Avery Island Jungle Gardens
In Iberia Parish, there exists an oddity in the flat landscape of South Louisiana. Head south out of New Iberia on Hwy 329 and the surrounding marsh and swampland suddenly gives way to a towering forest rising out of the surrounding marsh. Avery Island is known for its high ground, beautiful gardens and of course, the world famous McIlhenny’s Tabasco Sauce.
The reason Avery Island stands high above the surround wetlands is because of an interesting geologic occurrence known as a salt dome. Salt domes are formed from ancient layers of salt that have risen up through alluvial sediments. The result on the surface can form a large hill like area generally circular in shape that can tower above the surrounding landscape of southern Louisiana. Avery Island’s highest point reaches 163’ above sea level and is three miles long and two and a half miles wide. Salt domes are excellent traps for oil and although many exist in Louisiana, only a few express themselves at the surface. Salt domes that are visible from the surface in this area are known as the “Five Islands” and include Jefferson, Avery, Weeks, Cote Blanche and Belle Isle.
The topographic map below depicts Avery Island and its surrounding low wetlands.
The salt under Avery Island has been collected and mined since the late eighteenth century. During the US Civil War, the facilities on Avery Island were considered important enough to be a military target and were destroyed by Union forces.
Avery Island isn’t an island in the true sense of the word. Bayou Petit Anse hits the dome on its northern side and then follows it southward around its western side. Much of the rest of the dome is surrounded by both freshwater wetlands and salt marsh. Access is gained via a toll bridge that costs $1 to enter.
The dome at Avery Island creates an ideal habitat for species not usually found on the lower, usually inundated wetlands around it. Live oaks thrive on Avery Island and are draped with Spanish moss to form a hauntingly beautiful forest. The Avery Island Jungle Garden is a driving path around the grounds and offers some spectacular views from your car as well as parking spaces to explore the gardens on foot. The gardens include an array of both native and imported species.
Avery Island is a sanctuary for both native and migratory birds. During my visit in late December, much of the winter migration was over but there were still plenty of birds to see. Roseate spoonbills (platalea ajaja), snowy egrets (egretta thula), great egrets (ardea alba), great blue herons (ardea herodias) and brown pelicans (pelicanus occidentalis) fished in Bayou Petit Anse and the nearby lagoons. A great flock of robins and grackles had taken up residence in the cypress and oak trees.
In the late nineteenth century, snowy egret populations were hunted to dangerously small numbers for their plumage which was used to make fancy ladies hats. Although laws were later enacted to protect the birds (Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918), E.A. McIlhenny took matters into his own hands.
“Mr Ned” as he was called, captured some wild snowy egrets and raised them on the island. After they were released for the fall migration, they returned in the following spring. Avery Island has been a popular nesting spot for snowy egrets since and thousands still roost here every spring.
The structures below are now known as ‘Bird City’.
The gardens were a very serene and beautiful drive. Now and then I’d get out and walk down some shadowy path through the trees.
One of the more interesting aspects of the gardens was a strange blend of Louisiana and Asian cultures. McIlhenny collected plants from all over the world, but especially Asia. The plants included tree sized Chinese wysteria, dense stands of bamboo (64 different varieties, so the pamphlets say) hundreds of camellias of all type and color and the largest collection of azaleas I’ve ever seen.
There was also a small shrine overlooking a lagoon which holds a Buddha that is said to be around 900 years old. The statue was looted and eventually sold at auction in New York City and made its way to Avery Island as a gift and has rested here since.
Although they’re rarely seen this time of year, the day had heated up to the point where even a few small American alligators came out to sun on the bank. They were extremely sluggish that afternoon and weren’t even phased by the groups of kids gathered around pointing and daring each other to get one step closer.
After spending the better part of three hours wandering around the gardens, my wife and I headed out. On the way in or out, it’s hard to miss the large factory surrounded by levees built after Hurricane Katrina. The Tabasco factory has the architectural style of an older factory though it has been rebuilt. Unfortunately, it was too late for tours but there were informative placards all around the entrance.
The Tabasco Country Store was another matter entirely though. Since the last tour had just ended, the store was packed full of people browsing the gift shop and trying out the large counter of pretzels, crackers, sauces, pepper jellies and other treats. The store makes its own jalapeno and sweet and spicy flavored ice creams. Both ice cream flavors were available for taste testing and were both fabulous. We ended up with a link of boudin, a jar of jalapeno pepper jelly, a bottle of sweet and spicy Tabasco pepper sauce and a deck of Makin’ Groceries playing cards, that my wife recognized from her childhood.
On the way out, I stopped to photograph a flock of American White Ibis (eudocimus albus) feeding in the grass beside a gas pipeline.
Avery Island was just under a 3 hour road trip from New Orleans. Hwy 90 passes through the cities of Houma and Morgan City and also offers a scenic view of some of the Atchafalya Basin.