Most precious part of Zilker Botanical Garden reflects the spirit of one man

The drawing-rooms of one of the most magnificent private residences in Austin are a blaze of lights. Carriages line the streets in front, and from gate to doorway is spread a velvet carpet, on which the delicate feet of the guests may tread. The occasion is the entrance into society of one of the fairest buds in the City of the Violet Crown.

“Tictoca,” William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), The Rolling Stone, October 27, 1894

Clara Driscoll Sevier, who loved flowers to the point of promoting a rose garden next to the Alamo as more desirable than saving its historic convent walls, found Austin lacking a garden club for women. To remedy this, she invited a group of ladies to Laguna Gloria, her home that is now The Contemporary Austin, to establish one in 1924. O. Henry’s reference to the violet-crowned hills of Austin inspired the name for the new group, the Violet Crown Garden Club.

Annual flower shows were the primary focus of the club until 1946 when members set aside modest seed money of $50 to initiate efforts to seek space in the city’s Zilker Park for a botanical garden. The Violet Crown Garden Club recruited six other garden clubs to join its quest and their persistence finally resulted in the 1964 completion of the Austin Area Garden Center building in what became the Zilker Botanical Garden.

The magical part of the garden, however, is a three-acre tract overlooking downtown that a volunteer transformed into a peaceful oasis, the Oriental Garden. Isamu Taniguchi was born in 1897 in Osaka, Japan. In 1915, he moved to Stockton, California, and made his living as a farmer. During World War II, he and his family were removed to Texas and detained in the camp at Crystal City (Learn more about this experience from Jan Jarboe Russell’s article in Texas Monthly).

After they were released, Taniguchi resumed farming, this time in the Rio Grande Valley. His two sons went on to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. Son Alan, as dean of the School of Architecture at UT, convinced his father to move to Austin after retirement in 1967.

As a “gesture of gratitude to the city that had provided an education for his two sons,” according to an online exhibit of the Austin History Center, Taniguchi worked every single day for 18 months without pay to create this spiritual retreat. The area includes a 12-foot waterfall, a half-moon bridge, a teahouse and a lotus pond; yet, there were:

…no blueprints of any kind because – as Taniguchi explained – gardens are not created by such methods…. the plans… existed only in Taniguchi’s mind, in his soul and in his heart…. Taniguchi recalled approaching local nurseries for the plants that were needed. “We have money to pay for this, but you will feel so much better if you donate it.” He was able to obtain everything for the Oriental Gardens – from lotus seeds to goldfish – through donations…. Working with little equipment and no more than one assistant at a time, Taniguchi planned the waterfalls, placing each stone where he knew it belonged.

Austin History Center

“The Spirit of the Garden: Isamu Taniguchi,” Texas Historical Commission

He used to eat lunch under this tree everyday. And he would speak to this tree, and the tree would speak to him…. After Grandpa finished the Garden, the tree died (stump in center photo, bottom row). It took care of him during the construction.”

Isamu Taniguchi completed his labor of love in 1969 and died in 1992, but the peaceful spirit of his garden endures. The entrance to the Zilker Botanical Garden is at 2220 Barton Springs Road. For now, tickets must be purchased online in advance.

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