Azaleas Star in Muskogee’s Spring Festival

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Azaleas Star in Muskogee’s Spring Festival

BY M. J VAN DEVENTER

Every spring, the population of Muskogee swells during the month of April as people from across the country and around the world converge on Honor Heights Park. They come in cars and tour buses, on bikes and motorcycles.

The main attraction?

A flower that appears so delicate it’s hard to believe how sturdy and resilient it really is.
During April, azaleas of many styles and a rainbow of brilliant colors bloom just in time for the Azalea Festival, a spectacular nature show that has been drawing tourists to Muskogee since the city purchased this vast park in 1909.

Growing up in Muskogee, I remember Honor Heights Park as one of the most beautiful places to play. We swam in the park’s pool on summer’s hottest days. We enjoyed church picnics in the summer. It wasn’t June if we weren’t attending lovely weddings in the park. Weiner roasts were prevalent in the fall. And, with its winding trails and hundreds of trees, it was the scariest place in the world on Halloween.

The park was also off limits to nice girls at night. A teen girl’s greatest fear was her date would want to take her to the top of Agency Hill and park by the water tower. Absolutely forbidden.

I left Muskogee and Honor Heights to attend college and launch my journalism career. I returned through the years only to visit family or close high school friends. I moved back about three years ago as the bride of my grade school sweetheart. I found Honor Heights Park even more glorious than I remembered.

Muskogee residents now consider the park as “the crown jewel of the city.”

Its 132 acres overlook the city and encompass Agency Hill, which features the Five Civilized Tribes Museum, once the tribal headquarters for the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes that called this area of northeastern Oklahoma “home.”

The Azalea Festival has put Muskogee on the national map as a popular spring destination trip. It is considered by garden and travel aficionados as one of the top annual events in the South. Across the United States, there are 13 other cities in 10 states ~ from the Carolinas and Florida to Oregon and Texas ~ that celebrate this special blooming plant.

Numerous areas of the Muskogee park, many featuring the colorful azaleas, include a nature trail, the Audubon Trail, a favorite of bird lovers; and the half mile Stem Beach Trail, where local runners and walkers exercise and practice for marathons, like the 5k, 15k and fun run held during the Azalea Festival.

There’s also tennis courts, an arboretum, and an amphitheater, perfect for outdoor dramas and ceremonies. The newest addition is a state of the art playground. Besides being the largest playground in the region, it will be dedicated in April as a “NatureGround” national demonstration site.

Dogwood, redbud, crabapples and native trees abound in the 40 acres devoted to 30,000 plants. They all seem to know spring is here when they play supporting roles as leafy backdrops to the 635 varieties of azaleas. This is nature’s drama at its best. Other blooming plants – tulips and daffodils – may take a backseat to the fragile-looking azaleas but all the plants combine to give tourists a first rate show.

What is enticing for visitors is the front row seat they have in this nature theater. Whether you arrive on a bike or a tour bus, you can walk the grounds, and get a bird’s eye view of these ruffled beauties. Or if you prefer, there’s a horse-drawn carriage ride to take you through the park in Victorian style.

Of course, the beauty of the azaleas depends on Oklahoma’s mercurial and finicky weather. Azaleas, flowering shrubs that are cousins of the larger rhododendrons, have petals that are almost as thin as an onion skin. They are shade tolerant and prefer living near or under trees. They are, after all fleeting beauties and, in a perfect world, they crave protection from the elements.

Yet, they are hardier than one would expect. At Honor Heights, they have survived drought, extreme temperatures brought on by blazing sun or dangerous ice. Heavy rainfalls and hail are like a tsunami for azaleas. And of course, just like humans, they dwell in fear of tornadoes.

Predictably, the beauty of each spring’s festival depends on how cooperative Mother Nature has been in the preceding months. Park officials can’t apologize for the errant temperament of Mother Nature. But they strive to make each year’s Festival, and its accompanying events, better than the previous year.

J. Mark Wilkerson, Muskogee’s director of parks and recreation, said visitors within the next few years will see a reinvestment – a makeover – of the existing gardens and facilities.

“It includes the replanting of new azaleas in place of elderly or dying plants,” he said. “We also have plans to diversity the blooming plants to expand the floral attraction to the park for more year round enjoyment.”

Along with the park’s lakes, featuring paddle boats and fishing docks, are picnic areas and a rose garden anchored by a gazebo perfect for weddings. A butterfly house – The Papilion – opened two years ago with great fanfare. It has become a favorite gathering place for families and an exciting field trip for school children.

Near the butterfly house are public teaching gardens showcasing a variety of perennial plants and flowers indigenous to this region of the state. The old swimming pool is gone now, replaced by beautifully landscaped public areas, including park benches and play areas for children.

Numerous auxiliary events are planned during the month-long celebration including the 49th annual Azalea Parade. Banners by local artists hang throughout the city during the festival.

Just as the azaleas begin to fade, and summer glides into fall,
the city’s parks department begins planning for the Christmas holidays and another spectacular event – the Garden of Lights, which runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

With the azaleas resting up for their next spring extravaganza, the park becomes a winter wonderland of a million brilliant glittering lights.

The park truly is deserving of being called Muskogee’s “crown jewel.”

For more information on the 2015 Azalea Festival and related events, contact Muskogee’s Parks and Recreation Department, (918) 684-6302.

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