, the University built a pharmaceutical botanical garden for its stu- dents of medicine in 1738, on a site located near the Dyle river, a stone’s throw away from MATRIX. When the new state university was founded under Dutch rule, the herb garden was deemed too small and was subsequently relocated to a former Capuchin convent on the other side of Kapucijnenvoer in 1819. Following a design by Charles Vander Straeten, court architect for the Prince of Orange, the orangery complete with greenhouses and a fence wall were erected in a strict classicist style. It went on to be listed as a monument in 1976 by royal decree, while the entire herb garden was arranged into a landscape. Similar to Ghent University Botanical Garden, Leuven’s university garden is affiliated with the broad, non-profit organisation Botanic Gardens Conservation International, which seeks to bring botanical gardens together in a globally collaborating network to ensure the preservation of the biodiversity of plants. The garden hosts a diverse plant collection, so there’s bound to be something for every taste – the 450m2 greenhouse complex alone harbours numerous herbaceous, medicinal, aquatic, and potted plants, as well as a variety of tropical and subtropical species. Maintained by the City of Leuven since 1835, the 2.2 hectare garden is open and free to the public, making it a firm favourite of both tourists and locals alike.

30 Kapucijnenvoer (3000)
visitleuven.be/en/botanical-garden

Liège’s Botanical Garden

Liège’s Botanical Garden was originally envisioned in 1819, but its development was actually only enacted two decades later in 1838, when the City of Liège acquired no less than 5 hectares of land in the then undeveloped Laveu neighbourhood. The construction plans were entrusted to the city architect Julien-Étienne Remont, whose frequent travels through Britain explains the distinctively English style of the garden. The Victorian style greenhouses were completed in 1841 and served as a model for Bucharest’s Botanical Garden. Seven years later, its distinctive wrought iron gates were added to the site perimeter although, unfortunately, the greenhouses were badly damaged by a Nazi air raid on Christmas Eve of 1944. Thankfully, a large part of the collection was sheltered, despite some plants having died due to the freezing temperatures of the nights that followed. Post-war funds to compensate for the damage done were collected, yet were insufficient for rebuilding the greenhouses as they were before, therefore resulting in the smaller structures we see today. The University of Liège managed the old garden from its creation in 1840 until the early 70s, when it was passed on to the City – eventually the grids surrounding the garden disappeared, becoming a public park. The garden hosts 400 trees, of which some are over 150 years old, including rare species from all the continents. Located not far from the city centre, the gardens are a favourite of local residents who bask in its lush and luxuriously green settings.

3 Rue Fusch (4000)

 botaniqueliege.be

Botanic Garden Meise

Home of the Royal Botanical Society of Belgium and easily considered the national botanical garden, Meise houses over 18,000 plant specimens, divided between 13 interconnecting glasshouses. 11 of these simulate the climates of different regions in the world, while the remaining two have a more thematic approach. Part of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, Meise’s botanical garden has the ambitious task of preventing threats to plant species. In fact, it were the first to publish a “red list” in 1969 of rare and endangered plants in Belgium. Another pioneering study was their 1972 atlas of Belgian and Luxembourg florae. The garden is also a member of the European Native Seed Conservation Network, whereby wild plant seeds are collected and preserved in banks for at least a century, sometimes even in settings of -20°. Most of the preserved seeds are interesting species from the Campine and Lorraine regions during the 80s. The Botanic Garden is also a repository of plants detained by customs during border control – endangered plants that are globally banned from exportation. Three decades later, the botanical garden were passed on to the newly founded Société royale de Flore de Bruxelles with the entire domain of 92 hectares containing the lands of the Bouchout Domain, a Meise-based castle which was formerly the residence of Empress Charlotte of Mexico. Complete with the Royal Belgian Botanical Association’s exquisite library, the garden is also known to host free exhibitions in the Castle every now and then. Absolutely essential.

38 Nieuwelaan (1860)
plantentuinmeise.be

Arboretum Robert Lenoir

The longstanding legacy of Robert Lenoir, a passionate private collector, his 1937 namesake arboretum was founded upon the acquired Moulin de Bardonwez, a vast estate built in 1918 which comprised a mill, a house and its outer structures, as well as 60 hectares of land split between the Bois d’Arlogne woods and a part of the Del Côre forest. Following his death in 1989, the bulk of the estate’s collections was sold to the Public Service of Wallonia two years later and reassuringly, today efforts are made to ensure a more ecological management to the arboretum, one which includes averting pesticides since 2011, resulting for instance in all weeding being done with alternative techniques. The gardening team also practices different methods of mowing, in order to offer various atmospheres, to promote biodiversity and also save time. Practically, this involves promoting spontaneous growth of florae, preserving pollinating insects, and accommodating a variety of birds and animals. The collection includes more than 3,000 species from all over the world, and the 22-hectares arboretum exists on meadows, forests, and wetlands. In fact, 29 trees are considered Belgian Champion Trees, or trees with the largest known circumference for their species in the country. A truly special highlight of the plantations are the peninsulas on the borders of the Ourthe river.

2 Bardonwez (6987)
environnement.wallonie.be/arboretum-rendeux

Arboretum Wespelaar

Widely regarded as one of the 20 most beautiful arboretums in the world, the first seeds of this gorgeous arboretum were laid during the 70s when Belgian businessman Philippe de Spoelberch started his botanical collections on his private domain Herkenrode, near Wespelaar, eventually deciding to extend the collection towards the north of his garden. In 1984, this northern part of the garden was turned into the small borough town’s official arboretum, and which is now managed by the Foundation Arboretum Wespelaar to ensure the continuity of the collections and to arrange open access to the general public. Nowadays, over 2,000 different species and cultivated varieties are housed across the grounds’ 20 hectares with the arboretum’s stated ambition of “contributing to the knowledge of all woody plants from the temperate climates of the world.” Even though the collection is still quite young, it has grown considerably over the years. For example, the arboretum is famed for its magnolia collection, one of the largest in Europe. It tends to prefer species to cultivars, although it also hosts some great selections, including in-house bred plants. Aesthetics are also a key facet for the Foundation Arboretum Wespelaar: broad vistas, spacious plantations and woodland gardens interspersed with meadows are all present here. And with no defined paths, visitors are free to roam as they like.

63 Grote Baan (3150)
arboretumwespelaar.be