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B Y    T. A.   J O H N S O N


Destined to be a giant hit, Red Butte's new additions are super-sized for learning and play.

P H O T O S   B Y   P E T A    O W E N S - L I S T O N

Nestled high in the red stony hills that backdrop the University of Utah is a garden known as Red Butte that provides, among other things, environmental education for schoolchildren statewide. Yet young visitors have never had the kind of opportunities for hands-on activity that will be possible May 1 with the opening of the Red Butte Garden Children's Garden. It's an acre of ground creatively suited to capture the imagination, allowing youngsters to explore and interact with nature.

For Herb Schaal, who designed this latest addition to Red Butte, the garden had to be child-sized and a fun place to visit, with activities that children like to do. So a group of area children, ages three through 12, was enlisted by the Red Butte staff to draw their ideas for a garden. Using big chunks of butcher paper and fistfuls of crayons, the children drew water to play in, plants and dirt with which to work, and a high place to climb so they could look out over their world.

And what did this design consultation yield? Standing on the bridge roughly in the center of the garden, a visitor looking down to the west will see an interactive fountain that shoots gentle sprays of water in response to motion when visitors walk by, and a 150-foot rattlesnake maze built to exclude adults and include the young and adventurous. Looking over toward the east there is a shallow pond backed by a grotto. Stepping stones in the pond encourage visitors to walk across so they can be nose to nose with frogs and other critters who live there. The grotto has a waterfall that visitors can walk behind, a natural seep, and more plants for kids to touch.

Upon entering the garden, visitors will find the Butterfly Walk, which features bird feeders and colorful plants such as the Butterfly Bush and Butterfly Weed in purples, reds, and oranges to attract insects and hummingbirds. There will be a sunflower house, a bean teepee – and even a Wizard of Oz Garden, complete with scarecrows and lined with poppies. The Sprout House, a child-sized greenhouse and classroom, allows children to grow plants at their own eye level using the available soil, seeds, and pots. The Canyon Walk will show the kinds of plants Native Americans used in their daily lives. A shadow tower will soon come alive with plantings of maize, beans, gourds, and other plants. And the oversized terra-cotta flowerpot (more than 15 feet tall and 10 feet across) is just right for a lookout.

Children and adults working together designed the Children's Garden, which is separated into Adventure, Exploratory, and Discovery gardens. According to Schaal, "Kids living in cities often have little contact with nature so they have no feel for nature. With some favorable and memorable contact they can become better stewards of the land."

Another super-sized feature at Red Butte Garden, also opening May 1, is sculptor David Rogers' Big Bug exhibit. The display includes 10 beneficial arthropods all made from various combinations of trees, branches, and other found forest materials. In an interview with the New York Times in 1995, Rogers said of his creations, "Insects play this vital role in a garden but are unnoticed. So I put them on such a large scale that you can't help but notice them."

These bugs aren't just large – they're huge.

Consider: an 18-foot-long praying mantis, 17-foot-long dragonflies with 17-foot-long wingspans, a four-foot-high grasshopper that's 11 feet long, a three-foot by four-foot spider on a 20-foot by 15-foot web. "Large" doesn't begin to describe these artful creations, which children seem to love. "The kids' reactions run from Ôwow' to Ôthat's cool!' and it's music to my ears. They react to the pieces on a basic simple level; they don't try to analyze them," says Rogers.

Big Bugs will be on exhibit through October 31, 1999. Red Butte Garden is also purchasing a praying mantis, made from the sturdy wood of a black locust tree, for permanent display in the Children's Garden.

Of course, Red Butte isn't just for children – it's for anyone who wants to learn more about plants or is looking for a peaceful retreat. Just outside the Walter P. Cottam Visitor Center is the Courtyard Garden decorated with etched panels depicting 52 species of native wildflowers. It leads up to a newly replanted Four Seasons Garden, a showcase for plants that are at their best during different seasons of the year. Head off roughly to the north and take the Floral Walk, a display of 1,300 different plants, then down to the original Creekside Garden begun in the spring of 1983. From there one can saunter into the Terrace Garden, a threesome of herb, medicinal, and fragrance gardens that begs visitors to smell and touch the flowers and plants, and listen to the sounds of water bubbling over terraced sandstone fountains.

Much of the credit for the current growth of the Garden goes to its energetic and affable director, Mary Pat Matheson BS'81 MPA'93. In her eight years as director she has been the guiding force for the new development but says, "It's been a group effort involving our advisory board and our staff." The staff totals 29, plus volunteers and seasonal employees. The volunteers weed, plant, and help to maintain the gardens. "Without our volunteers we would be lost," says Matheson.

Like many gardens, both private and public, Red Butte didn't step out of the box freshly minted and complete. It began with people. In the early 1930s, Cottam, the visitor center namesake and an intermountain plantsman and professor of botany at the University of Utah for more than 30 years, started planting trees from all over the world throughout the campus. Today the collection has some 9,000 trees, including 43 oak hybrids that Cottam developed. Cottam later became co-founder of The Nature Conservancy.

In the summer of 1977, W. Richard Hildreth, a transplant from the director's job at the Saratoga Horticulture Foundation, invited friends and professionals from western botanic gardens to explore the possibility of establishing a botanic garden along the banks of Red Butte Creek east of the University of Utah campus. A community leader, Ezekiel R. "Zeke" Dumke, Jr. BA'50, contributed his considerable influence and talents to help make the project a reality, spending hours roaming and assessing the 150-acre site. Instilling his vision for a botanical garden in the imaginations of others, Dumke is now recognized as a co-founder of the Garden. Its advisory board, led by the likes of Bob Keener, Sandy McComber, and the current chair Grant Schettler BS'64 JD'72, has contributed profoundly to the Garden's latest developments.

Matheson also notes that friends and supporters of Red Butte Garden should be grateful to the voters of Salt Lake County who approved the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks initiative in 1996. "That tax has enabled the Garden to provide more programs and to improve maintenance," she says. Still, the capital development for the Garden is funded solely by donations.

Red Butte Garden ranges over 150 acres of rolling topography backed up to National Forest Service land. There are more than four miles of hiking trails in the Red Butte Natural Area that take walkers 500 feet above the valley floor. A year-round stream marks the northern boundary. To the south, stands of native Gambel oak are divided by developed areas, sagebrush, and native grass. Beginning in the late 1800s, the area was used by the U.S. Army as a camp, firing range, and, finally, a fort. The hills are pocked with 33 sandstone quarry sites that were worked until about 1934, producing the soft red stone building blocks still seen today in much of the Salt Lake Valley.

Even though Utah is the second driest state in the nation, it is horticulturally diverse – another feature showcased by this botanic garden for plants, both native and cultivated. For instance, there are more than 60 feet of dawn redwood growing in Red Butte Garden. At the other extreme, visitors in the spring will see groupings of species tulips in colorful bloom. Tulips originally came not from Holland but from areas in the hot, dry Middle East.

In many ways, Red Butte is a university about plants, with the classrooms set in and around groves of native Gambel oak. It is open to all, from novice gardener to old master. The terrain promotes the concept that the most interesting gardens blend together and into their surroundings. Walk through Red Butte and see daylilies in full sun as well as flowing under the Gambel oak. Or notice how a planting of annuals grows out into a lawn, or how ornamental grasses spill over, softening borders. Areas of turf grass are broken up with groupings of shapely evergreens. Beds of annuals and perennials exhibit a dizzying array of colors and forms that thrive in the hot, dry climate of Utah.

"Insects play this vital role in a garden but are unnoticed. So I put them on such a large scale that you can't help but notice them."

Making use of the available topography is another lesson taught in this outdoor university. Red Butte shows how dips and rises in the land can be incorporated into a garden design. The result is a garden that can't be completely seen from one vantage point but compels visitors to climb over knolls and traverse winding pathways to find out what's up ahead and around the bend.

Ezekiel R. Dumke, Jr., has long sown the seeds of Red Butte. An emeritus board member, he's considered the Garden's co-founder.

Red Butte is one of only 28 gardens nationwide connected to the Center for Plant Conservation, a group working to catalog, save, propagate, and reintroduce rare and endangered plants. Red Butte is responsible for the Great Basin region, a huge area bounded by the Cascade/Sierra mountain ranges on the west, the Wasatch/Rockies on the east, and stretching north to south roughly from Canada to Arizona. The Red Butte research staff has already successfully propagated 17 plants from the region.

Red Butte Garden is full of surprises year-round. To first-time visitors expecting a stately plant museum or tended rose specimens more suited to the courtly tastes of the Ladies Garden Society, it provides an unexpected opportunity to explore the serene beauty of Utah's natural setting. And with its new Children's Garden, Red Butte Garden has even more appeal for those who want to play in the fountains and ponds, plant and harvest things in the soil, wriggle inside a 150-foot snake, or listen to birdsongs and splashing waters. It's open for learning, inspiration, and simply as a place to enjoy a fantastic community garden.

– T.A. Johnson BS'74 is a freelance writer who writes for regional and national gardening magazines and lives in the Salt Lake Valley.

Red Butte Garden's Web site can be found at:

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