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Welcome to Shangri La

Paradise found at Orange’s recently renovated botanical gardens and nature center
Written by Margaret Shakespeare.

A great egret fans out its showy plumes at Ruby Lake. The 15-acre lake provides a home to more than 17 species of birds. (Photos by Nathan Lindstrom)

It all started with a story. British author James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, told of a nirvana tucked away in the Himalayan heights, mysteriously filled with promise of peace, harmony, and other unearthly ideals. He called it Shangri-La. The name and fantasy caught on, going viral from Hollywood to the White House. Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt played characters seeking the promises of Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s 1937 movie Lost Horizon. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named the presidential retreat Shangri-La (since renamed Camp David). And in a far corner of the Southeast Texas coastal plain, philanthropist H.J. Lutcher Stark plowed some of his family fortune into creating a haven of flowers and forest he called Shangri-La, opening it to the public in 1946.

The Cypress Gate opens to Shangri La's Pond of the Blue Moon, which is lined with 41 varieties of azaleas. On my first visit to this little paradise south of Interstate-10 in Orange, however,  I found myself in the middle of a torrential storm.

Driving east from nearby Beaumont to the town of 19,000 on the Sabine River, hard by the Louisiana border, I anticipated spending a few hours immersed in the best of nature. After all, not only had Stark lavished his personal attention and botanical knowledge on both cultivation and preservation, but also the site, now officially Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, had recently undergone a major renovation, reopening in 2008 to win a raft of awards and recognition, including the first U.S. Green Building Council Platinum LEED Certification in Texas. Would Stark’s beloved azaleas be blooming?  Which migratory birds would be in residence at the Ruby Lake rookery?  Uh-oh, was that a raindrop? Nature suddenly had slipped in a different agenda for the afternoon. I was greeted by a thunderstorm, churning and whipping up the kind of trouble that would have upset the applecart for Noah.

After ducking into the dry shelter of the Orientation Center, I discovered that the sterner side of nature has had much to do with the twists and turns in the story of this Shangri La. While things outside took a thrashing, I settled into the theater to watch a short background film on the property. Everything I learned from the film—especially a surprise at the end that 
I won’t give away—prompted planning another visit when the weather promised better behavior.

And, my second time around, I find the welcome of blue skies, light breezes, and volunteer guide Marlene Huckaby, who gives me a refresher course on how the garden came to be the destination it is today.

See full article in the October 2012 issue.


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