The Grounds

Learn from Deb Wiles, senior horticulturist, about the grounds of The W.H. Stark House.

Historical images from the Eunice R. Benckenstein Library & Archive, Orange, TX.

Pollinator Week at The W.H. Stark House – This is a week to celebrate pollinators and their contributions to our environment and ecosystems. Our horticulture team has been planting pollinator friendly plants in the garden, including host and nectar plants, to ensure a continuous and sustainable food source for these important garden visitors. Along the Carriage House fence facing Main Street you can see the native May Pop or Passion Vine (Passiflora incarnata), which is the host plant for the larval stage (caterpillars) of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly. Also in the garden are several plants of native Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), host plant to Monarch caterpillars, while bees, butterflies, moths and birds all enjoy the pollen and nectar produced by the many flowering annuals and perennials. Be sure to celebrate our pollinators and the important work they do by planting your own pollinator garden during Pollinator Week!

Miriam Stark, like many ladies in her day, kept up on the latest home and garden trends through her travels and by reading popular house and garden magazines. 

In 1893, the Starks traveled to the World’s Columbian Exposition where they saw the latest innovations in art and technology. They may also have seen an enthusiastic plant breeder from South America who was introducing a new plant called Caladium. This tropical fancy-leaved plant soon became very popular in U.S. gardens. Many varieties of Caladium have been developed in the 130 years since, but some of those new-to-the-1890’s varieties still exist and are known as “heirlooms.” 

At The W.H. Stark House, we are excited to include an heirloom variety in the garden called Caladium candidum ‘Senior.’ First introduced around 1899, it was very possibly advertised in one of the magazines or garden catalogs read by Mrs. Stark. Visitors today will see ‘Senior’ glowing with its white heart-shaped foliage marked with striking dark green veins and smaller, more intricate veining that creates a stained glass effect. It lights up the shady areas along the cobbled walkway and on the north side of the Carriage House where it commingles with Caladium  ‘White Star’ (a nod to the star in the Lutcher-Moore Lumber Company logo) with its red veins and green margins. 

Introductions that are more recent include the blushing ‘Heart and Soul,’ which sets the tone for the pink and white color scheme in the Circle Beds and ‘Debutante,’ another white Caladium with green veins and a pink flush. Elsewhere on the grounds is C. ‘Southern Charm,’ similar to ‘White Star’ with more pronounced red veins.

The first American Caladium hybridizer, Henry Nehrling, compared the beauty and brilliancy of Caladiums to art and said, “For years the Caladiums have been the greatest attraction of my garden.” We think visitors will agree that the Caladiums are one of the greatest summer attractions of the Stark House garden, too!

In “The Secret Garden,” Mary Lennox endured a brief stay with a family in England before traveling to her uncle’s estate. One little boy was always teasing her and would sing, “Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, and marigolds all in a row.”

We know what Marigolds are, but what are cockle shells? According to the dictionary, a cockle shell is “any of various chiefly marine bivalve mollusks having a shell with convex radially ribbed valves,” such as a clam, mussel or oyster.

In coastal areas around SETX, oysters have always been a part of the local diet and economy. In the 19th century, there were many oyster reefs in the area and the shells became a popular construction material, particularly as road paving. In gardening, the calcium carbonate in oyster shells makes a good soil amendment and acts as a root stimulant, helping plants grow stronger and healthier. Oyster shells ground into a powder and mixed with water create a liquid fertilizer that can be watered onto the plants while whole oyster shells make a nice ornament in a pot or in the flower bed.

The roads and paths of Lutcher Stark’s original Shangri La featured “handsome white shell topped roads and levies.” Some of those shells can be seen in The W.H. Stark House garden surrounding the restored 19th century clamshell birdbath. If asked how our garden grows, we can point to the lovely flowers and our very own collection of cockle shells.

In the story of “The Secret Garden,” Mary Lennox meets Ben Weatherstaff, an English gardener on her uncle’s estate. Did you know the Starks also employed an English gardener?

George Grinstead came to Orange from Hastings, England, and worked for the Starks from 1894 to the early 1940s. Among the many flowers in his care were the family’s orchid collection, which included “One of America’s finest collections of orchids” inherited from Frances Ann Lutcher. The Stark’s orchids can still be seen at Shangri La Gardens when in bloom. George and his wife Barbara lived with their children in the Carriage House until 1932, when the Starks bought them their own house as a Christmas present.

The English gardening connection continues today with senior horticulturist, Deb Wiles, who studied Garden History in England and worked at a garden about 10 miles from George Grinstead’s home town. She has spent the last year reimagining the Stark House garden as it might have been when the Starks were in residence by adding heirloom and native plants that would have been available in the early 20th century. We think Mr. Grinstead and Mr. Weatherstaff would approve!