Explore nature’s beauty

Zilker Botanical Garden offers escape from bustling city

Springtime is an explosion of colors, blossoms and butterflies at the Zilker Botanical Garden in Austin and the perfect season for taking a day-trip to the tranquil grounds tucked amidst urban sprawl.

Visitors can roam the winding trails through a variety of themed sections. There is a cactus and succulent garden, as well as Japanese, rose, prehistoric, butterfly, daylily and herb gardens.

The grounds are full of water features, gazebos, bridges and other artistic elements that blend seamlessly with the flora and fauna. A vegetable garden and log cabin provide educational opportunities, as does the meeting and event space available in the garden center alongside the gift shop.

“This is one of the best kept secrets in Austin,” said Cynthia Klemmer, environmental conservation program manager. “I think of this as a center for home gardening — this is focused on what you can do in your home landscape here in Central Texas. We still want to be sustainable, but it’s not limited to native plants, rather what works well in Austin if you want to be successful as a gardener.”

Cat Newlands, Executive Director for the Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy, said she likens the gardens to a zoo.

“We have exotic plants that can grow here, but they aren’t native,” Newlands said. I think that’s true of any zoo — they create an environment that might look different, but is OK in that climate.”

The conservancy that Newlands oversees was started about a year and a half ago. It’s a nonprofit designed to support the garden and work closely with the Austin Parks Department.

“One of our main priorities is to close the gap between what is needed to manage the garden and what is needed to improve it and do enhancements,” she said.

The admission fee for the garden is $3 for non-Austin residents and $2 for Austin residents, and there is no fee to park, so the garden does not bring in a lot of funding from visitor numbers alone.

Urban Oasis

Klemmer called the garden an urban oasis.

“Usually you just hear the breeze blowing and birds chirping,” she said. “It’s right by Zilker Park, so you might hear kids playing in the distance. It’s really relatively peaceful.”

The park has a lot of elevation and tree coverage, so it’s easy to feel like you’re on an exotic adventure, especially if you’re in the Japanese or prehistoric garden. Occasionally, branches thin and you get a view of the Austin skyline in the distance, which makes for beautiful contrast behind the many plants and trees.

“Weekends are the busiest,” Klemmer said. “Peak time is of course spring, but even then you can come out and walk through the garden and it never feels crowded. There is enough space for everyone to spread out along the winding trails.”

There are about two miles of trails total. You can walk through the entire garden in less than two hours, or spend the majority of your day reading the names of the trees and flowers, following butterflies or lounging on one of the many benches tucked throughout the garden, sketching, taking photos or simply observing the surrounding nature.

“Even if you don’t know anything about the flowers or plants, it’s still really peaceful,” Newlands said.

The Japanese Garden, built by 70-year-old Isamu Taniguchi, opened to the public in 1969.

Highlights include a teahouse, an experimental bonsai garden and a wooden bridge arching over the water.

“All the water features are connected,” Klemmer said. “It starts at the top and works its way down and around the gardens, sometimes in very narrow channels and sometimes in pools, and eventually comes to the Rose Pond.”

All of the ponds in the garden spell out the word Austin, if seen from above. If you look at a map, you can make it out, Klemmer said, adding that the Koi fish in the ponds are always a favorite of children.

A newly completed section of the property is beside the Japanese Garden, where there used to be a stream that was leaking and needed repair. It was replaced by a streambed designed to enhance the beauty and educational opportunity of the site.

Five ponds at different elevations are connected by bridge stones and water falls from one pond to the next. They are planted with riparian vegetation and the banks showcase more than 100 species of native Texas plants. The new area includes an educational activity gathering spot and an accessible viewing area for visitors with disabilities.

The Rose Garden, in the center of the grounds, contains a cupola that is a popular spot for weddings.

“People have gotten engaged here, married here and had memorials here,” Klemmer said. “Then they come back every year on the anniversary of their engagement or wedding. Many become very emotionally attached to the place.”

The gardens also are popular for a variety of photo shoots, including engagement, wedding, Quinceanera and prom photo sessions.

Subtle dinosaur prints on the fence lead away from the Rose Garden to the Prehistoric Garden.

“The majority of the plants in here are from the prehistoric era,” Klemmer said. “They are the same types of plants that were here during the time of the dinosaurs — a lot of spore bearing plants like ferns, horsetail and palms — all older evolutionarily speaking.”

There is a large waterfall in the prehistoric garden, another favorite spot for snapping photos.

Molded versions of a dinosaur footprint that was found in the garden leads to a statue, which is a realistic replica of the dinosaur the footprints belonged to — an Ornithopod.

The prints were discovered about 22 years ago, when an area was cleared to build a new garden and a rainstorm washed away dirt to expose bedrock limestone complete with dinosaur tracks. The tracks began to deteriorate after they were exposed and studied by University of Texas specialists, so molds were taken and then they were covered backup.

The Butterfly Garden is divided into two sections and covers a lot of property on the grounds. More than thirty species of butterflies were counted there last year, Klemmer said.

“The bottom area is more of a wild scape for butterfly and larvae plants,” she said. “The upper part is a more suburban garden, like what you could do in your backyard to attract butterflies. It’s amazing how many butterflies flock to this area.”

Klemmer said butterflies can be seen anytime the weather is warm, but late spring and summer is the peek season for sightings. The Zilker Butterfly Garden will be full and voluptuous with plants by April, and visitors can expect to be surrounded by the delicate insects.

The Vegetable Garden is about to get a makeover.

“It was shaded and struggling,” Klemmer said. “We took off some branches of over hanging limbs to enhance the sun exposure and the Austin Organic Gardening Club is going to adopt the vegetable garden and help plant and maintain it, which will help stretch the overall maintenance abilities at the garden.”

The main feature in the nearby Pioneer Village is a Swedish cabin that was built in 1838 and moved to the Zilker Botanical Garden for conservation. The interior is decorated to demonstrate how the room was utilized throughout different times of the day.

“We know that at one point this cabin housed ten people, including a pregnant woman,” Culture and Arts Education Specialist Christopher Sanchez said. “The room took on many different purposes.”

A fairy in the garden

Sanchez leads many of the educational programs and workshops offered at the garden. Recently, staff members have focused on programs that center around fairies, and the public has responded positively.

“We’ve held fairy landscaping workshops where we provide all the materials for kids to take home their own little fairy home and garden,” Sanchez said. “It’s a gateway into landscape design, construction, planting and building.”

About 120 people attended the last fairy landscaping workshop and Sanchez said they are working on expanding and reformatting the program so they can accommodate even more people. They also host fairy tea parties.

“One of the cool things about horticulture is it’s truly an art and a science,” Klemmer said. “It’s interesting to study the science, but the art brings it to life. Children get that innately.”

The garden will host a “fairy trail” from the end of May through the end of July this year. Visitors can walk along the trail and peer into more than 50 tiny fairy homes, Klemmer said. The garden will even stay open late one evening to offer a fairy moonlight trail so guests can view the exhibit by moonlight.

Whether you choose to attend a program or wander the grounds at your leisure, a visit to the Zilker Botanical Garden is a worthwhile activity for embracing the spring season.

SALLY GRACE HOLTGRIEVE is a full-time freelance writer in Central Texas. A few of her favorite things include traveling, hiking, camping, reading, cats, classic rock music and cheese. As a kid, Sally Grace could never figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up — astronaut, Celtic dancer, entomologist, Egyptologist — everything was interesting and she couldn’t decide on just one world to immerse herself in and study, so she became a journalist. She learns new things every day.