Rip Van Winkle Gardens
Near the southernmost part of Louisiana's delta country lie a series of five wooded "islands" which rise up above the grassy marshlands and prairies that surround them. From 50 to 100 feet above sea level, these areas of high ground are as high as they are because they are sitting on top of mammoth, immovible columns of salt, which hold them up above the surrounding countryside. These monoliths of salt are two to three miles wide and five miles or more in depth.
Jefferson Island is one of the five islands. A mysterious place, the island is inspirited with the legend that Jean Lafitte, the pirate, buried his treasures under the giant live oaks that would later become the environs for a home and garden on the island.
In one century, Jefferson Island has moved from a place of tangled forests and marshlands frequented by buccaneers to one of pastoral quietness. The serene atmosphere has been created by the island's Eden-like gardens, which symbolize the natural landscape and yet reflect the fine art of landscape development.
The vista leading to Rip Van Winkle Gardens is fringed with a one and a half mile avenue of live oaks, sentinels along the roadside. On both side of the road, ponds surrounded by cypress trees offer two places of residence for the Canada and African geese that cross the road daily, sauntering back and forth between ponds, sometimes accompanied by a thick-billed pelican that has made the island his home.
One passes live oak after live oak before reaching the black wrought iron gates opening into this paradise that was cultivated first by a 19th century actor, then by a Southern gentleman with a singular love of camelias and English gardens.
At one of the highest points on the island stands the Joseph Jefferson Home, white cupola extended upwards to catch the sunlight. It is surrounded by a sweeping stretch of green lawn banked by flowers - red, purple, and yellow spots on the hill, tokens of color growing in a fertile soil that produces luxuriant growth. Beautiful peacock cross the road, honking back at the sound of cars and scurrying for refuge in the nearby gardens.
The exotic Rip Van Winkle Gardens is a massive scale-down from wilderness to flower in a design of interlocking small gardens, splashes that seem like passing suggestions of Paradise and responses to a need for peace and beauty. These small gardens include a collection of delicate camellias flourishing in three connecting gardens; a Japanese garden, heavy with Oriental ambience; a modern rose garden and seasonal plants enhanced by subtropical plantings of bamboo and banana plants, giant-blossomed magnolia and sago palms.
The gardens are distinctive in their spirit of openness, for unlike many lush gardens that enclose those who stroll in them, Rip Van Winkle Gardens reflects controlled abundance, a design that allows in generous levels of light. The paths lead everywhere, meandering and inviting visitors to enjoy peripheral vistas, to savor color and scent where bold colored nectar flowers have been planted.
Sound is minimal. Sometimes all one hears is the drone of worker bees fussing in an open blossom or blue jays dipping and shrilling overhead, ready to steal a berry, a fruit, some forbidden object from the enchanted garden.
Throughout the gardens, the live oaks form ancient shelters, standing like patriarchs with their beards of moss trailing in the slight breeze. They arch high above the paths, unencumbering, but offering visitors respite from the sun.
The story of Rip Van Winkle Gardens is twofold. It begins with an actor who searched for a place of peace and beauty and who made Jefferson Island hospitality a byword. It continued with the life of a man with a keen sense of aesthetics who sought to create a delightful outdoor space that would display various formal and informal garden designs, as well as a visual integrity that would mirror the surrounding landscape. The integrity, vision, and hospitality continue in a family that sees the peace and beauty that the actor saw over a hundred years ago, a special place of peace and beauty that they want to share with all.