As I write this, the azaleas bushes right outside my window are about ready to burst forth. It’s that awesome time of year, when colors explode in shades of pink, crimson and fushia all over the Deep South. Nothing quite matches the first blooms of spring, when the azaleas announce winter is over.
Here are a few places in Louisiana to visit where displays of azaleas are magnificent:
Most people recognize Avery Island as the tourist destination for Tabasco pepper products. Tourists can tour the Tabasco factory, but the companion 250-acre Jungle Gardens offers brilliant displays of azaleas as well. In addition, there are centuries-old oak trees laced in Spanish moss, thousands of snowy egrets in the “Bird City” rookery and a shrine with a Buddha as its centerpiece. The driving tour usually results in many gators sunning themselves along the pond and bayou banks so bring a camera. To enter Avery Island costs a dollar toll, and there’s a charge to tour Jungle Gardens.
Jefferson Island Rip Van Winkle Gardens
The Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island is a dramy escape from reality, acres of beautiful azaleas as well as centuries-old oak trees draped in Spanish moss and the tranquil Lake Peigneur. Actor Joseph Jefferson, known for his role as Rip Van Winkle, built his home here in 1870 with a dramatic view of the lake. A successor developed the surrounding gardens, naming them “Rip Van Winkle Gardens” in honor of Jefferson. In addition to the gardens and historic home, visitors can enjoy lunch at Café Jefferson.
Hodges Gardens State Park
More than 700 acres of gardens, both wild and cultivated, await visitors at this spot near Toledo Bend, south of Many. The gardens are a product of oilman A.J. Hodges Sr. who opened them to the public in 1956 and were later donated to the state as a park. They contain a variety of flowers, including azaleas, and a lake created from an abandoned quarry that pipes water through waterfalls and fountains throughout the property. In addition to the 5-mile walking trail, there are rental cabins, campsites and boats for use on the lake. For more information, call (800) 354-3523 or visit crt.state.la.us/parks/ihodges.aspx.
Heading to Shreveport to visit the impressive collections of the R.W. Norton Art Gallery, including the artworks of the American West, is reason enough. But the free gallery sits on 40 lovely wooded acres that includes extensive varieties of azaleas. These hundreds of native flowers bloom in a rainbow of colors as well, including red, yellow, orange, pink, purple, white and a mixture of many, and visitors can view them all via a walking path that includes a pond, a bridge over a stream and waterfall, benches and outdoor sculptures. If you visit Shreveport, be sure and stay overnight at one of its charming bed and breakfasts such as Fairfield Place, one of many historical properties in the city’s Fairfield-Highland district. You can even take a walk through the neighborhood and witness more azaleas — and other flowers — blooming, then enjoy a fabulous meal at one of the city’s landmark restaurants, Ristorante Giuseppi.
Centennial within a bicentennial
This year marks the bicentennial of Louisiana statehood, honoring our state’s entrance into the Union on April 30, 1812.
This year, in March, also marks the centennial of M.S. Rau Antiques, one of the most impressive antique dealerships in the United States, located within the French Quarter of New Orleans. Rau’s 25,000-square-foot store is the largest antique seller in North America by sales. Products include famous paintings, European furniture, classic jewelry and silver such as Paul Revere armorial coffee pots, among so much, much more.
This year the antique dealership will launch the Rau for Art Foundation, a non-for-profit program and art contest for New Orleans high school art students in the 10th to 12th grades. Prizes and scholarship money totaling $17,000 will be awarded to the winners and their high school art departments. Winners’ artwork will be exhibited at M.S. Rau Antiques and Fine Arts in March. For information, visit www.rauantiques.com.