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Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney - April, 2006

Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney              April 2006


Do you know what plant produces vanilla beans?  Do you think tequila comes from a cactus?  Well, I bet most of you would answer these questions incorrectly.  On a recent visit to Corpus Christi, I found the answer to both these questions and also found a good place to take your pet ferret for a walk.

Tropical Rain Forest…

On a hot June afternoon in 1966, I visited the United States Botanic Gardens in Washington, DC.  I vividly recall the large, glass-domed Conservatory filled with steaming plants and the feeling of being in the middle of a tropical rain forest.  I guess that unpleasant experience explains why it has taken me almost forty years to visit yet another botanic garden.

The dictionary says a botanic garden is a place where a wide variety of plants are cultivated for scientific, educational and ornamental purposes.  This basically describes those gardens in our nation’s capital, but, on a recent, pleasant February afternoon, I found a similar place that goes way beyond this explanation.

Corpus Christi Botanical Gardens & Nature Center…

Statistics show that Texas ranks third in the United States as a tourist destination with Corpus Christi drawing its fair share of these travelers.  One of the city’s five major tourist attractions, the Corpus Christi Botanical Gardens and Nature Center (CCBG), was my destination a few weeks ago.

I’d seen the green CCBG signs in the Saratoga Boulevard area of town pointing the way to the Gardens, but I’d never actually driven anywhere near the site.  The official address is 8545 S. Staples, and once you exit South Padre Island Drive (Texas Highway 358) onto South Staples Street, it is approximately a five-mile drive to the Gardens, past Saratoga, Yorktown and the Oso Creek Bridge.

Paul Thornton, Director of Operations, was my guide for the afternoon.  He has been with the CCBG for 17 years and was their first gardener.  A native Corpus Christian, his love of nature and his hometown is apparent as he proudly led me through the numerous gardens, collections and exhibits.

A Farmhouse in the Brush…

The planning for the CCBG began in 1983.  A small group of interested citizens opened the original site in 1987 with a one-acre garden, a renovated farmhouse used as the information center and a Mesquite Nature Trail running through 30 acres of virgin brush.

Thirty-five specifies of woody trees and shrubs, herbs, grasses and cacti dotted the trail with occasional glimpses of deer, javelina and coyotes.  The trail was described as “a taste of what King Ranch ranchers battled when cattle first walked over the cracked South Texas ground”.

The CCBG was billed as being 20 minutes from downtown Corpus Christi, and its mission was dedicated to education, research and display of a multitude of South Texas plants.

By 1995, the Gardens had outgrown their original location and moved across the street to a much larger site bordered on one side by Oso Creek and by the King Ranch on another side.

Nature Tourism…

The present 180-acre site is a mix of carefully tended gardens and collections of beautiful roses, orchids and the like, as well as a wonderful example of South Texas brush land with its thorny bushes, trees and cactus.  Mockingbirds and bright red cardinals fly from tree to tree along the shaded Bird and Butterfly Trail that runs alongside Gator Lake, and butterflies drink the nectar from the flowers planted especially for them.  The Bird and Butterfly Trail is approximately one mile in length and the level, manmade path makes for an easy walk through the otherwise dense brush.

Nature tourism is a phrase quickly gaining ground in the travel and tourism industry.  The CCBG is a prime example of an environmental-friendly nature tourism destination.  It is an integral part of Corpus Christi’s Oso Creek Greenbelt system, a Texas Watchable Wildlife Program site and is in the central flyway of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. 

Paul and I ventured off the path to climb to the top of one of the Birding Towers overlooking Gator Lake noting several varieties of ducks in the water.  We continued on the path to the beginning of the Wetlands Awareness Boardwalk and stopped to look down from the boardwalk to tracks of deer left in the wet sand.

Time didn’t permit a walk on the boardwalk and beyond to the banks of Oso Creek, but we did pass a man and woman from Massachusetts on the trail headed in that direction. 

Snakes and Ferrets…

An abundance of adequate signage is seen throughout the CCBG stating names of plants, trees and flowers as well as warning you to keep your pets on a leash.  Another warning of “Please watch for snakes” serves to remind visitors that you are in the middle of the natural mesquite brush habitat of a variety of South Texas creatures.  Paul told me that a bobcat is spotted occasionally in the brush, and he even once saw a man walking his pet ferret down the path, properly leashed as requested.

Vanilla Orchids…

Paul gives credit to a multitude of volunteers, without whom the CCBG could not function.  The beautiful Rose Garden and Pavilion are wonderful examples of this spirit of volunteerism.  The late Bill Bates and his wife were the driving force, both monetarily and physically, behind the development of the Rose Garden.  Today the Rose Garden’s 300 roses are curated and maintained by the Corpus Christi Rose Society.   The nearby Rose Garden Pavilion was completed in the summer of 2002 and is a popular site for weddings and receptions.

The Don Larkin Memorial Orchid Greenhouse is one of the gemstones of the CCBG and took me back to the days of senior proms and corsages.  The Orchid House is home to nearly 3500 orchids, one of the largest collections in the Southwest, and is a state-of-the-art facility complete with wet wall, heaters, fans, mist systems and a rainwater collection process assisted by a reverse osmosis system. 

Volunteer Sam Jones is curator of the orchid collection and started out with just two pots of orchids 12 years ago.  The 1350 sq. ft. greenhouse was largely designed and built by Jones.  His love of orchids is best described by a quote he once made, “For me, orchids are like sex, it just comes natural”.   The South Texas Orchid Society works with Jones to maintain the orchid collection.

Paul showed me through the Orchid House pointing out different species including miniature orchids, but, without a doubt, I was most impressed with the Vanilla Orchid.  Until that day, I had no idea that vanilla beans, producing the extract called for in so many recipes, come from an orchid.  This orchid originated in the Vera Cruz area of Mexico during the days of the Aztec Emperor Montezuma.  Today the African island of Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world, followed by Indonesia, Tahiti and Mexico.

Jose Cuervo…

As we continued on the Bird and Butterfly Trail, also referred to as a “Walk on the Wild Side”, we came to the Arid Garden filled with cactus and succulent plants.  This garden was built in 2001 and showcases plants that need little care or water.  It features a variety of cactus, succulents and several colorful, blooming bougainvillea bushes.

 My love of the South Texas brush country made this my favorite stop on the Trail.  Paul made sure to point out the blue agave plant adding that it is very important in making that South Texas favorite, the frozen margarita.

The blue agave plant, occasionally thought to be a cactus, is actually a succulent and member of the lily and amaryllis family. The plant, from which tequila is distilled, originated in the area surrounding Tequila, a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, around the time of the Conquistadors in the 1520s. 

In 1758, the King of Spain granted the first license to manufacture tequila to a gentleman named Jose Antonio Cuervo, Sr.   There are 136 species of agave in Mexico, but the blue agave is the only one allowed for use in tequila production.  No tequila may be made from less than 51% blue agave. Most top-of-the-line tequilas are made from 100% blue agave, a fact that is always shown on the label. There is a non-profit council called the Chamber of Tequila Producers that regulates the industry. And, just to clear the record, no Mexican alcoholic drink is made from cactus.

Our stroll around the grounds also took us past the Hibiscus Garden, the Tropical Garden, the Sensory Garden, the Tree Demonstration area and the Plumeria Collection.  There are more than 100 varieties of Plumeria, one of the largest public outdoor displays in the continental United States.  Plumeria, also known as the Hawaiian lei flower, are native to the Caribbean and are moved indoors during the winter months to protect from freezes.

As I said my goodbyes to Paul, I had to admit to myself that the Corpus Christi Botanical Gardens and Nature Center was certainly not what I expected. There were no dark, damp greenhouses but plenty of open spaces and a hint of the Wild Horse Desert that the area once was.  If anything, it is an oasis, a preserve and a refuge, all dedicated to protecting the native habitat and natural wetlands of South Texas.

Spring Garden Festival & Plant Sale…

Numerous special events take place throughout the year at the CCBG including Birding 101 for Kids and the Junior Master Gardener Series.  The tenth annual Spring Garden Festival & Plant Sale will be held on Saturday, April 15.  Admission on that day will be free.  Festival visitors will learn specialized plant care and other home gardening skills during a full day of free seminars.  Kids will enjoy the Children’s Learning Area and ladybug releases in four different gardens.

Guests also can attend a morning Orchid Auction, shop for gorgeous Plumeria, Bromeliads, Ornamentals,  Native Plants,  water-smart landscape plants and more. Plant society and specialty vendors will be selling an enticing array of lawn and garden décor plus more plants. Indoor and outdoor Gift Shops will be open, with expanded spring merchandise lines.

Membership and Contact Info…

There are two full time and two part time employees at the CCBG.  Approximately 20 docents staff the front desk and lead guided tours.  Certain facilities may be rented for meetings, parties, weddings and corporate functions.  Only CCBG members and Corporate members may rent the facilities.

 The CCBG is a not-for-profit corporation, and annual membership fees range from $25 to $1,000 and offer members, among other benefits,  free admission and discounts on seminar, workshop and camp registrations.  Membership has increased from 350 in 1996 to nearly 800 today.

The Gardens are open Tuesday – Sunday,  9 am – 5 pm and closed on Mondays.  Free parking is available, and the grounds are wheelchair accessible.  For more information and admission fees, visit their web site at www.ccbotanicalgardens.org or telephone 361 852-2100.  Paul Thornton can be reached via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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