A mere thirty minute drive from either Beaumont, Texas, or Lake Charles, Louisiana, lies garden paradise — The Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center in Orange, Texas. Inspired by the book, Lost Horizon, philanthropist H.J. Lutcher Stark spent nine years cultivating this personal utopia.
In 1946, Stark opened his private garden to the public, attracting thousands who came to see the stunning azaleas, tupelo swamp, and wildlife. Unfortunately, a freak snowstorm in 1958 destroyed most of the gardens and a disheartened Stark closed the property.
Explore the Shangri La Botanical Gardens
After remaining dormant for half a century, the garden was reopened to the public in 2008. Now, expanding on Stark’s original vision, the 252-acre Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center combines formal gardens with nature.
Most of the materials used in the construction were reclaimed; in fact, in 2009, the American Institute of Architects selected Shangri La as one of the world’s “Top Ten Green Projects.” First-time visitors should begin at the Discovery Theater and watch a short film about the history of the garden.
The heart of Shangri La is education. Our first visit was in the fall when school children were exploring the grounds. One group took samples at the Wetland Demonstration Garden where water from Ruby Lake runs through a filtration system. Teachers use the garden to demonstrate scientific principles.
The Children’s Garden, complete with pint-size chairs, a butterfly garden, and raised vegetable beds, is bordered by the Dancing Sisters Bottle Tree Sculpture. Nearly four hundred glimmering cobalt blue bottles hang on a steel tree created by a Southern folklore metal artist.
Other Garden Areas
We strolled a path where boxwood hedges framed beds of flowers. The colors alternate with the seasons—blooms of gold and purple in one season, red and green in another. The lush Hanging Garden with ginger, bananas, and other exotic tropicals includes some of the same plants Stark selected years ago. Large antique sugar kettles, originally used to boil cane juice on sugar plantations, are scattered throughout this area. A series of themed spaces adorned with both art and plants make up the intimate Sculpture Rooms.
Every turn brings something new to admire. The oval-shaped Pond of the Blue Moon reflects the 41 varieties of azaleas blooming each spring. Sitting out on the water is Cypress Gate, a structure made from 60 cypress logs salvaged after Hurricane Rita. A cypress timber walk bordered by water lilies, papyrus, and lotus leads visitors to this scenic spot.
Bird Watching at Shangri La
In spring, we returned to Shangri La for one reason, to see the heronry. A bird blind, large enough to accommodate a classroom of excited children, is positioned to provide views of the 15-acre Ruby Lake, home to more than 17 species of bird.
Each spring and summer, thousands of birds descend on the lake to nest, including Roseate Spoonbills, Anhingas, Great Egrets, and many others. Protected from predators, birds fill the trees. When a volunteer is on duty, visitors may borrow high-quality binoculars or view the birds up close on video monitors. As we tiptoed up to the blind—a sign warns visitors to remain quiet—we saw hundreds of Great Egrets, with their gossamer wings protectively hovering over fuzzy young birds.
Shangri La is romantic and even magical. Inspired by a novel, envisioned by one man, the modern-day version strives to respect nature and, yes, it is a bit of utopia in a most unexpected place. Whatever time of year you visit Shangri La in Texas, there is something beautiful to see; whether it is the Victorian greenhouse spilling over with orchids or the aquatic plants enlivening the Frog Ponds, this secret garden of the South is worth a detour.
When You Go to Shangri La
You can’t miss the three-story-high, 14,000-square-foot boyhood home of H.J. Lutcher Stark. The W.H. Stark House, with its distinctive windowed turret, combines both Queen Anne and Eastlake architectural styles. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the restored house is filled with original family furnishings and decorative arts. The fifteen rooms contain the personal effects and collections of the prominent timber family who called it home from 1894 to 1936. Tours of the house and carriage house are open to the public on the second Friday and Saturday each month Admission is free, but tours must be booked online.
The Stark Museum of Art houses 19th- and 20th-century Western American art and artifacts, American Indian art, and collections of porcelain, glass, rare books, and manuscripts. Some of the world-famous artists include Audubon, Remington, and Russell. The museum offers changing exhibits.
Featured image – Cypress Gate at Pond of the Blue Moon / Rick Lewandowski
Barbara and Jim Twardowski are travel writers who love exploring and photographing gardens.