A CHOCOLATE PLANT, cinnamon bark and a giant treehouse may sound like props from last weekend's No. 1 movie, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," but families can find the real things just a two-hour drive south of Washington at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond.
"We try to bring the wonders of the natural world to kids," said spokeswoman Beth Monroe, when my family visited the 40-acre garden recently.
With my daughter, Christy, 61/2, skipping ahead, my husband, parents and I strolled through various themed gardens. We gently touched two topiary fairies, caught the quack of wetland ducks and not only stopped and smelled the roses but recited their lyrical names -- Fragrant Cloud, Earth Song, Jude the Obscure.
"Gardens give kids a chance to play actively and explore through their senses," said Assistant Director Tom Brinda, describing the aim of a new children's garden, scheduled to open Sept. 24, and a temporary exhibit "Tropical Treasures," on view through Oct. 17.
Wearing hard hats, rather than Willy Wonka's dapper stovepipe, we were escorted through the partially completed children's garden. With a huge fountain in the shape of a frog's head installed, it's not hard to imagine children frolicking in a cooling play area when water starts spraying from the frog's eyes.
The children's garden's signature treehouse and a greenhouse used for class groups are in place, but still to come are a butterfly meadow, smell-and-touch plot, and Latin American, Asian, African and Native American gardens. Kids will learn how food is grown in different parts of the world, and music, art, dance and cooking programs will be tied to the featured cultures.
"The children's garden is totally hands-on," Brinda said. "Kids will even have a chance to help plant seeds and harvest."
Replacing a smaller kid-friendly garden from 1993, the new locale -- including the treehouse -- employs a "universally accessible" design to make green magic available to all. "We talked to focus groups of [physically challenged] children and adults to discover what they would most like to experience," Monroe said, "and then tried to incorporate many of their ideas." For example, the treehouse's gently sloping ramp and large interior (accommodating 40 people) give children in wheelchairs the chance to "climb" to a leafy bower 13 feet off the ground. These innovations recently earned the play space a quality-of-life grant from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. An added bonus: The design works well for double strollers, Monroe said.
As we walked, Brinda pointed out the white Bloemendaal House, built in 1884 by millionaire Lewis Ginter and used by its next owner, his niece Grace Arents, as a convalescent retreat for sick youngsters. "We like to think that she's continuing her work for kids through the children's garden," Brinda said. The site contains a living tribute to Arents -- a gnarled mulberry tree planted in her later years and now a favorite story time spot. Upon her death in 1926, Arents willed the Bloemendaal ("valley of the flowers" in Dutch) property to the city of Richmond to create a botanical garden in honor of her uncle. It is run by a nonprofit corporation.
Seasonal changes and nature's constant activity make the large garden a great place for return trips. Being city folks with limited outdoor space, my family has visited twice this year. On this July trip, we saw old favorites such as the sunken garden and reflecting pool, the metal benches shaped like large butterflies, and the delicate orchids and fairy-tale cottage in the conservatory. We also made new discoveries, including a beaver munching a lotus in the West Island Lake.
Signage is informative yet unobtrusive. Relaxing in the healing garden, amid coneflowers and thyme, we read about the soothing properties of these medieval havens. Meanwhile, Christy romped through the sprinkler in an adjoining plot that showcased pomegranate shrubs, lemon balm and other medicinal plants.
Family events and changing exhibits also tempt repeat visits. The classical, domed conservatory holds 30 tropical plants that yield such goodies as chocolate, coffee, tea, vanilla, chewing gum and bananas. Accompanying signs explain the parts of the plants harvested (cacao seeds for chocolate, chicle sap for gum), and maps pinpoint countries where they are grown.
Large, unmarked jars invite kids to sniff and name the spice within. Christy identified cinnamon immediately and declared that allspice smelled just like pumpkin pie. We all got a kick out of peering through giant fronds at the waxy pink flowers and emerging fruit of the banana, not a tree but the world's largest fruiting herb. When it comes to amazing treats, Mother Nature can beat anything Willy Wonka has to offer.
A meal at the indoor Garden Cafe let us test that last statement. At a window table overlooking the flowers, we followed luncheon entrees with coffee, tea, chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. Since we were going for educational, not just indulgence, we all agreed that dessert provided the ultimate learning experience. We had seen the ingredients growing and sampled the harvest. Willy Wonka, eat your heart out.
LEWIS GINTER BOTANICAL GARDEN -- 1800 Lakeside Ave., Richmond. About 100 miles south of Washington. Take Interstate 95 south to Exit 83B (Parham Road, Route 73 west). At second stoplight, turn left onto Brook Road (Route 1 south), then turn right at third stoplight onto Lakeside Avenue and continue a half-mile to garden entrance. 804-262-9887. www.lewisginter.org. Open 9 to 5 daily. On Thursdays through Aug. 25, open 9 to 9. On Sunday, Aug. 28 and Sept. 25, open 9 to 8. Closed Thanksgiving day, Dec. 24 and 25, and Jan. 1. $9 adults, $8 seniors, $5 ages 3 to 12, free for those younger than 3 and members.
Sunday 5 to 8 -- "Salsa Sizzler" activities include Latin music, dance lessons, cooking demonstrations and crafts. Free with admission. Snacks and drinks available for purchase; dinner buffet $8 for adults, $5 for children.
Aug. 28 5 to 8 -- "Tropical Beach Bash" co-hosted by Radio Disney and featuring music, giveaways and a children's fashion show. Free with admission. Snacks and drinks available for purchase; dinner buffet $8 for adults, $5 for children.
Sept. 24 10 to 3 -- Grand opening of the children's garden includes pony rides, catch-and-release lake fishing, flower planting, crafts and other activities. Free with admission. Food available for purchase.
Sept. 25 1 to 8 -- "A World of Fun" day includes music, games, crafts and hands-on activities from other lands, with international foods available in the evening for purchase. Free with admission.