Deep in the heart of Texas, the San Antonio Botanical Garden is a botanical gem with the mission “to inspire people to connect with the plant world and understand the importance of plants in our lives.” Conceived in the 1940’s, it was first organized as the San Antonio Garden Center while a master plan for a public botanical garden was developed and presented in the late 1960’s. The Garden became a reality in 1980, after several years of construction on land formerly used as a waterworks site. Since then several major capital improvements have been made to the Botanical Garden.
Operated under the auspices of the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department, the San Antonio Botanical Garden encompasses 38 acres in the center of the city in a residential area near Fort Sam Houston at the upper east end of Mahncke Park. Today the garden consists of many formal and display gardens, an overlook tower, a conservatory, a historic brick entrance building, and 11 acres of native plants.
The Sullivan Carriage House, designed by noted architect Alfred Giles for banker Daniel J. Sullivan was constructed in 1896 in downtown San Antonio. In 1988 it was relocated, piece by piece, to the Botanical Garden where it was fully restored and dedicated in 1995. This building now serves as the main entrance to the gardens and its former stables and carriage house contain a restaurant, gift shop, offices, and event and meeting spaces.
Gertie’s Garden, honoring Ethel Gertrude Smyth White, is on the left as you enter the grounds. This area is a showcase for container gardening. The declining ornamental pear trees that used to shade this area were replaced with Texas ash. Purple martins reside in the bird house high above the plants.
The Rose Garden, seasonally filled with brilliant blooms of pink, yellow, red and white, offers a chance to savor sweet fragrances and learn about cultivars adapted to the climate.
Near the Rose Garden, the Sacred Garden is a small area that has plants that have been mentioned in sacred texts (Bible, Koran and other religious writings). Many of the plants here have been used by people for thousands of years, including papyrus, date palms, pomegranates, and olive trees.
The showy formal beds are comprised of four large rectangular display areas
which are changed seasonally to display a variety of fun colors and textures – an example of living art. Across the way, the Old Fashioned Garden displays many traditional varieties of annuals and perennials mixed among modern versions. With so many flowers it is a great spot to watch pollinators such as hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.
The Wisteria Arbor is a large steel structure covered with wisteria vines that provide a shady refuge during the hotter months. The Shade Garden to the right (west) of Wisteria Arbor offers ideas of plant that grow well in the shade of oaks or other trees.
Beyond that is the Fountain Plaza with cool pools of water coming from the fountain hand-carved from cantera (a Mexican volcanic rock) and designed to look like the fountain in the Generaliffe at the Alhambra, a 16th century Moorish palace and fortress in Grenada, Spain.
Engage your senses in the Sensory Garden (originally called the Garden for the Blind), where visitors are encouraged to touch and smell the plants and listen carefully to the orchestra of natural sounds. Designed as “garden therapy,” this was the first part of the garden opened to the public and features plants that are fragrant or distinctive to the touch, such as lamb’s ear.
Kumamoto En, a gift from San Antonio’s Sister City of Kumamoto, Japan, is a Japanese garden reflecting styles and techniques from Kumamoto’s 300-year-old Suizenji Garden and from Katsura Detached Palace garden in Kyoto. The roughly 85 feet by 85 feet space surrounded by a woven fence (which was closed for renovations when I was there) contains several finely crafted structures and many symbolic features.
The Lucile Halsell Conservatory was designed by award winning Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz and completed in 1988. It consists of a series of five separate, climate controlled pyramidal greenhouses surrounding a sunken central courtyard and tropical lagoon filled with aquatic plants.
Each of the individual glass buildings tucked into the earth houses plants from desert regions to equatorial rainforests. Specialty collections include alpine plants, cacti and succulents, carnivorous plants, epiphytes, ferns and aroids, tropical fruits, and palms and cycads. The Exhibit Room has high humidity, heat and shade for the tropical plants, including bromediads and orchids, showcased there. The NorthrupTropical Room has plants from the equatorial jungles, and the 65-foot tall Palm and Cycad Pavillion contains one of the top public collections of palms and new world cycads in the country.
The Desert Pavilion or “cactus room” does include many beautiful cactus species, but there are many other types of succulents from the deserts of the world. The space is organized geographically, with the plants native to the New World – primarily agaves and cacti – on the left side of the room and Old World species, primarily from Africa and including many euphorbias, are on the right side. Rustic sculptures of desert animals add a whimsical touch.
The Fern Grotto is the most humid room in the Conservatory, kept at 80% humidity year round to recreate the moist, shady habitats in which ferns thrive. A variety of ferns, orchids, and other climbing plants occupy all areas of this room, even the cracks and ledges in the cliff-like walls.
Watersaver Lane is a resource for local homeowners looking for water efficient gardening ideas. This one-third acre “model yard” display located near the Conservatory offers practical techniques and the basic principles of xeriscaping. In addition to examples of attractive plants adapted to the Texas climate, there is also information on drip irrigation, permeable paving materials, mulches, and turf bubbling watering systems for water conservation.
Hike up the Overlook, the second highest spot in San Antonio, for beautiful views of the city skyline and garden plantings. In the 1880’s this location was chosen to be a water reservoir for the city. The area that is now the Amphitheater (see below) was excavated for part of the reservoir, with the removed earth mounded up to create the hill on which the overlook sits.
The acequia or small aqueduct flows downhill from there to the East Texas Lake. This is a recreation of the historic Spanish water system lined with native limestone that once channeled water from the river to the farmland around the missions.
The grassy, sunken Amphitheater is used for special events, including weddings, Shakespeare in the Park held each June, and the summer evening Concert Under the Stars series. The walls at the back are made of limestone blocks, and the stone columns and wooden beams above are covered with wisteria (which is obviously much more showy in spring!).
Continue along the walkway to the Cactus and Succulent Garden where native arid-area plants are displayed in a naturalistic setting.
The Texas Native Trail showcases plant communities representative of different parts of Texas. Three distinctive and diverse ecological regions – the Hill Country (Edwards Plateau), East Texas Pineywoods, and South Texas – vary in soil, plant life, topography, and weather. The plantings on three loop trails are enhanced by interpretive signage and several authentic early Texas cabins which were moved from different parts of Texas to reinforce the regional theme. On the Hill Country Trail two historical buildings are set amid the meadows filled with native wildflowers, prairie grasses, oaks and junipers adapted to the rocky, alkaline soils, while a limestone spring bubbles nearby. The Schumacher House was built by German immigrants in 1849 using a wooden lattice work to brace native limestone walls. The Auld House was built by a pioneer family in the 1800’s using pinyon pine and limestone to chink the gaps between the logs.
The East Texas Pineywoods Trail goes around the one-acre East Texas Lake surrounded by sycamore and bald cypress trees and acid-loving woodland species such as magnolia, sweetgum, and sassafras. 6,000 cubic yards of sandy, acidic soil was brought in from east Texas and regular watering is necessary to maintain the moist, humid conditions that east Texas plants need to survive. The lake was part of the former reservoir that was abandoned in 1890.
Look for wildlife here: turtles sunning on logs sticking out of the water, waterfowl such as ducks and herons in the lake, squirrels in the trees and great-tailed grackles foraging on the ground. Loblolly and longleaf pines grow near the log cabin.
The South Texas Trail takes you through “thornscrub” with dryland trees and shrubs such as mesquite, huisache, cenizo, ebony, and sotol that are adapted to limited rainfall and other south Texas natives such as yucca, agave, cholla, and prickly pear cactus. It loops around to go past the palisado-adobe house (built with materials salvaged from an old home in south San Antonio).
In addition to the permanent gardens and displays, there are special, short-term exhibits at times. In 2013 the exhibit “Savage Gardens: The Real and Imaginary World of Carnivorous Plants” had four oversized, multi-media sculptures as the core of the exhibit to show an up-close plant encounter from an insect’s perspective for a venus flytrap (Dionaea), pitcher plant (Nepenthes), trumpet plant (Sarracenia) and sundew (Drosera).
Of course the gardens are really spectacular in the spring, but they are worth visiting in any season – even during the heat of summer or cold of winter – with something always in bloom.
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison
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