Not-So-Secret Garden

Flowers are back in bloom at Longue Vue House and Gardens.

An Alferez sculpture in the lilly garden at the New Orleans Botanical Gardens.

Volunteers in the New Orleans Botanical Gardens.

Spring is in full swing, which means now is a great time to get out and see what’s blooming in the public gardens of Louisiana. If you don’t have the space or the patience to create your own, public gardens provide vicarious pleasure without all the responsibility. And if you are an avid gardener, they’re good places to pick up installation and design ideas, meet other growers and maybe sit in on a class or two. This month’s column is a partial roundup of public gardens here in New Orleans or within a couple hours’ drive of the city.

It’s been two years this month since the New Orleans Botanical Garden at City Park reopened to the public after Hurricane Katrina destroyed almost all of the plants there. Beautifully replanted and restored, the garden is as notable
for its architecture as its horticulture: It’s one of the few surviving examples of Works Progress Administration garden design and a showcase for the whimsical sculpture of the late Enrique Alferez.

The grounds at Longue Vue House and Gardens also date back to the 1930s, when noted landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman laid out the garden’s initial design. Longue Vue’s 8 acres pack a lot of variety into a relatively compact space, from expansive lawns to intimate gardens such as the one surrounding Johnson Pond, which is richly planted with azaleas. I like the meandering path through the Wild Garden, where later this month the Louisiana irises will be in bloom.

The azaleas, camellias and irises spread throughout the 250-acre Jungle Gardens at Avery Island should be equally stunning this spring. Built on land owned by several generations of the McIlhenny family of Tabasco sauce fame, the gardens at Avery Island are home to a gloriously incongruous statue of Buddha, which has its own pavilion surrounded by seven man-made “hills of knowledge.”

A hill of a different sort keeps nearby Jefferson Island and the Rip Van Winkle Gardens well above sea level: The land sits atop one of several salt domes that dot the Acadiana lowlands. With a canopy of magnolias and live oaks, the grounds surrounding the Joseph Jefferson Mansion make a popular backdrop for weddings; to really be immersed in the flora and fauna of this part of the state, book an overnight stay in one of the cottages.

The gardens at Afton Villa, a 20-acre estate a few miles north of St. Francisville, open this month after a long winter break and remain open until the end of June (the gardens then  reopen for the months of October and November). The grand villa was destroyed in a fire more than 40 years ago, but the lush gardens, which date back to 1849, still evoke what life must have been like for Plantation Country elite during the state’s antebellum gilded age.

That goes for much of West Feliciana Parish, where caravans of tour buses make the rounds of several stately plantation homes. While their cargo focuses on the mansions, however, plant-lovers often have the surrounding gardens mostly to themselves. The 28 manicured acres that surround the main house at Rosedown Plantation are especially attractive; they were the obsession of Martha Barrow Turnbull, who kept a garden diary for nearly six decades and who started one of the Deep South’s earliest collections of camellias.

There are a handful of public gardens in and around Baton Rouge, including the Windrush Gardens at the LSU Ag Center’s Burden Research Plantation, a 25-acre expanse of crape myrtles, azaleas, camellias and other plants that would have been at home in any 19th-century plantation garden. The gardens nicely augment a visit to the adjacent Rural Life Museum and, like the other grand public gardens of South Louisiana, are a reminder of the upside to living in a semitropical climate. Even though your own personal outdoor space may be far less ambitious, or you might lack one altogether, it’s good to know there are places nearby where you can enjoy lush gardens throughout most of the year.

Upcoming events at area public gardens

The annual Audubon Pilgrimage in St. Francisville runs March 14 to 16 and includes treks through some of West Feliciana’s stunning gardens and antebellum homes, including Rosedown and Afton Villa. Call the West Feliciana Historical Society at 225/635-6330 for information, or visit

Longue Vue House and Gardens holds its annual Easter egg hunt March 15; the LSU Rural Life Museum has its Easter egg hunt the following day, March 16.

City Park’s Spring Garden Show takes place April 5 and 6. There will be beaucoup plants and gardening products for sale, experts on hand to diagnose disease and pest problems and a lab where LSU scientists can test your soil sample. Call 838-1170 for more information. F

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