Free enterprise is alive and flourishing in Houston. I was visiting there last week to see my friend and former neighbor and political savant, Jean Erck. I was lucky enough to be there in time for the 52nd annual Azalea Trail, a tour sponsored by the River Oaks Garden Club, which shows off the wonders of spring in Houston.
At several corners along the route, hustling boys and girls had set up pop and lemonade stands and were doing a fairly brisk business. One little boy, no more than 10, wailed like a costermonger, "Get your ice-cold soft drinks. Right here. Step right up and get the best pop on the Azalea Trail."
I have read that Houston is in a dire economic slump because of the waning fortunes of the oil business. If they can just wait for that 10-year-old, their troubles will be over. Actually, someone should put him on a corporation's board right now.
There are eight stops along the Azalea Trail, and a number of houses are open for flower lovers. The houses are mostly colonial, tall and stately and made of every shade of brick. One house belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Bob Lanier was built just 16 years ago, and it looks as if it predated Tara. The exterior brick is from the Walker County Court House, built in 1881 in Huntsville.
There are Japanese teahouses, and fancy antebellum pergolas in the middle of the gardens that look like sponge sugar confections.
Most of the houses have great full plantings of azaleas in every shade from white to dark rose, the color they call Formosa. The house and gardens of the O'Connors were magnificent. There must have been 5,000 hyacinth plants, in shades of lavender and purple, bordering the edges of the lawn. Behind the hyacinths and about 10 inches higher were yellow ranunculuses planted in a bed about two feet wide.
Running across the lawn, as if on cue as the tour-goers drove by, was an Irish setter. His coat was glossy red and his head carried the nobility of ancient kings. I suspect that inside that gorgeous head was clear untouched air, which is the way of Irish setters I have known. They are, without doubt, the most beautiful dogs in the world. There is a certain compensation in knowing that they are short on sense. A scruffy little yappy terrier can outmaneuver and outthink one of those aristocrats. But one thing they have is a knowledge of where and how to stand to look photogenic. This was a beautiful dog, standing there as if the hours and effort of planning all those bulbs was just so he could stand in front of them. I will now await rebuttals from devoted Irish setter owners and I am delighted they take such pleasure in their beautiful dogs.
One garden had a topiary heart in the middle of a bed of flowers. And one huge house with grounds big enough to be called a park had beds of what looked like wild roses. They were those pink, single-petaled roses which looked more like blowing butterflies than roses.
Several of the mansions had beds of red and yellow tulips, circles of deep purple pansies, everything that blooms in the spring.
On Jean's lawn this morning, there were two robins. I had forgotten how trim they look with their gray coats and red vests. These were plump robins. Wherever they spent the winter, they had had access to a fine table. They were glossy and pompous. A blue jay was nattering around them. It always seems to me that blue jays are so impressed with their magnificent blue plumage, they don't think they even have to be civil. They interrupt and are bossy and selfish. Now that I have offended blue jay fanciers along with setter fans, I will tell you that everything looked full of spring and hope and the Azalea Trail was a pure delight. With the money they make selling tickets to the house tours, the River Oaks Garden Club has bought trees and shrubs by the thousands to beautify Houston.
Just as we left, a line of gigs and surreys came by, each one pulled by glistening horses. The gentlemen wore dove-gray toppers to go with their morning clothes and the ladies were grand in straw hats and carried parasols. It was the perfect storybook finish to a springtime meander.