An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

June 1, 2008

Chippokes Plantation State Park - Surry County Day Trip Pt. III

Chippokes Plantation is one of my favorite places to go when I want to get away for the day and still not be far from home. It is on the James River about 60-70 miles inland from the coast. The site has been (and still is) a working farm since 1619, and has maintained its same boundaries since 1645.

There are several old houses in the park, but the most elaborate is the Chippokes Mansion built in 1854. It is said to have survived the Civil War because the owner at that time was able to sell his alcohol to both sides during the conflict. This is the front, or river side of the house. Old Tidewater plantations always made sure the money-side faced the river, because that would have been your guests first impression when they arrived. The rear of the house faces the gardens.
The gardens are not especially diverse having only a few prominent species, and I have never been here when anything in them was in bloom. They are primarily American Boxwood (de rigueur) , Crape Myrtles, Flowering Dogwood and Southern Indica Azaleas. They are all planted in a formal grid with shady paths crossing through. There are no flower borders, rose gardens or mixed shrub beds. However, there are a few herbs and some flowers planted near the Mansion and some of its dependencies.

The last private owners of Chippokes left the whole thing to the Commonwealth so that it could be preserved as a working farm and as a park. Here they are resting comfortably in the garden surrounded by Boxwood.

Another significant plant you see a lot of near the mansion is Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). The trunk on this specimen is about 4' in diameter.
Here are some on the front lawn.

The mansion and barns at Chippokes sit atop a geological feature named appropriately enough, the Chippokes Scarp. 200,000 years ago the scarp was a 20' cliff that overlooked the shoreline of a much saltier, warmer and larger James River. During this warmer time, there were no polar ice caps and sea levels were 45' higher then today. Sounds frighteningly familiar doesn't it? From the mansion, I like to hike a trail that borders some of the agricultural fields and woods.
Japanese honeysuckle was in full, sweet bloom and just a noxious as anywhere else.
Blackberries were in flower and being worked by honeybees.
The trail goes through a wooded area, down a cliff and ends up at the beach. I have never encountered another person on this beach, except of course for anyone who came with me. When I am at this place, I feel like I have the entire planet to myself.
The cliff erodes easily and washes a lot of fossilized shells into the water. I have seen sharks teeth that came from here that are as big as my hand. I would kill to find one, and not take it home of course.

These Morning Glories were growing right in the sand. This grove of Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is my favorite place in the whole park.
Bald Cypress is an ancient species, and I can imagine them being here eons ago, no matter where the shoreline was. This particular grove has its feet, and knees in some very brackish water. Although it is not ocean water, it is salty enough to poison or kill you if you drank it. The current thinking is that the salinity was a contributing factor in the near failure of the Jamestown settlement, which was just across the river.The function(s) of the cypress knees are still being debated. Some think they may help the Cypress respire, others think they are buttresses in unstable soil. My grandfather thought they would make a good nativity scene when stripped and polished.
Cypress cones
The wild grassy looking stuff under these are daylilies gone wild.
Black pearls?
A sacred pool?
The cliff sacrifices some giants during storms, especially northeasters.

Will this Sweetgum with its 8' wide trunk be next?
Lest I think this place too removed from the present; there is a siren next to the mansion to call me back to my own time. Surry county is one of the most rural places in Virginia with just over 6000 people living there; it has a long and active geological history and it has played host to several eras of Virginia history. But in the middle of it all is the Surry Nuclear Power Plant, and the warning sirens are regularly placed throughout the county. I have been using a small part the station's power to write this post.


  1. It looks like a very quiet and peaceful place. The boxwoods and bald cypress trees are just magnificent. The cones are pretty too.

  2. Phillip,
    The cones are pretty, and on close examination are also unlike any other cone I have seen. Thanks for you comments.

  3. I just loved this tour. It looked so pirate like and creepy and cool at the same time. Thanks for the whole 3 part post. The last part was my favorite cause of the cypress tree sculptures. And those beads??????? Is that a plant or some real beads? Sharks teeth as big as your hand? Wow!

  4. Anna,
    There were several of those bead strands on the beach. I am not sure what they were, but I don't think they were jewelery. I may have something to do with seafood.

  5. What wonderful images!

    Can I enjoy you in saying that I just love bald cypresses too. I have three in my front garden - they were tiny twigs brought to me by a friend when I first moved into the place. Last year (14 years later) I noticed little 'knees' - and I must say that I am thrilled about that. I also finally pruned the lower (dead) branches on mine this year - so now you can walk under them (and it's just mulched in bald cypress leaves that have fallen for years). In your more recent post I noticed that you have a dwarf one - wow! I didn't know they were out there. It looks quite nice - and in lieu of the space required, it is a good alternative I think. Your backyard garden looks beautiful.

  6. Pam,
    About 10 years ago, I ordered about 50 Bald Cypress trees from the Dept. of Forestry to use as give aways at work. I got one for my parents that was no bigger than a pencil, but it is now close to 15' and thriving. The Peve Minaret is a dwarf, but it is not just a smaller version of the species. It also has a more conjested, sculptural habit.

  7. Thanks - I think I might need to look into the dwarf cypress. Oh, on a side note, my three large bald cypresses are now getting 'knees'! I was thrilled when I first spotted on last year.

  8. I have visited Chippokes several times and I have hiked the very trail you describe. It is very peaceful since you don't encounter very many people. Because of erosion of the cliffs, many shell fossils have been uncovered and you can see them in the cliff itself. Good proof to show it was underwater many years age. Many more trees have fallen off the cliffs because of the erosion.

  9. Rachelle,
    Thanks for stopping by. You should also read my more recent post from this fall.


  10. Going over some of the posts I missed.
    And some I wanted to read again.
    So many interesting trips and lovely pix.
    What do you have against that hardwsorking honeysuckle?
    Looks great up that dead tree.
    Just noticed there was another late visitor, a month ago.

  11. Jo,
    If only the Japanese Honeysuckle would confine itself to dead trees. It grows everywhere and has the nasty habit of choking many other plants. I'd rather see more of our native Trumpet Honeysuckle.

  12. Can you tell me how to pronounce "Chippokes"? Thanks.

  13. Kitty,

    It is pronounced chip-oaks.