By ROBIN ROBINSON The Key West Garden Club
My sister, Rene, and I posed with our borrowed hotel sun umbrellas in front of the Conservatory of the Two Sisters in the New Orleans Botanical Gardens. The Two Sisters building contained a tropical rain forest garden. Waterfalls and ferns abounded amidst Indonesian wax ginger, pagoda flowers, staghorn ferns and reminders of botanical history found in fossil rocks. Gurgling water fell from the two-story waterfall that helped keep the displays humid.
Outside the conservatory, giant lily pads from South America floating in a reflecting pool were presided over by a young boy riding a dolphin. Crepe myrtle trees burst small clusters of pink blossoms as they flowered in September.
John McDonogh gave the city of New Orleans 88 acres over 150 years ago in order to create a park. The City Park now encompasses more than 1500 acres of walking paths and hosts 11 million visitors a year. It contains four 18-hole golf courses and 11 miles of waterways for fishing and boating. It is the fifth largest park in the United States.
The botanical gardens were built by the Work Progress Administration and opened in 1936 as the City Park Rose Garden becoming the 12-acre Botanical Garden in 1980. It is easy to spend a day in the park, which also hosts the Art Museum and Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
The gardens contain more than 2,000 different plants and 14,000 trees. Most spectacular is the nation's largest collection of mature live oaks (Quercus virginiana). Huge limbs sprawl over the shaded lawns as the trees tower taller than the buildings. A live oak can live for 1,000 years and grow to 70 feet tall with a 187-foot limb spread. A deep taproot and extensive widespread lateral roots make them resistant to hurricanes.
Southern wild oak beams were used for framing ships. The USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," was made of Southern live oak. The Navy still owns extensive tracts of oak trees. They were useful to Native Americans who bent the limbs of saplings to form extreme angles in order to mark a trail. They also created medicines and dyes from the tree.
The Botanical Gardens also contain a section of above ground vegetables including red hot peppers and herbs. An azalea and camellia garden, native garden, Japanese garden, cacti, palms and bamboo areas are only a few of the features.
Just outside the many faceted botanical parks is the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The Besthoffs donated 50 major sculptures, a value over $25 million dollars. This garden contains every sculptor from Botero to Moore ranging from the absurd to the sublime. Each sculpture is given space so that viewing it, within nature, is stirring. This is a garden in which two lovers might create boundless dreams while wandering the paths. Key West philanthropists need to keep the Truman Waterfront in mind as a place to create a lasting sculpture legacy.
To get there with an additional thrill, ride the Canal streetcar ($1.25) caught in front of Harrah's. Take it up Esplanade Street where colorful homes called "painted ladies" line the street. Stop at the end of the line, which is the entrance to the Art Museum. The Botanical Gardens ($5) and the Sculpture Gardens (free) are behind the museum. Streetcars run every 20-30 minutes.
Key West Garden Club presents Jody Smith Williams in a lecture entitled "Secrets to Growing Vegetables in the Keys." The lecture will occur at the General Meeting at West Martello. 1:30 p.m. Thursday, October 3.
Don't miss viewing the Garden Club's October Floral Design displays entitled "Witch's Brew," a Table Design Type II.
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and Award-Winning "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.