Savor Surry County’s horticulture and history

Story by Kristi Hendricks

Winter was left in the rear view mirror … cold, drab and unfriendly. We were ready for sunshine, pollen, and a bit of the casual country life. We, my husband and I, finished our business in the capital earlier than expected that Friday and were ready to launch into a weekend getaway. Opting for a scenic route leaving the city, we traveled along the tree-lined Rt. 5 Virginia Byway winding alongside the newly constructed Virginia Capital Trail. 

Redbud performs spring’s raspberry dance. Photo courtesy of George Lewis.

Flowering dogwoods were unmistakable with their white and rust-tinged blossoms. The redbuds (Cercis canadensis), already in full swing, were doing their annual raspberry dance of blooms. Seeing the bicycle and pedestrian trail linking Richmond with the historic capitals of Jamestown and Williamsburg made us almost wish we had brought our bicycles.

Flowering dogwoods blooming in front of the Jones-Stewart mansion. Photo courtesy of George Lewis.

But that adventure we’ll hold for another excursion, when the leaf canopy shades the paved trail. After all, we were heading to the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry for a water adventure on the Pocahontas across the James River to Surry for spring break. Soft rush, emerging marsh grasses, and other native wetland plants gently swayed in the breeze as we boarded and debarked from the ferry deck with friendly waves from the deckhands.

Daisies blooming in a pasture at Chippokes Plantation. Photo courtesy of George Lewis.

We had entered South of the James Country where pork, pine, and peanuts are agricultural mainstays. And don’t forget the cotton and soybeans. It was lunchtime with mild April temperatures suitable for outside dining at the Surry Seafood Restaurant and Marina on the waterfront of Gray’s Creek, near where some of the earliest settlers initiated protective earthworks on Smith’s Fort Plantation. As we ate, towering cypress trees peered onto our plates for a glimpse of the daily special.

Colorful azaleas line garden pathways at Chippokes Plantation State Park. Photo courtesy of George Lewis.

Time came to get settled in our charming cabin at Chippokes Plantation State Park. Established in 1619, Chippokes is one of the oldest continually farmed plantations in the country. Since reservations were in hand, we enjoyed the leisurely drive from the park entrance shrouded with winterberry to the visitor center’s James River overlook to check in. On our way to the cabin, daisies dotted nearby pastures where farm animals waited patiently to chat with us through the fence.

The Frog Bog is Certified Wildlife Habitat using only Virginia native plants. Photo courtesy of Kristi Hendricks.

Our adventure was planned around capturing a glimpse into life of a bygone era. Over the next two days, we toured the antebellum mansion and dependencies, viewed antique equipment at the Farm and Forestry Museum, and explored walking trails meandering through towering hardwoods and conifers with spectacular marshland views. But the highlight was the stroll through the park’s formal gardens.

The historic Captain John Smith ferry deckhouse. Photo courtesy of Kristi Hendricks.

The last private owner and donor of the land to the Commonwealth, Mrs. Victor Stewart, was known to be an avid gardener. The gardens undeniably reflect her interest in ornamental horticulture. The mansion’s splendid foundation plantings had been refurbished the year before to include many species documented in Stewart’s farm journals. Narcissus scented the air as we walked pathways lined with blooming azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) of every possible color 

Beneficial pollinator enjoys nectar of native seashore mallow. Photo courtesy of Kristi Hendricks.

The English boxwood (Buxus spp.) garden called for closer investigation. Remnants of Camellia blossoms littered the ground beneath glossy, deep green foliage. Although too soon for crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) to bloom, the lovely paleness of their smooth bark was reward enough. Seedpods lingered on the branches much to the delight of hungry goldfinches. 

Not to dawdle too long, we were off to weekend side trips. Late Saturday afternoon we headed to one of the newest attractions in Surry, the Hampton Roads Winery, to relax from our park activities. We were anxious to try the winery’s “special edition” wine under the label “Bacon’s Castle Win” (yes, Win from the Old English term for wine) and in partnership with Preservation Virginia’s historic landmark. 

Though the wine is new, the grape is as old as the hills. ‘Norton’ summer grape (Vitis aestivalis) the dominant grape in this varietal wine. ‘Norton’, believed to have been discovered near Richmond in 1835, is the oldest American grape cultivar still in commercial production. This wine grape was first cultivated in Virginia in the 1830s by Dr. Daniel Norton, ergo the cultivar name.

We found the ‘Norton’ grape to make a luscious, dry red wine and learned that humans are not the only ones smitten with its taste. Songbirds, game birds, and all manner of furbearers find the summer grape berries irresistible. Grapevines also offer four-season ornamental interest. Spring brings scented flowers. Handsome leaves showcase summer coolness. Autumn foliage announces colorful transition. And the reddish-brown trunk bark attractively peels in winter.

The grapevines aren’t the only attraction on the farm with an interesting story. This winery is home to the world’s tallest goat tower. Thankfully, there is plenty of tower space, as two sets of twin kids recently arrived to entertain guests. This mild spring evening was a perfect time to sit on the back patio and enjoy the view of the pond and historical plantation home built when renowned carriage horses were bred on the farm to service the New York carriage industry. All made for a special ending to the day.   

Native ironweed adds vibrant color to the Frog Bog. Photo courtesy of Kristi Hendricks.

Sunday’s adventure turned out to be nautical, heavily laced with history and horticulture. Though the river is nearly 5 miles to the north, a ferry deckhouse of unique interest is landlocked at the Surry County Historical Society in the Town of Surry, the Capt. John Smith deckhouse. The CJS was the first modern car ferry to service the James River from Jamestown to the Scotland Landing. The historic ferry deckhouse has been restored to its original 1925 appearance, when the service provided an important connector for the Maine to Florida traveler through Surry County to Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement in America.

Before taking the ramp topside, we strolled through a native plant garden created to celebrate the deckhouse project. The certified pollinator habitat was designed to demonstrate improved landscape tactics using native plants for increased wildlife and pollinator diversity. 

Great blue lobelia blooming in the Frog Bog. Photo courtesy of Kristi Hendricks.

The plant profile display helped us identify more than 40 species of pollinator attractors. The lovely blooms of flag iris embraced the sunshine reflecting off the deckhouse’s starboard side as foliage of lobelia and pickerelweed poked through a bed of chip mulch. Bustling bees and birds were already astir in the habitat, which is shaped to mirror a tidewater pocosin. 

Having found that linking history with horticulture is a great way to bind the past with the future, we’ll return home using the route of an old stagecoach road (Rt. 10). Now it’s your turn to savor one of the best kept weekend getaways in Virginia touring gardens connected to the fascinating history of Surry County.




The ‘Frog Bog’ Certified Wildlife Habitat Index:

Common Name (Botanical Name)
Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)             
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Great blue lobelia (L. siphilitica)
Blue flag iris (I. versicolor)
Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Cutleaf rudbeckia (R. laciniata)
Lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus)
Seashore mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica)
Royal fern (Osmunda regalis)
Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Fragrant goldenrod (Euthamia caroliniana)
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Coastal Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium)
Soft rush (Juncus effusus)
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
Swamp verbena (V. hastata)
New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)
Swamp rose hibiscus (H. moscheutos)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)
Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis)
Garden phlox (P. paniculata)
Smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)
Marsh blazing star (Liatris spicata)
Large gayfeather (Liatris scariosa)
Plains blazing star (Liatris squarrosa)
Grass-leaf blazing star (Liatris pilosa)                                
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) 
American holly (Ilex opaca)                                   
Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)               
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)         
Swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum)           
Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)                       
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)                              
Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra)                                  
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)                        
Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)

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