LOUISVILLE — On a recent Saturday, warm afternoon sunshine drew hundreds of visitors to Cherokee Park — hiking, biking, running, picnicking, playing. It was a perfect example of what famed American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned more than a century ago when he designed a system of Louisville parks that are part of the fabric of life in the city.
Among those park-goers was a group of about 15 plant enthusiasts on a tour led by one of the experts on Olmsted's Louisville parks: botanist and author Patricia Dalton Haragan.
Haragan leads regular strolls through the 2,000 acres of parkland that Olmsted, and later the Olmsted Brothers firm, created for Kentucky's largest city.
Last week, The University Press of Kentucky in Lexington published her book The Olmsted Parks of Louisville: A Botanical Field Guide ($50).
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It highlights 384 plants that she has identified in five of the city's Olmsted parks. She employs text and color photographs to help readers identify each plant. The book includes information about habitat, native origins and use. It also contains sections that illustrate basic botanical terms, online references for further reading and contact, and a brief background that describes each park's history and development.
"The field guide is a good jumping-off point to get people out to look at the parks," says Haragan, a former curator of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture's herbarium, and the author of another field guide, Weeds of Kentucky and Adjacent States: A Field Guide (originally published by The University Press of Kentucky but now out of print).
Probably best known for creating New York's Central Park; the landscape at the Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C.; and the U.S. Capitol grounds, Olmsted began work on the Louisville parks in 1891. The work continued through his firm for about 40 years. (Olmsted's firm also designed Woodland Park and the Ashland Park neighborhood in Lexington, among other projects.) Today, Louisville's character is colored in shades of green by Olmsted's vision of the recreational opportunities and restorative power in their breath-of-fresh-air beauty.
There were the rolling, wooded hills of Cherokee and Seneca Parks along Beargrass Creek in the city's northeast; around a forested knob in Iroquois Park to the south; Shawnee and Chickasaw Parks along the banks of the Ohio River; and a series of small neighborhood parks, including Boone and Baxter Squares, plus wide, tree-lined parkways connecting these open spaces.
All the parks have a pastoral quality, which was part of Olmsted's style. There are plants galore, including native species, weeds and transplanted landscaping specimens.
Looking closely at those plants on that recent Saturday were Haragan and her tour. Despite freezing weather that delayed this spring's emergence of new shoots and sprouts, Haragan found a diverse range of plants and background stories at Cherokee Park.
The exploration started under beech trees near Hogan's Fountain and Enid Yandell's 1905 sculpture of a cherub representing Pan, the Greek god of rustic meadows.
Haragan quickly spotted a tiny, roadside plant called Whitlow-grass in bloom at the curb. The plant is "one of my favorite harbingers of spring in the weed world," she said.
The stroll followed a woodland path much-used by mountain bikers, where Christmas fern, the beginnings of emerging waterleaf, and dried remnants of native hydrangea were found; all are profiled in the guide book.
Haragan pointed out sections in the woods where, when spring blooms really got going, patches of various wildflowers can be seen.
Because the parks are disturbed sites and re-planted, landscaped environments, Haragan said, she initially didn't expect to find an abundance of rare native plants — yet the woods, once cleared of invasive exotic species including bush honeysuckle and euonymus, has yielded rarities.
One that she found there was Illinois wood sorrel. Haragan said she thinks it's the first specimen recorded in Jefferson County; others have been found mainly in Western Kentucky.
"That's just how special these parks are," she says.
In addition to identifying plants in the parks, Haragan takes special interest in changes among plant populations. She has detected a marked increase recently in three species that threaten diversity with their explosive growth rates: garlic penny-cress, crabweed and lesser celandine.
"People who know what to look for and want to learn about invasive plants can be watchtowers," she says. "It is better to be proactive than to let it slide."