Just off a busy thoroughfare in Baton Rouge, the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden is often called an oasis. Or it is described as “idyllic.”
The Botanic Gardens contains fields and forests used for research, but many residents of the capital city know the space as a gorgeous wedding spot, a field trip destination or an ideal locale for a walk in the woods or a stroll through fragrant flowers.
It is unlike any other research station in the LSU AgCenter portfolio.
“We do as much as we can for the public,” said Jeff Kuehny, resident director of the Botanic Gardens at Burden. “Most research stations focus on a commodity — sugarcane, sweet potatoes, cattle. Our commodity is people.”
The Burden Museum and Gardens property contains the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens, Windrush Gardens and the LSU Rural Life Museum. The Burden family owned the property from the mid-1800s to 1966, when members of the family began donating it to the LSU system. Parts of the property remained in the family until the 1990s. The donors were the children of Ollie Steele and William Pike Burden Sr. — Steele Burden, a landscape designer for the city of Baton Rouge and LSU, his sister Ione Burden, the former assistant dean of women at LSU — and Jeanette Burden, the widow of Steele and Ione’s brother, William Pike Burden Jr., who died in 1965.
Along with the donation, they stipulated that the 440-acre property be used for agricultural research and extension and horticultural and environmental research and as a green space for the community.
The asphalt road that winds through the Burden Museum and Gardens takes visitors past neat gardens of roses, camellias, tropical plants and forests of native trees before bisecting open fields where corn or sunflowers often grow. Camellia lovers from all over the region travel to see the Stone Camellia Collection and the Crowder Camellia Collection, which include many rare and heirloom plants.
Tyler Carr, landscape manager for the Botanic Gardens, works constantly on the Pollinator Garden, the Children’s Garden and the herb and tropical gardens. He loves to create family friendly scenes that make visitors want to explore.
“I think it’s nice to have something in the middle of town where people can come and interact with nature,” Carr said. “I’ve lived all my life in Baton Rouge, and you look and drive around town and all the spots around town that used to be wooded, they’re all gone. I’m glad we have one designated pocket that is 440 acres and it’s right here.”
Through the Burden Woods there are 3 miles of walking trails called Trees and Trails. The StoryWalk trail features pages from a storybook that children can read as they walk. Education stations along the paths teach walkers about the forest and the plants and animals that live there. For Chase Breitenbach, the horticulture tree specialist who cares for the paths and trees, the most amazing sight is the Mosaic Boardwalk at Black Swamp, a boardwalk through a 200-year-old hardwood swamp.
“It is very cool to see all these black tupelos in a marshland with 1 to 3 feet of standing water that close to the interstate and in the middle of the city,” Breitenbach said. “It truly reminds you of Louisiana.”
Research at the Botanic Gardens changes from year to year. Studies include forestry and pecans as well as entomology and horticulture.
“There’s just never any one focus,” Kuehny said. “We’re so close to campus that it is dictated by whoever wants to do a project.”
Because the Burden property lies in the middle of Baton Rouge’s urban sprawl, it has become a useful place for urban wildlife studies. This year scientists have studied bats and owl populations along with bluebirds and prothonotary warblers.
“It’s all over the place,” Kuehny said.
A different type of research conducted each year at the Botanic Gardens is the All-America Selections gardens. The All-America Selections, an independent testing organization, works with public gardens across the country to test new varieties of vegetables and ornamental plants.
Two dozen different new vegetable varieties get planted each year on the Burden property, said Keith W. Lewis, a research associate who works on the All-America Selections vegetables and other studies. Tomatoes rule the vegetable garden, so one-third of the vegetables are tomatoes, he said, but corn, peppers, squash and other veggies get tested.
An All-America Selections (AAS) sticker on a new variety at a garden center inspires confidence in gardeners.
“They’ll say, ‘I’ve never heard of that tomato, but it’s an AAS winner, so I’m going to try it,’” Lewis said. “It helps the breeder market something that’s new.”
Lewis has seen the Botanic Gardens change tremendously in his career over the past 15 years.
“It’s a public space now,” he said. “At first it was just a research station.”
School field trips and garden clubs visit the gardens regularly. Lewis said the gardens give them a glimpse of a rural life.
“Kids these days, especially in a metropolitan area like Baton Rouge, they don’t have access to nature, to farms or the countryside,” he said. “When they come out here they get a little experience with that.”
On the property’s southern edge, Windrush Gardens occupies 20 acres, including 7 acres of semiformal gardens. Broad live oaks and crape myrtles tower over a traditional Southern garden filled with azaleas and camellias. Ornamental grasses fringe the walkways, and fragrant gardenias and sweet olives fill the air.
Planted and sculpted by Steele Burden when he lived on the property until his death in 1995, Windrush Gardens was designed as a low-maintenance landscape, said Ken Owens, the horticulturist in charge of the space.
“It was a landscape using material that was commonly found at a nursery or in gardens, plantation home planting,” Owens said. “He didn’t try to go overboard or crazy with it. He just wanted a nice, appealing garden for southern Louisiana.”
As the Botanic Gardens fulfills the Burdens’ goal of creating a green space for the people of Baton Rouge, it has become a favorite event space for the city. Weddings, barbecues, crawfish boils and other gatherings are scheduled most weekends, 60 to 70 events a year.
Corn Maze, a family event in the fall with games, concessions and a huge maze cut out of a corn field, draws thousands of visitors each weekend in the fall.
In recent years the staff has planted fields of tall sunflowers as spaces for families and professional photographers to stage photo shoots. Professional photographers can purchase an annual pass to shoot on the grounds.
About five years ago a social media post about the sunflower planting received more than 150,000 views from south Louisianians, said Katie Guitreau, now the events coordinator. After that, interest in the Botanic Gardens grew immensely, she said.
“If they come, so does awareness for the types of research we are doing, the type of research the AgCenter is doing,” Guitreau said. “It gives us the ability to speak to the people who have never even heard of us before and give them insight into not just what we have but the AgCenter as a whole. The more people you talk to, the more interest there is.”
On a warm day toward the end of summer, Allison Orges and three young children left the trails in the Burden Woods and entered the Children’s Garden near the front of the property, a spot where kids can play on bouncy toys that look like insects or climb on a jungle gym shaped like a beehive.
“We’re in the city, we have the convenience of the city, but we’re away from the city,” Orges said. “It’s like a mini vacation spot to come here.”
She appreciates the educational signs through the trails and in the Children’s Garden. They transform each morning at the Botanic Gardens into a field trip.
“So much to explore. We can spend the whole day here,” she said. “Every time we come back, we find something new.”
Kyle Peveto is an assistant communications specialist and associate editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
A shaded trail wanders through the Tropical Garden at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden. Photo by Kyle Peveto
The Steele Burden Memorial Orangerie was designed by famed architect A. Hays Town. It is now a favorite location for weddings and other events. Photo by Kyle Peveto
One of the newest activities at the Botanic Gardens is birding. Birding experts have determined six routes and lead birding tours monthly. So far, 320 species have been identified in and around Burden. Learn more at the Botanic Gardens website at www.LSUAgCenter.com.