April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
Gardens were my excuse to cruise the Mississippi River last April on the stern-wheeler American Queen . They were the focus of a five-day roundtrip from New Orleans, with stops in Louisiana and Mississippi to enjoy the region in its lush spring flowering. But before long I succumbed as much to the charms of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s newest and most luxurious vessel as I did to the attractions onshore.
Holding 436 passengers, the American Queen is the largest steamboat ever built—418 feet long and 97 feet high when its retractable stacks and pilot-house are up. Its calliope and forty-five-ton paddle wheel were crafted specially for the boat, but its pair of refurbished steam engines came from a 1932 Corps of Engineers dredge. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I must mention its “auxiliary electric Z-drive propulsion engine” and “twin bow thrusters,” which come into play when needed.) With six decks bordered by exuberant Carpenter Gothic fretwork and red, white, and blue bunting, it presents a gorgeous sight—not only from shore but from any vantage onboard.
Delta Queen’s home port is New Orleans, the perfectly festive place to begin a river journey. The American Queen steamed out of the port on a clear, moonlit evening, to head for a morning arrival at Oak Alley plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. This stop was a good introduction to steam-boating, since tying up at Oak Alley resembled the old method of “choking a stump” (slinging a rope around a tree). Passengers strolled off the boat onto the levee and walked a few hundred feet to the much - photographed alley of twenty-eight live oaks that have stood here for nearly three hundred years, lining the path to the 1839 “Big House,” which was open for guided tours. The house, I must confess, has already blended in my memory with other such I’ve visited over the years; the massive sculptural oak survivors are what grip the imagination.
Except for one full day in Natchez, the program was divided between shore excursions, mostly in the morning, and long, lazy afternoons on the river, a pleasing arrangement. Once afloat, I found nothing more congenial than occupying a rocker on the deck whose bow section is appealingly named the Front Porch of America. This is a spacious area, open to the breezes and shaded from the sun by the deck above; furnished with an array of period seating, including lacy ice-cream chairs, wicker loveseats, rockers, and even a couple of swings, it is so homey that the brochure promises you can breakfast there in pajamas and slippers. With an all-day supply of lemonade, ice cream, and snacks available just inside the doors, this really does offer all the relaxed comfort of a Victorian front porch. But here the village green takes the form of a river.
Travelers on the South’s Mississippi catch on pretty quickly that this isn’t the prettiest patch of the river; Wisconsin and Minnesota probably hold that title. Levees or a screen of cotton-woods rise in many places to obscure views of towns or magnificent plantation houses, and most of the landscape lacks drama. Still, the passing scene is everywhere compelling, from the sight of a pair of pelicans diving for dinner in front of the bow to the turn in the river and the sudden view of a power plant rising up like a Soviet poster celebrating industrial might or the string of three dozen coal barges lashed together and pushed by a small, powerful tug.
From time to time I had to abandon the Front Porch for the other onboard attractions, such as the lectures by the horticulturists Judy Glattstein and Felder Rushing, who accompanied the garden lovers on excursions. There were times during their talks or while chatting with other passengers when I felt as if I’d come in during the middle of a conversation and couldn’t quite catch up; but when Judy said, “A garden is plants put together so they look better than they would alone,” or “A garden that you can see all at once is plain vanilla,” I could relate.
Same thing when Felder Rushing, a proud “eighth-generation Southern gardener,” explained his philosophy: “Let’s just have some fun. Those of you who think you’ve got to have a lot of time to garden, lighten up. Gardening is not like a recipe; it’s like making chili. Some use beans, some might not, but it’s still chili.” Another easy-to-digest nonrecipe from the iconoclast Rushing: “Every garden needs something spiky, something roundy, and something frilly. Put them together, and people will think you know what you’re doing.”
Like most of the smaller cruise ships (and virtually none of the large ones), the American Queen pays a lot of attention to history. The onboard historian provides talks each morning on the art of navigation, famous steamboats, and the cultures of the ports we’d visit. She delivered a riveting portrait of Huey Long and his impact on Louisiana just as we were cruising into Baton Rouge, where Long’s skyscraper-Deco state capitol (the site of his assassination and his mausoleum) loomed.
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.”