Phil Adams lives in different centuries at the Gilcrease Museum, surrounded by purple wisteria from the Victorian era, Old West native sandstone, and cabbage, kale and daffodils popular in Colonial times.
The groundskeeper works with garden docents and museum officials on the upkeep of the Gardens at Gilcrease. These are the theme gardens surrounding the museum, tying the outdoors to the exhibits inside.
For Adams, this natural beauty through the ages is meant to be enjoyed in an interactive way.
“We love it when kids and families come out to enjoy this,” Adams said. “They can take off their shoes and run barefoot in the grass. That’s what we like to see, people bringing out a picnic and coming into the gardens.”
For Adams, his favorite is the Colonial Garden. Gardens in the 18th century focused on survival mixed with beauty.
That’s why at Gilcrease, the garden located in front of the museum has an unusual combination of flowers and food, like peonies next to tomatoes.
“It’s my favorite because I can eat some of it in this one,” he jokes. “The rabbits and I share in the same diet.”
Dian Peacock, docent chairwoman for the gardens, has an almost childlike enthusiasm for the flowers, herbs, vegetables, rocks and statues dotting the grounds. During tours, she weaves lessons of history, gardening and art.
For her, it’s not just a rock or flower. It’s a time capsule of what pioneers saw as they traveled west, or what Native Americans cultivated into their lands.
As summer approaches and people are looking for fun — and free — cultural activities, Peacock wants the Gilcrease gardens to be on those lists.
“This is Tulsa’s downtown art gardens,” she said. “I have a love for beauty, art, history and the outdoors. This brings it all together.”
The gardens were unveiled in 1989 after three years of design planning and $800,000 in fundraising.
Five theme gardens — pre-Columbian, pioneer, Colonial, Victorian and rock — are located on 23 of the museum’s 460 acres. Each reflects the gardening styles and landscapes found during those time periods.
Those themes were chosen because of the artwork and items from the eras located within the institution.
“It’s a total blending of the gardens with the exhibits of the museum itself,” Peacock said. “These gardens are what other designers are trying to do, and we already have them. The Gilcrease has themes that are special and appeal to different people’s hearts. The gardens are part of that and hold something for everyone.”
Two of the gardens, pre-Columbian and pioneer, are located at Stuart Park along a hiking trail accessible from the parking lot. This area used to be a savanna grassland for buffalo.
The bison no longer roam, but native flowers of Mexican hats and blackjacks are seen among the elms and post oaks. Berries and plants used for food or clothing by American Indian tribes and early explorers are found here.
“This is more or less what pioneers saw as they went westward — wetlands, grasslands and cross timbers. They were like the custodians of the ecosystems in the west,” Peacock said.
The rock garden features indigenous stone with wildflowers popping between the crevices.
For authenticity, plant seeds from Mount Vernon (home of George Washington) and Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s estate) are sprinkled within the Colonial Garden.
The Victorian garden is adjacent to the original home of founder, oilman and philanthropist Thomas Gilcrease. It wasn’t originally part of the home, but the theme reflects pieces by artists including Albert Bierstadt and John James Audubon.
“Thomas Gilcrease was the first gardener here,” Peacock said. “We have pictures in our archives of him in the garden. You can see in those photos, in his eyes, how much he loved the trees he was planting. Having gardens was important to him.”
Recently, the docent handbook was updated to reflect the gardens’ evolution. Labels of plants have also been reviewed for accuracy.
As the original trees and plants matured, the landscape changed in shading and soil, affecting other vegetation in the gardens.
“The natural aging of the plants necessitated our correlating with the garden department on what is flourishing now — what flowers are blooming in the gardens,” Peacock said.
Anyone can visit the grounds for free, and materials for self-guided garden tours are located at the museum’s front desk. Docent tours are given at 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays through June then pick back up in September and October.
In addition, the museum also has a hummingbird garden and beehives on the grounds as part of other projects.
“We are right on the cutting edge of innovation of gardens styles and have been since 1989,” Peacock said.
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