10 Strangest Gardens in the World

Designing a landscape can be as simple as planting a backyard garden or as complex as shaping tons of earth around a city. As eco-friendlydesign continues to prosper, landscape architects are devising new ways of gleaning environmental benefits from the natural surroundings while minimizing how buildings disrupt the scenery. Meanwhile, smaller-scale gardens are being designed to explore abstract concepts and catalog fauna from around the globe. From an ancient agricultural site in Sri Lanka to the fledgling crops of the International Space Station, we dug up this collection of the world's most noteworthy gardens and landscapes.

1. California Academy of Sciences' Living Roof

Photo: Greenroofs
Photo: Greenroofs

Location: San Francisco, Calif.

Background: Roof gardens can pose significant construction and maintenance challenges, and adding hills to the mix doesn't make things easier. The crew behind the California Academy of Sciences' living roof installed a multilayered soil-drainage system and chose to rely mainly on natural irrigation to nourish native plant species and minimize upkeep. In 2008, the building received LEED Platinum certification—the highest rating possible—partly because of the roof's awesome insulation capabilities, which keep the building an average 10 degrees cooler than a typical roof would.

Why It's Unique: The garden's two larger contours sync up to the planetarium and rainforest exhibitions down below, but the roof is as functional as it is aesthetically pleasing. "The mounds really came from the fact that when you look from afar, the backdrop is San Francisco's hills," says Bill Callaway of SWA Group. This leading landscape architecture and urban design firm helped design the Academy of Sciences' living roof, and has worked on projects ranging from Google's HQ to Burj Khalifa's Tower Park. "So really what the architect was trying to do was echo those hills in the project by putting them on the roof." By adding an open-air observation deck, the designers created an ideal location to watch the birds and the bees buzz around the lush plant life.

2. Sky Garden, London, England

Photo: Sky Garden
Photo: Sky Garden

Possibly one of the highest gardens in London, the Sky Garden resides at the top of the 'Walkie-Talkie' on Fenchurch Street, spans three floors and offers 360-degree views across the city. The garden is dominated by Mediterranean and South African species of plants; however, other plants fill the spaces in-between, which means the garden flourishes year round.

3. Las Pozas

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Location: Xilitla, Mexico.

Background: English surrealist and poet Edward James went to the Mexican rainforest to create a spectacle of a garden that blends strange architecture into an already vivacious environment. Walkways stamped with footprints, Orchid-inspired sculptures and fantastical structures looming over the landscape are just some of the features laced throughout the 40 or so acres.

Why It's Unique: At points, it seems as though the abundance of artwork would detract from the beauty of the natural landscape and diverse fauna. Then again, it's a small plot of land when considering the size of the whole rainforest, and as the years pass, the artwork and gardens meld into the environment more and more. "I suppose it's true of architecture, but certainly landscape design; it doesn't take too many years when left to its own devices to be eaten up by the jungle," Callaway says. "The natural landscape is going to win out." James died in 1984, and nature has been busy consuming the features so rapidly that Las Pozas was recently named an endangered cultural site by the World Monument Foundation.

4. Francisco Alvarado Park, Zarcero, Costa Rica

Photo: Pinterest
Photo: Pinterest

The topiary garden has been maintained daily by Evangelisto Blanco, who has kept each shrub and twig trimmed since the 1960s. The bushes range in size and have been shaped into many different forms, such as unusual faces, animals, mythical creatures, avant-garde shapes and arches.

5. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Dumfries, Scotland

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Location: Scotland.

Background: The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is the brainchild of architect and architectural critic Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick, an expert on Asian garden design. Open to the public only once a year, the 30-acre garden is on Jencks's private estate in Scotland. It took nearly two decades to complete.

Why It's Unique: It is not unusual for science to inspire artists, but when that inspiration takes shape as spiraling landforms, double-helix staircases and intricate floral arrangements, the results are outstanding. Pyramid-like landscapes reflecting in a still pond elicit thoughts of parallel universes and swirling mounds of earth look like grassy black holes. Bridges, streams, fences and other installations divide the garden into several areas and link them together. Jencks's interest in exploring modern physics is not limited to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, as many of his landscapes morph space and perspective.

6. Crystal Palace Gardens, London, England

At one of South London’s largest parks, visitors will find not only shrubs, trees and plants, but also Victorian dinosaurs emerging from the tidal lake. The 'Jurassic Park' was created by sculptor and fossil expert, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, and the founder of the Natural History Museum, Richard Owen. They built mainly ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, but also include dinosaurs from the Mesozoic era and Cenozoic era.

7. Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall, England

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Location: Cornwall, England.

Background: England's Lost Gardens of Heligan have a storied history of prosperity, neglect and rejuvenation. The once glorious Heligan estate fell into disrepair as World War I creeped into England and priorities shifted. Nature took its course in the decades that followed, swallowing the gardens and obscuring the walkways. It wasn't until 1990 that two descendants of the Tremayne family—the owning family of the estate dating back to 1200—discovered a small garden and decided to revamp the site.

Why It's Unique: Before there were Chia Pets, there were the much larger Mud Maid and Giant's Head of Heligan. Callaway says there is a fine line between kitsch and art, but these two sculptures are wonderful additions to the garden. "It could be that those mud sculptures are much better now than they were in the beginning," Callaway says. "Because now they have the patina of age." In addition to these impressive sculptures, Heligan also boasts an Italian Garden, an extensive jungle section and an alpine-inspired ravine.

8. Poison Garden

Photo: TheTravel
Photo: TheTravel

Location: Eureka, Calif.

Background: Amy Stewart, author of Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, tends this small garden off the side of her home in aptly named Eureka, Calif. Stewart, who also runs an antiquarian bookstore with her husband, recycles damaged books by burying them. She outfitted the garden with a chair, lamp, window and desk to make it a real writer's garden.

Why It's Unique: Most people try to avoid cultivating plants that can kill them, but Stewart's garden has more than 35 different species that could wreak havoc on the body if mishandled. Nightshade, hemlock, datura, opium poppy and castor bean—the main ingredient of the deadly poison ricin—are among the killer varieties sprouting here. Gates at the front and back of the garden help keep the neighborhood kids and Stewart's chickens from gobbling down these pernicious plants, while a cement tombstone inform onlookers about whom the plants have killed, including Socrates (hemlock) and Abe Lincoln's mom, Nancy Hanks (white snakeroot).

9. Gardens of Versailles

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Location: Versailles, France.

Background: France's King Louis XIV called on the renowned skills of landscape architect André Le Nôtre in the late 1600s to expand the regal gardens at the Palace of Versailles. A pinnacle of French landscape design, decadent fountains and swaths of immaculate lawns surround the geometric gardens. Today, remnants of the original irrigation system can be found many kilometers away in surrounding suburbs.

Why It's Unique: What Callaway finds striking about Versailles is that though it was built to entertain the kings of France and their courts, it serves the public remarkably well today as a place to gather, have picnics and relax. "Over the years, the gold leafs and all that type of stuff that was excess wears off ... the detritus goes away, and the bones of the thing are just spectacular," he says. Callaway also notes that families such as the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts commissioned similar private gardens that have since been turned into functional and beautiful public grounds. "The only thing decadent about them is that they were originally used by rich people."

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10. Ancient City of Sigiriya

Photo: Youtube
Photo: Youtube

Location: Sri Lanka.

Background: Dating back to about 480, this ancient city is as complex as it is imposing. From atop the massive granite slab—dubbed Lion's Rock—onlookers peer down over a vast system of terraced gardens, winding irrigation paths and rock sculptures. In 1982, UNESCO declared the location to be one of its World Heritage sites.

Why It's Unique: Sigiriya has three main gardens: a water garden, the terraced garden, and a boulder garden. Unlike most rock gardens, the rocks in the boulder garden cannot be repositioned with a few strokes of a rake—they're legitimate boulders. In fact, the rocks are so large that a 15-foot-tall throne is carved into one. The legacy of sites like Sigiriya provide invaluable insight into the early days of agriculture, and to think of the rudimentary tools used during its construction makes the site that much more impressive.

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