Despite cold, drought, Botanic Garden nears bloom

04/20/2014 4:33 PM

11/12/2014 4:48 PM

Tuesday, a crisp and brilliant spring day, brought the first evidence that drought, disease and an unusually cold and gloomy winter will not have the final word at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

A few weeks late but just in time for Easter, the roses had started to bloom.

“This isn’t what it looked like the last time I was here,” grounds supervisor Rob Bauereisen said that day while bending over new red blossoms in the historic Lower Rose Garden. “I think by Easter we’ll be in good shape. A lot of these buds that I’m seeing should be open.

“It ought to be just spectacular,” he said. “That’s assuming we don’t have any dips down into just-above-freezing weather. If we’re going to stay warm from Easter on, it will happen pretty rapidly. These bushes are going to be solid red in another 10 to 15 days.”

Thus begins a cherished rite of Fort Worth spring at one of the city’s most historic and colorful landmarks. The Botanic Garden today sprawls over 109 acres of great lawns and open spaces; streams and trails traversing dense woods; and the popular Japanese Garden and Conservatory.

But the heart and soul and most-photographed place is the rose garden, a long, sloping terrace of flower and Palo Pinto sandstone, cascading water, fountains and a reflecting pool. The garden purposely recalls the formal Renaissance gardens of France and Italy.

The garden in the heart of Fort Worth, just east of Trinity Park along University Drive, was completed in 1934, constructed by Depression-era laborers and stonemasons who worked for meal money and donated their toil when money ran out.

Visitor Linda Kooluris Dobbs, a photographer and painter from Toronto, said she was reminded immediately of a garden she experienced years ago.

“When I was 19, I studied in Paris and they brought us to the gardens of Versailles,” said Dobbs, who has also photographed the flowers of the Vatican. She had a camera around her neck. “That was the first impression I got when we got here.”

Which is no coincidence.

For their rose garden, one of the first in Texas, Fort Worth leaders hired nationally known landscape architect S. Herbert Hare. Hare was “inspired by the garden at the French palace at Versailles and the water cascade and ramp by the Villa Lante at Bagnaia, Italy, which Hare had visited,” historian Susan Allen Kline wrote in 2008.

In 2009, based on an application prepared by Kline, the rose garden was accepted into the National Register of Historic Places.

“Just to see this kind of setting, see that Texans consider this important, I think it says something about the society,” Dobbs said. “You care about beauty and culture.”

The rose garden is the backdrop for about 350 weddings a year and hundreds of graduation portraits. All told, the Botanic Garden receives about 750,000 annual visitors, the greatest numbers from mid-April to June, when the color is most spectacular and the temperatures most tolerable.

TCU journalism student Hakim Zakaria made his first visit Tuesday with friend Yousra Toto.

“I’ve always seen it while driving down University Drive, and I never realized it was this big,” Zakaria said. “We’ve been walking for 45 minutes and there is still so much more to see. It’s really beautiful. It’s like nature at its finest in an urban environment. It’s not something you see or experience on a regular basis.”

“And it’s free,” Toto said, laughing.

The blooms were a welcome rebirth after one of the coldest and grayest winters in memory, conditions that kept the roses dormant two to three weeks longer than is typical. But Bauereisen, a veteran horticulturist who has supervised the Botanic Garden grounds for 12 years, did not worry that Easter would arrive without splashes of red in the rose garden.

“I don’t sweat it,” he said. “You can’t sweat Mother Nature. But we have 350 weddings down here a year, and they sweat it. They’ll come in and complain, ‘Why aren’t the roses blooming?’ And I’m like, ‘If I knew how to make them bloom I’d be rich. I wouldn’t be working here.’ It’s just kind of the way it is.”

Bauereisen said an infestation of a virus, rose rosette disease, also required that a third of all rosebushes be replaced.

“A mite infests the blooms, which transmits a virus, which causes the rose to become sickly and die,” he said. “There is no cure for that. That’s an issue with the roses that we’re battling.”

Another is the drought stretching into its fourth year. Botanic Garden irrigation systems cannot compensate for the lack of natural moisture, Baureisen said.

“When we get the rains we’re accustomed to, it soaks the ground deeply,” Bauereisen said. “When we’re irrigating we’re just scratching the surface, so to speak, maybe a half an inch deep. We’re irrigating to survive, not really to replenish the groundwater or keeping the plants healthy.”

The result is a landscape less lush and colorful than it might have been otherwise.

But the rite of Fort Worth spring endures. To prepare, around Valentine’s Day, Botanic Garden workers pruned all the roses. The plants were fertilized a month later. Then came the wait.

“With the weather the way it was, combined with the drought, everything was pushed back two or three weeks,” he said.

On Tuesday the show began.

“It’s nice and clear and I thought I might as well come to a really nice, pretty place,” said another visitor, Jennifer Cathey of Arlington. “Everything is starting to bloom. There is no better place to be this time of year.”

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