Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2018 issue.
Beautiful Colorado is home to bountiful bouquets and bushels of flowers and plants. Many of these blooms have acclimated to high altitude and dry climate, growing freely on the eastern plains and western mesas.
The rare alpine species found in Colorado’s mountains have a more challenging task in sustaining life, and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail aims “to deepen understanding and promote conservation of alpine plants and fragile mountain environments,” according to the Gardens’ mission statement.
Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is the world’s highest botanical garden. At 8,250 feet, the garden specializes in alpine plants from around the world and shelters the National Collection of Colorado’s alpine flora.
In 1983, the original idea for the Gardens came through the collaboration of two longtime Vail residents, landscape designer Marty Jones and Helen Fritch, a gardening hobbyist. Together they cultivated a vision for their unique showcase:
“To be an internationally acclaimed botanic garden for alpine horticulture, education and conservation.”
Former First Lady Betty Ford shared this passion for the gardens. Betty grew up loving flowers … how could you not with the maiden name of Bloomer?!
“When I was a little girl, I spent many cherished hours with my mother in her garden,” Mrs. Ford said. “She wisely marked off an area for my very own plants. As we worked together, she nurtured me as she nurtured my love of gardening.”
Betty became very involved during her frequent visits to their Vail Valley home and, in 1988, the Gardens were named in her honor. Neither of the original founders, nor Mrs. Ford herself, could envision the popularity, reputation and legacy the Gardens would grow to enjoy.
Current executive director, Nicola Ripley, generously shared information and photos with CO YOGA + Life® about the current species, special features, programs, personnel and future plans for the Gardens.
Who cares for the gardens and selects the plants?
Nick Courtens is the curator of plant collections and works closely with Nicola. They bring in three summer interns from horticultural and environmental education backgrounds. Volunteers may also help with gardening two mornings each summer week.
How does the Vail Valley location affect unique aspects of the Gardens?
Despite the high elevation, the good snow cover in the winter enables growing many more plants than one might expect. The snow offers a blanket in the winter and often covers the plants before the ground freezes and persists until temperatures have warmed in spring.
What plants are exceedingly rare or exclusive to the Garden?
Nicola mentions a nationally important Gentian collection and Penstemon collection as well as the National Collection of Colorado alpine flora. Some of Colorado’s rarest plants such as Parachute Penstemon (Penstemon debilis) and Dwarf Rocky Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga saximontana) find a safe haven in the Garden.
Today, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is comprised of four distinct sections; Mountain Perennial Garden (1989), Mountain Meditation Garden (1991), Alpine Rock Garden (1999), and the Children’s Garden (2002.) The Gardens’ plant collection showcases more than 3,000 species of high-altitude plants from the Rocky Mountains, as well as other regions of the world.
What are some of the expanding programs and special events hosted in the Gardens and the Education Center?
Imagine anything from Bluegrass concerts to butterfly launches to Haute Cuisine celebrations to fashion shows to afternoon teas and tours to school and summer kids’ education programs to yoga!
How else is community outreach growing?
Check out the free downloadable Alpine Wildflower App available on their website, to help you identify flowers while on a hike or at home. There are opportunities to volunteer and to donate, and the gift store in Vail Village is open year-round.
And be sure to try Yoga In The Gardens! It’s the perfect, peaceful venue. Yoga this summer will be 9:15 to 10: 30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, June 11 through September 3. It’s held in the Alpine Plaza of the Gardens and is $15 per person.
“It fills me with a great sense of serenity,” Mrs. Ford said in 1991. “Just walking along these winding paths, with the abundance of beauty so close to the touch, brings an introspection and sense of calm too often missing in our lives.”