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Winter weather takes trees at Melrose historic gardens

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Larry D. Stewart works to cut up a large live oak tree Thursday that fell near the entrance of the Natchez National Historical Park because of the winter weather. The frozen Spanish moss brought an additional weight to the trees, which soil was already dampened by continuous rainfall. Two other trees were totally lost and others were damaged.
Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Larry D. Stewart works to cut up a large live oak tree Thursday that fell near the entrance of the Natchez National Historical Park because of the winter weather. The frozen Spanish moss brought an additional weight to the trees, which soil was already dampened by continuous rainfall. Two other trees were totally lost and others were damaged.

NATCHEZ — Kathleen Jenkins stood on the grounds of the historic gardens at Melrose Thursday surveying the damage caused by the winter weather that swept through the area this week.

The ice that formed on Spanish moss throughout Natchez National Historical Park brought an additional weight to the trees, whose soil was already dampened by continuous rainfall.

The result was the total loss of three trees believed to date back to the mid 19th century, as well as partial damage to other portions of the historic gardens.

The damage wasn’t as bad as Jenkins, NNHP Superintendent, originally believed, but a part of history was lost nonetheless.

“The biggest loss is to think that these are witness trees in that they were here when this estate was at its prime,” Jenkins said. “So it’s not an insignificant loss, because it represents a part of the original resource used to tell the story of Melrose.”

Melrose is one of the outstanding classic Greek Revival homes in Natchez and is the centerpiece of the Natchez National Historical Park, one of the newest national parks, established by Congress in 1988 and dedicated in 1990.

Melrose stands today virtually as it did more than 169 years ago when it was constructed from a design by builder Jacob Byers of Hagerstown, Md.

The gardens, however, didn’t always match the grandiose of the home.

In 2004 and 2005, Jenkins led a charge to clean up the garden, which was invaded by wisteria, Spanish moss and other vegetation.

“The garden actually had the largest amount of invasive exotic species of any National Park at one time,” Jenkins said. “We just came in here and cleaned out the jungle.”

Jenkins, along with a handful of volunteers including a number of Adams County Master Gardeners, worked to clean the area up and bring it back to a presentable order.

“The private owners of the homes did a good job of maintaining the garden, but it just takes so much manpower to get it to how it once looked,” Jenkins said. “This is just such a major cultural resource to tell the story of Melrose.”

The winter weather that caused the freezing took down one cedar tree, one crape myrtle and one large live oak at the entrance of the park.

NNHP employees worked Thursday afternoon to clean up the debris from the storm in order to open the park to the public.

“The first thing is to clean up what’s fallen or been damaged and the second thing is the preservation of what’s been damaged,” Jenkins said. “Apart from the loss of trees themselves, we’ve also lost their placement origin and how that factors into the overall layout of the garden.”

NNHP ranger Melissa Tynes, who also has oversight of cultural landscape for the park, assessed the damage Thursday with a optimistic attitude.

“They don’t all live forever,” Tynes said, as she hunched over a damaged tree. “Mother nature fixes itself over time.”