Zilker Botanical Garden: Hartman Prehistoric Garden

Bronze dinosaur in Hartman Prehistoric Garden

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.

As the garden’s website points out, Hartman is “Austin’s only garden devoted to ancient plants. Located on 1.5 acres within Zilker Botanical Gardens, the Hartman Prehistoric Garden showcases plants with lineages ancient enough to have been contemporary with dinosaurs, such as palms, cycads, and ferns.” Other “old” plants growing here include pine, cypress, magnolia, ginko, juniper, yew, orchid tree, ginger, myrtle, and Dutchman’s pipe.

Aside from dense stands of prehistoric plants, the garden brims with huge boulders and water features like streams and a grand waterfall. A central island is populated by one sinister-looking, bronze dinosaur. When you walk the crushed-granite trails through the lush, evergreen plantings, you feel as if that dinosaur could pop out at any time. It’s magical.

Let’s take the lefthand path, as I always do. It provides a longer, more private approach to the center of the garden and the view of the dinosaur.

Hmm, what do we see here? Dino tracks!

Masking the highway noise of nearby Loop 1 (MoPac), this natural-looking waterfall cascades down a cliff into a stream that threads through the garden.

Suddenly, through the foliage, the dinosaur appears. She’s an herbivore (they say), but she looks a bit scary, doesn’t she?

A sign gives us a little background. The full story is this, from the garden’s website:

The Hartman Prehistoric Garden is located on the site of the discovery, in 1992, of dinosaur tracks in an old limestone quarry along Stratford Drive in Zilker Botanical Gardens. After being uncovered and displayed to the public for a few years, and due to the nature of the soft limestone substrate, the tracks were rapidly beginning to erode away. The Austin Area Garden Council decided (after consultation with fossil experts from the Texas Memorial Museum, and after extensive molds and diagrams of the tracks had been made) to protect them by burying them beneath a garden honoring their presence.

The garden has been designed to function not only as one of the most beautiful gardens in Texas, but also as a premier education facility to teach the ancient prehistory of Austin. Over 100 species of plants are located in the garden, most originating over 100 million years ago. Some are ancient yet familiar natives. Many are new to the Austin area from exotic places around the world. The garden provides a great opportunity for the scientific and horticultural study of some of these plants. Primitive types of animals have been encouraged to live there. An extensive list of plant and animal species found in the garden is located on our flora and fauna web page. The total effect is designed to give the visitor a suggestion of what Austin looked like at the time the Ornithomimid dinosaur left her ancient signs in the earth.

A close-up of the animal that inspired this garden

A thicket of silvery green palms shimmers in the morning light.

Cast reproduction fossils act as stepping stones in a dinosaur-viewing clearing.

Another gorgeous palm, with the waterfall visible in the background

Yellowing leaves offer one of the few testaments to the season in this mostly evergreen garden.

This big cycad leans out of the shadow of an overlook shelter.

The view from the overlook

I don’t like the way these signs make me feel (“Don’t do this! Don’t do that!”), but I completely understand the need for them. Last year, citing an Austin American-Statesman article (no longer available online), I posted about Zilker Garden’s paltry budget and the abuse it endures from visitors:

The Statesman reports that ZBG [Zilker Botanical Garden] receives only $463,303 and serves 390,000 visitors yearly. Contrast that with San Antonio Botanical Garden, which the Statesman says receives $1.5 million and serves 75,000 visitors yearly.

On top of money woes, the garden, which is free to the public, is frequently victimized by visitors. Numerous people have carved their names deeply into tree trunks and bamboo stalks, which not only looks ugly but can hasten the plants’ deaths, and some visitors, according to longtime garden volunteer Craig Nazor, brazenly steal plants right out of the ground. The Prehistoric Garden’s rare plants have been particularly vulnerable to theft. Volunteers can only do so much and become demoralized with inadequate support.

On this visit, the garden looked to be in good shape. The waterfall was running, the stream was filled with water, plantings were lush and full. Maybe things are turning around. Austin loves this garden too much for it to be allowed to suffer neglect. Let’s hope that Hartman Prehistoric Garden’s money and maintenance woes have been rendered extinct.

14 Responses

  1. Priscilla says:

    That’s looks like a beautiful place. Nice touches with the dino paw prints. I hope the best for that garden. It’s a shame that people are stealing the plants.

  2. What a cool idea for a botanic garden, as well as a great way to get kids interested in plants & gardening.

  3. Bonnie says:

    Oh, Jack just loves the prehistoric garden. I volunteered at Zilkerfest and he came to the festival with me one day. When we went down the path and “discovered” the dinosaur, I thought he was going to fall over from excitement. He didn’t want to leave. And I think I remember silver pony foot being planted all around as a groundcover. I thought the color was so perfect for that area.

    Thanks for the photos.

  4. Stuart says:

    Now there’s something you don’t see in the garden everyday! It’s a little ironic that they would have dinosaurs in a garden setting. If they’d seen what my garden looks like after my kids have played a game of hide-and-seek through it they’d have realised that these two just don’t go – :-)

    Great pictures (as always!) Pam.

  5. Phillip says:

    What a neat place! I love the waterfall. I just don’t understand why people want to carve their names on public property or steal plants.

  6. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I am so enjoying the tours you are giving of the Zilker Botanic Gardens. Love the dinosaur garden. It is sad that most public places have to put signs up to instruct people how to behave in public. As Socrates said “What is this world coming to?”

  7. Benjamin says:

    That is a cool place! I love seeing your garden tours and pics. I CAN NOT believe poeple pluck plants right out of the ground; then what, they hide them in trench coats?

  8. LostRoses says:

    I loved this prehistoric garden when you first posted about it and I agree it looks fabulous now, too! I hate signs like that also, but I guess we can see why they’re there. Though I think they’re preaching to the choir. I doubt the vandals care what the signs say. I know a couple of little boys who would love that dinosaur!

  9. lisa says:

    What a neat place! I’d never heard of such a garden, it’s a really great idea…thank you for all the nice pictures!

  10. […] Aside from the new-ish Hartman Prehistoric Garden, my favorite section of Zilker Botanical Garden is the venerable Taniguchi Oriental Garden (also known as the Japanese Garden). Created as a labor of love and opened in 1969, . . . the Garden was built by Mr. Taniguchi when he was seventy years old. Working without a salary or a contract, Mr. Taniguchi spent 18 months transforming 3 acres of rugged caliche hillside into a peaceful garden. As is often done in Japan, the ponds were designed in the shape of a word or ideogram. In this case, the ponds in the first half of the garden spell out the word “AUSTIN”, reflecting the fact that these gardens were constructed as a gift to the city. —Zilker Garden website […]

  11. […] 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 Oriental Garden. […]

  12. Kim says:

    Wow, how cool–even without the dinosaurs, although they and their footprints are very fun! I love how wild and lush it all looks.

  13. Pam/Digging says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. I’m glad you enjoyed the tour of the “dino” garden. —Pam

  14. […] read about my fall 2007 visit to Hartman Prehistoric Garden, click […]