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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

Catch another butterfly

The sun beats relentlessly on my head as I return to the car to get my hat. The distant hum of the traffic on the road below reminds me that I'm not that far from civilisation, yet when I turn back to the southern plantation, I am immersed in another world from another time. West of the historic Carnton Plantation mansion is a garden, surrounded by a white picket fence and I enter the open gate to explore.

By now, the traffic hum has been replaced by a loud buzzing sound as hundreds of bees go about their busy work, collecting and spreading pollen. The sound is somehow very soothing.

This garden dates back to 1847, when the plantation owner, John McGavock created it as a wedding gift for his wife, Carrie Winder. Its design was based on the writings of American landscape designer and horticulturist, Andrew Jackson Downing.

Carnton Plantation formal garden

The white gravel crunches beneath my feet as I walk toward the arches; the new summer growth, unchecked and reaching for the sky. In the centre of the garden, between the arches, is a large urn in which a cycad-type plant is growing. I wander through the vegetable beds, pumpkins and other heirloom vegetables abound, green and healthy. Along the picket fences, white hydrangeas are in full bloom. On the northern border of the garden a taller, solid wall is evident, probably to protect the garden from the bitter northerly winds, which blow biting cold breezes from the frigid Arctic.

I wonder how much of this garden can be related back to the original 1847 design, and am surprised that several original plants have survived the one hundred and seventy-two years since it was created. A huge Osage orange, a cedar, and a number of yuccas are all that exist from the original garden. Imagine being planted as a young sapling 172 years and still bearing fruit to this day. According to Wikipedia, the Osage orange is probably more related to the mulberry than the orange; it's skin is covered with a warty-type surface. I've never seen a fruit like this, and after researching it, realised that it is probably more an ornamental tree than one of real use.

Osage orange

I have little interest in the vegetable garden, so turn to follow the fragrance, which has been released by the harsh sun. Together with the unmistakable buzz of insects, I come to the brightly-coloured flower garden beds. I can close my eyes and imagine the hive of activity as the thrumming of fast-beating wings of bees jump from flower head to flower head as they extract pollen. This is background noise to the silent dance of the butterflies as they flit to flower centre, pause and slowly probe for pollens with their antennae, before collecting it on their skinny legs, and moving to the next flower. Apparently butterflies can detect the red colour, so are more likely to be found on brightly-coloured flowers.

Butterflies pollinating

The Canton garden had been neglected during the 20th century, but in 1996, the garden was recreated to look as it did when it was designed by John McGavock. Careful research into the types of plants that were available during the mid to latter part of the 19th century had been used to kick-start this project. Justin Stelter, a young local horticulturalist set out to find heirloom plant stock to use in the garden. Thorough searching for mid-19th century plants often ended in the yards of local Franklin residents. To this day, the Carnton plantation garden includes specimens of peony roses, honeysuckles, and more importantly, this garden includes the largest historical daffodil collection in the South. Its forty varieties had been in use prior to 1869.

It's too late for me to see the daffodils, but the gerberas and dahlias are all decorated with the busy butterflies.

My time here is almost done, but as I prepare to leave Carnton, I reflect on the beautiful, lush environment surrounding Franklin, which has been my base for the past few days. I will be reluctant to leave this small patch of paradise tomorrow.

As dusk settles and I return to my car for the half-hour drive back to my accommodation, I am so very glad I took this little detour into the countryside. I have been able to relax in a natural environment, even sitting on a porch last night, to watch the abundance of fireflies in the air. I loved watching these little bugs as they emit their tiny lights before they disappear. Honestly, I haven't seen fireflies since I left school in 1976, and I cannot thank my host enough for the experiences I've had over the past few days. Old memories and new encounters are now very much part of this trip, as I desperately try to write down these thoughts before they too, disappear.

My new adventure starts early tomorrow.


TITLE QUOTE: Mike Williams (songwriter)

ACCOMMODATION: somewhere near Franklin, TN - private home.

TOURS: Carnton Plantation and Carter House combined tours (allocate a good 5 hours to do both properties in depth)

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