Editors' pick

London Town and Gardens

Historic Site

Editorial Review

London Town's Winter Jewels
By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, February 4, 2006
From about 1690 to about 1740, the community of London, then the county seat, flourished at the lower ferry landing on the South River. Tobacco and other goods and people passed through the town on the main north-south route from Williamsburg to Philadelphia. Somewhat later, an entrepreneur named William Brown built an imposing brick tavern and inn right at the water. The three-story structure is the only one of its kind in North America, because it has expensive, labor-intensive header-bond brickwork on all four sides. Unfortunately, Brown lost his patron and went bankrupt before the structure could be finished. Now it's the only original structure on the site.

No one knows for sure what happened to London Town. It may have lost its tobacco trading license, or the Revolutionary War might have disrupted trade so it couldn't thrive.

The Brown house was a tenement until 1828, when it was bought by Anne Arundel County to serve as a shelter for the poor and homeless. It remained a county shelter until 1965. For a while it was home to the county agricultural extension service, and finally, in 1973, the 23-acre site -- about a quarter of the original 100-acre settlement -- opened to the public as a historic site and garden.

Executive Director Donna M. Ware manages the site, and Director of Horticulture Catherine Umphrey oversees the gardens. The two showed me around, and their enthusiasm was infectious.

Though county archaeologists continue to explore artifacts and footprints of the original settlement, the site is home to three kinds of gardens: a colonial kitchen garden, an African-American garden that documents the impact of food plants brought to the colonies from Africa, and an ornamental, or "study collection" garden that was developed largely in the 1970s and offers strong winter interest.

The site is also home to the new Historic London Town Visitors' Center, with classroom, training and exhibition space, and a new home for the county archaeology lab.

London Town offers educational programs for children and adults. During my January visit, I was most intrigued by the gardens, particularly the woodland, or ornamental gardens. They rise and fall on gentle slopes between the old and new visitors' centers, the archaeology lab and the South River.

The underbrush was cleared and the installation of the garden began in the late 1960s, from a design by two horticulture professors at the University of Maryland, Robert Baker and Carl Johnson. It was created very much in the spirit of the grand English gardens of a century earlier. No one cared if an interesting plant was native to the habitat, and experimenting with exotics was a big part of the fun.

As a result, the London Town gardens have many rare specimens not often found growing in this region, and some prestigious horticulturists have left their mark. Tony Dove, of the Smithsonian Institution, a former horticulturist with London Town gardens, helped implement the garden plan. Later, in the 1970s, William Ackerman, a plant researcher at the United States National Arboretum, used this site to grow tea-oil camellias (C. oleifera), the hardiest of all camellias. These were used to hybridize the hardy camellias introduced through the arboretum. Those camellias are still there. One of the Ackerman hybrids, "Winter's Hope," was in full bloom while I was visiting, along with some "mystery camellias" that were found on the property but haven't been definitively identified.

Even in January, the garden is beautiful. What really fascinated me was the amount of greenery and flowering that was going on. I like plants with winter interest. If you have winter interest, you have year-round interest -- and at London Town it was everywhere.

It started at the front door of the old visitors' center, with a graceful mound of winter-flowering jasmine, with its tiny, bright yellow flowers; clusters of green foliage on autumn bride heuchera (H. villosa "Autumn Bride"); the russet-colored peeling bark of paperbark maple (Acer griseum), and Natchez and Biloxi crape myrtles, with sinuous shapes and gorgeous two-toned red and tan bark.

Then there are camellias, with their glossy, deep-green oval leaves and delicate flowers in every shade from white to pink, red and scarlet, and witch hazels with fragrant clusters of golden and russet red flowers. There was a huge variety of hollies heavy with berries, including exceptionally mature, yellow-fruited forms of American holly.

There's fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), a shrub in full flower with heavenly fragrant pale yellow flowers, smelling of citrus and honey. Farther along the path was sweetbox, a subshrub used as groundcover. Its insignificant-looking flowers will open in several weeks to drench the air with fragrance in late winter. There's stachyurus (S. praecox), with its pale yellow flowers, considered to be one of the finest winter-flowering shrubs.

Any of these plants would make a fine show in an urban or suburban garden, but London Town has some unusual specimens, rarely seen in gardens here. One is an evergreen dogwood, with long, pointed leaves and berries similar to those on a kousa dogwood. Noted Tennessee nurseryman Don Shadow thinks it might be Cornus capitata. Another is blue palmetto palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), often found growing naturally along the Southeast coast of the United States. And, although not a rare plant, fragrant daphne (D. odora) is usually a short-lived, temperamental shrub, with exceptional late-winter flowers and fragrance. London Town's has been thriving for years.