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Rooted Beauty

History and horticulture bloom together

Photo: Adsmore Museum
Photo: Adsmore Museum
Photo: McDowell House Museum
Photo: My Old Kentucky Home
Photo: Big Bone Gardens
Photo: The Brown-Pusey House

Kentucky gardens beguile with their lush landscapes, vivid blooms, sweet scents, shady nooks and effervescent fountains. But beyond their beauty, they also entwine with the state’s history, culture and citizens past and present to open the door to other times and ways of living, providing sanctuary, knowledge, experiences and a sense of what makes this state so great. 

In other words, it’s time to grab your car keys and sunglasses, coffee mug and map for a Kentucky garden road trip. May we suggest a few.

Adsmore Museum

Spring brings roses and azaleas to Adsmore, a living history museum in Princeton built in 1857 and then renovated and enlarged 43 years later by John and Nancy Smith. The Smiths’ granddaughter, Katherine Garrett, who moved in to Adsmore as a child and never moved out, deeded it to the George Coon Public Library with the stipulation that the original furniture remain.

A bonus discovery was the 18 steamer trunks (the super-sized kind from the era when women packed up their crinolines) filled with clothing and furnishings, tucked away in the attic. The contents are now used to change out the entire house every six weeks. Docents, dressed in period appropriate clothing, offer seven different interpretative tours and special exhibits throughout 2020 to celebrate momentous times in the Smith family history. One of those, for example, was when the family returned in 1914 from attending the wedding of President Woodrow Wilson’s two daughters.

The lush 4-acre estate, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is notable for its white columned portico, clipped formal plantings and elaborate garden art like the antique cast iron planter held up by three flamingos topped with feathery ferns. Katherine planted the large thicket of oakleaf hydrangeas, creating a changing seasonal display as their flowers segue from snowy white to latte brown and the leaves from deep green to a reddish-purple. Historic buildings on the grounds highlight the past. The old carriage house is now the gift shop; an 1840s cabin is home to Ratliff’s Gun Shop and contains the antique tools necessary back then for gunsmithing.

The Brown-Pusey House

Before he went to Little Bighorn (and we know how that turned out), Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his noted author wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, stayed at the Brown-Pusey (pronounced Puzee) House, a Georgian mansion in Elizabethtown. His assignment was a difficult one—stop illegal distilling and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, but the home was a delight, attracting visitors such as Gen. John Hunt Morgan and opera singer Jenny Lind over the years. 

We can only surmise that the Custers spent time in the gardens, but really, why wouldn’t they? The gardens’ historic origins date back to when the home was built in 1825. But the focus is the relatively more recent Cunningham Memorial Garden, the pergola dripping with wisteria and canopy of magnolias sheltering the terrace roof. Created by Sallie Cunningham Pusey in 1924 and maintained by the Elizabethtown Garden Club, it’s the site of free music on Thursday evenings among the blooms in the summer. Another big draw here is the genealogical library containing almost complete records from when this region was part of the Virginia Territories to 1930. 

McDowell House Museum

Hyssop, peppermint, English lavender and apothecary roses are good for what ails you—at least that was the belief over 200 years ago—and so they were grown in the apothecary garden at the home of Dr. Ephraim McDowell in Danville. Parts of the house date back to around 1792 and ultimately included his surgery, shop and home where he and his wife and their nine children lived.

McDowell was considered the father of abdominal surgery because of his daring operation, the first of its kind, on Jane Crawford, who thought she was having twins. McDowell determined she instead suffered from a huge abdominal tumor—it weighed 22.5 pounds—that would painfully kill her unless removed. Considering the year was 1809 and such details as anesthesia and disinfectants were unknown, Crawford had a rough time of it—but survived for another 32 years.

McDowell grew his own herbs and made his own medicines. The room he used as a shop for his tinctures and botanicals is part of the tour as is the apothecary garden, kitchen garden and plantings of old-fashioned flowers and trees like basswoods and redbuds. It’s all maintained by the Garden Club of Danville, which hosts a tea each year to raise funds for the home. 

My Old Kentucky Home

Built 202 years ago by the Rowan family, this three-story red brick mansion with black shutters was first known as Federal Hill, before being renamed after the state song written by composer and abolitionist Stephen Foster, a frequent visitor to the 235-acre plantation on top of a hill in historic Bardstown.

If you can’t remember the tune, not to worry. Visitors entering the great hall are greeted with a singing docent belting out the lyrics of My Old Kentucky Home at this state historic site. The Southern charm of the landscape beckons, taking visitors along brick paths through the stately ornamental gardens abloom in the spring with roses, iris and daffodils, plus the kitchen garden.

Focal points abound—a statue of Stephen Foster; a gated family cemetery; carriage house with antique vehicles; gazebo; the original spring house; and, for rest and contemplation, rocking chairs and benches. The bloodlines of almost every horse ever to run in the Kentucky Derby can be traced back to the horses owned by the Rowan family—a fun fact not directly associated with the gardens, though the horse manure might be one reason for the lovely blooms.

Big Bone Gardens

Over 30 years ago, Mary Ellen Pesek and her husband, Mark Lawhorn, began taming 6 acres of land across the road from Big Bone Lick State Historic Site outside of Union near the Ohio River. They named their land Big Bone Gardens after the fossil remains of mammoths and mastodons that gathered here to partake of the salt lick deposits from the nearby sulfur springs.

With such an unusual background, it seems natural that Pesek and Lawhorn would choose uncommon plants for their gardens—Jewels of Opar, surprise lilies, ‘Sticks on Fire’ euphorbia, hyacinth bean vines, golden moneywort, arum and Clivia. Other stunners are Cornus mas, a 12-foot tall dogwood covered with tiny yellow buds; and black pussy willows unique for their purple-black catkins (the fuzzy part) topped with red anthers (or tips) that turn yellow as the season progresses. Ponds on the property overflow with delicately tinted lotus and water lilies. Gnomes are big here and while wandering the pathways, you’re sure to encounter a few. 

The couple offers tours from mid-April to mid-July to groups, but it’s necessary to call ahead to schedule.

Blooms across the Bluegrass

In Georgetown, a charming horse and bourbon kind of place, Yuko-En on the Elkhorn is all about serenity, from the garden with placid waters reflecting a classic Asian-style orange moon bridge to the kiln house for creating raiku pottery. 

The sound of riverboat traffic on the Ohio is part of the urban vibe of the reclaimed dump now the spectacular Waterfront Botanical Gardens in Louisville.  

Floracliff in Lexington abounds with trillium, wild blue phlox, Dutchman’s Breeches, dwarf larkspur in shades of purple and white and twinleaf, a white flower that last just for a day. Contemplate the magnificent Elk Lick Falls and the purple shooting stars and yellow trout lilies for an hour at Floracliff’s Creative Reflection program, perfect for writers, painters and meditators.   

Begin where it began at Locust Grove, a Georgian mansion built before Louisville became a city by William and Lucy Clark Croghan, the sister of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark who lived there as well. Do we need to say more about its sense of time than its the monthly meeting place of the Jane Austen Society of Louisville? 

Euphemia’s Butterfly Garden, a way station for monarchs migrating to Mexico is a must stop on the grounds of Liberty Hall Historic Site located on the Ohio River in Frankfort and check their schedule for riverboat tour event. 

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