Monday, August 3, 2009

Behind A Garden Wall: A Southern Tradition Kept Alive

Located on a bluff above the Vernon River about 12 miles from Savannah is a site steeped in history and horticultural tradition that we were recently privileged to visit.

Nearby is Beaulieu Plantation (pronounced b-YOU-lee), once owned by William Stephens, the secretary to the Trustees of Colonial Georgia. Stephens arrived in 1737, and was an important official in the colony's early years, even serving as President of Georgia after the colony's founder, Gen. Oglethorpe, returned to England. From its founding, the Trustees of Georgia were charged with conducting horticultural experiments to provide wealth for colonists and the investors who backed them. Cotton and grapes were among the experimental crops tested on the plantation for commercial value.

Beaulieu played a role during the American War of Independence in the 1779 Siege of Savannah. It was there that French commander Count Charles Henri d'Estaing brought troops ashore as part of an unsuccessful attempt to regain control of the city from the British.

Gunboats plied the Vernon River during the War Between The States. Just two years ago, in 2007, archaeologists discovered the sunken wreck of the Water Witch upstream where Confederate sailors burned it to keep it from being re-captured by Gen. Sherman's troops.

Many homes along the river are at the ends of long drives, screened by brick walls, fences and woods from the peering eyes of passersby, and their gardens are only enjoyed by invitation. Needless to say, I was thrilled by the opportunity to visit this one.

Our hosts met us as we arrived and generously devoted time to show us about. The private tour began with a short walk to the bluff. Before us lay the broad expanse of river and marsh with Ossabaw and other Georgia Sea Islands visible on the horizon. The rich history of the site was proudly detailed to us.

Looking back across the front lawn (the front of every river estate faces the water), we were in awe of the home and gardens framed by ancient live oaks. One tree in particular is believed to be over 400 years old. Lush beds planted with Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum), Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Camellias (C. japonica and C. sasanqua), Azalea cultivars, Cast-iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior), Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium coronarium), perennials and ferns bordered the vista.

Near the entrance of the home, a koi pond designed by one of their sons and established with waterlilies (Nymphea spp.), Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia spp.) along with other bog plants and aquatics, is ornamented by an elegant stone sculpture carved by another son. Creeping Liriope (Liriope spicata), Ardisia (A. japonica), Leopard Plant (Ligularia dentata), Cyperus (C. papyrus) and ferns are sheltered by a large specimen Coastal Leucothoe (Agarista populifolia). The walkway meanders through an arbor covered by Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia spp).

Our hosts love to travel, and they have an unusual collection of plants to show for it. Among them are two or three Orchid Trees (Bauhinia spp.), unusual to find growing so far north. Seeds collected during their jaunts are often started in their century-old greenhouse.

The backyard brought more delights to the eye. A discrete shade garden bordered by Shrimp Plant (Justicia brandegeana), Coralberry (Ardisia crenata), ferns, and ornamented by small reptilian sculptures delights grandchildren. Shade-loving annuals such as impatiens (I. walleriana) add joyous color to dark corners. I felt like a kid again for there were Gloriosa Lilies (Gloriosa superba Rothschildiana) like my grandmother used to grow. We had to stop for me to tickle them and wait for the leaf tips to grasp my needle of pine straw.

Sunny beds are a riot of whatever plants tickle the fancy of our hosts, including Lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus africanus), Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), the newest selections of Blanket Flower (Gaillardia cvs.) and Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia cvs.). Lush beds of native Coontie (Zamia integrifolia) draw our attention, and I am given a fruit that looks like a rusty pineapple. Rosemary shrubs (Rosmarinus officinalis) in twisted, bonsai shapes grow in the shallowest pockets of soil atop gray brick walls surrounding the swimming pool. The scene is completed in classic style by benches and large containers featuring the deep burgundy blades of Cordyline australis.

A vegetable garden and produce from their farm up-country amply supply their kitchen, along with an abundance that they share with friends.

As our morning visit drew to an end, we were invited in fine southern fashion to glasses of iced mint tea and pleasant conversation in the kitchen. I felt that President Stephens would have been pleased to know that over 270 years later such a fine horticultural tradition and gracious hospitality would continue on this historic river bluff.

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