CAMELLIAS IN THE COUNTRY -
By Anne Butler
The post-Christmas let-down period provides the perfect respite for taking a breather in the country, and it is fortunately this very time when the glorious antebellum gardens of the St. Francisville, Louisiana, area are at their peak of camellia bloom. Thus the Feliciana Nature Society joins with Rosedown Plantation Historic Site and the Main Street program to host the fourth annual Camellias in the Country celebration February 8 and 9, 2008.
The two-day event opens on Friday evening, February 8, at 6 p.m. at the historic Old Market Hall on Royal St. in St. Francisville, with a camellia show that draws prize blossoms from the finest gardens of the Felicianas, appropriately combined with a fascinating workshop on the technique of waxing the blooms to preserve their beauty forever. Following the demonstration, an informal reception gives participants ample opportunity to admire the blossoms while enjoying wine and cheese.
Beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 9, the visitor center at Rosedown State Historic Site, LA 10 and US 61 in St. Francisville, hosts a morning session focusing on camellia care including effective methods of combating disease and coping with common insects, as well as demonstrations of the propagation technique of air layering. After lunch at the popular nearby Audubon Café, Rosedown’s horticulture expert Patricia Aleshire leads a walking tour of Rosedown’s exquisite antebellum gardens, which include many of the South’s best heirloom and contemporary camellia specimens.
Registration fee of $20 includes all activities as well as the evening reception and Saturday lunch, with proceeds benefitting projects of the Feliciana Nature Society. Information is available by telephone at 888-376-1867 or 225-635-3110, or online at www.audubonbirdfest.com.
The event is a natural for the St. Francisville area, long noted for its glorious gardens. Beginning in the 1830’s as the great cotton mansions were being built and their grounds landscaped, gardening became the passion of plantation mistresses. This passion was happily combined here with a fortuitous climate, rich river bottomland soil, unlimited labor and the funds to indulge every whim. A number of magnificent 19th-century gardens pay tribute even today to this early devotion to natural beauty.
Rosedown Plantation, of course, heads the list with its 28 acres of formal gardens conceived by Martha Barrow Turnbull on her 1835 wedding trip to the Continent. Only such expansive yet orderly grandeur as she witnessed at Versailles and the other great gardens of Europe could adequately complement the fine plantation home she and her wealthy cotton-planter husband were building. In her garden diary which spans 60 years, Martha Turnbull recorded the development and expansion of her gardens flanking the oak alley leading to the Rosedown house.
A remarkable horticulturist, Mrs. Turnbull was one of the first to import camellias to the South in the 1830’s, turning her gardens into an early proving ground for the exotic flora of the Orient. At a time when only royalty or Southern planters could afford camellias, she set out seedlings which today tower over 25 feet tall, some over a century and a half old, testament to Martha Turnbull’s gardening secrets—plenty of water enriched with guano for the camellia plants during the summer, rooting in sand mixed with rich woods earth and a little cow manure, mulching with leaves to keep out the summer’s heat. These ancient camellias fill the Rosedown gardens with a colorful profusion of blossoms in many different shapes and hues, the bloom lasting through the winter and into early spring.
Natives of the Orient and Far East, camellias were initially carried to other lands by missionaries and early medical men, travelling first afoot and then across the seas. Trade with the Orient, opened in the early 1500’s by the Portuguese and their Black Ships, proved lucrative, leading to the formation of trading companies dealing in spices, silks, porcelains and other treasures. The medical officers of these trade companies were often the first to study native plants of the Far East, initially for their medicinal propensities, then introduced the botanical oddities back home.
A camellia japonica specimen collected in China in 1677 by a physician with the East India Company introduced the plant to England, and camellias by the early 1700’s became popular ornamental shrubs there. Toward the close of the 18th century the first camellias were brought to the United States, established in the Northeast as important greenhouse plants. It was from a nursery in New York that Rosedown first ordered camellias, and subsequent specimens were ordered from Philadelphia. The wonderfully ornamental plants thrived outdoors in the Southern climate, and became the staple of the winter garden throughout the region.
By the 1840’s the formal and sunken gardens at Butler Greenwood Plantation were being brightened by camellias in many hues. Amid the boxwood parterres beside the 1790’s plantation house, more than 150 camellias were planted under direction of the Irish gardener to complement the lovely Victorian summer house, and there were also large numbers of camellia sasanquas and tea plants, all in the same family. The extensive gardens at Rosedown State Historic Site and Butler Greenwood Plantation, both of which were painstakingly recorded by experts of the Historic American Buildings Survey projects during the Depression, are open for tours daily. The Cottage Plantation has dozens of ancient camellias coloring its extensive landscaped lawns through the cold winter months, and other plantations in the area which may be visited daily,The Myrtles, Greenwood and Oakley at Audubon State Historic Site, also feature smaller groves of japonicas.
Another magnificent antebellum garden in the St. Francisville area, which is open seasonally, is Afton Villa, where the landscaping is all that remains of the flamboyant mansion built in the 1850’s and burned in the 1960’s. What could have been a heartbreaking site has been turned into a garden spot of breathtaking beauty, where flowering vines clamber across the crumbling brick ruins, and masses of bulbs---thousands and thousands of jonquils, daffodils, narcissus, tulips and others—brighten the terraced lawns in early spring. Formal parterres are set off with ancient camellias, and here, as at the other antebellum gardens, there seems to be a happy marriage between the japonicas and the moss-draped live oaks providing just the right amount of filtered sunlight and shade for a perfection of performance.
In the historic little 19th-century rivertown of St. Francisville, where the entire downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there’s hardly a Victorian house without its prize camellia blooming through the winter. The tourism information center, right on the main street of town (Ferdinand St.), has free walking tour maps and information.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area has much to offer visitors year-round, especially in the winter when the camellias add bursts of color to gardens in town and on the early plantations. Six spectacular antebellum plantations are open for daily tours: Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, The Myrtles, Greenwood, Butler Greenwood and The Cottage; Catalpa is open by reservation, and Afton Villa Gardens opens seasonally. Picturesque 19th-century structures throughout downtown St. Francisville are filled with an eclectic selection of little shops, and reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants. Some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. Recreational opportunities abound in the Tunica Hills, with excellent hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, golfing and horseback riding, in addition to superb birdwatching. For online coverage of tourist facilities and attractions in the St. Francisville area, see www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisville.net, or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com; or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330. For special events and activities, see www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.