I visited Hilltop Arboretum toward the end of March, and while the climate was pretty perfect [partly sunny, near 80], much of the flora in the arboretum was just far along enough to be appreciated. The 14 acre property is situated on a highpoint about six miles south of the LSU campus, of whom also happens to be the arboretum owner. The previous owner, Emory Smith purchased the property in 1929 as a farm and country retreat. He later turned the property over to LSU to ensure the extensive southern native plant collection could be preserved.
With a very strong and powerful friends group, the arboretum boasts an impressive complex of buildings and facilities, all built between 1999 and 2013. The buildings are designed by Ted Flato of the highly acclaimed Lake/Flato Architects. The building is highly sensitive to the natural landscape, environment, and history of the site. Included in the complex are the office, gift shop, library, restrooms, open-air pavilion, conference room and courtyard. The latter two structures were the first LEED Certified buildings at LSU in Baton Rouge.
Here are some of my remarkable observations and highlights:
- The arboretum contains more than 150 species of Southern native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. What I love about Louisiana flora is the mere diversity of plant communities, as several regions converge here to offer incredible variety representative of the many habitats found in the east coast, mountains, Ozarks, Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi river valley, and so on.
- The Ted Flato designed-buildings are simply stunning timber-frame structures topped with an attractive and familiar galvanized corrugated metal roof that plays to the local vernacular. I’m guessing the timber is a local species of wood- possibly cypress, which is often t. distichum.
- Also a William Bartram Historic Trail marker here commemorating the plant exploration route to the southern states around 1775. Bartram noted the site back then having a grand forest.
- The courtyard has some handsome stormwater management mitigation strategies, and uses attractive aqueduct-like channels to carry water across the site and into cisterns. I can best describe it as xeriscape-meets-water-feature. Must be a treat to see during a heavy rain event. [see pictures link below]
- It was interesting to see the Flato structure’s companion piece elements, the main pond, filled with Cyperus papyrus, a non-native aquatic nursery plant that has escaped into the southern gulf states.
Overall, the arboretum exuded a special “sense of place” that had a purpose for learning, gathering, and inspiration. I would totally recommend at visit if in the area.