IT’S LIKE stepping back in time, really.
Park in front of Curran Hall on Little Rock’s Capitol Avenue and you’re one block from the whir of Interstate 30, a stone’s throw from the hubbub of the state’s urban belly. But walk up the paved path bordered by boxwood parterres and follow the stepping stones through an allée of spindly crepe myrtles, and all that fades away. The commotion of traffic is replaced with birdsong and the buzzing of bees. The temperature drops and a cool breeze blows. It’s quiet, almost eerily so. You’re in a garden—the Marjem Ward Jackson Historic Arkansas Gardens, to be exact—but you might as well be in 1842.
That’s when the home, which now houses the Little Rock Visitor Information Center, was built. Back then it was home to Colonel Ebenezer Walters, who built the Greek Revival as a gift for his bride. It later became home to James Moore Curran and family, then to Mary Eliza Woodruff Bell. Her granddaughter was the last resident; the home was saved from demolition in 1996 when it was acquired by the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission. Six years and a $1.4 million renovation later, it was brought back from the brink—and so were its gardens, thanks to their namesake, avid gardener Marjem Ward Jackson, and the Pulaski County Master Gardeners.
Follow the brick and flagstone paths, and you’ll see Cherokee roses, hyacinth bean vine, snapdragons and wax myrtles. You’ll pass fig trees and dogwoods and buckeyes and quince. You’ll see signs for wildflowers and medicinal plants, herbs and annuals, and they’ll all have this in common: They would have grown here in the mid-19th century. In fact, some of them did—those heirloom roses near the east fence, those crepe myrtles that shaded you as you made your way into the garden (and that William Woodruff, founder of the Arkansas Gazette and father to May Eliza, introduced to the city). These plants, rescued during the renovation, are more deeply rooted in Little Rock than most things dwelling here today.
And even if you have been dwelling here for years, you might not know that these gardens exist. You might have passed by on Capitol Avenue without giving it a second thought, without following the path that leads around back. But you should. After all, what good’s a secret if you don’t share it?
Stop and smell the roses while seeing the sights at these ‘secret’ gardens
Clinton House Museum
Designed by exterior designer Daniel Keeley, the First Ladies Garden was added to this Fayetteville museum in 2010 and features the favorite blooms of most every First Lady from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. (clintonhousemuseum.org)
The Peel Mansion & Heritage Gardens
Built by Colonel Samuel West Peel on a 180-acre homestead on what was once the “outskirts” of Bentonville, this Italianate mansion near Walmart HQ is surrounded by historic roses and native plants that would have grown in the 19th century. (peelcompton.org)
Historic Arkansas Museum
The Arkansas Chapter of the Herb Society of America maintains a medicinal herb garden on HAM’s grounds, full of 19th-century plants that would have been used by settlers and Native Americans. (historicarkansas.org)
Mammoth Spring State Park
With dozens of herbs and edible plants—lavender, Russian sage, sandalwood, scented geranium and the like—in bloom at any given time, this state park’s herb garden, maintained by the Mammoth Spring Garden Club, smells as good as it looks. (arkansasstateparks.com/mammothspring)
Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center
The grounds surrounding this AGFC education center in downtown Little Rock’s River Market District feature hundreds of plants native to the state (and tasty to wildlife). (centralarkansasnaturecenter.com)