Martha Turnbull, Rosedown Plantation, painted by Thomas Sully in the 1850s. This image is from Wikimedia Commons. More information on the image is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Martha_Turnbull.jpg
In the midst of touring, photographing and writing about Japanese gardens, Bill and I were given a quick tour of several plantation properties in St. Francisville. Rosedown Plantation deserves mention in this blog as it was among the earliest sites of the introduction and popularization of azaleas and camellias and many other plants we associate with Japanese gardens.
According to a new book, The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull Mistress of Rosedown Plantation edited and annotated by Suzanne Turner, plants introduced to the area included azalea, camellia, osmanthus, cryptomeria japonica, pittosporum tobira, Japanese quince, Japanese wisteria, and Japanese sweetflag among others.
Martha and her husband Daniel Turnbulls honeymooned in Europe touring the great formal gardens of France and Italy and their influence is still seen at Rosedown. The gardens grew out from the house over a span of many decades, to cover approximately 28 acres. In the 19th century, Rosedown was one of the few privately maintained formal gardens in the United States. Martha Turnbull made purchases from nursery catalogs from the Midwest and East. Plants arrived by river, ocean, railroad and wagon.Invoices indicate azalea and camellia were purchased in 1837 from a nursery on Long Island. During the Depression, Turnbull’s descendants maintained a small nursery at Rosedown, propagating azalea and camellia plants for sale.
Mac Griswold, landscape historian and author of Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon, calls Martha Turnbull “the greatest hands-on gardener of the Deep South.”
Her terse garden journal, cryptic to the point of code, covers the years 1836 to 1894. For 15 years, author Suzanne Turner edited and annotated Turnbull’s garden diary. Turner is LSU professor of landscape architecture emerita and owner of a landscape architecture firm in Baton Rouge.
“When I was teaching at LSU, women kept asking me to give talks on 19th century gardens,” Turner said. “Diaries and journals are rare other than financial records on cotton and sugar cane.”
“She propagated camellias, hedges, roses and evergreen stuff,” Turner said. “She saved vegetable and annual seed. It seems she had a greenhouse from the outset.”
The National Park Service maintains a web site with a National Register of Historic Places. Its travel itinerary notes that Rosedown Plantation was established in the 1830s by Daniel and Martha Barrow Turnbull. Once encompassing 3,455 acres, “Rosedown Plantation is one of the most intact, documented examples of a domestic plantation complex in the South. It embodies the lifestyle of the antebellum South’s wealthiest planters in a way very few other surviving properties can. The plantation’s landscape is a laboratory for the study and interpretation of the cultural traditions of slavery, the life style of the gentry and scientific experiments in agriculture and horticulture,” according to the NPS web site.
“At its height, the plantation encompassed 3,455 acres, and included the typical components of cotton plantations of the mid-antebellum period in the South–agricultural acreage planted with the cash crop, fields of fodder crops, pastureland for cattle, stables for horses, yards and pens for poultry and other farm animals, the quarters of enslaved Africans (where they typically had their own individual garden plots), a kitchen garden, an orchard, and the pleasure, or ornamental, gardens adjacent to the main plantation house, or the “Great House.” Over the years the acreage was subdivided and although the working portions of the plantation have vanished, both the house and the gardens survive. The c.1835 Federal-Greek revival style great house, complete with Grecian style wings c.1845, is at the head of a 660-foot long oak allee. It is typical of the small minority of great houses built by the South’s wealthiest planters.
“What distinguishes the landscape of Rosedown are its pleasure gardens, notable for their size, sophistication and refined plant collections. The gardens were the passion of Martha Turnbull and her garden diary provides invaluable insight into the story of the garden’s planting and management. She recorded her first entry in 1836 and her last in 1895, a year before her death at the age of 87.”
The Louisiana Office of State Parks owns and operates Rosedown Plantation as a historic site for the purposes of education and preservation. For more information, see http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/louisiana/ros.htm
The new publication on Rosedown Plantation is available through your local bookstore, at Rosedown Plantation’s gift shop or on-line from a number of vendors.
A post script:
Stark Young’s 1934 novel — wildly popular before Gone With The Wind — opens with a description of the fictional Portobello Plantation, which was based on Rosedown Plantation. Young was a New York Herald Tribune theatre critic who became friends with the sisters who inherited Rosedown.
“Along the avenue the light struck here and there on the statues with their marble pedestals, and on the walks with their green borders; and at the far end you saw the house, on which the last glow of twilight rested, standing out among the garden trees…a retreat, a lovely and secret place, strangely for man and domestic at the same time…the product of romantic feeling and thought.”