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Gardening

Pond of the Blue Moon and bird- and gator-watching at Shangri La Botanical Gardens

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December 16, 2022

Yesterday I introduced you to Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, which sits along a bayou in Orange, Texas, right at the Louisiana border, and I shared a tour of the inner gardens. Today I’ll complete the tour starting at the back of the 250-acre property, where a circle of water known as Pond of the Blue Moon reflects the surrounding garden. The garden’s website explains:

“In James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, the mystical Shangri-La was located in the Valley of the Blue Moon. Within the modern Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, the Pond of the Blue Moon is a reflection of the original Shangri-La gardens of HJ Lutcher Stark, inspired by Hilton’s novel. During the 1940s Mr. Stark used the reflection of blooming azaleas in Ruby Lake to provide overwhelming beauty for his visitors in springtime. In the present day Shangri La, the same effect is recreated at the Pond of the Blue Moon with many of the same varieties used by Mr. Stark.”

You’d have to come in early March to see the azaleas in bloom. I visited in early November and enjoyed subtler colors, including tinges of rusty orange in bald cypresses.

Pond of the Blue Moon and Cypress Gate

A vaguely Asian-style gate made of towering cypress trunks stands in the middle of the pond, accessible via a zigzagging boardwalk that floats across the water. This is Cypress Gate, built of cypress logs salvaged from a massive blow-down caused by Hurricane Rita in 2005.

I love this design — and that not everything has to be closed off with railings. Here, as in Japanese gardens, you must watch your step so as not to end up in the water. It’s shallow, but still.

Pretty autumnal containers greet you at turning points along the boardwalk.

Bald cypress trees grow on little islands in the pond, with water-loving grasses and other plants springing up around them to make green skirts. I read that Orange receives an average of 60 inches of rain per year — far more than Austin’s 33 inches (and sadly we’re only at 25 inches this year). I was amazed by all the water at Shangri La, not just the Blue Moon pond or Wetland Demonstration Garden (see Part 1) but also Ruby Lake, Adams Bayou, and marshy areas just off the trails. It’s a different world here along the Gulf Coast!

A curved fountain wall helps muffle traffic noise from a nearby road.

Garden rooms

Along the pathways through the garden I enjoyed coastal Texas views like ferns, live oaks, and masses of Texas dwarf palmetto.

A post with old copper bells adds a musical accent.

A shady garden path

Lots of firespikes (Odontonema cuspidatum) in bloom

You know hummingbirds love these.

In a sunny border, I admired taller palms, masses of tentacle-armed foxtail ferns, and annual color in old sugar kettles.

Marigolds, croton, millet, and other showy fall annuals in a sugar kettle planter. If you’re not from the South, sugar kettles were used in the 1800s to boil down sugar cane juice, and you’ll see these rusty old vessels used as planters in many Southern gardens.

Those foxtail ferns

One more sugar kettle planter

Sunlight shining through the trees

An early camellia in bloom

Water management is a big thing at Shangri La. Our guide Jennifer Buckner, the garden’s director of horticulture, told me that rills like this one, thick with water-loving plants, move water from one part of the garden to another. I can’t recall if this is part of the water-cleaning system or for irrigation, but it was interesting.

Water canna (Thalia geniculata) with its paddle-like leaves and delicate flowers dangling from fishing-pole stems

Native Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) in cotton-candy flower

ScarecrowFestival

The garden’s annual Scarecrow Festival had just ended, and volunteers were taking down the displays. The townsfolk really get into creating “scarecrows” and we saw some fun ones, like this Thanksgiving turkey made out of air conditioner and fan parts.

A skeleton scarecrow with Dia de los Muertos energy

An Edward Scissorhands scarecrow and pumpkin lady sitting for a haircut

And here’s a giant bird scarecrow — a crow to scare crows? — made out of palmetto fronds by students at Nederland High School. Cheer!

Ruby Lake bird blind

A bird blind on 15-acre Ruby Lake provides an opportunity to watch anhingas drying their wings after diving for fish. Shangri La, like other parts of southern Texas, is a great place for bird watching, especially between March and May, when birds like herons, great egrets, roseate spoonbills, and wood ducks may be seen nesting or passing through.

And alligators! I spotted this big boy or girl lounging on a sun deck in the middle of the lake.

People in gator country are pretty jaded about them, and Jennifer was too when I asked her, at the start of our tour, if alligators are found in the garden’s waterways. I was excited to see one.

Jennifer told us that during the saltwater inundation from Hurricane Ike in 2008, a lot of bald cypresses in the lake died, reducing habitat. The garden has brought in tons of soil to create a berm extending out into the lake and plans to replant trees on it, giving them a little boost above the water level.

One more look at the anhingas

Nature Discovery Center

Our last stop was the Nature Discovery Center, a screened-in pavilion in Shangri La’s cypress-tupelo swamp adjacent to Adams Bayou.

Inside you find a table displaying bones, alligator skulls, turtle shells, and other natural objects to handle and explore. Screened windows all around offer views of the swamp.

Although it’s currently not operating, the garden also offers an hour-long boat excursion through the swampy bayou called the Outpost Tour. I’d love to do this one day.

If you missed Part 1 of my Shangri La tour, click here. From there you can follow links, starting at the bottom of that post, back to all the gardens and nature hikes during our road trip from Austin to Asheville and back. I hope you’ve enjoyed traveling with me!

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Digging Deeper

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All material © 2022 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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