Published Jan/Feb 2006

Garden lovers cast their votes for Baton Rouge, a city bursting with blooms, trees and natural areas.
By Mary Fonseca

While most visitors to Baton Rouge tour Louisiana’s towering state Capitol and Louisiana State University, nature lovers and gardeners are drawn to the city's delightful gardens and natural areas. To them, Baton Rouge, an hour’s drive from New Orleans, is the “garden capital” of Louisiana.

Off to a good start

A circuit of the city’s loveliest venues begins west of Interstate 10 on Highland Road. This picturesque avenue, one of Baton Rouge's oldest, offers glimpses of pastoral vistas, modern mansions and centuries-old homes.

The Stockade Bed-and-Breakfast (8860 Highland Road) is among Highland Road's noteworthy landmarks. The well-appointed, Spanish-style hacienda–on the site of a Union fort that guarded the southern entrance to Baton Rouge during the Civil War–is convenient for exploring the city’s outdoor attractions.

Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Hilltop Arboretum at 11855 Highland Road has plenty of trees and plants to admire on this 14-acre woodland. A brochure available at the visitor center directs you to them and relates the story of Hilltop’s founder, Emory Smith. His remarkable collection of Southern native plants, trees, shrubs and wildflowers serves horticultural students and gardeners through a variety of programs, and also offers a tranquil atmosphere.

Swamped with surprise

You’d expect to find swamps in Louisiana, but one in the middle of Baton Rouge is quite a surprise. The wetland formed when construction of Highland Road interfered with the flow of rainwater to the Mississippi River. Urban development threatened its viability, so the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana and the Baton Rouge Recreation and Parks Commission intervened to create Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center, 10503 North Oak Hills Parkway.

Volunteers in Bluebonnet’s enormous exhibit center assist visitors with maps and tips on spotting seasonal and resident flora and fauna from boardwalk trails.

Flowers and bowers

Located behind LSU’s Rural Life Museum (I-10 and Essen Lane) is Windrush Gardens. Charming adornments in this semiformal garden include discarded gasoliers from the old Louisiana State Capitol and cast iron statues from Louis XIV’s park at Versailles. They decorate five outdoor rooms defined by flowering shrubs and bushes chosen for their harmonizing shapes and contrasting shades of green.

Every spring and fall, lustrous roses, blooming near an enticing gazebo, enthrall visitors to the Botanic Gardens in Independence Park, 7950 Independence Boulevard. In addition, the site features displays of woody ornamental plants, perennials, annuals, ground covers and wetland plants.

While the Botanic Gardens is a recent addition to Baton Rouge’s garland of greenery, the Capitol Gardens surrounding Louisiana’s statehouse were installed in 1932 when the tower was constructed. They are described in their nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as “one of the finest examples of traditional late-19th-century English design in a public garden.” Symmetrical paths in a sunken garden in front of the Capitol radiate from the gravesite statue of Gov. Huey Long, while arboreal grounds in other sections of the park shelter a 17th-century powder magazine and replica of the Liberty Bell.

Just north of downtown, garden enthusiasts will find the peaceful Cohn Memorial Arboretum. Designing and planting the 16-acre arboretum (12056 Foster Road) that bears his name was a labor of love for Laurens Henry Cohn. He threaded walkways through hundreds of trees, and included clusters of dogwoods, camellias, hollies and other colorful plants in the soothing haven he created.

Complement your Baton Rouge garden tour with lunch at Silver Spoon Restaurant (7731 Jefferson Highway) and fine dining at Juban's (3739 Perkins Road) or Tigre’s (7329 Highland Road). A delicious meal and enticing tours of Baton Rouge-area gardens is the perfect recipe for a delightful spring escape.

Mary Fonseca is a new contributor from Metairie, La.

Above: The gardens at Louisiana’s statehouse. © Charley Fisher-Golden Paws Photography photo

Below: Boardwalks lead visitors through Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center. Louisiana Office of Tourism photo

Before You Go
For more information, contact the Baton Rouge Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-LA-ROUGE (800-527-6843) or www.visitbatonrouge.com.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

St. Francisville
By Mary Fonseca

The oak entry tunnel at Rosedown. Louisiana Office of Tourism photo

After exploring Baton Rouge’s gardens and arboretums, travelers with time to spare can enjoy scenic areas and cozy lodgings in St. Francisville, a postcard-pretty village 30 miles northwest of Baton Rouge via U.S. Highway 61.

Naturalist John James Audubon was so taken with St. Francisville’s countryside that he noted in his journal, “The rich magnolias covered with fragrant blossoms, the holly, the beech, the tall yellow poplar, the hilly ground…all excited my admiration.” Audubon State Historic Site (11788 state Highway 965) inspires similar appreciation in visitors who walk its half-mile forest trail through magnolias, poplars and other habitats for birds. Audubon stayed in the West Indies-style dwelling during his three-month visit. Nearby Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site (12501 state Highway 10) offers visitors 28-acre formal gardens, which are enchanting. Brick footpaths connect secluded nooks, refreshing fountains and dainty gazebos in the garden Martha Turnbull planned when her stately home, still gracing the property, was built in 1834-35. Horticulturalists consulted her 60 years of garden journals during two restorations of Rosedown’s gardens.

An entry road to Afton Villa Gardens (9247 North U.S. Highway 61) passes through a natural cathedral beamed with live oaks and walled with radiant azaleas. Though the estate’s magnificent 40-room home was destroyed by fire in 1963, wayfarers will treasure Afton Villa’s parterre garden that gives way to a sloping ravine where a quartet of cherubic statues is surrounded by thousands of daffodils every spring.

Lunch at Magnolia Café (5687 E. Commerce St.) is a long-standing St. Francisville tradition.

For St. Francisville information, contact West Feliciana Parish Tourist Commission at 1-800-789-4221 or www.stfrancisville.us. The 35th Annual Audubon Pilgrimage will be March 17–19 and feature the Audubon State Historic Site and Rosedown.

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