In 1982, retired postal worker Emory Smith donated his plot of land called Hilltop to LSU as a place for “my neighbors to find calmness of mind and uplift of spirit by contributing to an environment that speaks of peace and joy.”
In these days of the coronavirus pandemic, no doubt many people are seeking that calmness.
And the LSU Hilltop Arboretum is ready to deliver with a meadow full of colorful wildflowers. Indian blanket, wild ageratum, lemon beebalm and so many more are in bloom, attracting bees, moths, butterflies and birds.
"It's a sight to see," said Peggy Coates, executive director of the arboretum. “We’ve been preparing the site for the meadow for about two years, and it’s so exciting to finally have our first bloom this year.”
Anyone can visit the arboretum at 11855 Highland Road from dawn to dusk to see the field of flowers.
The meadow, still in its infancy, is part of the arboretum’s master plan, Coates said. It will take about a decade for it to reach maturity, but in the meantime, the native flowers are plentiful.
The seeds were scattered in early December by LSU students, Hilltop's Hodge Podge friends group and volunteers. The seeds came from botanist Charles Allen, who helped coin the term “Cajun prairie” during his 30 plus years of research on native plants and prairies, and from the state Department of Transportation and Development's wildflower seed bank in Cade.
The 3-acre meadow is divided into four areas, with grass walking paths to allow visitors to experience a rich diversity of native annual and perennial flowers in a patchwork of grasses.
The four meadow areas are banked by watery swales, which provide drainage and a unique environment for plants to grow in wet and moist conditions. An earthen amphitheater anchors the northwest corner of the meadow where visitors can sit back and enjoy a bird’s-eye view.
Volunteers will plant more seeds each year in December to establish stable perennial native plant communities, Coates said.
The Meadow Keepers, a group of students from the LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture led by graduate student Dan Cooke, along with Allen, helped design and implement the ongoing management plan of the meadow.
“I cannot say enough of how much we appreciate these LSU students and Dan," Coates said. "His leadership with this project has been my inspiration.”
Coates made laminated cards with pictures of the blooms to help visitors with identification. These will be updated during the summer as other flowers appear.
“These native wildflowers are part of Louisiana’s identity, just like other cultural things we celebrate,” Coates said.
Many of Louisiana’s native plants have been taken over by introduced or exotic plants brought in over years from other places. The overabundance of non-native plants has hurt our ecosystems and environment, she said.
LSU students and Colin Nelson, Hilltop's meadow keeper, have assembled for sale packets of Cajun Prairie Meadow seeds so you can plant your own native plants. They are available at hilltop.lsu.edu.
While the grounds are open, the arboretum's office and bathrooms are closed. Visitors are asked to follow social distancing guidelines.