Wooded Pastures and Wilderness Remnants

In addition to the significance of Henry Clay’s estate for human history, Ashland harbors several living remnants of natural history. Before settlement, much of the Bluegrass Region was covered in open, grassy woodland where deer, elk and buffalo thrived, and native Americans frequently hunted and lived. Due to Henry Clay’s early management, some pre-settlement features were preserved at Ashland. He pioneered the creation of wooded pastures in the region, as described by early travelers, like Thomas Hulme in 1828:

“I approve of Mr. Clay’s method very much, especially in laying down pasture. He clears away all the brush or Underwood, leaving timber enough to afford a sufficiency of shade to the grass, which does not thrive here exposed to the sun as in England and other climates. By this method he has as fine grass and clover as can possibly grow.”

This environment has become a refuge for some species that have become rare in the Lexington area.

Running Buffalo Clover (Trifolium stoloniferum) is a federally threatened species with less than 100 sites in the whole world, mostly in the Ohio Valley. A large population of Running Buffalo Clover was discovered at Ashland by State Nature Preserves botanists in the late 1980s. It is similar to white clover, a plant introduced from Europe, but it is generally larger, flowers earlier (late April and May), and has leaves on the flowering stem (unlike the naked stem of the white clover). Before settlement this species was locally abundant, especially along trails through the woods which were made by buffalo and other large animals. It survives today mainly on old estates that have never been intensively farmed, but it does require some light grazing or occasional mowing. If grass and other vegetation become too tall, the clover gets covered over and disappears. Several thriving patches have been located in shady spots at Ashland.

Spring Beauties at Ashland

Spring Beauties at Ashland

The Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a small spring wildflower that is white with pink-purple lines. Why it is so common in some lawns, but completely absent from neighbors, is a mystery – perhaps herbicides are to blame. Its large numbers at Ashland, from late March to late April, form one of the most impressive spring sights in Lexington. Waiting until late April to mow encourages the Spring Beauties to grow. They are generally absent on the southwest side of the estate where farming activities were more intense in the past.

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is a spring wildflower that used to be common in the more shady forests of the Lexington area before settlement. Although it is still common in ravines along the Kentucky River, there are very few sites left on the uplands. A large patch has survived on the Ashland grounds adjacent to Richmond Road. Its speckled leaves carpet the ground from late March to early June, and its bright yellow flowers can only be seen during early April.

The Trees of Ashland

Henry Clay was intensely interested in the development of his property. Like most of the early settlers to the Bluegrass, he was struck by the beautiful green rolling hills and large majestic trees. Almost from the day he bought the property he began to plant trees. In fact, his penchant for transplanting trees and shrubs from different regions and parts of the world is extensively documented.

“From the mountains were transplanted dogwoods, redbuds, pines, and hollies… Tanbark walks were laid, shaded by avenues of hemlock, ashes, and walnuts, their delicate foliage interlacing overhead. Clay’s attendance upon Congress, necessitating long and frequent absences from Kentucky, rendered this work of improvement and adornment very gradual, as he delighted to give to it his personal supervision.” Century Magazine December, 1886.

One writer in describing Clay’s landscape, suggested that his work at Ashland influenced the aesthetics of the region.

“Many of the handsome trees that now adorn the place were planted by Clay’s own hand or under his personal supervision. He loved them and he loved to cultivate them, and his example had no little to do with the development and spread in Central Kentucky of the taste for ornamental trees, plants, and grounds.”

Blue Ash: Henry Clay chose the name “Ashland” for the large blue ash that grew here in abundance. Only two of the many that were here when Henry Clay arrived in 1797 remain on the property. They are over 250 years old and are located near the corner of Richmond Road and Woodspoint. The blue ash can be found on dry, upland, limestone rich soil. They seldom reseed naturally because of mowing and grazing. Twigs from the blue ash when crushed and placed in fresh water will turn the water blue, a dyestuff of the pioneers. The hard wood was used extensively in the building and the rebuilding of the house. One of the most admired aspects of Ashland is the exquisite ash woodwork throughout the house, especially in the entrance and main floor. You can also find younger examples of the white and green ash on the property.

Ginkgo at Ashland in full fall splendor

Ginkgo at Ashland in full fall splendor

Ginkgo: The ginkgo tree is one of the oldest living species on earth. It has flourished almost unchanged for 150 million years and during prehistoric times it lived in many parts of the world. However, during the last ice age, ginkgoes nearly became extinct, and survived only in China and other parts of Asia. An interesting fact is a solitary ginkgo was the only tree to survive the atomic blast in Hiroshima. You can still see this tree alive today, standing near the epicenter of the blast, a testament to the ginkgo’s remarkable ability to survive. Henry Clay is often credited with bringing ginkgoes to this area and planting them on his property. No evidence has yet been found to validate this claim. The two oldest specimens at Ashland are in the front lawn and were planted sometime around the Civil War. The ginkgo has unusual fan-shaped leaves that turn a brilliant yellow in the autumn and all drop within a 24 to 48 hour period. For this reason it is also know as the “rain tree.”

European Larch: A wonderful example of this unusual, deciduous, slow-growing pine tree is found in front of the north wing of the main house. The European larch’s small needles will turn yellow in the autumn before they fall. This tree dates back to around 1890 and is a Big Tree Champion, meaning it is the largest of its species in Kentucky. Because it is slow growing, a small one is planted right behind it so that it will be a nice large tree ready to replace the present one when it dies.

Paper Birch: This tree, located towards the back of the main house along the Henry Clay Walk, stands out because of its white bark which separates into papery strips. This tree is a Big Tree Champion because it is the largest of it species in Kentucky. It usually thrives in the northeast part of the United States.

Norway Spruce: When Henry Clay passed through the wilderness on his way to Kentucky from Virginia in 1797, he was struck by the beauty of the Norway spruce. Almost as soon as he acquired Ashland in 1806 he began transplanting these trees to his new property. He used them to line the walks and throughout the landscape. The Norway spruce looks like a small Christmas tree when first planted but soon grows into a towering pine with pendulous branches. An added benefit of these trees is that they withstand snow and freezing rains, thus allowing them to survive for long periods of time. There are many of these old Norway spruce dating as far back as 1870 that still adorn the area around the main house.

Maples – Red, Black and Sugar: A variety of maple trees are plentiful at Ashland and lend their beautiful array of fall colors every autumn. These trees were important sources of wood for flooring, furniture, veneer, gun stocks and other uses.

Tulip Poplar: This fast-growing native tree produces interesting leaves that look like the silhouette of a tulip or cat’s face. The interesting pale yellow flower resembles a tulip. This Kentucky state tree, known for its straight trunk and abundant growth in woodlands, provided lumber for the early log cabins.

The Historic Landscape Master Plan

A historic landscape master plan was created in the mid-1990s because incremental change combined with disastrous storms had threatened the historic legacy represented in Ashland’s grounds. Many trees that once defined the great lawns and pathways were gone. Remaining trees that were planted during or before Henry Clay’s lifetime were at an advanced age. A large number of the youngest trees on the grounds were volunteers and many are poor specimens of their species. If something wasn’t done soon, the appearance of the grounds would be dramatically changed in 20 to 50 years.

The work was done by a professional landscape architect with the consultation of an arborist and input from a diverse volunteer committee. Funds for the project were received from the Division of Forestry, the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, the Lexington/Fayette Urban County Government and the Garden Club of Lexington.

Historic sources that were consulted in the planning process for the master plan included historic photographs, accounts written by visitors and residents of Ashland, and period descriptions of the estate by journalists and other authors. This historic information was used to understand the evolution of the Ashland landscape. Historic land uses and specific features were located on plans of the grounds and then correlated with old photographs to develop a sense of landscape character in each location. Plant species were also identified in the photographs to supplement information for a historic plant list.

A detailed inventory was made of all trees, which required a major volunteer effort to record the location, species, and size of nearly 500 trees. The age of each tree was determined and then an assessment of maintenance conditions and recommendations were made. The plan called for restoring and replacing over 200 trees. Phase I of the Landscape Master Plan is complete. The memorial tree program resulted in 229 new tree plantings on the property, which serves as a lovely and lasting tribute to many local citizens.


Meet Henry Clay

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Meet Henry Clay
Explore Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate in Lexington, Kentucky

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This bulidng was built at the Ashland estate to house labs and classrooms for mechanical instruction or what now would be called engineering.

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