Natural beauty abounds across Louisiana, and some of the most beautiful scenes are those formed by trees, plants and grasses that have staked their own claims on the land.
The Louisiana State Arboretum
Established in 1961, the Louisiana State Arboretum, near Ville Platte, was the first state-owned arboretum to be created in the United States and is ecologically referred to as a beech-magnolia transition forest. In this case it is a mature woodland dominated by oaks, hickories, maples, hornbeams — and, of course, majestic specimens of American beech and southern magnolia. The Louisiana State Arboretum State Preservation Area exists on steep slopes, dividing the drier pine-hardwood ridge tops from the damp creek tributaries below, and consequently it contains a high diversity of plant life adapted from the wettest to the driest of soils. This forest type is also home to some of Louisiana's rarer plants, including the crane-fly orchid and the star magnolia vine.
Over three miles of managed recreational trails traverse the arboretum. The Caroline Dormon Lodge was completed at the main trail head of the arboretum in 1965. Today, it serves as a visitors' interpretive center. It also features a permanent exhibit interpreting the life and times of its legendary namesake (Caroline Dormon spent a lifetime devoted to conservation, and she is credited with the creation of the Kisatchie National Forest that covers over seven parishes and encompasses more than 600,00 acres of land).
Guided trail tours are available on a daily basis and special activities and educational programs are offered on just about every weekend of the year. With the assistance of native garden designers, the arboretum staff has installed an attractive “wild garden” in loosely structured beds around the lodge, featuring many of the more showy plant species native to beech-magnolia transition forests, including red buckeye, wild azaleas, strawberry bush, Virginia sweetspire, two-winged silverbell, American snowbell, arrowwood viburnum, St. Johnswort, dwarf blueberry, and sassafras, as well as Christmas fern, royal fern, lady fern, woodland phlox, cardinal flower, indian pink, and other species of woodland ferns and wildflowers.
The Restored Cajun Prairie Site
Located about 20 miles south of the arboretum, Louisiana's first example of a restored coastal tallgrass prairie exists on the northeastern edge of Eunice. Once more than 2 million acres of prairie featuring more than 500 species of native grasses and wildflowers covered the southwestern corner of the state. Unfortunately, by the middle of the 20th century, nearly all of this valuable grassland habitat had been lost – converted to ricefields, pastures and other agricultural developments.
In the mid-1980s, two local biologists, Charles Allen and Malcolm Vidrine, stumbled on a particularly plant-rich remnant strip of tallgrass prairie and recognizing the value of that little strip, they immediately began collecting and propagating seeds and cuttings of its plant community. By the end of 1988, Allen and Vidrine secured permission to convert an all-but-abandoned, 11-acre site adjacent to the Union Pacific railroad track in Eunice back into coastal tallgrass prairie habitat.
Over the ensuing years, their venture has gained many supporters and has now been organized into the Cajun Prairie Habitat Restoration Society that has successfully conserved, propagated and restored many acres of coastal tallgrass prairie habitat within the state's former prairie province. The original restoration site, referred to as simply “The Eunice Site,” remains the most revered, easily accessible and frequently visited of the sites.
Each season produces a special "show" of grasses and vegetation. Ultimately, though, most Cajun prairie ‘affectionados’ will probably agree that the fall months feature the best bloom show of the year. Beginning in late August, the whites, pinks, and purples of native asters, mist flower, boltonia, false foxgloves, and blazing stars, combine with the yellows of sunflowers, goldenrods, compass-plants, and coreopsis to produce a most wonderful mosaic of deeply saturated colors – all gleaming under the low-angled rays of the autumn sun.