Research Wrapped in Beauty at the Burden Center in Baton Rouge

Linda Benedict, Bogren, Richard C.  |  3/4/2010 8:45:40 PM

In 2004, the LSU AgCenter transformed a former hay field into a 25-acre turf grass and ornamental horticulture research area as the newest addition to the Burden Center in Baton Rouge, a facility dedicated to the viability and success of Louisiana’s commercial nursery, landscape and turf grass industry.

“Much of the research results also are adaptable to home lawns and gardens,” said Pat Hegwood, the center coordinator.

Originally called Windrush Plantation, the tract now known as the Burden Center was acquired by John Charles Burden in the mid-19th century and is home to a wide array of formal and informal gardens and woods in addition to horticulture research.

John Charles Burden’s descendants include Steele Burden, a former landscaper for the LSU campus; Ione Burden, his sister and former assistant dean of women at LSU; and Jeanette Burden, the widow of their brother, Pike Burden. In 1966, they donated 50 acres to LSU, and over the succeeding years, they donated additional tracts until the final parcel was given in 1992, for a total of 440 acres at the Burden Center.

The Burden family stipulated in the act of donation that the property be used for horticultural and agronomic research, for development of a Rural Life Museum and as a green area devoid of buildings not necessary for these purposes. To secure LSU’s future adherence to these stipulations, the Ione Burden Foundation was formed.

Over the years, the focus of research at Burden Center has changed. In 1979, when Warren Meadows was appointed resident director of the Burden Research Plantation, as it was known then, the research included soybeans and other agronomic crops such as wheat.

“Very little horticultural research was in progress,” Meadows said.

When he started at Burden, Meadows learned Ione Burden was more interested in the development of the horticultural research program there than Steele Burden.

“Nevertheless, they both wished to see more horticulture activity and less soybeans occupying the property,” Meadows said. “The increased emphasis on urban horticulture research, I believe, would have met with Mr. Burden’s approval.”

Now, AgCenter researchers conduct plant trials throughout the year at Burden to evaluate the performance of landscape bedding plants and vegetable plants appropriate for south Louisiana. Warm-season and cool-season plants are rotated annually in approximately 5,000 square feet of raised beds.

The researchers evaluate a broad range of landscape plants to determine disease and insect resistance, bloom quality and duration, cut flower potential, cold and heat tolerance, and overall landscape performance and adaptability. In addition, Burden Center is home to trials to evaluate various varieties of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberries and many other commercial and home garden vegetables and fruits.

Zhijun Liu of the School of Renewable Natural Resources has several projects at Burden Center. He’s growing 21 campotheca trees for a study with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Seeds from the trees contain camptothecin, a naturally occurring compound that holds promise in cancer therapy.

Liu is also growing a second tree, eucommia, for studies in cooperation with the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Eucommia bark contains substances that have anti-hypertension properties.

Sweet potato researchers at Burden Center are studying host-plant resistance to sweet potato weevils and banded cucumber beetles. Sweet potato weevils are a pest under quarantine and are not present in most north Louisiana parishes Other research includes screening lines from the AgCenter breeding program for resistance to major diseases and determining the role of viruses in the decline in yield and quality of sweet potato varieties.

Other researchers use the facilities at Burden Center to evaluate performance of varieties of strawberries, mahaws, figs, peaches and pawpaws while vegetable studies include tomato variety performance and new technologies and practices to improve the profitability for small and medium-scale fresh-market producers.

The AgCenter’s fig breeding and selection program recently released new varieties ORourke, Champagne and Tiger. Other fruit research is investigating low-chill peach varieties for coastal areas and pawpaws for fruit production and landscape use.

Sustainable agriculture research includes organic vegetable production, summer and winter cover crops, production practices and variety trials. Extension demonstration projects feature field days and organic vegetable production demonstrations.

In the greenhouse, researchers are working with tomatoes and hydroponic lettuce. In addition, they’re investigating the effects of heat stress on bedding plants and developing a method for determining heat tolerance.

The Burden Center also hosts ongoing evaluations of roses, crape myrtles and bedding plants to develop recommendations for the production and landscape industry. Plant researchers are looking at postharvest longevity of sunflowers, rose diseases and poinsettia stem strength. Turf grass research includes a national turf grass evaluation and research in plant nutrition and weed control. Researchers also are evaluating the use of biodegradable containers and investigating particle size and distribution of various wood products for use as a soilless substrate.

The original Windrush Garden is a 3.5-acre area around the original Burden home with formal gardens including bronze and marble statues and water features. The Burden Center maintains it exactly as it was when Steele Burden designed it.

“We don’t add to it or take anything away,” Hegwood said. “We have a documented inventory of the original Windrush Garden.”

Over the intervening years, the cultivated garden area has grown to about 15 acres but still in keeping with Steele Burden’s original design. In the newer area, the AgCenter has been adding and enhancing the garden with newer plant varieties. In areas where Steele Burden planted camellias, the AgCenter has planted camellias; where he planted azaleas, the AgCenter has planted azaleas.

Complementing Steele Burden’s original plantings, the AgCenter acquired more than 450 identified camellia varieties from the private collection of Violet Stone in 2002. Now planted in several locations at Burden Center, the camellia gardens are supported by the Baton Rouge Camellia Society, which propagates plants from the collection and sells them. Burden Center receives a portion of the proceeds of the sales.

Burden Center is a member of All- America Rose Selection’s nationwide network of approved public gardens. AARS public gardens contain a minimum of 800 rose bushes and offer special displays of outstanding new varieties chosen by AARS for their beauty, novelty and vigor. The garden at Burden Center was recognized with an “Outstanding Rose Garden Maintenance Award” for 2009, Hegwood said.

Private evaluators found the garden to be in excellent condition and “a tribute to the AARS varieties on display,” Hegwood said.

Other features at Burden Center include:
–The Barton Arboretum, which has a pond and gazebo.
–A Memorial Live Oak Garden features trees that have been dedicated to friends of the AgCenter.
–The Steele Burden Memorial Orangerie, part conservatory and part interpretive in construction.
–The Ione E. Burden Conference Center, which includes a 2,400-squarefoot meeting room served by a kitchen and outdoor area for conferences and workshops.

Along with the AgCenter’s research and demonstration activities, LSU A&M operates the Rural Life Museum in a 16- acre corner of Burden Center. Through its extensive collection of tools, utensils, furniture and farming equipment, the museum preserves and interprets an important part of the state’s and nation’s rural heritage. The museum also serves as a research facility for LSU students engaged in heritage conservation studies. 

Rick Bogren

(This article was published in the winter 2010 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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