A first look at Botanica's new children's garden

Botanica was packed and sizzling hot Sunday as members got their first peek at the $3 million Downing Children's Garden.

The newest garden — Botanica's 26th themed garden — will open to the public Saturday.

More than 600 Botanica members braved temperatures near 100 to see what Botanica officials hope will become a destination hot spot.

"Other botanical gardens across the country that have opened children's gardens have seen on the average their attendance double and membership triple," said Mia Jenkins, Botanica's director of marketing and communications.

"This has great potential for new audiences and to get more people connected to Botanica overall."

Last year, more than 103,000 people visited Botanica. It has nearly 4,000 members.

The new garden includes:

* A sunflower fountain, a necessity on hot summer days

* A rainbow trail featuring a giant, sparkling rainbow

* A musical maze with instruments creating sounds of nature — rain, a thunder drum, fog misters and whale drums

* A party barn that also serves as a classroom

* A polliwog pond with fish and frogs and polliwogs

* The Enchanted Glen, where visitors can just as well learn about the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies as they can curl up and read a book or see a puppet show

* A tree house where visitors eagerly explore a tree the size of a house from the roots on up

"I like it," said Tori Routsong, an 11-year-old from Topeka who initially came to see her grandparents but was soon won over by the new garden.

"I like how there is so much colorful stuff. Most gardens you walk through the only thing colorful is flowers. But here? There is the barn. There is a whole bunch of stuff that is cool and interactive."

Would she come back?

"Yeah, cause I really like it here."

Three-year-old Lilly Yocky said her favorite part was the butterflies.

She said she was disappointed, though, that they didn't stick to her fingers.

Her 13-year-old sister, Chloe, said the garden "was just really fun. I liked the tree house."

Indeed, Jenkins said, the tree house offers a stunning overall view of the 1-acre garden.

"My favorite part is how the garden reveals itself to you," Jenkins said. "You go through the rainbow and come through the entrance and as you work your way through, the garden reveals things to you. I think that adds to the wonder for both kids and adults. You discover as you go."

It took 7 1/2 years to raise funds, design and create the garden, Jenkins said.

The space started out as a sandbar along the Arkansas River.

It took tons of mulch, garden soil and compost — and many artistic sculptures and designs from Kansas artists — to create it.

An additional $1 million in capital improvement funds from the city of Wichita were used to make the necessary changes to Botanica's infrastructure — including road rerouting, and water and sewer improvements.

As many of the old trees as possible in the area were saved. The garden features 136 new trees, 79 varieties; 820 new shrubs, 74 varieties; 1,731 new perennials, 75 varieties; 810 new perennial grasses, 22 varieties; and hundreds of annuals and tropical plantings for seasonal color.

Many of the plants were picked for texture, smell and color.

There is a red and purple plant called the "Bat Face."

An "Easter egg plant" is so named because of the egg-shaped fruits on it.

And other plants with names such as "Berry Smoothie," "Root Beer" and "Cherry Cola."

"The best part of this garden is seeing it all come to life from paper designs," said Evelyn Neier, who has led Botanica's Children's Garden Advisory Committee for the past 5 1/2 years.

"I have seen it come to life."

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