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Historic Gardens Damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Joan Bergsund, Master Gardener

A year has passed and we are still learning about the continuing tragedy of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Another hurricane season is upon us and the residents of Louisiana and neighboring states are still struggling to recover from the last one. I read today that they are distributing a fish that will devour mosquitoes, which are breeding in all the standing water. The great piles of rubble waiting to be burned are overlapping property lines – and therein lies another deterrent to a quick resolution. In addition to the devastating human suffering—family members lost from one another, homes destroyed, employment opportunities limited or non-existent, schools struggling to reassemble—there is a lesser known result of the wicked storms and water intrusion. Many of the fine old historic gardens that once graced New Orleans were severely damaged. Some are gone forever; others are being gradually restored. Ask any traveler—the gardens of the South are like no others, and contribute substantially to the charming ambiance.

We can assume that all the public and private gardens were similarly damaged by the hurricanes. What a loss. I´ll speak of one garden in particular: Longue Vue House and Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. These gardens, open to the public since l968, were designed in the l930s by Ellen Biddle Shipman, a prominent landscape architect of that time. The once magnificent gardens spread over eight acres included 11 sub-gardens which were all damaged or destroyed. The gale force winds knocked down mature southern magnolias and handsome red oaks. The plantings that were formerly shaded by these magnificent old trees were scorched by the unrelenting sun. As the waves surged inland salt water soaked everything in its path, and many plants were not able to adjust. Rainfall helped to leach the salt, and some species are responding. Adding to the stress was the five week drought that followed the storms. The Classical Revival Estate house was outfitted with dehumidifiers which were used to dry out the interior and remove standing water in the basement.

Just six months before Katrina hit, Longue Vue had completed a $4 million restoration. What irony. Staff has estimated the damage at $1.5 million. Much work lies ahead. The response to their request for funds has been spontaneous and generous. Many garden volunteers came forward, and donations from individuals, organizations and foundations are listed on their website. Go to Longue Vue House and Gardens for the full story, and pictures of their restoration activities.

People are passionate about gardens, and their spiritual value is noted as New Orleans residents came forth in the aftermath of the storms seeking something familiar and safe, hoping the gardens were open. Almost immediately volunteers arrived to help. They came for a day or for weeks. Assisting the staff were gardeners from the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, The Smithsonian Institution, the Denver Botanic Gardens, The Garden Conservancy and the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio to name only a few.

To begin the process of restoration in one area, test plots of boxwood were planted in the Spanish Court garden where saltwater flooding killed nearly everything. Will the new plants adapt to the soil? Only time will tell. Nature holds the winning card. Before long a brown thrasher was observed, as was a Gulf fritillary butterfly caterpillar. The process has begun, and with the help of interested volunteers and generous donations from the public, will continue for some time. We can only hope that this year´s anticipated hurricane season will give our southern neighbors a rest. See you in the garden.

Source material for this article was from House & Garden, June 2006.

Master gardener Joan Bergsund has toured many gardens while traveling, and looks forward to visiting this one.