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The History of Jungle Gardens

The History of Jungle Gardens

by Lisa B. Osborn, Shane K. Bernard, and Scott Carroll, Editors
Jungle Gardens, Inc.  Avery Island, LA, 2010
120 pp. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-615-3211-7.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY 10019, USA


In 1850 E. A. Poe wrote “The Domain of Arnheim,” a startling tale as much for its sense of beauty through the medium of the landscape garden as for its description of that very place “seeming the phantom handiwork… of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii and of the Gnomes.”  In literature, I do not believe that anything equal to the domain of Arnheim has since appeared with the kind of élan that Poe was able to bring to it. This tale, poetic in setting, with its flowers, bushes, trees, water, sky and their inhabitants, however unintentional it might seem to us now, 161 years later, is an apt frame by which to view an actual place, which I have had the pleasure to visit many times.

Three miles from the Gulf of Mexico in SW Louisiana, fringed by Bayou Petite Anse, atop a deep salt dome left by the ancient sea and an ever more archaic volcano, is Avery Island with its marvelous Jungle Gardens. If the name of the island seems familiar, I can only tell you that perhaps you have used its most renowned product on your food. For this is where Edmund McIlhenny first created Tabasco sauce to spice up, as historians tell us, the bland fare then available in the Reconstruction South. Decades after its first commercial release in 1868, the sauce would bring to the McIlhenny’s the kind of largess that would facilitate the creation of Jungle Gardens by the founder’s second son, E. Avery McIlhenny

First opened to the public in 1935, Jungle Gardens is with us today, much as originally laid out, ever drawing tourists and locals. There time returns to its natural cycles, the moss hangs low and thick from old oaks, alligators and turtles warm themselves in the sun, frogs, insects and butterflies abound, and birds are plentiful. Characteristically, the first intrusion into the natural landscape by E. Avery McIlhenny (previously noted as an arctic biologist then as naturalist and conservationist) came in response to the open slaughter of the Louisiana egret in the early 20th century; the delightfully frail white plumes used as a popular decoration for women’s hats. And thus Bird City was born, a protected area for nesting egrets in a small pond, enlarged precisely for that purpose, from whence the gardens evolved, along with the restoration of the state’s egret population.

The oaks, the Camellia garden with its 218 varieties (18 of which originated there), the odd Sunken gardens, the Bamboo grove, the 800 year-old Buddha sitting in its glassed-in pavilion overlooking a quiet reflecting pool where dragonflies hover and skim, the welcoming Wisteria arch with its cooling shade, and other passages and vistas leave little doubt that in this 170-acre reserve we can regain something of what we have lost to our hectic compulsions.

Recently Lisa B. Osborn, the great granddaughter of E. Avery McIlhenny, a sculptor and former visiting lecturer at Harvard University, Shane K. Bernard, official historian for the McIlhenny Company, and graphic designer Scott Carroll have authored an overview of the Jungle Gardens, replete with archival and new photos, many taken by E. Avery McIlhenny. Their brief, if precise, commentary captures the gardens’ past, its present allure, and its value into the future.

It is the kind of book that can revive precious moments we have spent in the gardens, or that can draw us there whenever we are visiting the area. And it is the kind of book that can offer a view of what one man did from his love and respect for the land, knowledge of the life burgeoning around him, and care for a red pepper, measured for ripeness against a red stick le Baton rouge, which appears transformed in restaurants and on grocery shelves worldwide.

There is every reason to get to know E. Avery McIlhenny again and to experience his legacy of enchantment, ecology and commerce at any time in every season, from the sweltering July heat and humidity to crisper autumn days, just after another torrential downpour or when the sun has burned too high for too long.

Don’t worry: Jungle Gardens and Avery Island itself, as Poe’s domain of Arnheim, will quickly work their magic.

And that is enough, for me at least, to keep on coming back.

And so, The History of Jungle Gardens

Last Updated 2 August 2011

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