An Autumn Spectacular

Planning the fiery colors of autumn is a year-round endeavor for Manager of Landscape Services Laura Viancour. She and her team keep Colonial Williamsburg’s trees healthy and maintained, and they inform their choices with historic documentation of the 18th-century’s treescape.

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Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today we welcome back Laura Viancour, who is Manager of Landscape Services here at Colonial Williamsburg. She’s here to talk with us about some of our most longstanding residents: our trees. Laura, thank you for being here today.

Laura Viancour: My pleasure, Harmony.

Harmony: We’ve talked about buildings, we’ve talked about costumes, we’ve talked about actor interpreters on this show, but we rarely talk about the trees and the plants that make Colonial Williamsburg such a full immersive experience of the 18th century. Before we talk about the trees specifically, can you tell us a little bit about the mission of landscape services? It’s more than just planting hedges. You’re really creating a backdrop for history.

Laura: Well, and we’re stewards of the landscape too. So we are about preservation as well, preserving the landscape, being environmentally friendly and then creating gardens that represent the diverse lives of the people here in the 18th century. So you have the kitchen gardens, the pleasure gardens. But the trees, to me, create the ambiance in the Historic Area. And if you can imagine being in the Historic Area in the middle of August without the trees it would be a whole different sensation than it is today.

Harmony: Let’s talk about that, because we know that in the 18th century the trees would not have been what they are today. What do we know about what trees would have been here in the colonial period?

Laura: Well certain documents indicate that by the 1600s, this land had been clear cut primarily for tobacco production. So this land had been clear cut by the time it became the capital and you would have had some tall trees probably in the ravines that were harder to reach.

People would rely on fruit trees probably for shade in the backyard, but it was very much an open plain as recorded by several travelers here in the 18th century. I think firewood was one of the number one commodities sold in Market Square, so I think that vision that people just went in their backyard and just cut down the tree for their firewood did not apply here in the colonial capital.

Harmony: That is so funny to imagine the vista of Duke of Gloucester Street just being barren, just a dirt track. It must have been so hot.

Laura: I’m sure it was, but I think people were more acclimated back then. You know, we get out of our air conditioned cars and houses whereas they were in it all the time.

Harmony: So let’s talk about making choices to put trees in the Historic Area. If we had known they might not have had a historic analog, how do you chose what is an appropriate representation?

Laura: Well I think there’s always a fine line between authenticity and guest comfort and safety. It’s just, we need the paved streets, we need the sidewalks and we need the trees for shade, just for safety reasons. So we look at where we know there were trees as far as Palace Green, those catalpas are documented, and others, we look at where we have long lines of guests to provide shade for them.

So we look at each individual site to determine other trees, but we do plant probably two to three dozen trees every year in the Historic Area so that we continuously have trees coming on. Because, like humans, trees are living organisms and they have a finite life. As they die, we want to make sure that we have other trees coming up to take their place.

Harmony: You mentioned some of the special trees that are in the Historic Area, the catalpa trees on Palace Green. To describe that to someone, how can they picture what that looks like and how those trees are special?

Laura: It’s said that the Palace Green, which is a large rectangle of lawn leading up in front of the Governor’s Palace, on each side of it, it has catalpa trees equally spaced apart. And this was thought to be one of the first architectural greens in the country. Having this very formal approach to the Governor’s Palace indicated you were approaching someplace very special.

Many people are surprised that the catalpas were chosen. It’s not a tree that you would find in many commercial nurseries today because of it sheds the pods all the time, but if you had never seen that tree before, such as the colonists that were coming over from England, I think you would have been impressed with the beautiful fragrant flower.

Harmony: And it’s got these long seed pods. I think the catalpa tree is also called monkey cigar sometimes?

Laura: Lots of common names: Indian smoke tree, and they drop those pods all over the place. And so for that reason, we think they’re messy. But if you think about in the 18th century, the grass was taller, the roads were mud, and I would think those pods on a muddy road would sort of be nice to have to walk on. So what our perceptions are are different from the 18th century traveler.

Harmony: And I love the point that you bring up about the tree as a symbol of prestige. It’s something unique, it’s something exotic and its sort of signifies that you’re in some place special. So again, I always find myself saying that everything you look at in the Historic Area is telling you something about the past.

Laura: And that’s one the few places on the Frenchman’s map that indicate those trees; there and Custis Square are the only places where they have dots indicating the trees.

Harmony: And what’s in Custis Square?

Laura: John Custis, who was quite a garden enthusiast, he was the father-in-law of Martha Washington. We believe those dots indicate English walnuts that he had surrounded his property with because of records we know this.

Harmony: So taking care of these trees; they’re like human beings. They get illnesses, they are subject to acts of nature. What is the maintenance and care of these trees like?

Laura: It’s non-stop. If you think that it only takes someone to walk on the ground 12 times to compact the soil. Our trees are asked to do a lot to keep the air and all in the ground, water to penetrate. It’s a struggle and we try to do as much preventive maintenance as possible. We prune dead out. We look at the trees in nature as our guide and when we see a tree suffering, we immediately diagnose it to see if it’s something that we can prevent.

Our biggest problem is just stress. As we said, they’re living organisms and they have a finite life. When they’re stressed because of compacted soil, their lifeline is a little shorter. Although the tree may look healthy from the outside it’s like us, there may be something inside we don’t see. So people will ask sometimes or question why trees come down, but it’s because of safety. Nine times out of 10 it’s just because we want to make sure we keep a safe environment for our guests.

Harmony: We have some remarkable varieties in the Historic Area. I’m thinking of the Sycamore trees that have such an interesting sort of knotty, gnarled…

Laura: Well and that’s the way they’re pruned. That’s an old medieval practice called pollarding where they would cut back the limbs every year to the original point of growth and use that young pliable wood to make baskets or fences and such. It also helped to keep the tree small so they weren’t shading out the garden. So we show that practice today and they just look wonderful, on the pollarded Sycamores because of that white bark and the blue sky.

I think another tree that our guests ask a lot about is the Compton Oak, which is in the center of Market Square. People are surprised that it’s only about 85 years old, but it’s a very fast-growing tree. It’s a natural cross between the Live Oak and an Overcup Oak and it’s just a magnificent species.

Harmony: Now there is a certain tree sort of cattycorner from the Peyton Randolph House. I think, is it a Live Oak that has those wonderful long, low branches?

Laura: OK, now that’s next to the Compton Oak because you’ve got the Compton Oak that has the large canopy and then next to it is the Live Oak, which the branches touch the ground and that’s one of the parents. That’s not the actual mother or father, but it’s from a Live Oak that’s one of the parentage of that Compton Oak. So you can see where it gets its broad spreading habit from.

Harmony: So these trees are really storied.

Laura: Yes, yes and we get a lot of questions about the Crepe Myrtles, which are from the Orient. It’s questionable if there would have been so many here. Someone like George Wythe, someone of the gentry may have had connections. We know George Washington was importing them, but that was very late in the 18th century. However, Mr. Rockefeller loved Crepe Myrtles and the mission being different then, you know, today it’s a different mission than it was back then when it was an architectural restoration. So in that case when we go to replace a tree we now ask, “Well what tree species would be appropriate for this site?” And that’s a question that wasn’t asked during the Restoration.

Harmony: We’re coming into the fall season now and the fall foliage can be really spectacular through the Historic Area for a lot of reasons. Do you think about planning for a fall show?

Laura: Oh, yes.

Harmony: You do? Tell me what kind of thought goes into…

Laura: Well that’s my favorite season, so there’s a bias. But when we select trees we think about the site, because we don’t want a tree that sheds a bunch of things that we think about year-round interest. So fall foliage, blooms, fruits, all those things as well as wildlife food, because I think it’s very important we keep diversity for the wild life.

But with fall foliage, we have spectacular colors with the maples and we have the Red and Sugar Maples. You would think Red Maples are typically red, but they will get different shades of yellow and orange. And the Sugar Maples are the spectrum of yellow, orange and crimson. One of my favorite are the Black Gums, the Tupelos because they go into the burgundies. We also have vivid yellows with Gingkos and the Crepe Myrtles too have very pretty fall foliage. So it is a nice variety of colors. And also too, with the fruits and berries because that’s something we try to use a lot of and with your native species that lose their leaves you get more of the fruits and berries that persist in the fall than you do with your Evergreens.

Harmony: I love talking with you about the landscapes here because I always learn even more than I expect to. And Landscape Services there’s really kind of a unsung hero. All of this work starts before the Historic Area is open in the morning…

Laura: Right.

Harmony: …and tries to be very non-interruptive. What do we want to keep in mind as we think about the work that goes into keeping all of these trees and plants healthy and authentic and really at their best for guests?

Laura: Well I think that is it, that so much care is taken to provide the guests with a good experience for making the gardens look their best to not being very loud or disruptive during the day. And we’re here in all kinds of weather, through rain, sleet, snow or hail we are here because we are also the ones who do snow removal. So we are behind the scenes, but critical to, I think, the experience of our guests.

Harmony: You and your team add so much depth to this experience and it’s wonderful to think about all the things that you can learn from these trees and plants; the things that they’re telling you.

Laura: And we do have a tree tour in the fall. It’s called "Tall Treasures," and that starts in October, so I hope maybe you’ll get to go on one of those. It goes through just before Thanksgiving.

Harmony: Laura, thank you so much for being our guest. It’s been wonderful to have you and I can’t wait to see those fall leaves.

Laura: Thanks for having me.