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ARE WE THERE YET?

Gardens offer much more than pretty flowers

By JACK SCHNEDLER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published April 25, 2013 at 2:58 a.m.

Joy Scott Manning Bridge of the Full Moon is one of several scenic spans at Garvan Woodland Gardens.

HOT SPRINGS - Suppose that your floral IQ comes to a tottering halt just beyond roses and tulips. If so, you wouldn’t figure to enjoy (or even agree to) paying $10 for a stroll around 210 blooming acres.

And there’s no money-back guarantee that a blossom-befuddled person like you would have a jolly time meandering past the plants at Garvan Woodland Gardens, on the southern outskirts of Hot Springs overlooking Lake Hamilton. But you might well be pleasantly surprised (maybe even dazzled), because this is an all-star act.

Garvan, which opened to the public in 2002, is to Arkansas botanical gardens what the justly lauded Crystal Bridges is to museums - which is to say, definitely the best in the state.

If you do fancy flowers, perhaps you’ve already been to the gardens, created by the late Verna Garvan and now operated as a division of the University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture. But it’s fair to say that no two visits are alike, because what’s most vividly in flower changes from month to month, even week to week.

Earlier in April, tulips were the stars of the show. Now and in the days immediately ahead, azaleas - as many as 160 varieties - are touted as a prime attraction. In supporting roles are the likes of Dutch iris and bearded iris, while camellia blossoms start to emerge and perhaps some early roses.

Garvan seems to get better year after year as plantings mature and additions are made. To get the current lay of the land and boost your floral IQ , visit on a Saturday and take a one-hour guided walking tour at 10 a.m. for no extra charge.

Many youngsters have a short attention span for plants. So Garvan aims to hook kids with its Evans Children’s Adventure Garden, which features a maze made of rocks that leads down to a series of wading pools, along with a crawdad hole and a bridge built out of tree branches. Parents can keep an eye on their frolicking tykes from an elevated walkway.

Kids and their dads are also the prime target of Sugg Model Train Garden, near the entrance, and the fast-food Chipmunk Cafe. The G-scale railroad has as many as three trains running on 389 feet of track that crosses 259 trestles. It’s a toot.

The eastern part of the gardens can be congested on sunny weekends. But a walk all the way west on a marked primary trail to the Perry Wildflower Overlook offers relief from the madding crowds, along with gorgeous views over Lake Hamilton.

Another less trammeled route, north from the children’s garden, takes in Hixson Family Woodland Nature preserve. Some 120 bird species, from bald eagle to tufted titmouse,have been sighted on the preserve’s 45 acres. A birding list is available.

A personal favorite is the Garden of the Pine Wind, four acres of rock and stream plantings that require some up-and down walking. Several picturesque bridges, a 12-foot waterfall, four pools, two springs and a half-acre koi pond are among the highlights.

The koi are delighted to be fed. And you’ll be happy as you snap away that your digital camera can take as many pictures as desired without that once-upon-a-time worry about running out of film.

Hours at Garvan Woodland Gardens, 550 Arkridge Road, Hot Springs, are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is $10 for adults; $9 for visitors 55 and older; $5 for children 6 to 12 and dogs on a leash; free for youngsters 5 and under. Tours in a motorized cart are $10 per person. Call (800) 366-4664; the website is garvangardens.org.

Notable lunch options in Hot Springs include Fishermen’s Wharf, with top-drawer oysters on the half shell at 5101 Central Ave. on the lake; Rolando’s, doing lovely Latino dishes at 210 Central Ave.; and The Pancake Shop, a charmingly old-fashioned spot at 216 Central Ave.

Weekend, Pages 38 on 04/25/2013

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