Lansdowne Farm’s botanical history: plants preserve memories

Stories stream from Barbara Backus as she strolls the grounds of Lansdowne Farm, the property where she and her husband, Curtis, live in Fredericksburg, Va.

From the farm’s history to the various iris, dahlia and daylily beds spread about the property, there’s no shortage of material.

But that doesn’t mean that the botanical details of Backus’s impressive collections have to get lost.

“You can find it on Plants Map,” is a phrase that peppers her conversation on a walk around the farm.

Backus, who moved with her husband, Curtis, to Lansdowne in 2010 to steward what was his childhood home, has made good use of the collections feature within Plants Map’s profiles, so that virtual visitors can see every bed, tree and plot with a story to tell on this 12-acre property.

Stories are plentiful

Witness Trees: 2 of about 10 cedars planted in the mid-1700’s that survived the December 13, 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. These survivors anchor the present-day entrance to Lansdowne.

The story of Lansdowne Farm can be traced all the way back to 1671, when the property was part of a land patent of 4,972 acres granted by King George III to Lawrence Smith.

A sign at the head of the driveway alerts visitors that the farmhouse was built in 1755, meaning it bore witness to the dramatic Civil War battles that caused civilians to flee Fredericksburg, whose historic downtown is just a short drive from the farm.

The house provided shelter to a dozen girls from Fredericksburg’s Female Charity School in the days leading up to the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.

Later in the war, when Union troops occupied the house, according to the writings of Eliza Rennolds, who lived there as a young girl at the time, “They burned our barns, carried off horses & all cattle, setting the house on fire & smothering the flames with my fathers books, thus saving the house.”

The house changed hands several times before Curtis Backus’s parents purchased it in 1948. It has remained in the Backus family ever since.

Since moving back to the farm, the Backuses have begun a restoration of the property and landscape. One major piece has been clearing the hillside that spills down from the farmhouse, a process that has exposed one of the property’s most notable features. The terraced hillside is thought to date to the late eighteenth century, and is noted as a contributing feature in the property’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Plants preserve memories

Adding layers to this storied background are the plants the Backuses have brought to Lansdowne.

Curtis’s mother, Virginia, planted American and English boxwoods around the property, which have been trimmed and now provide a natural boundary for what has almost become an outdoor room on a lawn to the side of the house.

Many other plants around the farm have ties to the couple’s family, which are documented on the property’s Plants Map profile.

There are Grandmother’s Peonies, a cluster of pink peonies planted by Curtis’s grandmother, thought to be too far gone to bloom until Barbara’s mother prescribed an application of sheep manure that revived them.

There’s the azalea that Barbara’s mother used for grafting, which has lived in its pot for as long as she can remember.

“I never didn’t have that azalea in my life,” she says.

A growing collection

As her gardening progressed, Barbara Backus began to learn more about growing iris, partly through involvement with the Fredericksburg Area Iris Society. She has several iris beds at Lansdowne, which are meticulously documented on Plants Map.

One collection is dedicated to her FAIS 2016 Guest Iris collection. This program allows FAIS members to affordably increase the number of iris varieties they grow. Barbara has labeled these varieties in their own bed, and has also used Plants Map’s custom Iris Tab to document these special plants with greater specificity.

Backus has used Plants Map collections to document all kinds of botanical features at Lansdowne Farm, from the impressive spread of daffodils that blanket the terraced hillside, to her dahlias, daylilies and annual cutting gardens.

Barbara and Curtis have devoted another collection to the plants they carefully select for the portion of Lansdowne that lies within a utility right-of-way. They recommend property owners carefully maintain and document right-of-way plantings to protect them from potential damage from utility contractors.

Plants are valuable to the Backuses not only for their physical beauty, but also for the habitat and sustenance they provide to animals and insects. Barbara’s heritage breed chickens and guinea are important partners in keeping pests at bay and fertilizing plants. A special collection documents the pollinator plants that help support the farm’s bees.

Just as the written recollections of residents from centuries past have provided valuable knowledge about how the property has developed over the years, Barbara Backus’s Plants Map profile is providing an important record of how this historic landscape continues to thrive.

It also provides a helpful reference when Barbara leads a group from her church or garden club through the property, or when she gets into a conversation with someone she knows and wants to give them a reference to go with her many stories.

“I couldn’t ask for a better tool,” she said.

To learn more, follow Lansdowne Farm on Plants Map.