By: Matthew Jackson
The History- The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center is located adjacent to Memorial Park right in the heart of the city (map). The area has a diverse history dating back to tribes visiting the area because of the dense tree cover, freshwater, and edible plants. By the early 20th century, landowners, industries, and even the War Department exchanged ownership of land in the area. It wasn't until 1923 following the closing of Camp Logan when public support started for the creation of what would eventually become Memorial Park and the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. The Varner Realty Company, owned by the Hogg family, purchased the land next to their River Oaks subdivision. In 1924, they sold 1,500 acres to the City of Houston with a stipulation that it be preserved as a park. In 1950, the city allocated 265 acres of the park to be an arboretum and botanical garden.
After 17 years of little progress in developing the Arboretum, the McAshan Educational and Charitable Trust donated funds for a new building and operating costs for the first five years. Shortly thereafter, the Houston Botanical Society formed and managed the facility. In 1967, the ground breaking ceremonies for the new children education building took place and were presided over by the U.S.Secretary of Interior, Stewart Udall. Since then, the Houston Independent School District has integrated the facility into their curriculum. More than 15,000 children visit the location annually through school and youth groups. Over the years, the facilities have been expanded and the name was changed from "Houston Arboretum and Botanical Garden" to Houston Arboretum & Nature Center" to better represent the activities taking place.
Activities and Opportunities- The arboretum today is 155 acres of preserved native land including five miles of nature trails, classrooms, and an interpretivecenter. Trails travel through wetlands, meadows, and forest habitats and include interpretive signs describing plants and animals seen in the habitat. Nearly every plant species has at least one label to help identify them. In fact, certain plants are identified as part of the National Phenology Network. Plants that are part of the network are monitored throughout the year to track growth and health. The monitoring is one of two ongoing citizen science projects happening at the arboretum.
The arboretum, like Anahuac NWR, is located on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and can be a great place to see birds in the city throughout the year. It is completely surrounded by urban development meaning birds will congregate or "seek refuge" at the location. Arboretum staff host wildlife walks for birds and other types of wildlife and organize an annual Christmas Bird Count as another citizen science project.
Youth and adult classes on these topics are also offered regularly and provide unique experiences to those who are not as familiar to them.
Why is it significant to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge?- It is interesting to think about the development of the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center over the years. Following land owner and land use changes for nearly 150 years, the original visitor center opening was overseen by the U.S. Secretary of Interior, Stewart Udall. Only one year earlier, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 was passed which was immediately followed by a surge of new wildlife refuges across the country including several in the Houstonarea. Why would the U.S. Secretary of Interior attend an event for a city level park? Did the location garner interest from the federal government at a time when new refuges were being established? Was Buffalo Bayou considered a significant enough habitat to be protected at the federal level?
Whatever the case, the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center provides urban dwellers a chance to experience nature right in the city. Much of what you will find at the Arboretum can also be found at one your local national wildlife refuges. Come out for a look. MJ
History of the HANC from Memorial Park, A Priceless Legacy by Sarah H. Emmott, "A Brief Summary of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center" by Johnny Stowers, and other sources.