Beaumont, Texas, is a city full of history, culture, and garden destinations to explore. Located in the southeastern corner of the state, about an hour’s drive from the Houston airport, Beaumont is a great place to experience the flora and fauna of this part of Texas.
The oil industry of Texas started in Beaumont when drilling on nearby Spindletop Hill produced the state’s first gusher in 1901. By the end of the year, there were 138 oil wells on Spindletop. With this newfound prosperity, people came from everywhere and the town went from 9,000 to 50,000 people that year. They built businesses and homes, including the historic McFaddin-Ward house that is one of the grand homes of the era remaining in Beaumont.
McFaddin-Ward House and Gardens
W. P. H. and Ida Caldwell McFaddin moved into their beautiful Beaux-Arts Colonial style home in 1907 with their young family. Already wealthy from cattle, rice farming, and milling, they prospered even more since Mr. McFaddin owned part interest in the Spindletop land where oil was discovered.
Ida started the gardens surrounding the home and her daughter Mamie continued to refine these over the years. The spacious lawn anchoring the front of the house now hosts many of the events held here from music to movies. The potager garden on the side of the house features a hedge of neatly trimmed boxwood and four planting areas elevated above the brick pathway. This former kitchen garden now showcases ornamental plantings. The stained glass windows above are even more spectacular to see from the inside of the home. The colorful windows are part of the house’s solarium, built with a tile floor and a water faucet for easy watering of the indoor plants.
The back side of the house is the location of an extensive hybrid tea rose garden planted in a rainbow of colors. Other lovely garden sections surround the house, including a large collection of azaleas and camellias.
While the grounds have a variety of trees, including some of the first palm trees planted in Beaumont, it’s the far side of the house where the trees have historical significance. The two spectacular live oak trees, each more than 100 years old, were planted from acorns collected by a young Mr. McFaddin who gathered these from the site of the Battle of San Jacinto (the battle that gave Texas independence from Mexico) where he served as a guard. He named the two trees after his parents – Rachel and William. Though the Rachel tree toppled during a recent hurricane, it continues to grow horizontally in the landscape.
Beaumont Botanical Gardens
The botanical gardens are part of the 500 acre Tyrrell Park that is a hub for Beaumont outdoor recreation. The gardens include a collection of themed sections linked by walkways. The native plant garden features Texas native flowers and trees. The formal rose garden is fairly new and includes hybrid varieties planted in stone lined beds. The tall Memorial Rose Arbor in the middle showcases roses from the 1800s. The herb, butterfly, and green and white gardens are some of the many themed areas. And throughout, swathes of perennials, annuals, and daylilies make the gardens a pleasant place to stroll.
A unique feature of the botanical garden is the Warren Loose Conservatory, one of the largest in Texas. While the two story building includes mostly tropical plants there is one small section with arid loving species like cacti, agave, and aloe. Walkways curve past plantings of bromeliad, pygmy date, fern, ixora, croton, orchid, and other tropical growing specimens. Many water features create a serene atmosphere to enjoy a slice of the tropics indoors in Beaumont.
Other sections of the botanical garden include a large pond where you can feed koi and turtles, a maypole for the annual May festival, and a 9/11 Memorial Garden where soil from the three attack sites was incorporated into the soil here, making this a revered site to visit.
Cattail Marsh Wetlands
It’s hard to believe that this amazing wetland is actually part of the wastewater treatment system for Beaumont. Built in the early 1990s in response to the Clean Water Act that limited the amount of ammonia in the final stage of wastewater treatment, the Cattail Marsh Wetlands uses nature to clean the water instead of chemicals. Through a system of upper and lower ponds, the wastewater process implements gravity to move and clean 650 acres of water to the final stage of pumping the water into a nearby bayou. This innovate process has been applauded by experts and environmentalists.
As a result of creating this vast area of clean water (though it is not potable), nature has thrived. There are over 295 species of birds here, including many from the two flyways that bisect Beaumont. From November through February birders from all over visit the wetlands to witness migration, though other times of the year bring out interesting birds as well. The marshes include alligators, grasses, aquatic plants like broadleaf arrowhead and purple hyacinth, and, of course, cattails.
You can walk, jog, or bike the 12 miles of gravel roads that traverse across the wetlands. A boardwalk extends out into a main section of the water for more up close nature viewing opportunities. A free van tour of the wetlands is offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Stop in at the education center for a birds-eye view from the top of this two-story building and to learn more about this amazing ecosystem.
The Big Thicket
If your vision of Texas is more that of an open treeless plain, then you will be surprised to learn that this part of the state is covered in a dense forest of bushes and trees. Called the Big Thicket, this type of topography once covered 3.5 million acres of land in southeast Texas.
Today, the Big Thicket National Preserve protects 112,000 acres with 15 unique remnant areas. There is a longleaf pine upland, slope forest, arid sandy land, cypress slough, palmetto hardwood flat, baygall, and an estuarine wetland. While each section is interesting to visit, it’s the wetland pine savannah that attracts plant lovers. Specifically, those who like carnivorous plants.
Four of the five types of insect-eating plants in the U.S. thrive in this section of the Big Thicket. Bladderworts, butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants can be seen growing along the Sundew Trail and the Pitcher Plant trails. The pitcher plants are the easiest to spot with their 12-inch tall tubes and 5 petaled flowers. Sundews, bladderworts and butterworts call for ground level observation to spot these tiny plants, especially if their flowers aren’t blooming.
The trail is mostly a wooden boardwalk, giving you up close views while keeping you off the plants. Other plants growing here include bracken fern, rose pogonia orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides), Carolina woolywhite (Hymenopappus scabiosaeus), stalked bulbine, skullcap, and many other native plants that like the nitrogen-poor soils in this wetland.
If you have time, stop at the nearby Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve. Founded by Geraldine Watson, one of the activists who worked to create the Big Thicket National Preserve, this private non-profit preserve has many rare and endangered species of native plants, including seven species of orchids, four of the five types of carnivorous plants native to North America, ten species of ferns, plus milkweeds, gentians, wild azaleas, blueberries, trilliums, violets, and carnivorous plants.
To experience the water side of the Big Thicket, you can paddle the creeks, bayous, and rivers that flow through it. Three official Texas Paddling Trails are in the preserve. Or you can book an excursion with Big Thicket Outfitters to access this most unusual ecosystem by water.
Shangri La Botanical Gardens
An easy 30-minute drive east of Beaumont takes you to the oasis of the Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center in Orange, Texas. Started as a private getaway for local businessman H.J. Stark, the gardens were opened to the public in the 1940s for viewing of the vast number of azaleas and camellias that Stark planted here. A devastating ice storm caused him to close the gardens in 1958, and these remained closed until 2008 when the Stark Foundation decided to restore the plantings and expand the garden.
Part botanical garden and part nature center, Shangri La’s purpose is to educate people on the environment and horticulture. A good place to start your tour is in the theatre for a film about the gardens. The dramatic rise of the screen at the end of the film reveals glass windows that look out on a section of these stunning gardens.
Once outside, paths lead you to a collection of water gardens, greenhouses, and themed gardens. The children’s garden is easy to spot with the blue bottle trees. Next to it is a 1917 Lord & Burnham greenhouse that was originally in downtown Orange and used by Mrs. Stark’s mother for her orchids. Today, it houses many of the garden’s epiphytes. There are other greenhouses nearby with aquatic plants.
Behind the greenhouses, a brick courtyard with two circular pools of water lilies, called the Frog Ponds, is original to Stark’s garden. From here, the path leads to an extensive section of formal plantings juxtaposed against the natural area. There is a magnolia terrace, hanging gardens, texture, shape, and contrast gardens, and many other sections tucked behind hedges and plantings.
The Pond of the Blue Moon is a modern day garden with a tall cypress gate on an island accessed by a boardwalk. In springtime, azaleas are reflected in the pond’s still waters. And throughout Shangri La are plantings overflowing with coleus, caladiums, and cannas, colorful annuals, daylilies, perennials, ferns, and more.
Stark created Ruby Lake on the far edge of the property and planted azaleas around the shore for a stunning springtime display. Today, there is a modern day viewing blind on the edge of the 15-acre lake where you can watch the birds but the birds can’t see you. Beyond the lake is a bayou where you can take a free, one-hour boat excursion.
When You Go
The Gulf of Mexico is a 45-minute drive south of Beaumont. One of the best places to experience the wildlife here is at Sea Rim State Park. This birding haven offers access to the marsh via an extensive system of boardwalks where you can stroll to observe the variety of birds that stop here.
In nearby Port Arthur, the Buu Mon Buddhist Temple has an interesting outdoor collection of water features and sculptures. If you are in the area in June, the temple holds a Lotus Festival.
Gladys City Boomtown is a replica of the town where the Spindletop gushers started, and tells the story of the people and events of the oil discovery here. In downtown Beaumont, the Texas Energy Museum showcases the history of oil and the petrochemical industry, from the early oil gusher days to modern drilling and refining.
A visit to Gator Country Adventure Park provides an opportunity to see over 400 alligators outdoors in a series of ponds, along with many opportunities to feed these, plus touch areas where you can hold a baby alligator.
The Art Museum of Southeast Texas houses a collection of art from the 19th century to present day, including many special exhibits during the year. Outside, there are over a dozen murals painted on the sides of the city’s downtown buildings. Download a mural guide from the tourism office’s website for a self-guided tour.
Where to Eat
Rao’s Bakery is the go-to iconic spot in Beaumont for baked goods, breakfast, and sandwiches. It’s the oldest Italian bakery in southeast Texas, dating back to 1941. Known for it’s incredible range of baked goods from muffins the size of your head to iced sugar cookies and kolaches, it’s also the king cake capital of Beaumont for this Mardi Gras favorite shipped around the country.
The historic Mildred Building in downtown Beaumont houses the popular dining spot Katherine and Company. House-made salads, sandwiches, and soups are served here using seasonal ingredients.
J. Wilson’s is a neighborhood restaurant serving classic food and cocktails in this popular dining destination.
On your way to Shangri La Gardens, a stop at Lucy’s Cafe and Bakery for lunch won’t disappoint. Popular offerings include the chicken crepes and the crawfish pie. Save room for dessert. You can work it off by browsing the interesting gift shop next door.
For more information on visiting Beaumont, Texas, go to www.beaumontcvb.com.
Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine in North Carolina. When she is not gardening, she loves to travel.