ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA’S COLORFUL CAMELLIAS IN THE COUNTRY FESTIVAL
By Anne Butler
|Chef John Folse|
Consequently, when the little Feliciana Nature Society contacted him to help with its Camellias in the Country festival in St. Francisville the first weekend in February 2009, he was already inclined to offer assistance. And then they made him an offer he simply could not refuse, combining as it did his incredible culinary talents with his great fascination with history and heritage as well as a growing interest in horticulture.
The Camellia Festival is sponsored each year by the little Feliciana Nature Society, which also conceived and hosts the annual Audubon BirdFest and Feliciana Hummingbird Festival. Just as the BirdFest is an ideal activity in the area most treasured by artist John James Audubon when he painted a large number of his Birds of America there in the early 1820s, so the Camellia Festival is particularly suited for the area to which the 1831 Encylopedia Americana referred as “the garden of Louisiana.”
And so it was, for once the great indigo and cotton plantations of this English section of Louisiana had been established, attention turned from the practical to the merely pleasing and the early manor houses were quickly surrounded by formal gardens laid out in orderly bordered beds and patterned parterres, protected from roaming livestock by picket fences and presided over by classical marble statues. Great allees of live oaks were planted, their arched canopies soon to provide much-needed shade, and lattice-sided summer houses offered cool quiet retreats.
The glorious antebellum gardens of the St. Francisville area, many inspired by the great plantings of Europe, combined the plantation mistress’s passion for ornamental plants with a fortuitious climate, rich soil and unlimited labor. From the surrounding woods were transplanted ferns, trilliums and oak-leaf hydrangea, violets, dogwood and wild plum trees. But the pride of the gardens were the camellias, and these had to be imported.
These colorful natives of the Far East were initially carried to other lands by missionaries and early medical men after trade with the Orient was opened in the early1500s by the Portuguese and their Black Ships. The trading companies dealing in spices, silks, porcelains and other treasures all had medical officers who became the first to study native plants of the Far East, initially for their medical propensities. A camellia japonica specimen collected in China in 1677 by a physician with the East India Company introduced this botanical novelty to England. By the close of the 18th century, the first camellias had been brought overseas to the United States.
|Garden Walk at Rosedown|
From the mistress of Catalpa Plantation Martha Turnbull borrowed some helpful tips: “Mrs. Fort puts one gallon Guano to a barrel of water to water her plants,” and it was no wonder the camellias and hydrangeas at Catalpa flourished as well. At Butler Greenwood Plantation hundreds of camellias were being ordered from eastern nurseries as well to thrive in the formal gardens around the lovely summer house, while at Afton Villa gardens the camellias held their own with the famed Pride of Afton azaleas lining the magnificent oak avenue.
Every plantation had its grove of camellias, and many of the townhouses in St. Francisville as well. A number of these plantations and gardens today are open to the public for tours, and there is no lovelier time of year to visit than the cooler months when the camellias are in full bloom. The Feliciana Nature Society began the Camellias in the Country festival to encourage visitors to do just that, but in 2009 an extra added attraction promises to greatly enhance the enjoyment, for this year visitors can not only see the camellias, they can actually TASTE them, thanks to Chef John Folse and the lucky visitation by a distinguished French physician to one of the local plantation Bed & Breakfasts.
Docteur Pierre Gausset, “Ancien Externe des Hopitaux de Paris,” enjoyed the hospitality of the Bed & Breakfast at Butler Greenwood Plantation in early 2008 and admired the more than 150 ancient camellias blooming in the formal and sunken gardens there. Had the owner ever tasted, he wondered, Vin de Camelia? He highly recommended it. In fact, he happened to have the recipe and would be happy to share it, since the St. Francisville area obviously had plentiful ingredients. Written in French, of course, the recipe is a combination of white or red wine, eau de vie de fruits, camellia blossoms, sugar and vanilla, all allowed to rest for 20 days as the wine absorbs the aroma of the camellia blossoms before bottling.
|Butler Greenwood Lawn|
Chef Folse unveils his Camellia Wine, produced from camellia blossoms from St. Francisville gardens, at a presentation on Friday, February 6, at 6 p.m. at the historic Audubon Market Hall on Royal Street in St. Francisville. Guests will have the opportunity to sample the wine, perhaps even purchase some, and Chef Folse will also autograph his remarkable cookbooks for interested visitors at the wine and cheese reception following his presentation.
The fifth annual Camellias in the Country program continues on Saturday, February 7, at Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site. Site manager Patricia Aleshire will lead a workshop on “Knowing and Growing Camellias in the Deep South” at the visitor center beginning at 9 a.m. Lunch at Audubon Café will be followed by a guided walking tour of Rosedown’s extensive formal gardens, where participants will enjoy seeing outstanding examples of both heirloom and contemporary japonicas. The gardens at Rosedown are simply spectacular this time of year.
|Camellia at Catalpa|
The St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. The area’s two state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offer fascinating living-history demonstrations every weekend to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are some unique shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area as well as some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts for overnight stays, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district. For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com. (our Festival Website)
For high resolution photos, email Patrick Walsh at email@example.com