Shangri La Botanical Gardens, a garden fairy tale

Shangri La Botanical Gardens, a garden fairy tale

December 15, 2022
Dancing Sisters snifter tree sculpture at Shangri La

Sleeping Beauty has nothing on Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center. Located in the small town of Orange, Texas, just wideness the Sabine River from Louisiana, Shangri La’s very existence is in some ways as fantastical as the fairy tale well-nigh a princess hexed into a 100-year sleep and reawakened by a kiss.

Millet in fall planters

A romantic vision first brought the garden to life. In 1937, Orange native H.J. Lutcher Stark, heir to a Texas timber fortune, began making “his own oasis of indescribable beauty where time would stand still” withal Adams Bayou. For 9 years Stark worked on his gardens, sooner opening his personal eden to the public. By the early 1950s, thousands of people visited the gardens each spring to see his colorful azaleas in bloom.

Wetland sit-in garden

A freak snowstorm blanketed subtropical Zone 9 Orange in the late ’50s. Stark’s garden froze badly, and theoretically so did his gardening spirit. He sealed Shangri-La to the public, and it lay nearly unseeded for 50 years.

After Stark’s death in 1965, his wife, Nelda, bequeathed the property to the Nelda C. and H. J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, which still holds it and finances the garden — handsomely, I assume, since the 250-acre gardens and natural areas are well maintained and ticket is free. Five decades without that devastating winter storm, the Stark Foundation began planning the garden’s reawakening. It supposed that Shangri La should be the “greenest project in Texas” and hired Lake Flato Architects, MESA Diamond Group, and Carbo Landscape Architecture to reinvent the gardens, subtracting a nature part-way focusing on the wetlands and bayou.

Rainwater cistern at the garden’s entrance

Just as construction began in 2005, Hurricane Rita slammed into Orange, “level[ing] much of Shangri La’s upland forests and historic garden areas…resulting in the loss of increasingly than 50,000 trees.” The diamond teams forged on and took wholesomeness of fallen trees by incorporating them into the garden’s new structures. The new Shangri La triumphantly opened in March 2008. Six months later, Hurricane Ike inundated the gardens with saltwater, destroying many plants. Shangri La managed to reopen the pursuit spring, when it moreover received Platinum LEED certification, the highest ranking for untried construction.

Galvanized pavilion with stone fountain

The hurricanes alimony coming, however. In 2017 Harvey flooded the gardens with 2 to 3 feet of rainwater and damaged buildings so immensely that Shangri La sealed for a year for repairs. But the gardens and staff are amazingly resilient. Shangri La today is a place of eyeful with ornamental gardens, native plants, wetland gardens, a nature part-way for school groups, and a large bird veiling for viewing anhingas, cormorants, spoonbills, egrets, herons, and other waterbirds. It’s a remarkable resource for southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana.

Stone fountain

I’d heard well-nigh Shangri La for years, but Orange is 4-1/2 hours east of Austin — well-nigh halfway to New Orleans. Although we’ve driven to NOLA several times, we’d never stopped in Orange. But in early November we did, subtracting a day to our road trip home from Asheville so we could visit the garden.

Jennifer Buckner, Shangri La’s director of horticulture, generously took time out of her rented day to requite us a guided tour. The fall Scarecrow Festival had just ended, and volunteers were dismantling scarecrow displays. I took pics of a few of them throughout the gardens (coming up in Part 2).

Visitor Part-way Courtyard

Enough of Shangri La’s history, undaunted though it is. Let’s tour! The Visitor Part-way buildings wrap virtually a sunny courtyard with deep perennial beds. The low buildings have that distinctive Lake Flato squint — rustic contemporary, with generous shaded breezeways and rain villenage to uncontrived rainwater off the roof.

This giant Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus penduliflorus), a sprawling species with dangling, stocky red flowers, unprotected my eye. Can it grow in Austin, I wonder?

A gravel courtyard with sideboard seating takes wholesomeness of a young live oak’s shade and overlooks the unique Wetland Sit-in Garden, which I’ll come when to.

Children’s Garden

Let’s explore the Children’s Garden. A cedar spindle marks the entrance, but a grove of whimsical snifter trees is what you notice first.

Dancing Sisters by versifier Stephanie Dwyer is made of 4 steel trees with 400 light-catching cobalt bottles for leaves. It replaced the garden’s original snifter trees made of reclaimed red cedar, which deteriorated in the heat and humidity without only a few years.

Purple martin houses march through the children’s vegetable garden. Colorful sails add shade, essential in any Texas garden.

The vegetable garden

Long cedar arbors draped with vines provide increasingly shade…

…and frame views.


A handsome 1917 Lord and Burnham greenhouse holds the garden’s epiphyte collection.

Inside, a serpentine path leads you through orchids and bromeliads, mosses and ferns.

Purple and white orchids frame a verge of eggplant-hued bromeliads.

I love these curly tillandsias spiraling out of a holey rock.

Outside, between greenhouses, autumnal containers vocalizing the boardwalk.

One more

There are moreover two exhibition greenhouses, one that serves as a classroom and this one for displaying tropicals. The pools help moderate temperatures inside the greenhouse.

Rangoon creeper (Combretum indicum)

Bleeding heart vine (Clerodendrum thomsoniae)

Wetland Sit-in Garden

The most unique full-length at Shangri La may be the Wetland Sit-in Garden. A series of rectangular ponds filled with native wetland plants makes up a biofiltration system that cleans nearby Ruby Pond.

Thousands of nesting birds in Ruby Swimming create a lot of bird poop, and the swimming became polluted. So ditches were dug from the lake to the wetland garden to circulate dirty lake water through the plants.

“Plants naturally growing in freshwater wetlands,” according to the garden’s website, “have the remarkable worthiness to remove pollutants in unprepossessing and human waste as well as trap and swizzle chemical pollutants and toxic metals. Once water has been filtered by native plants, it is once then wipe unbearable to support wildlife…As the water flows through the first three ponds, plants filter out pollutants from bird excrement and indulge suspended materials to settle. In the last swimming in this garden, uneaten oxygen is pumped into the water. Then the water is returned to Ruby Lake.”

Pretty cool! So is the dangling, rick-rack flower of water canna, aka alligator flag (Thalia geniculata), one of the wetland plants.

A steel runnel transports recirculating water from the wetland garden to the pond.

A slatted, vine-covered wily marks the transition from the wetland garden to the main gardens.

Tree Ring Plaza

You sally through the wily into Tree Ring Plaza, where lighter-colored paving strips evoke the growth rings of a tree. A pair of oval waterlily ponds, framed by towering unrobed cypresses hung with streamers of Spanish moss, draws you forward.

The two ponds were built in 1955 for Stark’s original garden. The cobblestones edging them are from Dunkirk, France, and were used as mooring for ships unseat for the U.S.

Waterlilies still visculent in early November

Ruby Lake

Behind the lily ponds, a curved boardwalk arcs over Ruby Lake, where thousands of resident and migratory birds take up residence throughout the year.

Bald cypress anchors itself in the marshy soil with flared buttresses.

We spotted anhingas and cormorants drying their wings on a snag in the lake.

Trailing Spanish moss in the live oaks adds a unrepealable romance to the watery scene. Stark would be pleased, I think.

Up next: Part 2 of my visit to Shangri La, including perennial gardens, the bird blind, an alligator, and the Swimming of the Blue Moon. For a squint when at our visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, click here.

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