Sunday, May 22, 2011



By Anne Butler

Imahara's GardensThe rich soils and mild climate of the Feliciana Parishes combined to produce some glorious 19th-century gardens, lush landscapings of live oaks towering over camellias, azaleas, sweet olive, magnolia fuscata, hip gardenias and all the other old-fashioned plants carefully chosen to complement the magnificent plantation homes and Victorian townhouses. Today those grand antebellum gardens are joined by a contemporary garden just as carefully planned and extensive in scope, a labor of love designed to bring a master gardener back to his roots.

Walter Imahara was one of ten children of a Japanese-American family uprooted by wartime hysteria, relocated from their prosperous California farmland and interned for several years during World War II. The family settled in postwar Louisiana, where they were hired to reclaim the sprawling  gardens at historic Afton Villa Plantation just north of St. Francisville.

As a schoolboy, Walter labored there with his parents and siblings, struggling to clear the jungle-like growth obscuring the beauty of Afton Villa’s terraced plantings and magnificent century-old oak alley, and as a young man he first helped and then succeeded his father James running the Imahara Nursery and Landscaping Co. they developed from scratch into a million-dollar enterprise that beautified the entire Baton Rouge area.

As the oldest son, according to age-old Japanese tradition, of him more was expected, an extra sense of responsibility and stern discipline, and Walter Imahara did not disappoint, rising to the top of every endeavor he undertook…well, almost.  As a weightlifter, he won dozens of national and world gold medals and was president of the International Weightlifting Federation when he put finally put down his competition barbells after half a century of involvement. It was probably his consuming passion for weightlifting that kept him from being tops in his college horticultural studies, but he certainly learned enough, for later as a professional nurseryman he earned the respect and admiration of his peers and was elected to the presidency of prestigious southern and national landscape associations.

After all the hard work and tough discipline for all those years, Walter Imahara certainly deserved a quiet and peaceful retirement. So did he settle with his elegant wife Sumi into a comfortable rocking chair on the front gallery of his St. Francisville country home? Not in a million years. First he labored to turn the unassuming cow pasture around his weekend retreat into a veritable arboretum of hundreds of crape myrtles, magnolias, hollies, camellias, weeping yaupons and yews, palm trees and the Japanese cherry trees his father had loved so much. Pristine white fences line the perimeter and an entrance gate opens onto a boulevard lined with stately Italian cypress trees.

Gardens near St. Francisvillle LouisianaSo then did Walter Imahara rest on his laurels and rock on his porch? Not a chance. It wasn’t long before he set his sights on 55 acres of property on Mahoney Road at the riverside edge of St. Francisville, overgrown hills and steep hollows that had once been part of an experimental livestock farm where 1920’s Louisiana governor John Parker spent part of his retirement years. It had been ages since the property had been productive and it straddled a steep ridge 60 feet above the low-lying cypress swamp and hollows, but Walter Imahara looked at the tangles of briars and brush obscuring the eroding hillsides and he saw potential, the chance to create a legacy garden reminiscent of the grounds of Afton Villa where he spent his childhood. And then he worked miracles.

From the time he purchased this land along the backwash banks of the Mississippi River on Bayou Sara, Walter Imahara and his crew labored, selectively clearing and resculpting the terrain with trackhoes and bulldozers for drainage and erosion control, allowing the 30-acre cypress swamp to serve as the natural reservoir. Eroding soils were shaped from ravines into four ponds, with large rock and filter fabric used to control the overflow, and irrigation systems were installed. Mass plantings of azaleas top-dressed with pinestraw and spaced off-center helped control erosion, providing spectacular color and proving to be deer-resistant as well, important in this wooded region. Other groupings include dozens of different varieties of magnolias, topiaries of various hollies, over 25 varieties of crape myrtles, palms, and many, many more, thousands and thousands of plants.

Road from St. Francisville,  La. to Imahara GardensLovely as it is (and it will become even lovelier as the years pass and the plants mature), this garden is not just for show; the plantings include a huge variety of botanical specimens that should prove of great interest to avid gardeners, with hardy and specialized plantings that thrive in the natural setting of the alluvial Tunica soils. Tours extolling the virtues of each variety are conducted by Walter and often his niece Wanda Chase, who as the third generation has taken over Imahara’s in Baton Rouge and is also a licensed landscape architect and much-honored hardworking young nurserywoman. Walter’s sisters Lily and Irene help out as tour guides as well, often in the conference center that comfortably seats 50 and serves as a venue for gardening talks and refreshments. The conference center is also an art gallery displaying the priceless woodcarvings of Japanese calligraphy produced with mallet and chisel in his old age by Walter’s father James, to whom this garden, so exemplary of the family horticultural skills and passions, serves as a great tribute.

Imahara’s Botanical Garden, on Mahoney Road in St. Francisville, opened its gates for special events and scheduled groups in the spring of 2011. Every Saturday and Sunday from May 28-29 through July 2-3, the gardens will welcome visitors to enjoy the incredible crape myrtle bloom. It will also be open for the October Southern Garden Symposium and December’s popular Christmas in the Country celebration in St. Francisville, as well as for prearranged visits by gardening groups, senior adult and church groups, class reunions, club meetings and landscape association get-togethers, with Imahara family guides and catering available by reservation.

Walter Imahara admits his incredible garden will also make a spectacular setting for weddings, exercise walking and an enormous array of other possibilities for the future. So will Walter Imahara, with his never-ending supply of goals and dreams, ever really retire? Not in a million years!

flowersTo schedule events, activities or guided tours for groups in the garden, contact, and for information on upcoming garden events, log onto or visit

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination.  A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or