Avery Island and its Jungle Gardens seem a world away from the flat land of sugarcane fields and pastures that surround this south Louisiana tourist destination. It’s only a ten-minute drive south of the city of New Iberia on Highway 329. And as you approach, you see a tree covered hill, the salt dome, rising more than 160 feet above the landscape.
jungle gardens shrouded in live oaks
The first thing you notice when you begin your driving or walking tour of Jungle Gardens is the live oak trees. The limbs of these giant trees are dripping with Spanish moss. “Those are all native, naturally occurring trees and were not planted here,” explains company botanist Garrie Landry. He adds that some of the live oaks are 400 years old.
The so-called Cleveland Oak is one of the most impressive trees. The McIlhenny family, which owns the gardens, named the tree for two-term U.S. President Grover Cleveland, who visited Avery Island in 1891.
a treasure trove of tropical plants
E.A. McIlhenny, who created the gardens in the late 19th century, was a naturalist and the son of Edmund McIlhenny. The elder McIlhenny created Tabasco hot sauce, which is still manufactured on Avery Island. The younger McIlhenny collected plants from around the world. Botanist Landry recalls his first year working at Jungle Gardens, “I can say that every time I came out I would find something new. And often it was something from Southeast Asia that I couldn’t identify.” Landry describes it as a “relic garden”, with some plants that are no longer produced by nurseries. Visitors to the gardens can see seasonally blooming plants, like the camellia, azalea, iris, lily and wisteria.
the gift of a buddha
Shortly after Jungle Gardens opened in 1935, two of McIlhenney’s friends sent him a gift. The pair, both Wall Street financiers, bought a centuries old Buddha statue at an auction and shipped it by rail to Avery Island.
When he received the statue, McIlhenny erected a Chinese temple atop a rock-covered hill. The Buddha statue sits inside the glass walls of the temple, overlooking a pond and Chinese garden.
jungle gardens featured on tv
bird city at jungle gardens
McIlhenny had a love of birds, and created an aviary in 1895 for snowy Egrets. Egret populations were declining due to hunting. The egret’s white feathers were a popular decoration for women’s hats.
“He captured eight snowy egrets and brought them back to the island and raised them in a flying cage,” explains historian and author Shane Bernard. McIlhenny released the birds in the fall, Bernard says, “he let them go and hoped that they fly back the next year, bringing other egrets with them.” That’s exactly what happened. By 1910, McIlhenny estimated there were more than 100,000 egrets on Avery Island. Today, an observation tower overlooks a lagoon that’s covered with large wooden platforms. The egrets return in late January each year to build their nest on those platforms and hatch their young. It’s an amazing sight!
Video of egrets at jungle gardens
visiting jungle gardens
Jungle Gardens is located on Hwy 329, Avery Island LA. For more information, visit the Jungle Gardens website or call (337) 369-6243. There is an admission charge.