In Full Bloom: Historic Natchez is ablaze with color

The oldest settlement on the Mississippi River founded in 1716, Natchez is a wonderful town to visit during the spring months, when gardens are blooming and festivals abound. Known as the crown jewel of southwestern Mississippi, Natchez has more antebellum houses than any other place in the United States. Many are open for tours. More than 1000 buildings are listed on the National Register. Natchez is also home to dozens of African-American heritage sites, including historic churches, neighborhoods established by freedom after the Civil War, and the boyhood home of internationally acclaimed author Richard Wright.

Downtown Natchez offers numerous bed and breakfasts and great shopping, from antiques to bookstores, in addition to exceptional restaurants and a cooking school. Located at the lower end of the Trace on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, the city hosts the annual Spring Pilgrimage through April 11 and the Natchez Bluff Blues Festival April 17-19.

From May 2-3, the phenomenal Symphony of Gardens Tour is held, providing a rare opportunity to view 11 exquisite private and estate gardens. The artistry and beauty of gardens are showcased during the tour, when some of the finest gardens in historic Natchez will be on view, many for the first time. From elaborate estates to petite pocket and urban gardens, this is a unique opportunity to view some of the finest landscapes in this region.

Karen Dardick is committee chair of the third annual Symphony of Gardens Tour and she is also president of the non-profit Grow Natchez Gardens. An avid gardener and a free-lance garden writer, she moved from Los Angeles to Natchez and loves the town and its people. “The purpose of the Symphony of Gardens Tour is to inspire people to garden by looking at other people’s gardens. It is possible to get ideas about plants and combinations,” she explains. “We are careful to select from a variety of gardens, from small courtyards to average home gardens to estate gardens and historic properties. We have the tour in May because we are trying to inspire people in between seasons to have attractive gardens. Even if someone doesn’t garden, they can enjoy the tour because the garden is a beautiful work of art,” she says.

Among the highlights of the Symphony of Gardens Tour is the Governor Holmes Courtyard Garden. The second oldest house in Natchez, the original section was built in 1794 and was enlarged around 1805. The house was the center of the city’s social life during David Holmes’ governorship of Mississippi from 1809 to 1820. The current owners are from New Orleans. They have created their courtyard gardens with a typical New Orleans theme featuring ginger, bromeliads, Mandevillea vines, and other lush plantings. Enter the courtyard through the side gate and be sure to see the century-old grapevine that dominates the Spanish courtyard. Walk through the rear brick structure, the original detached structure, to the newly designed side garden featuring re-blooming Encore azaleas, a sugar kettle fountain, and various fragrant jasmine including Confederate and night-blooming.

Color bowls provide lovely accents of seasonal foliage and flowering colors. A small lawn serves as a child-friendly play space. Seating areas beneath a gracious wisteria-clad arbor are accented with bright blooming geraniums. The overall effect is a series of garden rooms for beauty, privacy, play, and entertainment.

At Magnolia Vale, the Peabody family continues the tradition of opening the grounds and gardens for public enjoyment. The historic site where the original Magnolia Vale was built in 1828 is adjacent to the Mississippi River. Protected by levees, the gardens are formal and until several decades ago, were among the premier gardens in America. When it was Brown’s Gardens, visitors to Natchez disembarked from steamboats and toured the colorful flower gardens. Although those gardens are gone, the current owners are restoring the site.

The entry drive is lined with Natchez crape myrtle trees, interspersed with red Knock-Out rose bushes. The original Peter Little wood fence has been replaced by an authentic modern duplicate. In front of the current house, which replicates the single story original that burned in 1948, are holly hedges dating to the antebellum structure. The rear contains formal English gardens with numerous shrubs, including hydrangeas, trees, and flowering plants. It was designed to enhance the splendid river view. A cutting garden contains raised beds with modern roses, salvia, irises, and seasonal annuals.

A quintessential Southern plantation, Edgewood is situated on a 90-acre site offering spectacular views and sweeping lawns boarded by hoary oak and cedar trees festooned with Spanish moss. Yaupon holly lines a walkway to the rear landscape that passes a conservatory sheltering a lap pool. Terraced brick planters contain Southern favorites, including azaleas, gardenias, crape myrtle trees, and flowering shrubs. Seasonal annuals including zinnias add punctuations of colorful flowers to the serene, green setting.

Emerick’s Garden features five landscaped areas that exemplify the serenity of a Southern garden created for beauty and reflection. Dr. and Mrs. Fred Emerick are avid readers and owners of Turning Pages bookstore in Natchez. They enjoy quiet moments near their large pond accented by cypress and a graceful willow tree. Beds filled with colorful seasonal annuals surround the house. Favorite plants include numerous fruit trees, a mature pomegranate shrub bearing luscious fruit, antique roses including Lady Banksia, and perennial Southern favorites, azaleas and crape myrtle trees.

For those enamored with herbs, the High Cotton Herb Garden may be of particular interest. Kerry and Doug Hosford own and operate High Cotton, a catering firm and cooking school. Their landscape was created by Going Green Landscape of Bogue Chitto to provide growing areas for herbs and other edibles for the business as well as outdoor living spaces that are both child and dog friendly. Foundation plantings include hawthorn, azaleas, hydrangeas, and mass plantings of Knock-Out roses. Large containers overflow with redolent herbs, including opal and purple ruffle basil, English, lemon and variegated thyme, oregano, rosemary, and other specialty herbs. A terraced children’s play space is colorful and safe for the young Hosford family members.

P. Allen Smith, the award-winning garden designer and host of a public television program, has emerged as America’s most recognized and respected garden design expert. He will appear at the Natchez City Auditorium Friday, May 1 at 6 pm. “How to Get More from Your Garden than a Backache” is the topic of his lively presentation.

Through April 11, visitors to Natchez can step into the mid-19th-century and enjoy the annual Spring Pilgrimage. The festival of pre-Civil War life offers antebellum home tours gospel shows, comedy, and carriage rides amid beautiful azaleas and fragrant wisteria. There is a wealth of sights awaiting discovery for architectural buffs. Among the mansions to be seen is Longwood, a six-story octagonal house designed as an oriental villa but never completed due to the onset of the war in 1861; the House on Ellicott Hill, where in 1798, by order of George Washington, American soldiers raised the U.S. flag and took possession of the area from the Spanish; and Landsdowne, where the present occupant’s great-great grandmother confronted Union soldiers who broke into the house in 1865. Some of the houses feature handmade rosewood furniture imported from France and gas-lit chandeliers.

Evening entertainment is offered throughout Spring Pilgrimage. House tours are by costumed docents. At the Historic Natchez Pageant townspeople of all ages don authentic period attire to present the history of Natchez. Lovely belles in hoop-skirted ball gowns beckon a bygone era.

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