Wednesday, December 16, 2009


The sight of a winter-blooming red camellia in a vase on the breakfast table gives me a morning boost during this gloomy week of Louisiana monsoons. This morning’s “pick” is a beautiful blossom gathered from my daughter’s yard, and what a treat to find flowers blooming in December!

Over fifteen years ago, I was commissioned by Live Oak Gardens Foundation and Acadian House Publishing to write the text for a book about Live Oak Gardens at Jefferson Island, Louisiana. While researching the book, I spent many days in the gardens, enjoying the varieties of camellias displayed in “generous levels of light,” as I wrote in the book, LIVE OAK GARDENS, A PLACE OF PEACE AND BEAUTY. I was fascinated with the gardens planted by J. Lyle Bayless, Jr., the original owner and designer of Live Oak Gardens (then called Rip Van Winkle Gardens).

When Bayless first saw a red camellia in Jackson, Mississippi , he was enchanted with the beautiful flower, and his interest was further stimulated at a demonstration about grafting camellias given by his friend, E. A. McIlhenny, creator of Jungle Gardens on Avery Island. In 1917, Bayless purchased Jefferson Island, and his interest in camellias burgeoned when he saw the Jeanerette Pink Camellia which grew in the front yard of the Joseph Jefferson mansion on the island. In 1952, he began clearing the land around the Joseph Jefferson home and planted it with numerous varieties of camellias and azaleas. He also designed a 1 1/2 mile live oak avenue leading up to the gates of the Joseph Jefferson home.

After Bayless’ plantings were destroyed by several freezes and hurricanes, he commissioned Geoffrey Wakefield, an English horticulturist, to develop Rip Van Winkle Gardens. Interestingly, Wakefield had lived at Haver Castle, birthplace of Anne Boleyn and was the son of the head gardener for Lord Astor. On Jefferson Island, Wakefield designed many small gardens joined together with a circuitous path, importing plants from throughout the world, particularly camellias. His assistant, Mike Richard, eventually became the Director of Horticulture for the island gardens. Bayless continued to expand his camellia garden and won more than 1,000 prize ribbons at southern flower shows. He also hybridized many camellias, naming a prize white camellia “Elizabeth” after a relative.

In 1978, Bayless donated the tract that comprised the gardens and the old Jefferson Home to Live Oak Gardens Foundation and built a home for himself at the edge of Lake Peigneur. On November 20, 1980, oil well workers, who were drilling under Lake Peigneur, punctured the roof of the salt dome on the island, causing Lake Peigneur to drain into a mined-out cavity, and as the lake drained, the ground around it caved in. The lake swallowed up 65 acres of Live Oak Gardens, including greenhouses, thousands of plants, and Bayless’ lakeside home. Bayless retired to Maui, Hawaii where he enjoyed the abundant plant life until he died in 1985.

Today many varieties of camellias can still be found at Live Oak Gardens on Jefferson Island, and visitors from all over the world continue to enjoy J. Lyle Bayless’ legacy of a luxuriant garden on an island rumored to have been frequented by Jean Lafitte and his buccaneers. You can read further in LIVE OAK GARDENS; A PLACE OF PEACE AND BEAUTY, published by Acadian House Publishing and available at Live Oak Gardens, Jefferson Island, Louisiana.

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