Gardens to Drive: Derby Town Winners

By Michael Leach

Red roses, frosty mint juleps and broad-brimmed garden party hats are all part of the scene in Louisville this weekend. Gardeners, however, find more than race hoopla to appeal whenever they visit this Ohio River metro area. And for those willing to venture up river about 40 miles,  a well-preserved Victorian town awaits that recalls a time when horses, not cars, were standard transportation.

But first a look at the venerable floral traditions at Churchill Downs. Besides appearing on hats and lapels, flowers — 400 red roses sown onto a swath of green satin — adorn the winning Derby horse. A bouquet of 60, long-stemmed, red roses are awarded to the winning jockey by Kentucky’s governor and other officials. Roses became a part of the race in 1896, when the winner received a bouquet of roses, according to In 1925 by a New York sports columnist called the Derby the “Run for the Roses,” a nickname that stuck.

Not far from the glamor of Churchill Downs are bucolic settings that require no fancy dress.

Northeast of downtown Louisville is Yew Dell  Botanical Gardens, offering collections of dogwoods, beech, magnolia, viburnum holly and more. Add to this a vegetable garden, secret garden and walled garden and activities for children.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens

The latter range from the weekly Children in the Dell Programs on Saturday mornings (April through October), to nature and garden backpacks stuffed with bug catchers, magnifiers, nature guides and more for free use while visiting. (Please visit

Nature on an even grander scale awaits at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest about 25 miles south of Louisville in Clermont Ky. (Please visit There are 14,500 acres of mostly natural lands with hiking trails. The 600-acre arboretum was designed by the firm of Frederick Lawn Olmstead. It is planted with 8,000 plant species.

Among special areas are a rock garden and living roof experimental plantings. At the Garden Pavilion are a water feature, perennial garden and other theme gardens suitable for adapting to the home landscape. The Bloomfest Plant Sale is May 19.

Carriage rides in Madison, Ind.

For a step back in time, head to Madison, Ind.,  “the most beautiful river town in America,” according to Charles Kuralt. He hosted travel segments for years on CBS. Madison was also featured in the 2008 Best of the Midwest Magazine by Midwest Living. (Please visit  Carriage rides are available for a slow and easy look at the array of 19th century architecture that houses restaurants, antiques and artisans’ studios. Hardly a match for a Derby entrant but speed isn’t everything.

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