I went to the New Orleans Botanical Garden to meet Director Paul Soniat on a crisp, sunny day where, to my surprise, flowers were still blooming as they wound around the garden’s brick walls and iron trellises. Soniat met me at the gate and took me on a quick tour, pointing our tropical vines and the occasional loofah, a gourd-looking plant that can be cleaned and used in the bath.
We passed a vegetable garden where brassica plants (kale, broccoli and the like) were still growing, and he explained that the garden has plans for a new outdoor kitchen to host cooking demos and other events. Past the train garden (fun for all ages) we went to the garden’s back offices, where the inner workings of the garden take place. Soniat is knowledgeable and friendly and has directed the garden for decades. He shows me on a piece of art in his office the watermark where the floodwaters hit after Katrina. The mark is some three feet off of the ground.
After inviting me to sit, we talked cultivars, climactic (hardiness) zones, new developments in the garden and whether bananas are trees or shrubs.
(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity)
Hi and thanks for speaking with Big Easy Magazine! Can you give me a brief biography of yourself, and tell us about your role at the garden?
My name is Paul Soniat, I’ve been the director of the garden since 1982. In that time, we’ve developed Celebration under the oaks, some buildings, expanded the gardens, and that brings us to where we are today.
We have a ten-acre botanical garden, and there are different elements of it. There’s staff who maintain the garden, plants taken care of, we have an education department and some programming for kids and adults, and we also have a lot of special events. Garden shows in the spring and fall, music every Thursday from January to mid-November in the pavilion of the Two Sisters, a wide variety of genres. We have evenings with Ricky in April- October, in the Enrique Alférez sculpture garden. We have Latin music and mojitos then. It’s a real pleasant area to be in in the evening.
With a donation from the Helis Foundation, we’re free on Wednesdays for LA residents. So that has really increased our attendance and the diversity of people who have the opportunity to enjoy the Botanic garden.
What brought you to horticulture?
I thought, in college, that I was able to grasp it, and I had some great teachers there. I went to school in Lafayette. Unfortunately, a lot of these schools don’t have horticulture anymore, the focus is on environmental biology. But I liked horticulture, I understood it. I was good at it.
Before 1982, did you work at the garden?
They had a fence around here, good luck, you know? (laughs) There was the bones of the garden, the sculpture, the study center, and a little greenhouse. A lot of that was built in the WPA. But there wasn’t really a garden. Gardens, if you don’t look after them, the plants die. It was a slow process, especially early on, to get things going. We were able to start Christmas in the Oaks in 1987, so that stabilized my position, and it stabilized the garden. It gave us some time to save some money; to build the pavilion, renovate the garden study center, and move into the office. The pavilion was built in 1995.
So in Southeast Louisiana, what hardiness zone are we in for plants?
We’re in Zone 9, that means that we do get freezes, but we do not get them every year. Last year, we had a bad, hard freeze, down to 21 degrees, and it stayed below freezing for over 24 hours. We lost some citrus, some limes that are pretty sensitive to cold weather. We have a lot of tropical plants—gingers, curcumas, now most of those died to the ground and came back. It looked pretty barren last year. By mid-march to April, things looked pretty good again.
What kind of things do people commonly plant in their own gardens around New Orleans?
It depends what they like! Some people like vegetable gardens, some people like low-maintenance landscapes. If you come here, you can see a variety of perennials and shrubs, see what you like and how to incorporate it into your landscape. We have plant sales regularly, and we sell some unusual plants that you don’t find in the nurseries… we’re not a big garden, and a botanical garden usually has a large, diverse collection of plants. Being that we’re only ten acres, we don’t have space for a large collection of trees and shrubs, but we do have a lot of perennials and salvias, things that people can grow in their gardens.
What are some plants in New Orleans that have the boldest flowers?
In early spring you see a lot of azaleas in blooms, a lot of different types. The indicas are the southern type, they bloom mid-March. Then there are other types that bloom throughout the year. An iconic, big flower might be the flower on the Southern Magnolia. Roses, hibiscus, they’re all pretty showy. There’s not, when I think of native plants that were here before there was the city, there were maybe some magnolias, but there wasn’t a lot of bold colors in the landscape. There were cypress and Tupelo, different grasses. Not a lot of loud, heavy blooming plants.
Horticulturally, people collect plants from all over the world, and they plant them for their pretty flowers. A lot of our plants that are showy have been bred throughout centuries, hybridized. You have roses that bloom longer, bigger camellias. Roses, camellias, sweetolive—none of them are native to NOLA, but they grow well here and they’re nice additions to the landscapes.
Are palm trees native?
There are some native palms—saw palmetto palms that grow in the swamp, but not a lot of the palms are native. Florida has native palms, South Carolina has native palmetto palms. But many of the palms that you see in New Orleans—big phoenix palms, so big and bold, they’re from the Canary Islands. Downtown on Canal, those are Phoenix dactylifera. True date palms, those are native to the Middle East. But they do well here.
I noticed in October, there was something very fragrant in bloom around town. Do you know what plant that might have been?
It could have been sweet olive, which is very common. They bloom April and October. You especially smell them when the air is dry and crisp.
And the jasmine that people plant, that blooms in April, what kind is that?
Confederate Jasmine blooms at that time, and Carolina jasmine has yellow flowers, that blooms a little earlier. Confederate jasmine is another introduced plant, despite the name.
What should people keep in mind when growing native plants?
When you say ‘native’, a lot of the nicer, interesting plants grow more across the lake. Like the native azaleas. So if you are trying to grow some of those, you need to add acid to the soil, you need well-drained soil. Some plants do pretty well, and some are more challenging.
What about planting for bird habitat, or pollinators?
We do have a hummingbird garden, and a butterfly garden. With the butterflies, you plant specific plants for them to lay their eggs on. The larvae of the butterfly have something to eat, then they make the chrysalis and become an adult, and you mix nectar plants, something like lantana or pentos or something like that, just about any kind of butterfly can get nectar from those. You plant a host plant for the larvae and a sugar source for the adults.
Then hummingbirds, they have plants that they like, with a certain shape, so that they can stick their nose in there. There are a lot of native plants that are a specific food source for birds. Certain birds like to nest in certain types of trees.
Are there plants that are good for stormwater management?
If you’re trying to do a bioswale, plants like irises—aquatics that can live submerged or right on the shore. If you’re trying to establish holding ponds, you have to look at the depth of the water. A lot of plants won’t grow in deep, deep water, but some will grow in six inches of water, while some will float on the top. Hyacinth will take over these environments, duckweed can be kind of nasty. If you’re trying to make a bioswale, you have to remember it won’t be continuously filled with water.
Can you talk a little bit about the garden’s work with sustainability?
The whole park is looking at how to recycle better, use less energy—changing light bulbs to LEDs, for instance. We are doing composting at all of our events now. And at the back of the park—the park is over 1300 acres—there is an ongoing effort to plant more natives and bird habitat plants and establish bird corridors along shorelines. There is a lot of bird watching there, in the forest.
Are there plants that are emblematically New Orleans?
Yeah. Being a port city, always people have brought in plants from all over. Things like azaleas, camellias, sweetolives—are very traditional. Citrus trees have been around for a long time. Bay leaf trees, both native bays and introduced. A lot of people would bring these plants in, for aesthetics and beauty. Then, of course, there are cypress trees and live oaks.
Do you think people have strong cultural attachments to the live oaks?
Yes, especially here in the park. These oaks have to have a certain circumference, and they are usually at least 100 years old. This is the largest collection of registered live oaks in the world. The front part of the park, on City Park Avenue, that’s a natural ridge, and a lot of those trees were growing even before the city was founded. So that’s a native stand—though some have been planted more recently. The bayou there used to be part of the Mississippi River. 2,000 years ago, the river ran through the park there and created a berm on either side. That little elevation was just high enough for the oaks to grow.
During Hurricane Katrina, was there a lot of die-off of trees in the city?
There was a lot of damage to a lot of trees. Pretty much everything in the garden- all of the shrubs, perennials, everything was gone. It was totally killed off. What survived were floodplain trees and certain species that we introduced. Live oaks survived, water roses, crepe myrtles survived. Palm did ok. Bamboo did alright. But all the magnolias died. They’re not native to wet areas.
If you go in the back of the park, we had three feet of water in the garden, back there was 6-8 feet of flooding.
Does the garden do environmental education?
To some degree, and the park does some environmental education too. In the back of the park, there’s Couturie forest, and they do bio-blitz, where they try to look and see what species of plants and animals are there. They continually improve that area, and that is spearheaded by Dr. Bob Thomas from Loyola.
So settle a bet, are bananas plants or trees?
A banyan tree?
Maybe? Care to weigh in? Is it a tree or shrub?
Banana or banyan?
Well, a banana is not really a tree. What’s called the meristem tissue, where it comes from is called a rhizome, underground. It’s like a potatoes that grows underground. And with a banana what you see is a pseudo-stem. You can’t propagate from that. A lot of shrubs you can take cuttings from and they have that meristem tissue that can regenerate. But a banana tree, if you cut the top off and stick it in the ground, it won’t grow. You have to take cuttings from the roots.
In banana plantations, it’s a monoculture. When you talk about bananas, it’s the same with ginger. When you buy a ginger root, you can cut the root and cut it in your garden, and it will grow. It’s the same way with bananas, the roots and the rhizome are where the new plant will emerge from.
Do you have any tips for those interested in getting into gardening, but are not experienced growers?
You educate yourself, you learn. We have volunteers here who learn in the garden and greenhouse, who learn how to propagate plants, grow from seeds, and grow from cuttings. A lot of people who garden are self-taught. The green thumb is more about paying attention to things. If you continually plant something and it just dies, well then you’re not planting it right (laughs). You just get out there and do it, you know?
Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant. If you enjoyed this coverage, please check out her other article on L’eau Est La Vie, the group protesting The Bayou Bridge Pipeline.