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Birds, Wildlife and Gardening

Pittosporums and palms zapped by February freeze at Zilker Botanical Garden

April 26, 2021

The damage and plant kills at Zilker Botanical Garden stunned me when I visited a week and a half ago. No garden in Austin was spared during February’s Big Freeze, and of course our public gardens weren’t either. But I still wasn’t prepared to see the ancient, twisted pittosporums in the Taniguchi Japanese Garden looking like a fire had swept through.

Taniguchi Japanese Garden

Moon bridge garden before

This is how the garden always looked during the two decades I’ve been visiting: lush and green, with paths winding behind cascading limbs of giant pittosporums clinging to the rocky hillside above the ponds.

And after

And now, bare and exposed.

Waterfall pittosporum before

I first came across the pittosporum that gracefully hung over the waterfall, which used to look like this.

Waterfall pittosporum after

Not anymore. I stopped in my tracks and gasped, “Oh no!” when I saw an amputated stump where that beautiful, old shrub sprawled for so many years.

Before: The pittosporum used to cascade over the waterfall

From below the loss is equally tragic. Here it is before…

Waterfall post-freeze

And here it is after the freeze, all the mystery shorn away.

Of course there’s still a lot of greenery in the garden. It was just a shock to see those beautiful pittosporums brown and dead, or entirely gone.

Hartman Prehistoric Garden

With trepidation I headed to the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, always the best-planted and best-maintained garden at Zilker, to my mind. Sad, brown palms greeted me.

Decapitated cycads and more brown trees lined the paths.

Cycads before

The cycad collection used to look like this.

Cycads post-freeze

Now it’s just stumps. I fervently hope these will grow back. I’ve seen sago palms releaf months after being frozen back, but of course this was a much colder and more prolonged freeze.

Palmettos before

A thicket of palmettos edges a pond, or used to.

After the freeze

Now it looks like this. I see a few green fans of leaves in there, so maybe it’ll grow back.


Texas dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) is still green, happily. It sailed through that freezing week in my own garden too.

And look at this mock orange in gorgeous bloom! Only certain plants were harmed by the freeze, after all, and plenty of plants are in bloom and growing strong. While I’m sure the damage has been devastating for the gardening staff, I’m also sure they’re moving on by this point and already making plans for the affected areas.

Zilker’s future

What they need is funding — not just to repair freeze damage, but to turn this perennially underfunded and understaffed garden into the jewel it should be. Why the City of Austin hasn’t prioritized funding for this tourist mecca located near downtown Austin is beyond me. And why haven’t any of Austin’s tech billionaires stepped up with a generous endowment via the Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy? I’m looking at you, Michael Dell, Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd, and newcomer Elon Musk.

Think about this. Isamu Taniguchi toiled alone at age 70 to create Zilker’s Japanese Garden with his own two hands, for zero pay, as a thank-you to the city for his sons’ education and as a symbol of peace — and this was after he’d endured years in internment camps in Texas (yes, Texas) and California during World War II. If he could do that for Austin, we can surely honor his creation and ensure Zilker Garden is well-funded and blossoming for years to come. Go visit. Become a member. Give a monetary gift. Become part of Zilker’s future.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Do you love ponds as well as gardens? Grab your sun hat and attend Austin’s 26th annual Pond and Garden Tour on June 5 and 6. Sponsored by the Austin Pond Society, the tour includes 13 ponds over two days, with admission of $20 in advance (until 5/31) and $25 on the day of (online payments only; no cash).

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