From vibrant tulips to delicate cherry blossoms to surprisingly hardy orchids, flowering plants cover the planet. It’s easy to be swept away by their eye-catching colors, but these buds are so much more than meets the eye.
To botanists, flowering plants are called angiosperms, from the Greek words for “vessel” and “seed.” Unlike conifers, which produce seeds in open cones (conifers thrived for 200 million years before the first bloom appeared), angiosperms enclose their seeds in fruit. This trait led to the success of this plant group, which numbers some 235,000 species.
“[Flowers] began changing the way the world looked almost as soon as they appeared on Earth about 130 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. But once they took firm root about 100 million years ago, they swiftly diversified in an explosion of varieties that established most of the flowering plant families of the modern world,” writes Nat Geo’s Michael Klesius. “As a food source flowering plants provide us and the rest of the animal world with the nourishment that is fundamental to our existence.”
From the gardens of Iceland to the mountains of Nepal, here are 10 places to celebrate abundance—and beauty—in the natural world.
Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina
Travelers can find a wealth of plant species in North Carolina’s mountains—the most in any similarly sized area in North America. The most famed may be the rosy rhododendrons that blanket the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains in summer.
Numerous hiking trails leading to floral sights are just 30 miles from downtown Asheville, via the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. In June, travelers can take the hour-long drive from Asheville to Bakersville to enjoy the North Carolina Rhododendron Festival.
The Netherlands produces nearly 90 percent of the world’s tulips, making it the ultimate destination for a quintessential spring experience. Cycle along the 25-mile Bollenstreek Route (also known as the Bloeman Route, or Flower Route), where flower fields paint the countryside in dazzling color. Travelers can also visit Keukenhof Gardens, a 79-acre stretch located 16 miles southwest of Amsterdam. Considered the world’s largest flower garden, Keukenhof features seven million tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths in bloom from March to May.
Just 50 miles outside of the Arctic Circle, this town in northern Iceland is home to the Arctic Botanical Gardens, one of the world’s northernmost botanic gardens. Nearby, travelers find short hiking trails and birdwatching sites in the Kjarnaskógur Forest, daring ski slopes, and a local obsession with junk food. The most popular is a massive burger stuffed with French fries, called the Akureyringur, or person from Akureyri.
Route 1, California
California’s normally barren-looking deserts transform into a colorful oasis during warmer months. Take Highway 1 in northern California to Humboldt Redwoods State Park to see the hillsides covered with red and orange poppies. Try other locations like the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, or Point Mugu State Park for fewer crowds and the best photo opportunities.
Carmona is one of many pueblos blancos, villages painted with whitewash made of slaked lime, that cap hilltops in Andalusia, in southern Spain. During spring, sunflowers bloom across more than 74,000 acres around the city. The best time to see them is from May to June, and you don’t need a car to get there. Buses from Seville take 40 minutes.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Encompassing nearly 1,600 square miles of snowcapped mountains, emerald-hued lakes, forests, and rivers, Glacier National Park offers a dizzying array of natural beauty and backcountry adventures. Ascend Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile route over the Continental Divide, to see the park’s alpine meadows bud with vibrate wildflowers best seen from late-June to mid-July.
Symbolizing the return of spring, cherry blossoms, or sakura, mirror human life—beautiful and cherished, but brief. Each year, thousands of people gather for hanami, or flower-viewing parties, which date back to the ninth century when Japanese emperors would hold celebrations for the cherry and plum blossoms that would bud in early spring. “In Tokyo, urban dwellers emerge from their homes and offices to take pause underneath the fleeting bloom, their daylong celebrations often stretching into the night,” writes National Geographic writer Gulnaz Khan.
Surrounded by blooming cherry blossom trees and the serene Lake Kawaguchiko, Dungo captured the majestic beauty of Mt. Fuji, one of Japan’s most scared mountains.
More than 3,000 cherry trees, gifted from Japan in 1912, ring the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. “Peak bloom,” which can last just a few days or 10, depending on the winds and rain that year, is the most ideal time to observe the fleeting blooms. For those who want to avoid the crowds, the Trust for the National Mall along with its partners, the National Park Service, and The National Cherry Blossom Festival, are streaming live from the National Mall Tidal Basin.
Umm Qais, Jordan
Despite being 75 percent desert, Jordan’s northern highlands burst with brightly colored blooms from March to May. Take a self-guided hike on one of the several ancient trails stemming from ruins of Umm Qais or hire a local guide who can offer cultural and historical context and help you identify wildflowers along the way, including Jordan’s endangered national flower, the black iris.
Trekking Central Nepal’s Annapurna mountain range via the Nepal Rhododendron Trek, or the Ghorepani Poon Hill trek, in spring offers breathtaking views of the country’s iconic rhododendron forests. Pre-monsoon (March or April) season gives travelers the rhododendrons in full bloom, but post-monsoon (November) time gives drier weather. Go with local Sherpa guides, cooks, and porters—it’s part of the experience.