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

December 16, 2022

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

“In James Hilton’s 1933 novel lost horizon, the mysterious Shangri-La was located in the Valley of the Blue Moon. Within the modern Shangri-La Botanical Garden and Nature Center, the Blue Moon Pond is a reflection of HJ Lutcher Stark’s original Shangri-La garden inspired by Hilton’s novel. In the 1940s Mr. Stark used the reflection of blooming azaleas in Ruby Lake to provide an overwhelming beauty for his viewers in the springtime. At Shangri La in the present day, the same effect is recreated at the Blue Moon Pool with many of the same ones used by Mr. Stark.”

You should come in early March to see the Azalea flowers in bloom. I went in early November and enjoyed the subtle color with a rusty orange tint of the bald cypress.

Blue Moon Pond and Cypress Gate

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

I like this design — and that everything doesn’t have to be closed off with railings. Here, as in Japanese gardens, you must watch your step so as not to step into the water. It’s shallow, but still.

Beautiful fall foliage greets you at turning points along the boardwalk.

Bald cypress trees grow on small islands in ponds, with water-loving grasses and other plants growing around them to create a green skirt. I read that Orange gets an average of 60 inches of rain a year – much more than Austin’s 33 inches (and sadly we only got 25 inches this year). I was amazed at all the water at Shangri La, not just Blue Moon Pond or the Wetland Demonstration Garden (see Part 1) but also Ruby Lake, Adams Bayou, and the wetlands just off the trail. It’s a different world along the Gulf Coast!

A curved fountain wall helps reduce traffic noise from nearby roads.

garden house

Along the garden path I enjoyed coastal Texas scenery such as ferns, live oaks and Texas dwarf palmetto.

A post with old copper bells adds a musical accent.

Shady garden path

A lot of firespike (Odontome cuspidatum) bloomed

You know hummingbirds love these.

In a sunny border, I admired tall palms, masses of tentacled foxtail ferns and the annual color of old sugar kettles.

Marigolds, crotons, millets and other ornamentals are annuals in sugar kettle planters. If you’re not from the South, sugar kettles were used to boil sugar cane juice in the 1800s, and you’ll find these rusty old pots used as planters in many Southern gardens.

Those are foxtail ferns

Another sugar kettle planter

The sun shines through the trees

An early camellia in bloom

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

water canThalia geniculata) with its paddle-like leaves and delicate flowers hanging from fishing pole stems

Native bay muhli grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) in cotton-candy flowers

Scarecrow Festival

The garden’s annual Scarecrow Festival has just finished, and volunteers are taking down the displays. The townspeople really started making “scarecrows” and we saw some fun stuff, like this Thanksgiving turkey made out of air conditioner and fan parts.

A skeleton scarecrow with Dia de los Muertos powers

An Edward Scissorhands scarecrow and pumpkin lady sit down for a haircut

And here’s a giant bird scarecrow—a crow to scare the crow? — Netherlands high school students made palmetto fronds. Bravo!

Ruby Lake birds are blind

The 15-acre Ruby Lake offers an opportunity to watch anhingas dry their wings after diving for a bird blind fish. Shangri-La, like the rest of South Texas, is a great place for bird watching, especially between March and May, when birds such as herons, great egrets, roseate spoonbills and wood ducks can be seen nesting or passing through.

And the alligator! I saw this big boy or girl lying on a sun deck in the middle of the lake.

People in gator country are pretty blasé about them, and so was Jennifer when I asked her, early in our tour, if alligators were 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, many bald cypresses died in the lake, reducing habitat. The garden has brought in tons of soil to create a berm that extends into the lake and plans to replant trees on it, raising them slightly above the water level.

Take another look at Anhinga

Nature Discovery Center

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

Inside you find a table to handle and explore bones, alligator skulls, turtle shells and other natural objects. Screened windows on all sides offer marshland views.

Although it is not currently operating, the garden also offers a one-hour boat tour through the tidal bayou called the Outpost Tour. I want to do it one day.

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

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dig deep

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

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