Human Flower Project
A Spectacular Live Oak Wedding
Spiders, gold dust, slave labor and Deep Southern grandiosity made for a legendary double-wedding in St. Martinville, with three miles of live oaks and pines as attendants.
The oak and pine allee at Durand’s plantation
St. Martinville, Louisiana
Photo: Musings of an Artist’s Wife
By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary
EarthScholars™ Research Group
We live in a time of lavish and much discussed weddings—featuring royals, celebrities, and politicians. Recall such one-name sensations as Will and Kate, Kim and Kris, Chelsea and Marc. But we plant aficionados, following up various historical accounts, have been traveling over the past seven years to the site of a famous double wedding in which the trees out-glittered even the brides. In fact, nearly 150 years later, in south Louisiana at least, people still talk about those trees and go to visit them, even though the brides are now all but forgotten.
St. Martinville, Louisiana
Map: Discover Our Town
Near the small Cajun and Creole town of St. Martinville, Louisiana, there lived a wealthy and sophisticated French sugarcane planter named Gerome Charles Durand. In the days of grand plantation homes, it was common to see a long, straight, allee or alley—a double-row, tree-canopied avenue—leading up to the front door. To make a grandiose visual impression, Mr. Durand planted a nearly infinite- looking, 3-mile-long, alley of Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) and Coast Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) leading up to his plantation home. One mile of that tree-lined avenue remains to this very day.
Sunrise at the Oak and Pine alley
Photo: Paul Wood
The spreading Live Oaks’ crowns plus the Loblolly Pines’ vertical presence comprise an impressively landscaped evergreen corridor, one fit for a king. Even today, the Live Oak is one of the signature trees of Louisiana—along with Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).
Live Oaks are long-lived trees that can reach 1,400 years of age and have left their mark on U.S. history. Renowned for its heavy wood (55 lbs./cubic ft.) and its structural sturdiness, hull timbers from Live Oak trees gave the USS Constitution its nickname “Old Ironsides” in 1812. Why? “The barrage from the British frigate Guerriere seemed to be having little effect…as its cannon balls bounced off the Constitution’s rugged oak sides. Seeing this, one of the Constitution’s crewmen shouted: ‘Huzza, her sides are made of iron!’”
Live Oak trees have also had an impact on the history of St. Martinville, Louisiana (population 6,989). This town is often considered to be the birthplace of U.S. Cajun culture and traditions, the true heart of Cajun Country. Tourists still flock here to see the little downtown park that is home its own famous Live Oak—the Evangeline Oak. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline, immortalized the tragic story of the Acadians’ (a.k.a., Cajuns) exile from Nova Scotia in 1755. This venerable Live Oak tree marks the legendary meeting place of the counterparts of Longfellow’s storied lovers Evangeline and Gabriel—namely Evangeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux. Nearby is St. Martin de Tours, the oldest Catholic church parish in southwest Louisiana—known as the Mother Church of the Acadians because it was founded in 1765 upon the arrival of Acadians in this area.
The late Romero Brothers playing Cajun music under the Evangeline Oak, St. Martinville
G. Charles Durand was born in Nancy, France, in 1806 and arrived from Paris in 1820. Not too long thereafter, he established one of the Louisiana’s largest sugar cane plantations near St. Martinville through the labors of scores of slaves. St. Martinville came to be known as “Petit Paris” in the 18th century, because of the many displaced French Royalists who emigrated to escape the French Revolution and settled in the region, wishing to establish a class of leisure and culture similar to the one they had experienced in France. South Louisiana lore says Mr. Durand and his family traveled in gold-ornamented carriages, were awakened each morning by slaves spraying delicate perfumes, bathed in waters scented with aromatic bath crystals and oils, attended grand balls, wore diamonds, and lived in a palatial mansion worthy of royalty.
Portrait of sugar cane planter
Mr. G. Charles Durand
Image: Durand History
Mr. Durand had 24 children—12 with his first wife Marie and 12 with his second wife, Alida. Just after the Civil War, two of the Durand daughters became engaged at the same time: Marie Lucille Heloise Durand to James E. Mouton, and Corinne Marie Philomene Durand to Zachary Fournet, both St. Martinville men.
The proud father was said to have promised his daughters the most beautiful, elegant, and unusual wedding ever to be seen in Louisiana. To fulfill his promise, as the romantic (and likely embellished) tale is told, he ordered a large shipment of spiders sent from China, and he sent couriers to California to fetch hundreds of pounds of silver and gold dust. Shortly before the wedding day, the spiders were released, and spun countless, delicate webs bridging the limbs and Spanish mosses of the oak and pine trees that led up to the mansion.
On the morning of the wedding, May 21, 1870, servants armed with bellows filled with silver and gold dust sprayed the cobweb canopy of the allee to set it glittering in the sunlight, like a vision from a fairy tale.
Drawing of renowned the Durand double wedding, 1870
Image: Rare Post Card
Legend has it that other servants placed elegant carpets beneath the trees, leading to an open-air altar at the far end of the allee. Tables set between the trees groaned with copious amounts of food and drink, served by as many servants as Durand could muster. Musicians ensconced in hidden spots up and down the promenade played lively music. Nearly two thousand guests (likely a local, time-expanded exaggeration) are said to have attended the marriage ceremony. Toasts, dancing, laughter, and song lasted until dusk, at which time a steamboat chugged up Bayou Teche (at one time, the main course of the Mississippi River) to paddle the newlyweds away to New Orleans for their honeymoons. Fireworks were shot, bidding the young couples a very festive and celebratory adieu as the steamboat faded out of sight.
Paddlewheel boat heading toward New Orleans
Image: Paper Sponge
In contrast to a fairy tale ending, the wedding proved to be Mr. Durand’s last hurrah. He had lost much of his wealth due to the Civil War. His slaves were freed, his home was damaged, his sugar mill was seized. He died Nov. 26, 1870, just months after the wedding. It is reported that during his final days, he sometimes rambled on about a cache of money that he had hidden nearby—perhaps beneath the oaks and pines, perhaps somewhere else. He never revealed where, exactly. After he died, one of his sons dug for months beneath the trees of his beloved three-mile alley but found nothing. Perhaps Mr. Durand had spent most of what he had on that beautiful but pretentious wedding—known locally to this day simply as “the spider wedding.”
Over the years his impressive plantation fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed. The flood of 1927 washed away whatever remnants of it there were. Upon visiting the site ourselves, we saw no remaining evidence of his elegant mansion. The only reminder of Durand’s ostentatiously rich life and his destitute end is a mile-long segment of the Live Oak and Loblolly Pine alley that he had planted.
Perhaps the moral of this tale is this—If you want to do something with your life that lasts, plant trees! That’s the model provided by Nobel laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai, the internationally recognized founder of the Green Belt Movement and the inspiration for planting 47,000,000 trees in Africa.
Leaves and acorns of the live oak (Quercus virginiana)
In the Deep South, Live Oaks are a good choice for longevity. Such evergreen oaks evolved for warm climates and can photosynthesize year-round. Their leaves’ waxy surfaces limit sudden water loss, and their unlobed, thick, entire leaves insure that their leaves heat and cool slowly. Their leaf form factor and cup-shaped stomata impede airflow, which also limits water loss due to transpiration. All of these are adaptations that favor a longer life.
As of November, 2004, with congressional passage and presidential signing of a historic bill, America now has an official national tree—the oak. “The oak was selected during a four-month-long open voting process hosted by the Arbor Day Foundation. From the very first day of web-based voting, oak was the people’s clear choice, finishing with more than 101,000 votes, compared to almost 81,000 for the magnificent runner-up, the redwood. Rounding out the top five were the dogwood, maple, and pine.”
So the oak and pine alley at Durand’s sugar cane plantation made companions of two currently beloved U.S. tree genera. And even in today’s high tech society, Mr. Durand’s “charismatic megafauna,” his Live Oak trees, still host America’s original “wedding web site!”