Shangri La Botanical Gardens, a garden fairy tale

December 15, 2022

dance sister Bottle plant sculpture at Shangri-La

Sleeping Beauty Shangri-La Botanical Garden and Nature Center has nothing. Located in the small town of Orange, Texas, just across the Sabine River from Louisiana, Shangri La’s existence is in some ways as fantastical as a fairy tale, like a princess falling into a 100-year slumber and being awakened by a kiss.

Millet in the fall planter

A romantic vision first enlivened the garden. In 1937, Orange native HJ Lutcher Stark, heir to a Texas timber fortune, began building “his own haven of indescribable beauty where time will stand still” along Adams Bayou. For 9 years Stark worked in his garden, eventually opening his private Eden to the public. By the early 1950s, thousands of people visited the garden each spring to see its colorful azaleas in full bloom.

Wetland Exhibition Garden

A freak snowstorm in the late 50s covers subtropical zone 9 Orange. Stark’s garden froze badly, and apparently so did his gardening attitude. He closed Shangri-La to the public and it lay dormant for nearly 50 years.

After Stark’s death in 1965, his wife, Nelda, Nelda C. And HJ Lutcher donated the property to the Stark Foundation, which still holds it and funds the garden — nicely, I guess, since the 250 acres of gardens and natural areas are well maintained and admission is free. Five decades after that devastating winter storm, the Stark Foundation began planning the garden’s revitalization. It announced that Shangri-La should be the “greenest project in Texas” and hired Lake Flato Architects, MESA Design Group and Carbo Landscape Architecture to reinvent the gardens, adding a nature center focusing on wetlands and bayou.

Rainwater tank at garden entrance

Just as construction began in 2005, Hurricane Rita hit Orange, “at the level[ing] Much of Shangri La’s upland forest and historic garden areas…resulted in the loss of more than 50,000 trees.” The design teams took advantage of the fallen trees by replicating and incorporating them into the new garden structure. The new Shangri La triumphantly opened in March 2008. Six months later, Hurricane Ike flooded the garden with saltwater, destroying many plants. Shangri-La was able to reopen the following spring, when it also received platinum LEED certification, the highest ranking for green construction.

Galvanized pavilion with stone fountain

But the hurricane kept coming. Harvey in 2017 flooded the gardens with 2 to 3 feet of rainwater and damaged buildings so badly that Shangri-La was closed for a year for repairs. But the garden and the workers are surprisingly resilient. Shangri-La today is a place of beauty with ornamental gardens, native plants, wetland gardens, a nature center for school groups and a large bird blind for viewing anhingas, cormorants, spoonbills, egrets, herons and other waterfowl. It is a significant resource for southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana.

stone fountain

I’ve heard about Shangri La for years, but Orange is 4-1/2 hours east of Austin – half way to New Orleans. Although we’ve been to NOLA several times, we’ve never stopped in Orange. But in early November we did, adding a day to our road trip home from Asheville so we could visit the garden.

Jennifer Buckner, Director of Horticulture at Shangri La, generously took time out of her busy day to give us a guided tour. The Fall Scarecrow Festival had just ended, and volunteers were dismantling the scarecrow displays. I photographed a few of them throughout the garden (coming in part 2).

Visitor Center Courtyard

Enough of the history of Shangri-La, though, of course. Let’s take a tour! The visitor center buildings wrap around a sunny courtyard with deep perennial beds. The low-rise buildings have that distinctive Lake Flato look — rustic contemporary, with generously shaded breezeways and rain chains for direct rainwater from the roof.

This giant Turkish hat (Malviscus penduliflorus), a broad species with drooping, chunky red flowers caught my eye. Can it grow in Austin, I wonder?

A gravel courtyard with café seating takes advantage of the shade of a young live oak and overlooks the unique wetland demonstration garden, to which I will return.


Let’s explore the children’s garden. A cedar arbor marks the entrance, but a grove of whimsical bottle trees is what you notice first.

dance sister A light-weight cobalt bottle for 400 leaves made from 4 steel trees by artist Stephanie Dwyer. It replaced the garden’s original bottle trees, made of reclaimed red cedar, which after years had decayed in heat and humidity.

The purple martin house marches through the children’s vegetable garden. Colorful foliage adds shade, essential in any Texas garden.

vegetable garden

Tall cedar arbors draped with vines provide more shade…

…and frame view.


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

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

Purple and white orchids form a border of purple-hued bromeliads.

I love these curly tillandsias poking out of a hole in the rock.

Outside, in the greenhouse, autumn pots accent the boardwalk.

one more

There are also two demonstration greenhouses, one serving as a classroom and one for tropical displays. Pools help moderate temperatures inside the greenhouse.

Rangoon creeper (Combratum indica)

bleeding heart vine (Clerodendrum thomsonia)

Wetland Demonstration Garden

The most unique feature at Shangri La may be the Wetland Demonstration Garden. A series of rectangular ponds filled with native wetland plants form a biofiltration system that cleans nearby Ruby Pond.

With thousands of birds nesting in the Ruby pond, a lot of bird droppings build up and the pond becomes polluted. So pits were dug from the lake to the wetland garden to channel the lake’s dirty water through the plants.

According to the garden’s website, “Plants that naturally grow in freshwater wetlands have an extraordinary ability to remove pollutants from animal and human waste, as well as trap and absorb chemical pollutants and toxic metals. Once the water is filtered by native plants, it becomes clean enough to support wildlife again.” ..As water flows through the first three ponds, plants filter pollutants from bird droppings and allow suspended solids to settle. Additional oxygen is pumped into the water in the last pond in the garden. The water is then returned to Ruby Lake.

Pretty cool! Water weeping hanging, rick-rack flower, aka alligator flag (Thalia geniculata), one of the wetland plants.

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

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

Tree Ring Plaza

You emerge through the archway into the Tree Ring Plaza, where light-colored paving strips evoke the growth rings of a tree. A pair of oval waterlily ponds framed by giant bald cypresses, hung with streamers of Spanish moss, beckon you.

The two ponds were built in 1955 for Stark’s original garden. The cobblestones along their banks were used as ballast for ships bound for Dunkirk, France, and the United States.

Waterlilies still bloom in early November

Ruby Lake

Behind the lily pond, a curved boardwalk arches over Ruby Lake, home to thousands of resident and migratory birds year-round.

Bald cypress anchors itself in the swamp with flared buttresses.

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

Trailing Spanish moss on live oaks adds a certain romance to aquatic scenes. Stark would be pleased, I think.

Next up: Part 2 of my Shangri La tour, including perennial gardens, bird blinds, an alligator, and a blue moon pool. To revisit our National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, click here.

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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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