ST. FRANCISVILLE — Why travel the world to see beautiful gardens when one of the finest and most historic gardens is less than an hour's drive from Baton Rouge?

When it's safe to hit the roads again, head north to the grounds of Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site.

And we have Martha Hilliard Barrow to thank for its existence.

On a grand tour of Europe following her wedding to Daniel Turnbull in 1828, she and her new husband visited the finest gardens in Europe, all the time making plans for Rosedown, the home they built in 1835.

Even before the house was completed, Martha Turnbull began work on her garden on the Rosedown property. And, for the next 60 years, as she enlarged and maintained her garden, she documented in her diary everything she planted, what succeeded and what failed.

"The garden was Martha Turnbull's life work," said Trish Aleshire, historic site manager. "She was highly influenced by European gardens."

The main focus of the gardens is a 660-foot central allée of live oak trees leading to the plantation house. Spaced among the trees are eight marble, life-sized Italian sculptures, four representing the seasons and four representing the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.

On both sides of the allée are landscape gardens filled with camellias, azaleas, hydrangeas, crepe myrtles, boxwoods and other familiar and not-so-familiar plants.

Many of the plants like camellias and azaleas originated in China and Japan but were only grown under glass in other parts of the world.

"As more people in the South acquired wealth and were able to purchase fine plants, gardeners realized that the climate here was similar to that in parts of China and Japan," Aleshire said "Gardeners found that they could put these exotic plants in the ground, and they grew like weeds."

Close to the house, Martha Turnbull planted a large formal parterre garden delineated with yaupon holly and filled with seasonal blooming plants.

She also had a very large vegetable garden and large orchards allowing the plantation to be "pretty much self sufficient," Aleshire said.

Because exotic plants like camellias and azaleas were so expensive, Martha Turnbull bought just a few, expanding the garden with cuttings and buddings done by plantation slaves with highly technical skills. 

Following Daniel Turnbull's death in 1856, the Turnbulls' two sons inherited other family plantations, and their daughter, Sarah Turnbull Bowman, became the heir to Rosedown. Sarah Bowman and her three oldest children remained at the plantation, while Sarah's husband, James Bowman, fought in the Civil War. 

Entries in a garden diary attest to the difficult times with no one to care for the plantation, except the women.

"Neither field or garden has been worked," Martha Turnbull wrote in January 1864. "My garden is a wilderness, sedgegrass. It looks melancholy."

When Sarah Bowman died in 1914, her four unmarried daughters inherited Rosedown, which was run by James Bowman until his death in 1927. The last Bowman daughter died in 1955, and their nieces and nephews divided the contents of the home and put the house on the market. Family members were never able to maintain the gardens the way they had been before the war.

In 1956, Rosedown was purchased by Catherine Fondren Underwood, of Houston, who, with her husband, Milton Underwood, did a massive eight-year restoration of the home and gardens.

"They kept everything in the garden that they could," Aleshire said. "Using cuttings and buds, they retained the genetics of many of the original plants." 

Catherine Underwood died in 1970. Her husband continued to maintain the plantation until his death in the 1980s.

A later owner was unable to keep the home and gardens the way they had been restored, so once again Rosedown was on the market. At the urging of many locals, the state stepped in and purchased the property in 2000.

Edward I. Daniel II, who was instrumental in the state takeover, served as the first president of the Friends of Rosedown, a support organization for the historic site.

His daughter, Beryl Gene Daniel, now serves as president of the Friends organization, which works with the staff of the historic site to raise money for special projects like restoring the old plantation conservatory, which had been in ruins since the beginning of the last century.

The group also recently used donations to replace six live oaks in the allée in memory of Jolie Berry, a founding member of the Friends, and with a donation from the family of Jane Porter Middleton, the organization replaced an oak in her memory.

In recent years, the state has provided extra help for a massive cleanup in the landscape gardens.

"The gardens look better than they have in years," Aleshire said. "Now we have a mix of many decades of flowers, trees, plants and roses."

In 2005, the Rosedown site was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior for its outstanding historic significance.

"The site received this important designation based on the gardens," Beryl Gene Daniel said. 

Tour information

WHERE: Located near the intersection of U.S. 61 and La. 10 in St. Francisville

HOURS: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. House tours begin at 10 a.m.; last house tour at 4 p.m.

ADMISSION: Garden admission is $7. Admission for the home tour is $12; $8 for ages 62 and older; $6 for ages 4-17. Free for ages 3 and younger.

DETAILS: In addition to the gardens, the grounds include a summerhouses, the old milk shed, the garden tool shed, the hot-house, Nina Bowman's wing, the doctor's office and the old barn.