|By Suzanna Labry
George Coulam is something of a wizard. He makes things happen — big things. Eighty-one-year-old Coulam is also known as “King George” to the personnel of the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest event of its kind in the United States, which Coulam founded 43 years ago; as “Mayor” to the City Council of the Grimes County town of Todd Mission that he established in 2004; and simply as “George” to the 21 individuals who now make up the horticulture staff, landscape and grounds team, art team, and mechanic team at his current venture: the 193-acre Stargate Manor Arboretum near Plantersville, 45 miles northwest of Houston.
The idea for Stargate Manor Arboretum has been percolating in the back of Coulam’s creative mind for many years. When he was a student working on his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California at Northridge, he visited the Huntington Botanical Gardens in nearby Pasadena. Inspired by the 120-acre garden that business magnate Henry Huntington created in 1919, Coulam vowed to do something similar if he ever earned enough money to do so. Many years later, the enormous success of the Texas Renaissance Festival has enabled him to begin fulfilling that vow.
During visits to botanical gardens both in the United States and abroad, Coulam took inspiration from what others had done while refining his vision for what he intended to create. As an artist, he knew that he wanted to blend art and nature. And through his decades-long career as a skillful purveyor of fantasy experiences, he could hardly refrain from introducing aspects of the unusual. “The mission of Stargate Manor Arboretum is to take the best elements of art and garden and combine them into an awe-inspiring experience for the public to enjoy in an arboretum setting,” he said. “The goal of my art and gardens is to embellish my land and home with splendid mythological enchantment, to create a world that invites the audience to embrace reality from a new magical perspective of elegance, grace and uniqueness.”
The nexus of this endeavor is the home that Coulam designed for himself and began building in a loblolly pine forest adjacent to a natural bog on his property in 1983. Influenced by the Gothic style of Spanish Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, the residence, called Stargate Manor, features stained-glass windows and doors also designed by Coulam. Coulam’s artworks (which focus on alters, regalia and sculptures) decorate many of the Manor’s interior walls, as well. Once the Arboretum is open to the general public, the Manor will serve as the Arboretum’s Museum.
Surrounding the Manor is an assemblage of structures that Coulam has designed and installed on the property. These include an art studio, a cathedral, a temple, a meditation courtyard and his mausoleum, among numerous others. Landscaped pathways lead from one area to the next in a progression that Coulam foresees as being part of a guided-tour plan, once the Arboretum is open for visitors. He envisions an electric tramway that will take guests from the main-entrance gate to the various areas of the Manor complex and the gardens.
Statuary, much of it inspired by ancient Greek and Roman examples, is a prominent feature not only around the Manor complex, but also throughout all the developed areas of the property. Columns of Classical- and Renaissance-inspired statues border the main-entrance gate. The long driveway leading to the Manor complex takes visitors through the Entrance Garden, where Coulam has assembled a series of sculptural “venues” that represent a “tour through art history,” beginning with the Prehistoric era and progressing right up to a larger-than-life-sized sculptures of a motorcycle and a 1923 Model T Bucket hot rod that together represent the Modern period. The irrigation system for the Entrance Garden has been incorporated into decorative Roman columns.
The Entrance Garden consists of a natural area bordered by tall loblolly pines, oaks and hickories embellished with blue-sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) and other blooming vines twining up their bases. The native trees are interspersed with plantings of Southern magnolias, crapemyrtles and cold-hardy palms. Cold-hardy palms are one of the featured trees of the Arboretum, with more than 24 different varieties planted throughout the property.
Coulam transformed the bog next to Stargate Manor into a 21-acre aquatic garden he named Passion Flower Lake. From early May through September, Passion Flower Lake serves as the main attraction of the Arboretum, because it is here that Coulam’s love of American lotus (Nelumbo lutea), Asian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) and tropical and hardy water lilies (Nymphaeceae spp.) is on most prominent display. Hundreds of their brilliantly colored blossoms grace the lake, which is bordered by mass plantings of canna lilies and irises.
An artificial waterfall marks the transition from Passion Flower Lake to two small natural-spring-fed bogs, which also contain plantings of lotus and water lilies. A much larger bog system, known as the Doreen Bogs, is being dredged and dotted with “islands” landscaped with plantings of bald cypress, pond cypress, cold-hardy palms and more lotus and water lilies. Mill Creek runs through the Arboretum, and the native forest and vegetation occurring in the natural riparian zone are being enhanced with plantings of azaleas, camellias, gardenias, non-evergreen magnolias and other flowering trees and shrubs. A large Snowy Egret rookery is also part of the riparian zone near Mill Creek, with the tall native trees and boggy ecosystem providing a perfect nesting site for the beautiful birds. To date, 20 cypress and more than 100 palms have been planted on the islands throughout the rookery and bog system. In the next two years, a diverse mix of oaks, hickory, ash and sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) will be planted there as well.
Shane Roop is the horticulture manager for Stargate Manor Arboretum. A graduate of the Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University, Roop began working for Coulam at the Texas Renaissance Festival and then transitioned to Stargate Manor Arboretum when Coulam formed it as a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) in 2010. Roop — along with his assistant horticulture manager, Texas A&M graduate Lindsey Hitch, and a staff of eight gardeners — have been tasked with the enormous job of transforming nearly 200 acres of East Texas piney woods into George Coulam’s botanical vision. In addition to creating massive new hardscape and softscape garden areas from scratch, Roop and his team must maintain those already in place. A specialized boat (known as an aquatic weed harvester) helps them control invasive plants that continually threaten to crowd out the lotus and water lilies in the waterways. The property is high-fenced, but beavers, nutria, wild hogs, alligators, armadillos and deer nevertheless make their presence known and must be controlled. In short, it is gardening on a large scale in intensive mode. Regardless of the daunting magnitude and effort involved in the project, however, Roop and his team seem as excited and as dedicated to it as is Coulam himself.
George Coulam says that Stargate Manor Arboretum will not be fully open to the public until after he dies, although limited tours for invited garden groups are set to begin in 2018. Of course, Coulam shows no sign of slowing down as he oversees and directs the flurry of activity going on around him. And who knows?
Given his reputation as a creator of fantasy, “Cadillac George” (as he is known to his regular Texas Hold’em poker-playing buddies) may have some surprises up his sleeve. As Stargate Manor Arboretum continues to take shape, garden lovers throughout Texas and beyond can look forward to one day sharing George Coulam’s wizardry.