The sago palms

On Friday, Diana of Elephant’s Eye commented on the age of my cycad. (The plant has a reputation as a slow grower.)

That made me remember some beautiful, rather ancient sago palms that I photographed at Tudor Place in Georgetown this summer. The sago palm is a cycad — Cycas revoluta — native to southern Japan.


Why weren’t our 19th century ancestors thoughtful enough to put away a few sago cycads in the greenhouse for us?

The original Tudor Place sago palm arrived in North America in 1775 on the famous Boston Tea Party ship. There were three sagos on board, and the largest one went to Mount Vernon. Another went to Pratt’s Nursery in Philadelphia, which is where Martha and Thomas Peter purchased it in 1813.

The Tudor Place blog says that the original sago palm is located near the door to the Visitors Center, although I only saw the specimens labeled as its descendants.

The Mount Vernon sago died in 1934. In 1941, a cutting was taken from the Tudor Place plant and given to Mount Vernon, where it grows today.

If you want to start your own little sago palm heirlooms in pots, please be aware that all parts of the plant are extremely toxic to children and pets. Guard it accordingly.

. . . all that predates history survives it.
the sago palm or the bird of paradise flower,
trees that are flowers that are birds.

. . . this high garden
protects the city that protects it.

Alvaro Garcia, “Public Garden” from Para lo que no existe, 1999

Tudor Place, part two

Ellipse boxwood — interior open to view.

I am fascinated by the old boxwoods of Tudor Place, an historic estate in Georgetown.

In 1805, soon after she and her husband purchased the property, Martha Custis Peter, the granddaughter of Martha Washington, planted (or more likely, directed to be planted) an ellipse of Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ in the center of the drive on the north side of the house.

Walkway to the ellipse and house from the north side with rose garden on the right.  The neoclassical house was designed by William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol and completed in 1816.  Six generations of the Peter family lived there until 1983.

For the Tudor Place Foundation, who received the estate in 1983 from a direct descendant of Martha’s, they must be a much-loved treasure and (I suspect) a big preservation headache.

Today, the ellipse is over 5′ tall, as one might expect, given its age. When I toured the property almost ten years ago during a Landscape Design class, the teacher fretted that it was too large for the original design and for the scale of the house and drive.

Boxwood ellipse before 2010. Photo via the Tudor Place Foundation website.

At that time, the boxwoods were nearly as tall as now, but still nicely filled out all around.  As such, I found them impressive, but not particularly interesting.

However, in February 2010, Washington had the deepest snows in over 100 years.  The damage to the boxwood ellipse and to  many other old specimens at Tudor Place was severe, and the hedge’s interior was opened to view in many places. Now the ellipse shows interior volume as well as exterior.

My sympathies to the Foundation, but I find the old shrubs’ new negative spaces and sculptural qualities beautiful and rather moving, and I took photo after photo.

Ellipse from west side.  The bushes are English boxwood.
Ellipse boxwood.  Click on the photos to enlarge.
Ellipse boxwood.
Ellipse boxwood.
Ellipse boxwood.

There are other old boxwoods in the north-side garden, like these in a planting bed near the old “tennis lawn.”

Boxwood in the “tennis lawn” planting bed.

And these along a walkway near the bowling green.

A walk along the bowling green seen through old boxwood. Click on photo to enlarge.

I wonder how long they will be left in place, given their current condition.  I find them beautiful, but they don’t really conform to a classic neat Federal or Colonial Revival aesthetic.  But who wants to replace bushes planted by the step-granddaughter of the father of our country?

If they were mine, I think I would want to turn the old ellipse’s design somewhat inside out and fill many of the open spaces with the contrasting foliage of other perennials planted inside them — as is happening among some of the equally ancient boxwoods at the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral.  I’d like to see a few Rudbeckia maxima flowers waving over the center (although whether the ground beneath the ellipse, full of old roots, would support more plants is a practical question).

Beyond boxwood

The rest of the Tudor Place garden is lovely as well, with the center north-side area symmetrically squared off in true C.R. style with brick and gravel walkways.

The well-maintained property actually shows off an interesting continuum of original and reconstructed functions and design styles from the last two centuries.

Tennis lawn.

According to an archaeological study and plan by the University of Maryland, the planting of the south-side lawn, which contains the 200-year old tulip poplar and once had a view of the Potomac River, has changed relatively little since the building of the house (and therefore is of little archaeological interest).  And, of course, the ellipse is also truly from the Federal period.

The walkways and rose/knot garden existed in their current layouts by the 1830s. But the knot garden was destroyed in the 1860s by intruders seeking boxwood for Christmas wreaths.  It was replanted by the last Peter owner in the 1930s, using old family plans, although he moved it to the opposite side of the center walkway.

Walkway from center to west side with rose garden on left.

The northeast-side garden with lawn and curving beds was an orchard and  a tennis lawn before its current 20th century design. On the west side, there is a 20th century bowling green and a fountain on what had once been a wooded area.

A pretty 20th century patio, “Japanese” teahouse, and arbor sit off the west wing of the house, more or less in the location of the 19th century kitchen garden.  They look Tidewater southern more than anything else.

“Japanese” tea house and arbor.

The garden is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.  There’s a small charge of $3. See this link for information about touring the house.

To see more photos and a garden plan, click “Continue reading” below and click on any thumbnail scroll through large pictures. Continue reading “Tudor Place, part two”