- Historic Sites
The Mississippi In Flower
A steamboat makes springtime visits to some of the region’s most fragrant and historic gardens
April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
The boat’s hotel manager, Mike Gaston, regularly gives tours of the Queen , telling how it came to be built and pointing to furniture and decorative pieces salvaged from past paddleboats. About 65 percent of the furnishings are antiques, and the rest are very persuasive reproductions. To re-create the atmosphere of 1890, the glory days of passenger steamboating, the boat’s designers borrowed elements from the fabled J. M. White , one of the most lavish of the river packets. Its short life began in 1878 and ended in fire eight years later.
The opulent two-story-high dining room, with floor-to-ceiling windows, was adapted from the White ’s main cabin, in those days an all-purpose space, where tables and chairs were pushed aside after meals to allow for dancing and entertainment. Speaking of entertainment, Gaston surprised all of us by remarking that the only showboat that ever was a paddle-wheel steamer appeared in the movie Showboat . In real life, theatrics took place on barges.
For the American Queen ’s interiors, its designers were also able to draw upon a collection of photographs of the steamboat era that originally came from a Natchez studio. The more than thirty thousand prints and negatives were first rescued and then researched by a local couple, Joan and Thomas Gandy, who have created an exhibit called “Natchez in Historic Photographs.” It is housed in a church building on State Street and is very much worth a visit.
As for the gardens that inspired the trip, I enjoyed each one, although a few of the more sophisticated hands grumbled here and there about the condition of some of them and, still less charitably, about what wasn’t in them. One thing that even the greatest gardener can’t control is timing: Because of a warm winter and an early spring, the azaleas and dogwoods everyone had counted on had come and gone. Judy Glattstein’s response to such complaints was born of long experience: “Anytime you’re in a garden, someone tells you it’s the wrong time.”
Afton Villa’s azaleas may have faded, but as it happens, its greatest appeal lies in what isn’t there anymore anyway. The 255-acre parklike setting once included an elaborate Gothic Revival mansion dating from 1849. Abandoned after 1900, the house burned to the ground in 1963, leaving nothing but rubble-filled foundations, home to weeds and snakes. The present owners, Bud and Gen Trimble, bought the property in the 1970s in order to reclaim its gardens according to the original plans. They didn’t replace the house. Instead they used shrubs and flowers as reminders of it, letting plantings climb a few jagged stairs or draw, in bright colors, an outline of where the ballroom used to be.
We were fortunate to have Mrs. Trimble herself guide us through this miraculous reclamation, which now includes seven terraced gardens, among them a formal parterre with a boxwood maze, a white garden, and a “wild” one planted with thousands of spring-flowering bulbs.
Windrush Gardens, in Baton Rouge, is another place strongly shaped by a single vision. Here Steele Burden, a Louisiana State University landscape architect, carved a private twenty-five-acre Eden from several hundred family-owned acres, all of which he deeded to the university. Starting in 1920 and ending around the time of his death at age ninety-five, almost five years ago, Burden worked to perfect a garden seen as a series of rooms that would express the romantic vision of the South that was in currency in the 1920s: a land of live oaks, moonlight reflected on water, and sinuous clusters of swaying palm trees and fragrant banana shrubs. He included many of the plants representative of southern Louisiana at the time. Burden cared little for annuals and perennials, preferring instead to create variety and color through foliage and shunning straight lines for curving beds and meandering paths.
Wandering and just a little bit lost in this lovely place, I thought back on how very pleasant it had been over the past five days to travel to vintage gardens by riverboat (albeit with the help of a tour bus or two). Then, catching a whiff of something tantalizingly sweet mingled with a note of spice, I remembered that Felder Rushing had said in one of his lectures, “If you like to share plants, keep in mind that children are the most impressionable. At any time in her life when my daughter Zoe smells magnolia, she’s going to be a little girl again with her dad and in the South. It’s the only time I know you can divide something and multiply it at the same time.”