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The Arboretum: Dallas’ Urban Oasis


It’s like nature, only better. That’s the general opinion expressed in an informal poll of folks padding down the wide, well-paved paths of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, flush with spring color from more than 200,000 flowering bulbs. Cultivated gardens emerge graciously from the dense bamboo grove forming the outer perimeter of the 66-acre grounds. White Rock Lake shimmers in the distance, home to a sizable population of resident birds and migrating fowl (including pelicans) that occasionally descend on the gardens for their snacking pleasure. In this garland of green, the historic Camp and DeGolyer estate homes sit like polished jewels.

But nature is the ultimate boss of any outdoor garden-and a capricious boss, as visitors were so rudely reminded a few weeks ago during Dallas Blooms, the annual spring flower show that is the Arboretum’s biggest event. Blue skies and afternoon highs in the low 80s made for a record-breaking opening weekend. Then a Siberian express blew down from the north, plunging nighttime lows into the 20s. By the following weekend, the fragile blooms and buds were swathed in miles of protective plastic foam wrap.

While many botanical gardens look almost artificial, manicured so fastidiously that dirt appears out of place, the casual elegance of the Dallas Arboretum showcases landscapes both natural and designed. But like the nat-ural look favored by high-fashion models, it’s all carefully crafted. Case in point: The Jonsson Color Garden boasts the largest number of azalea varieties in the nation, more than 2,500 kinds including the rare Huang. And each one of those splendid spring-flowering shrubs rests in a bed of sandy and acidic peat-rich soil, a far cry from our native black gumbo clay.

In addition to the 300,000 people who visit the Dallas Arboretum each year, the home gardener is a happy side beneficiary of this ecological engineering. Members of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society, which manages the garden owned by the City of Dallas, have access to these plant wizards through a Horticulture Hotline (327-8263, ext. 134).

“Azaleas in full sun? Fifteen years ago, people wouldn’t even have attempted it, and now we’re showing them the types of varieties that can be grown,” says Jill Magnuson. director of public relations, who adds that the garden will host a national azalea convention this spring, the type of activity that places it among horticultural heavyweights.

An enthusiasm for home gardening, albeit in a grand manner, was the genesis of the Dallas Arboretum. The gardens were started with the estate plantings of Everette L. DeGolyer, one of the original investors in the company that became Texas Instruments, and the private garden of his wife, Nell Goodrich DeGolyer. Designed mostly in a traditional, formal style, the landscaped area that surrounds the historic 21,000-square-foot DeGolyer home includes a magnolia allée, rose garden, and wisteria arbor.

But plantings that complement the lake-front property’s existing terrain are increasingly the focus of attention. The planned Women’s Council Garden (to be located on the slope behind the DeGolyer House) will be the first area to open out onto the lake and incorporate views of the water into the design.

A favorite area during the heat-baked Texas summers is the Palmer Fern Dell, an acre of shade-loving plants bordering a pleasant brook. At regular intervals, a micro-fine mist blankets the forested ravine, keeping summer temperatures 20 degrees below the norm-and creating an atmosphere more suited to ferns, where one can linger amid the sweet-smelling gardenias. The waterway ends in a deep pond arched by a vine-entwined bridge.

Nowhere do nature and nurture combine more gracefully than in Mimi’s Garden, or the Lay Ornamental Garden as it’s officially known, a sprawling compound done in the turn-of-the-century English perennial garden style of Gertrude Jekyll. Like half-hidden runes, immense architectural blocks of Texas limestone form unusual water features. These give way to a series of water gardens, small ponds lacing through trees to end in a quiet sun-lit glen and lily-coated pond. In the bamboo forest that encases Mimi’s Garden, an unpaved path rewards the curious with the enigmatic Hidden Garden, a secluded lime-stone and fern grotto.

With the genteel beauty of its gardens and old-world elegance of Its buildings, the Arboretum serves up a side of Dallas not always seen by those who know its towering glass skyscrapers or the old TV show, “Dallas.”

“We want people to walk into the Arboretum and feel transported.” says Ms. Magnuson. “I like to use the term ’urban oasis.’ People will always find this to be a very elegant but comfortable garden.”

The Dallas Arboretum, 8525 Garland Rd., is open daily year-round except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Hours for March – October are 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. 327-8263.

White Rock Lake

Just as some people move to Piano for the public schools or to Highland Park forthe address, those who reside in East Dallas do so for the views, especially those of White Rock Lake. For many, a sunset over White Rock with a shimmering city skyline reflected brings on a near-religious experience. Others watch the migrating fowl, songbirds, and flocks of white herons. And for some, the 60-foot trees and abundant wildlife are the appeal.

Completed in 1911 to supply water to the fast-growing city, the 1,100-acre lake has shaped East Dallas in more ways than its terrain. In the ’30s, White Rock became a resort area, a prime spot for swimming, boating, fishing, sailing, hiking, and bird-watching. Wealthy Dallasites, like the DeGolyers and H.L Hunt, built mansions along the lake shore. The lake area is home to a high percentage of the city’s artists, writers, and other créatives, and the convergence of differing types has fostered a tolerant and laid-back atmosphere. Perhaps a little too laid-back: In the’70s the lake began to decline as silt accumulated, reducing water capacity by half. The shoreline eroded, trees started dying off, and park facilities fell into disrepair. Today, the lake’s north-ernmost end is only inches deep in places.

In 1995, voters approved $9 million in bonds to pay for dredging the lake; the municipal water department, which actually owns the lake, will contribute an additional $9 million. Energetic volunteer groups have been raising money for land improvements. But to the dismay of many lake-o-philes, the actual dredging is now slated to start in July 1997 and may be finished by August 1999, which is why the lake looks as it does now.

In the meantime, the lake and its park continue to be vigorously used for large fishing tournaments, charity races and runs, and a summer drum and dance festival. It’s still a place of beauty, but for lake loyalists, 1997 can’t come too soon. -A.M.