Nacogdoches Named the Garden Capital of Texas

Greg Grant, SFA Gardens, Ruby Mize Native Plant Center,
Stephen F. Austin University, Nacogdoches, TX

It’s official. Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas, is now the garden capital of Texas. A bill authored by District 11 State Representative Travis Clardy was signed by Texas Governor Rick Perry on May 2, 2013 designating Nacogdoches as the Garden Capital of Texas. At a ribbon cutting and dedication held at the Stephen F. Austin State University Pineywoods Native Plant Center, author, historian, and father of the LaNana Creek trail, Professor Ab Abernathy made the following speech.

"Nacogdoches is a garden city. It was named after its first gardeners, the Nacogdoches tribe of the Caddo Indians. Thirteen hundred years ago the Nacogdoches Indians lived on the high ground between the two full- flowing, spring-fed creeks. Their name, Nacogdoches, meant “from the place of the high ground” (some sources say “persimmon eaters”). The Spanish came to the place on the high ground between the two creeks in 1716. They named the creek on the east La Nana, meaning “the Nurse,” and the one on the west La Banita, “The Little Bath.” The first gardeners--the first agrarian culture in Texas--were these Caddos, who brought gardening with them from their eastern homes. They raised corn, squash, and pumpkins. They cultivated a variety of beans, sunflowers, and tobacco; and they created the strongest and most advanced Indian culture in Texas.

Mize Azalea Garden
Mize Azalea Garden

The Nacogdoches Caddos gardened on the high ground between the two creeks for well over a thousand years. The Spanish learned the Caddo’s gardening ways, and added a dimension of herbs and spices to the garden plots.

Anglo settlers began coming to and through the Gateway to Texas in the early 1800s. In 1832 at the Battle of Nacogdoches they ended Spanish military control in all of East Texas. In 1836, after the Battle of San Jacinto, Nacogdoches became a settlement in the Republic of Texas, and after 1846 Nacogdoches became a city in the Lone Star State in the United States."

In the 1830s, during the troublesome, birthing times of Texas, Nacogdoches gardened. C.A. Sterne describes Adolphus Sterne’s home:

“My father took great pride and interest in his gardens and orchard. There were three gardens on the place. The one on the north was devoted to flowers, with a great variety of roses and rare shrubs and plants, which he had brought from Louisiana, and which had been imported from France.”

“In the center of the garden was a summer house, which was covered with morning glories and multiflora roses. The fence was covered with woodbine and yellow jasmine. The south garden had vegetables of every variety. The west garden was the orchard with a variety of fruit trees and a butter bean arbor running the entire width of the garden. My father often resorted to the butter bean arbor to read and study.”

When Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Central Park, the Biltmore estate landscape, etc.) came to Nacogdoches in 1853, he said of the town: “The houses along the road…stand in gardens, and are neatly painted--the first exterior sign of cultivation of mind since the Red River.”

Nacogdoches became a modern town in the 20th century with parks and landscaping. It became a city of prosperous houses and ornamental gardens along the Camino Real. Its grandest show of flowers and foliage, however, developed around the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University (founded in 1923 as Stephen F. Austin State Teacher’s College). The SFA campus was from its beginning a flourishing garden of blooming plants and flowering trees and shrubs. SFA now is the center of the most prosperous and prominent set of flowering gardens in the State of Texas. SFA hosts the largest azalea garden in the state and Nacogdoches was named the first Azalea City in America.

The university is home to the Pineywoods Native Plant Center, the Mast Arboretum, the Gayla Mize Garden, the Kingham Children’s Garden, and the SFA Recreational Trails and Gardens. Collectively these gardens contain the state’s largest botanical collections of azaleas, baldcypress, boxwood, camellias, gardenias, hollies, hydrangeas, magnolias, and maples. For more information on these gardens visit:

In addition to a number of public parks and walking trails, Nacogdoches is also home to the Durst-Taylor Historic House and Gardens, the Adolphus Sterne Museum and Gardens, and the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden.

In concluding his speech Dr. Abernathy went on to say:

"The development of the beauty of gardens, parks, and trails is not for the purpose of luring tourists or improving business, although both areas will profit from such ventures. Natural beauty is encouraged for its own sake and for the fact that life among gardens, trees, flowers, and flowing water is richer and kinder than life among strip malls and parking lots. The Garden Capital of our beautiful and beloved Nacogdoches deserves no less than to be a setting for such a life."

This article first appeared in the Shelby County Today.