Bees on flowering onion plants

All photos: Anna Norris

Encompassing 23 acres in the center of Colorado's capital, the Denver Botanic Gardens are vast, beautiful and educational. It's a place worth visiting any time of year.

Perhaps most remarkable is the gardens' commitment to sustainable horticulture. The staff take the arid climate to heart, following water-smart gardening practices and inspiring visitors to do the same.

A tour of the gardens offers plenty of eye candy as well as a bit of brain food.

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Blue false indigo in the Roads Water Smart Garden

The Denver Botanic Gardens sit atop what was once a cemetery, now a botanical wonderland brimming with life. Gardening in a high-altitude, semi-arid climate can be different from gardening in areas that receive more rainfall — but the gardens shatter expectations by showcasing plants that thrive in these conditions. "Denver Botanic Gardens was one of the first gardens in the country to emphasize native plants and to champion environmentally responsible practices," the gardens' website reads.

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Dark Knight prickly pear succulent

The Roads Water-Smart Garden boasts a diverse collection of plants that flourish in the semi-arid climate found not just in Colorado but also in the Mediterranean, South Africa, Central Asia and South America. These plants aren't just pretty, they're tough, tolerating harsh drought conditions. To put the harshness into perspective, the water-smart garden only gets watered a handful of times during the summer!

Some areas, like the dryland mesa garden, receive no irrigation at all. The dryland mesa area was the world's first "xeriscape garden." Xeriscaping, landscaping that uses very little (if any) irrigation, was originally conceptualized by Denver Water, an organization that works closely with the botanic gardens. Xeriscaping takes time and effort — it's an art like any other — but the result is worth it: it saves water and, contrary to popular belief, can be just as alluring as any other type of garden! This tulip prickly pear cactus variation known as "Dark Knight" is a stunning shade of purple and can be found in both the water-smart garden and the dryland mesa area, alongside other hardy but beautiful flowers.

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Honeybees pollinate purple flowers

As with other types of gardens, honeybees can be seen in droves, and they seem particularly fond of purple flowers. Garden staffers offer classes about honeybees and what Colorado residents can do to support their populations.

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A goose sits next to an iris at the Japanese water garden

Plants aren't the only living things that call the gardens home – ducks and geese nest by the pond in the Japanese garden. Called Shofu-en, the Japanese garden is also known as the Garden of Wind and Pines. It offers cool relief for animals and visitors alike.

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Gosling takes a nap by the pond

Take this gosling for instance – he knows a great napping spot when he sees one!  To catch a glimpse of thriving wildlife in the garden, all it takes is a closer look.

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Columbine flowers are native to Colorado

Landscaping the gardens with more than 700 species of native plants, the gardens also provide a concentrated glimpse of the colorful flowers that can be found throughout Colorado and the West. It's easy to spot the Rocky Mountain columbine, Colorado's state flower, alongside many other varieties of this multi-hued bloom.

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Red feathers flowers

Exotic plants from around the world, like the red feathers plant pictured above, are as strange as they are pretty. A plant native to Iran, the one also prospers in the Mile High City.

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Waterfall in the gardens

For all the attention the garden staff gives to water conservation, that's not to say the landscape is bereft of ponds, creeks and little waterfalls. Aquatic plants grow here as well.

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Amphibian in Tropical Conservatory

An entirely different world exists within the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory, a warm and humid tropical climate contained within an enclosure encompassing more than 80,000 square feet of tropical plants. Tropical weather animals can be found in every nook and cranny and the conservatory even has an enclosure dedicated to poison dart frogs.

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Japanese hibiscus

Japanese hibiscus is one of the most beautiful flowering tropical plants within the conservatory. Other plants include vanilla, bananas, chocolate, pineapple and coffee — a veritable feast for the eyes!

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Wooden horse installation

The Denver Botanic Gardens hosts art installations throughout the year. The "Nature of Horses" exhibit by Deborah Butterfield features wood-like horse creations spotted throughout the gardens. Though they appear to be magically strung together by branches and twigs, the mares are made of bronze, painted to have the appearance of bark.

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Poppies at Denver Botanic Gardens

Aside from being the perfect destination for a summer afternoon stroll, the Denver Botanic Gardens are full of information about myriad plants (including these poppies), best practices for sustainable gardening, and much more.

For water-friendly gardening, the Denver Botanic Gardens recommends landscaping your own yard by grouping plants by water needs, watering only outside of hours of peak heat, analyzing your soil, and extending water conservation practices to inside your home as well. Read more about water-saving tips here. They're applicable to any yard, no matter where you live.

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Anna Norris is an associate editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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