In the 1920s, a man named Emory Smith moved from Iowa to Baton Rouge and bought what he called his hilltop farm along Highland Road. In this landscape, Smith saw more than a place to grow vegetables.
“And it’s really a very unusual kind of setting for Baton Rouge. It's an upland forest and it has a series of ravines like you might see in St. Francisville,” said Peggy Coates with the LSU Hilltop Arboretum.
Smith started collecting Louisiana plants, flowering trees and bushes that he found in the forests and wet lowlands of the state. He shared his interest in nature with the head of LSU’s landscape architecture program.
“So he started bringing students and plant materials, and Emery would take them on a tour of all of his plant collections,” Coates said.
In 1981 when Smith turned 90, he donated the 14-acre natural garden to LSU. The Hilltop Arboretum is open year-round to visitors
“You're going to find Emory Smith's historical plants that he planted here at Hilltop, and you are going to find collections of Louisiana aquatic plants around the pond,” Coates said. “We have a pineland savanna plant collection.”
One of the things that I like about an arboretum is that if you see a tree or a flower that you like you, there’s usually a sign nearby that tells you what it is. In the spring, you see different types of azaleas in bloom. You wander beneath flower-covered trees, and follow a curved boardwalk around a pond decorated with mostly native plants. And spring is a busy time for garden volunteers at Hilltop.
“Friendships are forged, as well as increased knowledge of plants and helping the effort at Hilltop,” said volunteer Janet Forbes.
They’re preparing for a spring plant sale that emphasizes Louisiana.
“This is their home, their native spot, their native soil, so they naturally do better,” Forbes said. “So I think that's what the draw is, and that's what you want to do is to continue that heritage of the plants that speak Louisiana.”
The sale proceeds help fund educational programs and preserve this peaceful patch of nature.
“It's a special place,” Coates said. “It’s a place that I think we can celebrate the beauty of the Louisiana environment.”
And it continues the mission started nearly a century ago by Emory Smith, who wanted the small part of nature under his control to be a better place because of the way he used it.
The annual spring sale is Saturday, April 1. For more information, click here.