Posts

Getting to Know the Trees at Tudor Place

 

By Kelly Whitson, Summer Intern, Garden & Grounds
 
My internship in collections management at Tudor Place this summer introduced me to a type of “artifact” I had never worked with before: trees. Tudor Place is rare among historic house museums in undertaking a complete inventory of its woody plant material – some 400 trees on 5.5 leafy acres – to officially accession them into its collection, the same as it does with interior items like dishes, beds and paintings. As a horticulture collections intern to Director of Gardens and Grounds Suzanne Bouchard, my main task was to help research and document about 100 of these trees and enter them into the collections database Suzanne created in the PastPerfect program, with codes and formatting developed to professional standards.
Histories and mysteries: This towering Scarlet Oak, planted in honor of George Washington,
left a hefty “paper trail.” Stories behind other specimens are harder to trace.

In evaluating my internship experience, I find the most unexpected result was a sense of knowing the trees personally. Some of their histories were easily discovered, like the Scarlet Oak, above, planted in 1932 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Others are mysterious in origin: historic photos, slides, family records, garden committee notes – nothing reveals their planting date or story.

 

The trees’ solidity is comforting, while their
changes are fascinating, even to a novice.
The trees’ structures and growing habits depend on their locations in the garden and provide interesting visual dynamics. From the towering Border Oak and famous Tulip Poplar (at left), which have reigned over the house and garden since the their inception, to the tiny seedlings just “joining” the collection, they all have personalities. Getting up close and personal with them, measuring them, evaluating their health and discussing their histories creates a feeling of intimacy.
I want to visit in the fall to see their changing leaves and return again in the winter to see their “bones.” I want to visit in the spring to see their flowery offerings and in the summer, to be enveloped by their lush green leaves. I encourage visitors, too, to return repeatedly to get to know the trees at Tudor Place:
Their solidity is comforting, while their slow changes and distinct characteristics are fascinating, even to a horticultural novice.

Kelly is an M.S. Candidate in Museum Studies at The George Washington University.

 

Old Roses

Old Blush Rose
The Peter family has had a long history of admiring and cultivating a very special type of plant…the rose. In the early years of Tudor Place, roses were found in almost every area of the garden: down near the southern perimeter which borders what is now Q St, along the lower walk, and scattered throughout the north garden. Today, visitors to the Tudor Place gardens can still see some of the descendents of the first roses cultivated on the property.

 

Roses were first mentioned in the family writings referring to Martha Custis Peter, who with her husband Thomas purchased Tudor Place in 1805. Their daughter, who inherited Tudor Place, Britannia Kennon remembered a small double flowering white cluster rose, a damask rose, and the hundred leaf roses were in the garden before she was born in 1815. She later wrote, “Every year mother would have the old hundred leaf roses gathered and sent to Mrs. Arney who owned a sweet store on Bridge Street. Mrs. Arney would distill rosewater from rose leaves. It took one bushel of roses to make a bottle of rose water – about a quart. She would keep one bottle and send mother the other.” At one time hundred leaf roses could be found in a large clump in the area which is now known as the Orchard garden. The roses were divided and replanted along the center axis path by Armistead Peter 3rd and were present well into the 20th century. Rosa × centifolia are highly fragrant and still used in perfume making.

 

Another family favorite was the old monthly rose, pink daily, or “Old Blush” rose. This rose is a hybrid of the first China rose and was brought into cultivation in the 1750’s. The old monthly rose was at Tudor Place from the beginning. Martha Custis Peter had this rose saved and transplanted in the garden while the house was being built. It was returned to its proper place and replanted by the parlor window after the house was complete in 1816. The monthly rose is still grown on the south side of the house by the parlor window. We believe the specimens on the south façade are cuttings from the original rose bush.

 

Tudor Place has many antique varieties and newer cultivars in the garden. Some are in their original locations while others have been moved due to changing growing conditions. The roses have been admired by family and visitors for over a century. In an 1879 article for the Georgetown College Journal, Mrs. Anna W. Dorsey writes ”In summer the grounds, in which Mrs. Peter took great delight and pride, present a scene of unrivalled beauty with their great shade trees, and sloping velvety lawns, flowers of every shape and hue, vines, shrubbery with rare varieties and, above all, thousands of roses as famous for their beauty and fragrance as the ‘thrice blooming rose of Paestrum'”. Tudor Place continues this tradition.

Tudor Place Sago Produces Rare Flower!

Native of Java (island of Indonesia), fossil records date the Sago to the early Mesozoic Era. The Sago is not related to the common palm except for in general habit of growth.

The male & female flowers grow on separate plants and are pollinated by the wind, insects or human intervention. Male flowers, or inflorescence, are usually 18-20 inches long and cylindrical in form. The female inflorescence is in the form of a semi-globose head, yielding 100-200 large bright red edible nut-like seeds which ripen around the end of December.

(Looks like we have the female…)


The Sago arrived in North America in 1775 on the famous Boston Tea Party ship. There were 3 sagos on board, the largest went to Mount Vernon, one went to Governor Morris, and the last to Pratt Nursery which is where Tudor Place’s Sago is descended from.

Here at Tudor Place in 1813 Martha and Thomas Peter (and son Washington) went to Philadelphia to visit their daughter Columbia at Madam Revardie’s school. There they bought several small plants and a sago palm at Pratt’s Garden. This began the sago palm’s existence as a traditional landscape feature on TP south lawn.

Currently the Tudor Place Sago Palm is resting by the bench outside the visitor center. You can see this rare and beautiful flower by looking up and through the leaves!