By MG Calla Victoria
Famous as the home of internationally distributed McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce, Avery Island is so much more than just that. I organized a field trip for Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans (MGGNO) to Avery Island. Our interests were more in horticulture than Tabasco production.
Avery Island is privately owned by the McIlhenny family and the entire island is built on a salt dome that houses the nation’s oldest salt mine. Salt from that mine is used on the tops of the wooden barrels in which the Tabasco Sauce is aged. Edmond McIlhenny started making the tangy condiment that we love so well between 1866 and 1868. Upon his passing, sons John Avery McIlhenny and Edward Avery McIlhenny took the reins. By the turn of the twentieth century, McIlhenny's invention could be found on tables worldwide.
Edward Avery McIlhenny, along with heading the Tabasco Empire, was a conservationist. He set aside 170 acres of his property for plant cultivation and wild bird refuge. Today those acres are called Jungle Gardens and are planted with azaleas, Japanese Camellias, hydrangeas, Louisiana irises, Sedges, bamboo, wisteria, and hundreds of varieties of exotic plants from around the globe. There is an egret sanctuary called Bird City, a golden bamboo forest, and a centuries old Buddha temple, yes Buddha is in Dixie!
Of all of the attractions at Jungle Gardens, I was most intrigued with why and how a Chinese Buddha got to Avery Island in New Iberia, Louisiana. Our tour guide, who boarded our Hotard charter bus, cleared up the quandary. It seems in the 1920s a feuding Chinese warlord stole the Buddha, shipped it to New York, and had it placed in storage. Then the original owner of Buddha caught up with said feuding warlord and lifted off his head. So the thieving warlord was dead and Buddha was setting in a storage locker in the Big Apple. Buddha eventually went on auction and two of McIlhenny’s friends purchased the Buddha and shipped down to Edward, who was president of the Tabasco Company at that time. Now we know the answer to the age-old question, “What do you get for the person who has everything?”
Upon receipt the centuries old Chinese Buddha, circa 1100 A.D., Edward McIlhenny created an Asian-influenced garden to accommodate his amazing treasure. He commissioned the construction of a raised embankment for the temple to sit on which was built of dry stack rocks. Unfortunately, visitors
started walking away with the rocks as souvenirs, and someone chipped off a piece of Buddha’s right ear. It was then that Edward McIlhenny had the rocks cemented in and built a glass casing around Buddha. Although under glass, Buddha is still
an awesome sight, facing south looking out over a magnificent reflecting pool.
After leaving Buddha, we slowly meandered around the grounds until we reached the egret lookout. As Jungle
Gardens is a sprawling 170 acres, so it is more of a riding tour
than a walking tour. As we got to a point of interest, we would deboard the bus and explore that serene, lush, wonderful natural environment. Our next stop was the amazing Golden Bamboo Forest. I felt like a kid again thrashing through gigantic stalks of golden bamboo that were as big around as your upper arm and soaring into the heavens. Bamboo (Bambuseae) is a tribe of flowering perennial evergreen plants in the grass family Poacea, subfamily Bambusoideae, tribe Bambuseae. Giant bamboos are the largest members of the grass family. Bamboos are some of the fastest-growing plants in the world. Certain species of bamboo can grow 35 inches within a 24-hour period, and can get 80 feet tall.
Of course we could not go to Avery Island and not visit the fabled Tabasco Factory. The tour of the factory consisted of a short film on the history of Tabasco Sauce, some samples of the product, and a walk through the area where the Tabasco Sauce is bottled. Then finally you ended up in a room which has interactive kiosks focusing on various aspects of the production process. There were also the wooden barrels capped with that heavy coating of salt used to age the sauce. Then there was a food truck with all of the most delectable food, and finally the Tabasco Country Store, with EVERYTHING Tabasco. There were tasting stations throughout with every flavor of Tabasco Sauce including Raspberry, there was even Raspberry Tabasco ice cream, and Tabasco Soy Sauce. You could buy your basic
2-5 ounce bottle, variety packs, or you can buy it by the jug. It seems that our attendees were more the jug type crew walking out clutching their huge jugs with smiles on their faces. Avery Island is a must-see experience, put it on your list!
Golden Bamboo Forest
Coat of Arms Tabasco Country Store
This article is published in the November 8, 2014 edition of Data News Weekly, and appears as a digital copy on ladatanews.com.
Remember, never get too busy to stop and enjoy the beautiful flowers!