||Published Mar/Apr 2006
There’s a new bloom on Rip Van Winkle Gardens.
By Nicole Larroque Dufour
|ip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island, La., have the makings of a great movie: Semi-tropical scenery, drama, adventurecomplete with a pirate’s treasureand a catastrophe that nearly destroyed everything. But, true to a good Hollywood story, the gardens and island survived. Today, this lush Louisiana tourist destination thrives with a new cast, lovelier setting, more attractions and a bright future.
A South Louisiana anomaly
The landscape near Delcambre is flat, marshy and surrounded by sugar cane. Along Louisiana Highway 14, a sign directs visitors to Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island. The entrance road, lined with oaks and ponds, leads to a south Louisiana anomaly: a hill 75 feet above sea level. This is Jefferson Island, a salt dome created millions of years ago, the remnant of an ancient buried seabed.
Visitors enter the gardens through a gift shop. Once inside, they find themselves in another world. Twenty-five acres of manicured interlocking gardens, linked by footpaths, offer sensory surprises at every turn. One of many paths winds through a formal English garden, around a Japanese teahouse and on to a spectacular view of Lake Peigneur. Centuries-old oaks, pampas grass, hibiscus, dwarf gardenias and Mexican heather grace the path to the Jefferson House, built by the island’s 19th-century owner and namesake.
Color is everywhere. Springtime brings tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and oriental azaleas. In summer, impatiens, salvia and hibiscus are in bloom. From October through March, 300 varieties of camellias bloom on the island. In addition to 48 varieties of bamboo, the island has banana trees, giant elephant ears and palms. Peacocks preen and squawk their way around the grounds. Geese fly overhead.
The early days and Joe Jefferson
Jefferson Island is one of five salt domes in Louisiana’s coastal marshlands. Avery Island, of Tabasco fame, is another. After an ancient ocean left behind salt, the islands were covered by alluvial sediment, the weight of which ultimately pushed up salt domes. The domes became heavily vegetated and inhabited by wildlife. Eventually, prehistoric Indians and, later, Louisiana colonial settlers, were attracted to the area, which is bordered by marshes and Lake Peigneur. According to local folklore, the legendary pirate Jean Lafitte frequently visited. In fact, boxes of coins, allegedly the buccaneer’s, were discovered on the island in 1925.
In 1869, stage actor Joseph Jefferson bought the island and built his winter home there. Famous for his portrayal of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle character, Jefferson performed the role more than 4,500 times. An avid sportsman, he was lured to the island's excellent hunting, fishing and mild Louisiana climate.
In 1870, Jefferson built a Moorish, Steamboat Gothic, French and traditional plantation-style home on the island. The house has 22 rooms, with a third-story cupola and widow’s walk. Jefferson entertained countless friends, including President Grover Cleveland. Jefferson died in 1905, and his house and land later were sold to John Lyle Bayless Sr., whose heir, J. Lyle Bayless Jr., would develop Rip Van Winkle Gardens.
The Bayless legacy
The younger Bayless loved plants and flowers, especially camellias. Bayless dedicated his life to making beautiful things grow on the island. He introduced more varieties of camellias to the island, imported plants from around the world and hired an English horticulturist to landscape. In 1966, he opened Rip Van Winkle Gardens, honoring Jefferson’s stage character. The gardens eventually attracted 75,000 visitors annually.
On Nov. 20, 1980, an oil-drilling rig in Lake Peigneur pierced one of the island’s salt caverns. The lake drained into the cavern, taking with it rigs, boats and 65 acres of gardens. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries. The Jefferson House sustained only minor damage. But the island and gardens were closed for almost four years. Bayless died in 1985.
Over time, the property changed hands and experienced ups and downs. By 2001, the gardens were for sale, their future uncertain. An eerie quiet enshrouded the island.
In 2003, Live Oak Gardens bought Rip Van Winkle Gardens. The new owners began the restoration, cleaning and pruning overgrown foliage. The Jeffer-son House, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also was fully restored. The house features, among many other things, original artwork by Joe Jefferson, rare Louisiana pieces and sample coins from the hidden treasure found on the grounds.
As for other enhancements, a conference center, café and bed-and-breakfast cottages have been renovated and expanded to give more guests the chance to savor the magic of the gardens and the island.
Future plans include diversifying plants and adding more water gardens and fountains. New varieties of camellias, other foliage, greenery and bamboo are also in the works. The overall goal, say the owners, is to fulfill Bayless’ wish to continuously grow beautiful things on the island and make them accessible for the public to enjoy.
Nicole Larroque Dufour is a contributor from New Orleans, La.
|Nature, history and heritage
By Nicole Larroque Dufour
|For centuries, the area surrounding Blue Spring, near Eureka Springs, Ark., has been important to many people. American Indians hunted, traded and prayed there. Enterprising Arkansans built mills there. In recent years, tourists flocked there for the floral delights of Eureka Springs Gardens.
Now, history, native culture, flowers and the spring come together at Blue Spring Heritage Center.
Some 38 million gallons of water is pumped into Blue Spring daily. Prehistoric artifacts have been unearthed at the nearby Bluff Shelter, once a sacred spot for Indian ceremonies.
In the 1940s, the area became a tourist attraction, leading to the development of Eureka Springs Gardens in 1993. The gardens boasted hardwood trees, select native plants and ever-changing flora.
In 2002, the John F. Cross Family Limited Partnership purchased the gardens and its surroundings and the site opened in 2003 as Blue Spring Heritage Center. Its focus has been broadened to emphasize the area’s natural and historical significance.
Gardens cover the landscape, displaying a dazzling color pallet, from spring through fall. Indigenous plants have been reintroduced. Gardens include the Medicine Wheel for flowers and herbs; the Three Sisters for beans, corn and squash plantings; and Woodland Gardens for bulbs, trees and shrubbery.
The centerlocated five miles west of Eureka Springs on County Road 210will open March 15 for the 2006 season. For information, call (479) 253-9244 or visit www.bluespringheritage.com.
- Nicole Larroque Dufour
Gardens surround the vivid Blue Spring pool in Arkansas. Blue Spring Heritage Center photo
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