Visit to Zilker Botanical Garden

When a travel opportunity knocks, I’m usually grabbing my suitcase on the way to the door. This year I resolved to mesh my love of travel and of gardens by visiting local gardens on my trips. Since August I’ve explored and blogged about Chicago’s and San Antonio’s botanical gardens. But until today I hadn’t taken the time to post about the one right here in Austin—the beloved but woefully underfunded (and occasionally defaced) Zilker Botanical Garden. On this mild, sunny fall day, I strolled its paths, so familiar to me from family walks, and tried to see it anew.

Unlike the Wildflower Center, whose gardens contain only plants native to Central Texas, Zilker Garden is a more traditional botanical garden showcasing both exotic and native plants, with a heavy emphasis on tropicals at the entry.

Under cover of sinuous oaks, palms, cycads, and tropical annuals create a lush, bright scene, dimmed at this time of year by the cooler weather.

Purple foliage of Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus )

Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana ) makes a colorful groundcover in the shade of the oaks.

A close-up

In the xeric garden right off the parking lot, you can learn how to grow “green.” The city’s Green Garden website is also full of great information for Austin gardeners who want to save money on water and use fewer chemicals.

In the Green Garden, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida ) perfumes the air when you brush against it.

A variegated agave’s cool stripes play off native fall aster’s (Aster oblongifolius ) purple blooms.

Barbados cherries (Malpighia glabra ) dangle from evergreen stems.

Bursts of color still remain aplenty in the xeric garden.

A shady trail leads to the cactus garden, really just a small clearing stuffed with a jumble of cacti. This part of the garden looks as if it gets no care at all, but there are moments of beauty.

Fess up, non-Texans. Isn’t this how many of you imagined Texas before you started reading Austin garden blogs?

I haven’t even entered the garden proper yet, but there’s a lot to see just around the parking lot. This herb garden seems well tended, and it has a nice, new sign as well.

More Mexican mint marigold finds a home here.

Fluttering around the herbs were numerous butterflies, including this zebra longwing.

Having exhausted the entry gardens, I headed for the prize gardens at Zilker: the Japanese Garden and the Prehistoric Garden. But I ended up taking so many photos there that I’ll post about them separately. Tune in tomorrow for a look at the Prehistoric Garden.

At the entrance to the main gardens, these crepey, ruffled, pink flowers on an ornamental tree caught my eye. The leaves are maple-like, not like camellias’ glossy ovals. I probably should know what this is, but I’m stumped. Anyone? Update: Annie ID’d it as a Confederate Rose (Hibiscus mutabilis ). Thanks, Annie.

Austin isn’t known for azaleas, but Zilker Garden showcases dozens of varieties in the spring. This time of year they’re nothing much to look at, so I’m skipping over the azalea garden. Below, in a sunny, open lawn, you can find the rose garden. Unfortunately, a rose garden that only features roses does not gladden my heart, and few of these were in bloom anyway. I prefer roses intermixed with other plants.

A keyhole window from old, demolished Butler House graces the hill overlooking the rose garden.

Here’s a photo of the window’s original location. It’s a spooky looking house, isn’t it?

Have you ever seen a cotton plant? In a vegetable garden near an old-timey blacksmith’s building (there’s a lot of historical stuff at Zilker), a few plants show their fluff.

I’m wearing some of this right now. Are you?

Although I didn’t exit through the back gate (it was chained and locked), I stopped to admire it and really look closely at its detail. The fanciful, garden-themed, metal gate is a work of art.

It’s not all birds and butterflies either. A spider lurks in her web, a scorpion crawls across a cactus, and this rattlesnake curls around the gate handle. It’s beautifully wrought. But why is it hidden back here where no one sees it?

Bird detail

That makes up the outskirts and what I think of as the secondary gardens (there’s also a butterfly garden that I didn’t visit this time). Stay tuned for posts about the main attractions: the Hartman Prehistoric Garden and the Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden.

10 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    Wow… beautiful gardens, and I love that gate! I don’t know what exactly I thought of Austin before seeing all of the gardens of you wonderful Austin bloggers… but I don’t think my mental picture was even as green as the cactus garden, honestly! :)

    By the way, with those maple-like leaves, and the way the center of the flower looks, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it might be some kind of hibiscus?

    Isn’t that gate something? I’d never really looked at it before. That’s one reason to take a camera around with you—it makes you look at things. Thanks for the stab at an ID of the Confederate rose (see Annie’s ID below). You were on the right track. I can always count on readers for IDs! —Pam

  2. Pam, it’s a plant called Confederate Rose, Hibiscus mutabilis, and as Kim guessed, it’s in the hibiscus/malva family. They can grow to tree height, but be cut down by cold in a bad year and have to start from ground level again. I think the flowers change color after pollination…. or maybe just as they age. When I first saw this plant a few years back it drove me nuts until I found out what it was.

    I love Zilker so much – it’s wonderful to see it under your Photojournalist eye!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Thanks for the ID! Is this the same plant you saw a few years ago? I wonder if it’s been knocked back by freezes in recent years, because it sure was tall. I see (via the Internet) that it prefers acidic soil, like azaleas, so I guess that’s one I won’t be planting anytime soon. I know you’re more willing to chance those acid-lovers than I am. Have you thought of planting a Confederate rose? —Pam

  3. max says:

    Come on, isn’t that what west Texas looks like?

    Parts of it, maybe. When I first moved to Texas, back in 1985, many of my friends in the Carolinas thought that even Houston and Austin were dusty, treeless, and cactusy. And, of course, populated by cowboys in 10-gallon hats. —Pam

  4. Ki says:

    What a wonderful looking butterfly. I haven’t seen one like it before. when you mentioned the pink flowered tree had maple like leaves, I thought of Abutilon, flowering maple. Specifically A. vitifolium but I believe Annie’s ID is correct. Abutilon is also a relative of the hibiscus so they look similar.

    I’ve seen zebra longwings on Tom Spencer’s site recently, so I knew what they were called. They’re very pretty. Thanks for the ID work. The hibiscus connection was evident to everyone but me this time. —Pam

  5. Wow. I gotta stop looking at your blog:-) Everytime I looked at a post, I see at least three new plants that I want! It doesn’t matter if the photos are from your garden or a tour. You have a way of photographing plants in their most flattering light. Dude, it sucks. Now I have to write down that I want mexican mint marigold, persian shield and one of them there confederate roses.


    Ha! Don’t stop coming by, Rebecca. I enjoy your comments so. Now’s a great time to add Mexican mint marigold to your garden, as it’s in full bloom and you can have immediate enjoyment. I’d hold off on cold-tender Persian shield until next spring. —Pam

  6. […] During my visit to Zilker Botanical Garden this week, I made sure to stroll through Hartman Prehistoric Garden, a favorite of mine. My family visited on opening day in 2002, and since then I’ve witnessed the phenomenal growth of this garden’s ancient plants. […]

  7. Pam, I’ve seen Confederate Rose in several places in the 8 years we’ve been here – including for sale at local nurseries. They’re supposedly quite easy to grow from cuttings, but I don’t have to plant one – I just look out the window to a neighbor’s 10-foot tall plant ;-]

    It surprised me to read [in your comments on the comments] that you never noticed the gate before! We’ve not only dragged our visitors to the Hartman … we posed them by the gates where we admire the native plants and animals captured in metal. I wonder if the park has had theft or vandalism problems, because those gates used to be open for pedestrians coming from that side. We came in that way with a person who could walk a short distance, just to see the Hartman.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I’d seen the gates before but never took a good look at them. I remember when they were left open, but I didn’t think that entrance was popularly used. When I posted a year ago about vandalism and theft at the garden, I suggested in a comment that locking that gate might help. Left open, it would be an easy escape route for plant thieves. Maybe the Zilker folks decided the same thing. —Pam

  8. I don’t think the Butler House is creepy looking at all. I want to cry when I look at photos of the Butler House demolition in 1971; especially when one considers what replaced it. A parking lot! The pictures are from an exhibit of “Lost Victorian Austin” from the Austin History Center. At the rate houses are being bulldozed in my neighborhood, Austin hasn’t learned any lessons yet.

    Perhaps I was in a Halloween mood or the faded photo just made it look spooky. At any rate, I love big, rambling Victorians as much as the next person, certainly more than parking lots. I’m glad a piece of it survives at the garden. —Pam

  9. Theresa E. Tabi says:


    I have a wonderful retreat for Zebra Longwing butterflies. I’ve got Passion Vine galore in my backyard (and surrounding areas) and dozens of Gulf Fritallaries have made it their happy home.

    I’d like to raise some Zebra Longwings, too. But, I’ve not seen any of them this year at all. Does anyone know where I can purchase some caterpillars or eggs and bring them here?



  10. Sierra says:

    When can I trim back my Shrimp Plants in Austin, TX? How far back should I trim them? Also, can I shape them up in the middle of the summer when they get leggy?
    Thank you.

    Hi, Sierra. You can trim them back to the ground now, if you wish, or wait until mid-February just before new growth starts. And yes, you can prune them in mid-summer to keep them compact. I’d only cut them by one-third then. —Pam