Sneak peek: Houston Botanic Garden, a worldly wonderland-in-the-making

Up a small incline along a gravel path lined with rust-colored boulders, the upland forest felt far away from Houston. More like someplace you might hike in northern Mexico.

But there we were one recent morning, roughly six blocks east of Interstate 45 South, exploring a small grove of rare Mexican sugar maples (Acer skutchii) and other trees. Workers installed hundreds of perennials and shrubs all around us, while also moving earth and boulders with heavy equipment.

The Houston Botanic Garden, which will open with four staggered weekends of activities starting Sept. 18, isn’t just coming together. During the pandemic lockdown, construction has transformed key pieces of the former Glenbrook Golf Course into a discernible natural wonderland.

A bridge leading over the Sims Bayou meander from Park Place is complete, affording views of a wetlands garden in progress and leading to the nearly complete Welcome Pavilion on the 130-acre site’s island.

A walkway of scalloped concrete arches and a long, etched wall of coral stone with slats for plant displays helps to define the low-slung, modernist building designed by Overland Partners. The walkway opens onto the centerpiece of the whole shebang, the Global Collection Garden — which is a garden of about a dozen zones that could look wildly different when they are finished.

The upland forest looks the most complete at the moment but will soon be surrounded by a tropical rainforest, a drought-tolerant sanctuary, a semi-arid Mediterranean zone, a desert, a grassy savanna, a ridge of pines and a bamboo forest.

The zones are inspired by regions of the world but not slavish to native ecosystems, said Joy Columbus, Houston Botanic Garden’s vice president of horticulture. The selections were more about representing habitats with diverse species that also can endure the Gulf Coast’s hot, humid climate.

Smaller sections of the global collection feature the discoveries of Texas botanists, pollinator plants and plants with colorful leaves. Curiosities of the plant world that have fascinating form and structure will fill one corner, “to inspire the botanist in all of us and encourage people to think beyond flowers,” Columbus said.

The Global Collection Garden will contain about 350 different species of plants, Columbus said. That’s about a third of the “complete taxa” that now grows across the botanic garden property. Installed in huge multiples, they comprise more than 37,000 plants.

“And the list keeps growing every day,” Columbus said, because professionals across the botanical world are excited about the Houston project and offering to share plants. “It’s fun just to view this as the starting point,” she said.

A couple of “curiosity cabinets” — elegant, Zen-like sheds in the spirit of European wunderkammern — are in place around the global garden. They will hold small treasures visitors can examine up close. Near the savanna, a dramatic water feature called “the Dewdrop” looks almost ready to turn on.

Crews are building the drainage system and subsoil base for the large Culinary Garden on the other side of the Welcome Pavilion, which also will have plants grouped by regions. What’s below the surface matters just as much as the plants that people will ooh and aah over, Columbus said. “A lot of people have put a lot of sweat into this project.”

The firm West 8 is designing and managing the project. Harvey Cleary Builders is the general contractor. Clark Condon designed the garden’s planting and soil, and Landscape Art is installing it.

Less intensely planted areas also will open in September. There will be a woodland glade for weddings; and Houston’s confluence of eco-regions will be visible with a coastal prairie garden and the stormwater-wetlands garden, which is a project of Texas A&M’s Texas Community Watershed Partners.

The Susan Garver Family Discovery Garden, created from a former water hazard on the far side of the property, has been finished since the spring. Its boardwalk circles what is now a wildlife-friendly lagoon. At one end, a sandy pad of interactive pumps and other water play devices promises to deliver squeals of delight from small humans.

The garden’s diversity reflects the city’s. To emphasize that, each of the opening season’s four weekends will highlight the plants, food and culture of a different part of the world. Sept. 18-20, it’s Latin America; Oct. 2-4, Asia; Oct. 16-18, Africa; and Oct. 30-Nov. 1, the Mediterranean.

The organization exceeded its Phase 1 funding goal, raising $38.5 million to get the garden opened. Phase 2 involves “taking a breather” on construction to build the collections, research work and programming, said executive director Claudia Gee Vassar.

Phase 3, likely years away, could bring an education/events building and a seasonal display area aimed at home gardeners.

“We want to engage people with more than just being a place to visit,” Vassar said, “so they really get to learn about plants.”

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