Garden history and heritage plants





"Flowers are my greatest earthly pleasures" 

Margaret Anna Burwell




The Burwell School sits on two land in the Historic District of Hillsborough, comprised of two original town lots from the the pre-Revolutionary town plan.   The generously proportioned residence, ca 1821 and expanded in 1848,  and two brick dependancies sit at the top of a gentle rise overlooking Churton Street, Hillsborough's main thoroughfare.  The 19th century oasis is graced by majestic hardwood trees and a wide variety of classic Southern garden shrubs and flowers. 

Margaret Anna Burwell loved her garden.  Her son, John Bott Burwell, noted in his biographical sketch of her that "it was said in the village that anything Mrs. Burwell stuck in the ground grew."    The grounds, he said, were beautiful with flowers and and verdant grass.

Other gardeners have lived here too, most notably Carrie Waitt Spurgeon, who lived here into the 1940's with her husband, Dr. J. S. Spurgeon, a distinguished dentist.  Mrs. Spurgeon's mother had attended the Burwell School as a girl. The charming garden to the south of the residence was established in Carrie Waitt Spurgeon's honor in the 1970's by the Hillsborough Garden Club,  The garden includes camellias, gardenias, rhododendron,  ferns, daffodils, dogwoods, boxwoods, winter honeysuckle, roses, hellebores, iris, and lilies.  

A favorite Southern pass-along plant, the spider lily (lycoris radiata) has been introduced to the site in several locations to honor the woman credited with introducting this bulb to American gardens.   Lavinia Ellis Cole Roberts of New Bern attended the Burwell School in the late 1840's and wrote a very admiring account of her time at the School.    "Venie" was renowned later in life for her extensive garden in New Bern, where she had married and raised her family.   Her brother - in - law, a naval officer, brought her some bulbs from Asia, where he had accompanied Commodore Perry; Lavinia planted them and shared them out over the years.  The "spider lily" is a favorite burst of red color in the early fall when it suddenly emerges and blooms, seemingly overnight.   Volunteers planted dozens of lycoris bulbs around the property in "Venie" Cole's honor.

The Burwell School property also boasts two very healthy, unusual a venerable Osage Orange tree, and a descendant of the original Burwell School Musk Rose.



2007 "State Champion" Osage Orange                                                            

A venerable Osage Orange tree (maclura pomifera) sits at the eastern edge of the front lawn, and was named a State Champion tree in 2007 for its maturity and size.  This species, which is dioecious (male and female plants)  is native to the South-Central US where the beautiful wood was reportedly used by the Osage tribe for making bows.  It was introduced into the eastern US as a means of containing livestock becauses the young, sapling plants are more like shrubs than trees, are extremely thorny and can create a living "security hedge."   The most notable characteristic of the mature Osage Orange is its fruit.   In the fall, the female trees produce heavy, grapefruit-size green fruits (sometimes called "hedge apples" ) with an unusual and bumpy exterior bearing a superficial resemblance to the skin of an orange. 



The Musk Rose                                                                     


 The Musk Rose (Rosa Moschata) growing on a shaved - cedar arch to the south of the residence is a descendant of a shrub found growing and blooming on the property in the 1970's by rosarian Helen Blake Watkins.   Mrs. Watkins, whose own heirloom rose garden in Hillsborough was featured in Life Magazine, conducted a horticultural inventory of the property in the 1970's and made a startling discovery,  a small, fragrant white rose that she correctly identified as rosa moschata,  a rose thought to have been lost to the horticultural world.    In England a specimen was also discovered in an old English garden by noted plantsman Graham Thomas, and eventually a few more were found in the United States, associated in some way with the Burwell and Spotswood families, from which Mr. and Mrs. Burwell were descended.   Clearly this rose has stamina.

Rosa moschata may have originated in the Himalayas.  Although the flowers of this vigorous shrub are not especially large or showy, they have a rich scent and appear almost through the growing season.  These valuable traits have been passed on to the class of roses called "Hybrid Musks." 

Today the Rosa moschata plena (a "double" form) at the Burwell School is in bloom from June through October.  It was rooted from cuttings of the original plant on the property and grows on a handsome shaved-cedar arch built by with a grant from the Hillsborough Garden Club.   The arch earned  a certificate of merit from the Hillsborough Historic District Commission for its historically appropriate style and construction.




The Spurgeon Garden in the spring.



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