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Texas, The South, Azaleas, and Ima Hogg

Monday 24 April 2017 at 7:55 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 20, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            As a Texan, I’ve always had trouble deciding whether I am a Southerner or a Westerner. Perhaps the same quandary caused Texas writers to be categorized as “Southwestern,” though one would definitely see Horton Foote, for example, as “Southern” rather than “Southwestern.” Be that as it may, the famous promoter of botanical beauty and Texas’ heritage, Ima Hogg, considered herself a “Southern” lady,” and Texas a “Southern” state.

            No doubt this was the reason she planted the first azaleas in Houston, to reinforce the fact that Houston, where azaleas were not native plants, was indeed a “Southern” city. And from her original crop of azaleas spread the incredible cascades of azaleas in River Oaks and the motivation for River Oak’s famous Azalea Trail. The first azalea pilgrimage in Houston began in 1936, with 12 gardens. The most recent Azalea Trail, the 82nd, ended on March 12.

            So, when my wife recently went to the Bayou Bend Museum and Gardens with the Wharton Garden Club, the Azalea Trail was just over. However, the Museum gardens were a beautiful sight to behold, according to her, -- with formal, classical gardens nestled among undomesticated trees and plants native to Texas, original to the fourteen acres of natural woodlands and winding ravines Miss Ima and her brothers purchased in 1925. Miss Hogg gave her beautiful estate to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 1957, and it came under the supervision of the River Oaks Garden Club in 1961. Miss Ima’s love of botanical art, her keen sense of color and beauty, and her generosity created a spectacular oasis of flora worth a trip to Houston to see.

            Although purists in the fine arts consider paintings and sculpture to be true “art,” I believe the concept of art goes way beyond that. As I watch my wife teach my granddaughter how to make a fairy garden, I have to conclude that botanical art is art, too. Not only was Miss Ima a botanical artist, but also she was a “living experience/historical heritage” artist as well.” Whether it’s restoring a historical site or arranging architecture with landscaping, such an artist can capture the essence of an era, the subtle beauty of an epoch. I believe Miss Hogg was that kind of artist.

            Having moved to the Gulf Coast in the 1960’s, I first learned about Ima Hogg when I lived in West Columbia, Texas, as just outside the town, the Varner-Hogg Plantation was located, where the artistic hand of Miss Ima was also seen. The plantation was first owned by Martin Varner, one of the old S. F. Austin Three Hundred, then owned by Columbus Patton, and eventually bought by Jim Hogg, Miss Ima’s father and former governor of Texas, as a second home for his family. In 1958, after an extensive refurbishing job, Miss Ima donated it to the State of Texas, and today, it is operated by the Texas Historical Commission.

            Because of its beauty and its history, I visited the Plantation many times, especially enjoying the beauty of the plants, herbs, flowers, and magnolia trees, as well as the elegant rooms in the house itself, each room decorated by Miss Hogg in the style of the different eras of Texas history. Many of the buildings on the site were made of bricks, handmade by plantation slaves. The magnificent pecan and oak trees have seen a lot of history in their long lives. You couldn’t take in everything in one visit, so I was happy I lived so near such an impressive historical site. Miss Hogg’s artistry was very apparent.

            The Varner-Hogg Plantation definitely looked Gone-with-the-Wind “Southern” rather than “Western,” as its past history as a sugarcane plantation, worked by slaves, as well as its later history with the furnishings of Southern elegance (though in the case of this particular plantation, Texas elegance) would assure.

            My hometown of Dime Box, though there were no cowboys and most folks were farmers rather than ranchers, looked like a stage set right out of a Western movie, so, in those days, I saw myself as more “Western” than “Southern.” Throw in the ethnic mix of Germans, Czechs, and Wends, and there wasn’t anything “Southern” about Dime Box. Varner-Hogg, along with a few other old plantation–style homes in West Columbia, definitely suggested the Old South. Although they grow well in other parts of the United States, azaleas are the favorite flowering plant of the South, and thrive along the Gulf Coast. My wife’s paternal ancestors come from New Orleans, so when we first moved to East Bernard, we planted azaleas. They very quickly succumbed, convincing me that I definitely do not have a “Southern” thumb.

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Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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