Sunday, October 08, 2017

TurnbillFall in the Felicianas: Glorious Gardens, Gallivanting Ghosts, and a Gathering of Artists
By Anne Butler

On her honeymoon Grand Tour through Europe in 1835, 18-year-old bride Martha Barrow Turnbull fell in love with the gardens of Versailles and other continental landscapes, gleaning the inspiration for formal plantings to complement the stately double-galleried plantation home being built on her cotton plantation back home. Thus began a sixty-year love affair with the 28-acre gardens of Rosedown, meticulously preserved in near-daily diary entries that later proved invaluable in restoring the property.

Blessed with rich land, long growing seasons, a felicitous climate and unlimited labor, Martha Turnbull became one of the great horticultural innovators of her day, the Rosedown gardens serving as early proving grounds for the exotic flora of the Orient. Camellias, for example, were thriving in gardens in Japan and China centuries before they were first seen by Europeans. It was only after trade with the Orient was opened in the early 1500s by the Portuguese and their Black Ships that trading groups like England’s East India Company began importing spices, silks, porcelains and other Oriental treasures. The medical officers of those trade companies first studied the native plants for their medicinal propensities, and the camellia japonica was introduced to England by the 1700s and then crossed the ocean to the East Coast. By 1830s invoices among the Rosedown archival papers show camellias, azaleas and other plants being purchased from nurseries in New York and Philadelphia.

rosedownTestament to the hardiness of early plantings, many of the heirloom plantings of Rosedown survive or have been propagated, even though the post-Civil War era brought great hardship. Martha Turnbull applied for a widow’s pension (she received $8 monthly) and initiated a Civil War claim covering property taken from Rosedown by federal troops in 1863 that included 300 hogsheads of sugar, 600 barrels of molasses, 200 mules and 100 horses, 700 head of cattle, 80 wagons, 300 hogs, 6000 bushels of corn, 50 bales of cotton. The third-generation descendants of Martha Turnbull who struggled to maintain the property were spinster sisters who sometimes had to pay with cotton bales their accounts at the local mercantile, the invoices of 1896 including such varied goods as a tub of lard, nails, syrup, lap robe and whip, spectacles, and a metallic casket for $100, presumably for their grandmother who died that year.

It would be the surviving plantings that saved Rosedown when a Texas oil heiress, herself a great horticulturist, passed through on a national garden club tour in 1956 and saw the potential beneath the rampant jungle growth outside and cracked peeling plaster inside. Purchasing the property from Martha Turnbull’s great-grandchildren, she began the ten-year restoration of house and grounds that turned Rosedown Plantation into one of the country’s premier historic tour destinations.

StarkA century after Rosedown was built in 1834, author Stark Young used it as a picturesque setting in his acclaimed Civil War novel So Red The Rose, saying, “Of all the houses in the world it seemed to be the beloved of its own trees and gardens.” That charm and appeal continues unabated today, the house folded in the embrace of its 19th-century gardens and live oaks grown to immense size.

Now it is a state historic site and national historic landmark, its fall and winter-blooming camellia sasanquas and japonicas grown to tree-size, and serves as one of the most inviting features of the 29th annual Southern Garden Symposium.

Set for October 20 and 21 (registration deadline October 13), the symposium combines top-quality expert speakers and glorious garden settings with engaging social events and historic venues to attract gardening enthusiasts from across the south. Gourmet lunch in the ruins gardens of Afton Villa Plantation, speakers’ gala at Rosale Plantation, afternoon tea at Dogwood complement carefully chosen presentations on everything from orchids to medicinal marijuana, from Thomas Jefferson’s botanical laboratory at Monticello to the challenges of invasive species. Morning and afternoon sessions explore Martha Turnbulls’ grand gardens at Rosedown so participants can admire centuries-old camellias, live oaks and other plantings as well as hear about present-day efforts to ensure that the gardens continue to thrive into the future. Online information on schedules and tickets is available at Proceeds fund such projects as scholarships to LSU’s School of Landscape Architecture and garden enhancements at state historic sites.

camelliaThe 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 in the area, and the arts scene is growing just as prolifically as the glorious gardens. The Yellow Leaf Arts Festival, Saturday and Sunday, October 28 and 29th from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is sponsored annually by Arts For All (the local arts umbrella agency whose name says it all). The weekend celebrates that rich tradition of artistic inspiration by filling St. Francisville’s downtown oak-shaded Parker Park with an incredible selection of music and art and food and fun.

Featured artist this year is versatile Acadian artist-naturalist Jim Jeansonne, whose colorful woodcut of butterflies graces the Yellow Leaf poster. He will be in the park gazebo. One of the original founding artists of the Baton Rouge Gallery, Jeansonne’s creative endeavors run the gamut from printmaking to sculpture, furniture making, and photography. Festival musicians performing include the Fugitive Poets, Wilder Janes, Nancy Roppolo, Bill Romano and others, while local farmer Jerry Landrum and his family offer sweet potatoes in many forms plus great barbecue.

movieOther events in October include the Angola Prison Rodeo every Sunday throughout the month; grounds open at 9 with inmate arts/crafts, food and music, rodeo starts at 2 (visitors should remember that this is a penitentiary and they would be well advised to follow regulations to the letter). Halloween activities include The Myrtles Halloween Extravaganza every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in October beginning at 5 p.m. and guaranteed to scare the pants off visitors touring this “most haunted house in America” (call 225-635-6277 for information); Movie in the Park from 6 to 8 on Friday the 13th is The Incredibles, with snacks and drinks (bring your own lawn chair or quilt); “Trunk or Treat” at the West Feliciana Sports Park beginning at 6 p.m. on October 26 with costume and trunk decoration competitions (call 225-784-8447 for information on candy distribution and decorating trunks); and Trick Or Treating through downtown St. Francisville from 6 to 8 on Halloween.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (Oakley’s main house is temporarily closed for lead abatement, but the wonderful visitor center/museum remains accessible).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic 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.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit,, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).