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The Short Version: If you’re in Austin, Texas, and looking to take romance to the next level, you can impress a date with a trip to Zilker Botanical Garden. It doesn’t get more peaceful than wandering among the roses, holding hands, and falling into easy conversation together. Of course, engagement proposals and weddings are commonplace in the picturesque garden, which is known as the “jewel in the heart of Austin,” and special events at the garden can make a visit even more fun.
I’ve been to many botanical gardens throughout the world in the last 15 years, and nothing is better than having someone special walking alongside me while we get to know each other better in such a peaceful setting. I spend a lot of time outdoors, so it impresses me when a date knows the name of a rare bird or a native tree in the garden. For me, an afternoon of pointing out colorful butterflies and smelling lilies is just about as good as it gets.
That’s why residents of and visitors to Austin, Texas, often plan a day to walk around Zilker Botanical Garden — an oasis right in the middle of the city. The garden spans 28 acre, and is home to some of the loveliest sights and smells in the city.
Zilker Botanical Garden is a collection of many specialty gardens and is located within the larger Zilker Metropolitan Park, a 351-acre recreation area in the center of Austin. The scents and colors change with the seasons because the garden has so many different blooms.
I love Japanese gardens, and the one at Zilker Botanical Garden is especially lovely. I had a memorable first date with a guy who discussed the power of Zen as we wandered past bonsai trees and rock gardens.
“You can get off the beaten path and have a little walk by yourself. It’s about a mile walk through the entire grounds. If you wanted to spend some time with someone, this is a good place to go,” said Merrideth Jiles, the Coordinator at Zilker Botanical Garden. “There are lots of places to sit down and visit. It is the jewel in the heart of Austin.”
Zilker Botanical Garden started as a small section of the massive Zilker Park more than 60 years ago, and the Austin Area Garden Council, made up of all the garden clubs in the Austin area, was instrumental in its development. The AAGC underwrote the construction of a building on the property so it could remain active in the garden’s day-to-day operations. The park itself is part of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and admission is just $2 for Austin residents and $3 for non-residents.
An estimated 300,000 people visit the garden every year from throughout Texas, the US, and more than 100 countries. The modest entry fee also makes this favorite date destination one of the most economical. Couples can enjoy the simple bliss of quiet, quality time together surrounded by beautiful flora and fauna, and the people who work at the garden see the effect it has on those who visit.
“It’s a beautiful place to work. People who come to the garden are cheerful, and it’s really nice to be in an environment where everyone who works there is happy,” Merrideth said. “I’ve worked in retail and construction, and this is one of the few places where it’s rare to have someone who isn’t glad to be there. It’s a happy place to be.”
Along with a few acres of wild forest, the grounds feature specialty gardens growing along its paths. It’s a good idea to check the website before you go to see what’s in bloom.
The garden has special daylily beds, irises, and begonias, and you can stop at the herb garden to get some inspiration for cooking. The Doug Blachly Butterfly Trail and Garden is filled with plants that often attract Monarch butterflies.
Other interesting gardens include the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, which is popular with history buffs and features plants from the prehistoric era. If you’re more interested in the environment or conservation efforts, check out the City of Austin’s Green Garden, sponsored by the city’s Watershed Protection Department. It has displays about water conservation and where to plant flowers so they’ll thrive — perfect if there’s talk of moving in together.
The Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden at Zilker is dedicated to the memory of a special man.
“The Taniguchi Japanese Garden was built by Isamu Taniguchi, who was interned in a camp during World War II,” Merrideth said. “Afterward, he came to Austin, volunteered, and built almost the whole thing himself. It’s the oldest garden in the grounds, and it’s a unique place.”
While it’s great to just have a private escape for a date, it’s also fun to join in when there’s a special event on property. Each garden club associated with the Austin Area Garden Council holds a special event at the garden during the year, so there’s always something going on.
“They all have a plant sale once a year, along with educational programs around what their garden club focuses on,” Merrideth said. “Some are focused on one specific genus, like iris, daylily, or bamboo, while others are clubs that teach general gardening skills.”
The city sponsors a number of larger events at Zilker Botanical Garden. Monarch Appreciation Day and Dog Days — when visitors can bring their four-legged friends — are held in July. The Dog Days event is run in collaboration with Austin Pets Alive!, a pioneering no-kill animal shelter in the area.
Another dreamy event is the Woodland Faerie Trail Exhibit, where individuals and companies build little faerie houses scattered among the gardens.
It’s an exciting time for Zilker. The small staff, who all work for the city of Austin, includes four gardeners, an event planner for wedding rentals and a program specialist for the educational programming. The team is working on some big plans for the future.
“There’s been a big change in management at the garden. There is a renewed sense of pride in the garden. My team is taking a new vision, in a process of doing a master plan,” Merrideth said.
Of course, all master plans take years to implement, but, eventually, the goal is to rehabilitate the entire 60-year-old facility and grounds.
“In the meantime, we’re doing a lot of stuff to get more flowers and enrich every visitor’s experience. We want to make sure every visitor goes away seeing beautiful plants, had a fun time and even learned something,” Merrideth said. “We have a renewed philosophy of education and beauty and making it a really special place.”