Tuesday, August 21, 2012

By Anne Butler
afton villa gardens
The floral design workshop on Friday morning will take place on the picturesque grounds of Afton Villa Gardens. (Photo credit: Dr. Neil Odenwald)
In 1831 the Encyclopaedia Americana called St. Francisville and the surrounding District of Nueva Feliciana “the garden of Louisiana,” and always it was so. Across the verdant hills and well-watered forests Mother Nature spared no effort in strewing a wonderful wealth of wildflowers to brighten this garden spot long before the earliest settlers arrived. The first cultivated gardens were practical affairs of vegetables and herbs, with greenhouses to extend growing seasons to feed the early families as well as their livestock. Once these planter families prospered from cash crops of indigo, cotton and sugarcane, they could turn their attention from the pragmatic to the merely pleasing, clearing and terracing the rolling lawns, transplanting from the woodlands wild oak-leaf hydrangea and snowy dogwood, and importing from fledgling East Coast nurseries the azaleas and camellias to plant in patterned parterres of formal gardens inspired by foreign travels.

The annual Southern Garden Symposium in St. Francisville celebrates that great gardening tradition and fosters its continuation by convening horticulture enthusiasts for a weekend of demonstrations, lectures and tours through the area’s glorious antebellum gardens. This year’s 24th annual event, which planners promise will be one of the most informative and entertaining ever in its combination of prestigious speakers, historic surroundings and engaging social events, takes place Friday, October 12, and Saturday, October 13. Proceeds fund such projects as scholarships to LSU’s School of Landscape Architecture and garden enhancements at state historic sites.

afton villa gardens
The Speakers' Gala is an elegant highlight to the Symposium weekend.(Photo credit: Tracey Banowetz)
Subjects of Friday morning workshops include a demonstration of floral design presented in the ruins garden of Afton Villa by Lynette McDougald who was named Mississippi’s Floral Designer of the Year 2000; rain gardens and other sustainable landscaping presented at Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site by LSU landscape architecture professor D.G. “Buck” Abbey; the incorporation of edible plants into today’s landscape, presented at the United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall by Kyle Huffstickler, landscape coordinator for LSU’s LaHouse Home and Landscape Resource Center; and tree care presented at Wyoming Plantation by arborist Jim Culpeper. In the afternoon on Friday, several of those workshops will be repeated, plus a presentation at Grace Episcopal Church’s Jackson Hall by flower magazine editor Margot Shaw on the fearless use of color in gardens.

On Saturday Southern Garden Symposium programs at Hemingbough, feature lectures on “Time-Tested Treasures for Sophisticated Southern Spaces” by Heidi Sheesley, owner of wholesaler Treesearch Farms; “Martha Turnbull’s Rosedown Diaries” by Suzanne Turner, landscape architect and author who edited the diaries; “Integrating Art and Science in Landscape Design” by award-winning landscape architect Jeffrey Carbo; and “Welcome Home George Washington” by J. Dean Norton, historic Mount Vernon’s Director of Horticulture. Participants will be welcomed by Master of Proceedings Dr. Neil Odenwald, and social gatherings are the Friday evening Speakers’ Gala at Rosebank Plantation and the Saturday afternoon tea at Evergreenzine. For registration information, see www.southerngardensymposium.org.

Guests enjoy a workshop at Rosedown Plantation. (Photo credit: Tracey Banowetz)
The sheer beauty of the cultivated landscapes and the verdant wild woodlands in the St. Francisville area have inspired creative artists ever since John James Audubon painted a number of his famous bird studies while tutoring the young daughter of Oakley Plantation in 1821, and the arts scene is growing just as prolifically as the glorious gardens. The annual Yellow Leaf Arts Festival, this year Saturday and Sunday, October 27 and 28th from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., celebrates that rich tradition of artistic inspiration by filling St. Francisville’s downtown oak-shaded Parker Park with an incredible selection of music and artwork, with some 60 artists presenting, plus plenty of good food. To mark both the tenth anniversary of Yellow Leaf and the bicentennial of Louisiana statehood, there will be a special tribute to the area’s past artists both sung and unsung, and on Sunday author Danny Heitman discusses research for his book A Summer of Birds: John James Aubudon at Oakley House from 11 to 12:45, followed by New Orleans poet Mona Lisa Saloy hosting a poetry workshop and readings from her book Red Beans and Ricely Yours from 1 to 3 p.m. Music on Saturday includes The Acoustic Playboys at noon, the popular local group called The Fugitive Poets at 2, and a Songbird Reunion Jam at 4; at 7 just around the corner at Birdman Coffee and Books, Mark Raborn and Outside Passage perform. Sunday’s live music includes Burke Ingraffia at 3, and at 4 the debut of an exciting new girl band featuring Heather Feierabend, Jodi James and Becca Babin. Yellow Leaf Arts Festival is sponsored by Arts For All.

Wyoming Plantation will be the site for a workshop on caring for trees in the landscape.
(Photo credit: Tracey Banowetz)
Fall also brings two of the St. Francisville area’s most popular events, the Halloween extravaganza and eerie ghost tours at The Myrtles Plantation, called America’s most haunted house (www.myrtlesplantation.com), and the Angola Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary every Sunday in October. The arena grounds open at 9 a.m. for the inmate hobbycraft sales, inmate band performances and plenty of concession stands; rodeo starts at 2 with hair-raising events like the Grand Entry with mounted black-clad Angola Rough Riders circling the arena at breakneck speed, Bust Out, Bareback Riding, Wild Horse Race, Women’s Barrel Racing, Bull-Dogging, Buddy Pick-Up, Wild Cow Milking, Bull Riding, Convict Poker, and Guts and Glory culminating with inmates on foot trying to snag a chit tied between the horns of a rampaging Brahma bull. All contestants are inmates except the barrel racers, and an ambulance stands by to haul off the wounded. Tickets should be purchased in advance at www.angolaroadeo.com or by calling 225-655-2030, and visitors are cautioned to remember that this is a penal institution with very strict regulations that must be followed to the letter.

St. Francisville is a year-round tourist destination featuring 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. Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Gardens are open seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offering periodic fascinating living-history demonstrations so visitors can experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

plant sale
Shoppers browse the plant offerings on Saturday morning.(Photo credit: Tracey Banowetz)
The nearby Tunica Hills offer unmatched recreational activities in unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, all especially enjoyable in the cool fall weather. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from Chinese and Mexican cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups. The local Farmers’ Market is open mornings Thursdays and Saturdays, and a third-Saturday community marketplace fills Parker Park with homegrown arts and crafts as well.

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 (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including St. Francisville Main Street’s fun functions for children around Halloween in the National Register-listed downtown historic district).