San Antonio Botanical Garden
San Antonio, Texas
October 2007


I’d looked forward to visiting this garden for quite a while. Reading about their renovated conservatories and other major renovations really made it sound enticing, and pictures I’d seen made it look beautiful. Of course, the garden would not be at its most spectacular in November, but San Antonio isn’t the frozen north so I knew a visit would be worthwhile.

One problem immediately became obvious – signage to the garden is a muddle. Following our rental car map, and the Garden’s brochure, got us close, but we couldn’t find it. I stopped at a gas station and asked several customers and the clerk. No one knew where it was and the clerk had never heard of it! And this less than a mile from the entrance! Seems like they need a little more PR. Anyway, I called the garden and got directions (we were only 5 minutes away).

After the frustration of trying to find the place, the actual entrance, through a beautiful carriage house, was a pleasant surprise.

San Antonio Botanical Garden

There was no one in line at the entrance but the clerk was on the phone. We waited more than 6 minutes (6 minutes from the time I got irritated enough to begin timing) for him to finish his call and take our money! Not the best start to our visit, but when we walked through the door into the garden, all our previous trials were forgotten. The entry path and signage made it clear which way to go and what we would see, and the plantings along the path were lush and well maintained.
Entrance Sign

The first display we came to was “Dora and Diego’s Garden Adventure”. We had no kids with us, but wandered through thinking how much our grandkids would enjoy it. There seemed to be many great activities for kids and families. I love to see displays that help get kids in touch with nature and this one looks like great fun.

Walking on we came to the Japanese Garden. It is surrounded by a fantastic bamboo fence, maybe the nicest fence I’ve seen.

Japanese Garden Fence

The fence is not only a work of art but it effectively screens out the rest of the garden. When you step into the Japanese Garden you have really left everything else behind.

Japanese Garden

I was impressed with the Fountain Plaza. Nicely done water features always appeal to me and this one is grand.
Fountain Plaza

The entrance to the conservatories is ahead. Like most of the hardscaping in the botanical garden, the entrance is very nice. It really looks like you’re entering a special place.
Conservatory Entrance

The first house is the “Exhibit Room”, which I found to be a hodge-podge of tropical plants, and sadly, most of them are not that interesting. However, it is very lush and tropical in feel.
Exhibit Room

The floor is carpeted with an uninteresting selection of Coleus. There are many beautiful varieties of Coleus, but these looked like they were just bought at Home Depot. Most of the plants fell into this same category, in my opinion.
There were a few orchids and several great bromeliads but overall a dismal plant collection, housed in a spectacular setting. Almost none of the plants were identified and there was no interpretation.

The view as you leave the “Exhibit Room” is spectacular. You are in a courtyard of palms, cycads and exotic trees, surrounded by beautiful glass houses.

Courtyard

We went first to the “Desert Pavilion”. The house is beautiful, and the layout inside is great. It’s laid out as a steep hillside with the trail looping through it. A perfect visual setting for desert plants.
Desert House

Sadly, the plants are again a disappointment. They are not mundane, as in the “Exhibit Room”, but many are in terrible condition. Most are readily available commercially so should be replaced. Again, the signage is atrocious. Most plants have no identification label, and others still have the white plastic nursery label (badly faded and brittle) as the only identifier. There is a pretty good introductory panel about deserts.

Next is the “Tropical Room”, another beautiful structure. However, the collection inside is sort of wall-to-wall green shrubbery. It’s impossible to see any single plant for the forest. I’d recommend selecting the most interesting specimens (fewer than half of the current number), and eliminating the rest. Maybe even select a particular tropical region, or a particular tropical plant group, to focus on, rather than trying to display the world’s tropics in 10,000 square feet. It really isn’t necessary to display everything. Instead, concentrate on something you can do well. Sometimes less really is more.

Unfortunately, the giant “Palm and Cycad Pavilion” is closed for renovation. Like the other glasshouses, it is a beautiful looking structure.
Palm House

I hope after the renovation, the plant collection inside is as wonderful as the house is outside.

Our final stop in the conservatory complex is the “Fern Grotto”. I love the cave-like entrance
Grotto Entrance

and inside it’s my favorite element of the complex. An interesting collection of ferns and epiphytes is creatively displayed on the rocky walls,
Grotto Wall

and there are good interpretive signs. I wish they’d identified more of the individual plants but I recognize that it would be really difficult without destroying the aesthetic of the grotto. I hope they can find a creative solution.

The Children’s Garden was a real highlight,
Children's Garden

my wife’s favorite part of the Botanical Garden. An enthusiastic volunteer led us around, telling us which school grew which vegetables, and pointing out the best and largest squash and tomatoes. One of the best things a garden can do is get children involved in gardening and nature. This Children’s Garden is a great example of a garden reaching out to children in its community. Not only is it a great exercise for children, but their care and enthusiasm have created a beautiful display as well.

The cactus garden is nicely laid out on a gentle slope, and some lovely specimens are displayed.

Cactus Garden

Sadly, there’s really no interpretation. I was left wondering if the plants were Texas natives (there’s a lot of desert in Texas), or even if they were all cactus! An educational opportunity missed.

The path then took us around a beautiful lake in the “Texas Piney Woods”.
Piney Woods Lake

There was lots of wildlife around, birds flittering and animals scurrying. The area had a serene, natural feel and didn’t need interpretation. I enjoyed the ambience of just strolling along the lakeside.

We then followed an aqueduct to an overlook in the middle of the garden. It gets you up high enough to see the entire garden and the buildings of downtown San Antonio. A great view! It allows you to see the beautiful layout of paths, sweeping lawns and gardens.

“Watersaver Lane” is a great exhibit of water smart landscaping. It displays six small houses, each with a small garden in front.

Watersaver Lane

All are landscaped differently to show what can be done with low water plantings. The landscapes are so different from one another that you realize water conservation does not have to limit your imagination in landscaping. The signage is simple but effective and doesn’t interfere with the visual impact of the gardens. It’s a great lesson, well told, and my favorite exhibit.

We exited through the “Sacred Garden” and the “Rose Garden”. Both were all right but neither had interpretation to tell you why they were special and neither was spectacular enough to stand without interpretation. Plant collections within a Botanical Garden should be more than just a bunch of plants. They should have a reason for being. Unless that reason is blatantly obvious, you need to convey it to the visitor.

I wanted to love this Botanical Garden, but on reflection, I'm left with a sense of disappointment, of great potential unfulfilled. The infrastructure of the garden is all in place. The path system, the glasshouses, the layout of the beds, are all excellent. The Garden suffers from lack of imagination in plant selection, lack of signage and lack of direction. There must be local plant societies that would provide direction and assistance in plant selection. Interpretive signage can be expensive, but identification labels for plants are cheap. At least make a start. With so much already in place, the Garden could quickly become a showplace.

Reading the review again, it sounds pretty critical. I think all the criticisms are justified. However, we spent more than three hours wandering the grounds and throughly enjoyed ourselves. They're doing a lot right.

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