Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

Witch Hazel

Well, I’m a bit disappointed (but not surprised) that the new British prince has not been named Alfred, but I must return to my more mundane life. The heat wave is over, thank goodness, but I am remain aggrieved: bruised and beaten from gardening and various athletic activities, bitten by a variety of bugs, burned by the sun. Consequently I have become completely dependent on, and enraptured with, witch hazel. I can’t get enough. I love its simplicity, its cheapness, its effectiveness, its old-fashionedness. Yet I know little about it–there are so many bottles around the house my stepson asked me what it was, and I had to admit complete ignorance. So I looked it up.

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Witch Hazel Redoute 18p

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginica): fruiting stem with flowers and seed. Colored engraving, c. 1792, after F. J. Schultz; Pierre Redouté, Hamamelis Virginica = Hamamélide de Virginie, c. 1801-19, New York Public Library.

I do know quite a bit about European medicinal plants and their history, but witch hazel is a North American native (actually there are Asian varieties too) so it doesn’t turn up in any of the medieval or Renaissance herbals with which I am familiar. The Native Americans used its bark medicinally, but Europeans (in typical European adaptive fashion) amplified its potency by mixing it with distilled alcohol–and consequently it became a stillrooom/medicine cabinet staple. The standard recipe seems to be 84% witch hazel extract and 16% alcohol today; I’m not sure what is was several centuries ago, but certainly not standard. From past to present, it has been prepared in a variety of forms–poultices, lotions, potions, tinctures and salves–as well as the common “tonic”.

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L0032213 Hazeline bottles, advertisement, 1903-04

John White’s depiction of a Virginian chief with witch-hazel bow, c. 1585-93, British Museum; an advertisement for Hazeline Witch Hazel, c. 1903, Wellcome Library, London. This latter image reminded me of John Derian‘s apothecary series of decoupage trays, so I clicked over, and there was witch hazel, of course.

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Apparently the witch hazel shrub is also beautiful, and a very early bloomer: I might have to get one of my own. Or I could just by a print. And lots and lots of more bottles of this panacea.

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Witch hazel print Etsy

Witch Hazel at the New York Botanical Garden this early spring, photograph by Ivo M. Vermeulen; “Witch Hazels on Salmon Wood” by Kate Halpin, Etsy.


Waiting & Walking in Old Boston

I spent all of yesterday in Boston, in the realms of two of the city’s more venerable–and very different–institutions. At Massachusetts General Hospital, I kept my father company while we waited for news of my stepmother’s condition after surgery (she is fine, thank you). This particular institution has such a strong historic identity that you can’t escape it: sepia-toned photographs of firsts line the halls, a flyer for the “MGH History Trail” greets you in the waiting room, the original 1821 Bulfinch-designed building still sits in the center of its expansive campus, and a new Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation opened its doors just last year. While waiting, I made my way to the Bulfinch Building, and ascended stone steps to the 4th floor surgical theater called the “Ether Dome”, the site of the first public surgery with anesthesia, performed in 1846 (there is a mummy up there too).

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In the afternoon, I found myself in another venerable Boston institution: an “Old Boy’s Club”, except it wasn’t! Surviving bastions of the Brahmin past, Boston’s social clubs–most of which are located in the Back Bay–continue to function as social centers for their members but also offer rooms for short-term stays “in town”. My father’s club was closed for renovations, so they had placed him at the nearby Chilton Club, the only women’s club (clearly I cannot say “Old Women’s Club) among its brethren. Named for Mary Chilton, the first Mayflower passenger to leave Plymouth for Boston, the club occupies two adjacent brownstones on Commonwealth Avenue. Compared to the other Boston clubs I have seen, the decor of Chilton was indeed decidedly feminine, with needlepoint, lots of toile, a damask fabric-lined dining room, delicate fancy chairs scattered about, a pale yellow ballroom with mirrored “windows”, and a beautiful front-facing parlor called the “Dexter Room”. I asked the man at the reception desk if it was safe for my father to stay there, and he said they had admitted men a while ago (but they asked him to use the side entrance when he returned later that night).

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Appendix:  in the Public Garden, a swan laid on her newly-lain eggs, in the biggest nest I have ever seen!

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St. John’s Wort

Today marks the anniversary of the nativity (as opposed to the death by beheading, or decollation) of one of the most important medieval saints, St. John the Baptist. The devout veneration of the Saint determined the observation of his feast day, which was “summer Christmas”, with fire in the fields (the pre-Christian holdover), three masses, and garlands and wreaths made of golden flowers, including those from the Saint’s own namesake herb, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), which seems to have survived, even flourished in this modern world. In the past it was first and foremost a protective herb, hung over doors, windows, and religious images (its Latin genus name–Hypericum–means “above a picture”) to keep evil away, but it was also used medicinally. I consulted my two favorite (post-medieval) herbalists, William Turner and Nicholas Culpepper for their take. Turner’s New Herball (1551) deems the great herb (as opposed to the more common St. John’s grass) good for sciatica, heartburn, and the purging of “choloric humors”, while Culpepper’s Complete Herbal (1653) is more forthcoming:  it is a singular wound herb; boiled in wine and drank, it heals inward hurts or bruises; made into an ointment, it open obstructions, dissolves swellings, and closes up the lips of wounds. The decoction of the herb and flowers, especially of the seed, being drank in wine, with the juice of knot-grass, helps all manner of vomiting and spitting of blood, is good for those that are bitten or stung by any venomous creature, and for those that cannot make water. Two drams of the seed of St. John’s Wort made into powder, and drank in a little broth, doth gently expel choler or congealed blood in the stomach. The decoction of the leaves and seeds drank somewhat warm before the fits of agues, whether they be tertains or quartans, alters the fits, and, by often using, doth take them quite away. The seed is much commended, being drank for forty days together, to help the sciatica, the falling sickness, and the palsy. No mention of the anti-depressant virtues attributed to St. John’s Wort today–but also no mention of the magical protective qualities previously attributed to the plant.

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The “great” St. John’s Wort, which I use as a groundcover in partial shade, and common (British Library MS Egerton 747) and Chinese varieties (painting, c. 1770-90,Victoria & Albert Museum, London).

This day is a charmed day, with hidden treasures hiding in plain sight, so keep your eyes open! As St. John’s Day coincided with the first day of summer, all of nature’s bounty was displayed  in abundance. The days are not quite in synch now, but close enough, as is evident (at least here in the northeast US) by the bloom of other golden-flowered plants like Lady’s Mantle and another one of my favorites, Rue, which was also classified as one of Johanneskraut (St. John’s herbs). For best results in protection and healing, I should have plucked off some of these flowers last night, on St. John’s Eve; I think it’s too late this morning.

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Rue in my garden, and common St. John’s Wort in Giorgio Bonelli’s Hortus Romanus, 1772, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

My very favorite artistic depictions of  St. John’s Wort (and other plants) are those of Mary Delany, who started making paper flower “mosaics” in her 70s, at the end of the eighteenth century. With precise, almost scientific, detail, Mrs. Delany pasted flower parts onto black backgrounds, creating a whole new genre of botanical art. You can see more of her collages at the British Museum, and in Mary Peacock’s book:  The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2012).

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St Johns Wort Delany 1780

Two of Mary Delany’s St. John’s Wort collages, 1777 & 1780, British Museum, London.


Wondrous Whales

Over the past week or so I’ve had whales on the brain, and I’ve encountered them in numerous places: at the Smithsonian’s recently-opened Whales:  from Bone to Book exhibit, in the pages of an old Salem-published book I picked up at a yard sale last weekend, and searching for examples of wonder in various digital archives of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English printed books. For early modern Englishmen and -women, few things were as “wondrous”, or providential, as the appearance of a “monstrous fish”, a “sea-monster”, or a whale. Their Christian worldview and precedents (Jonah and the whale, St. Brendan’s “island”) guaranteed that something big was up when one of these creatures appeared.

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Whale St Brendan 1621

Whale Dow 1925

Timothy Granger, A Moste true and marveilous Straunge wonder (1568); St. Brendan holding mass on the back of a whale, from Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis Transacta Navigatio (1621); Illustration from George Francis Dow, Whale Ships and Whaling: a Pictorial History (1925).

Every maritime culture appears to have its whale lore, but I’m only (vaguely) familiar with the western variety, and still trying to figure out quite a few whale tales. I’m not entirely certain why whales were so wondrous, so monstrous, so shocking, so noteworthy in the early modern era; after all, there were the ancient precedents as well as more recent medieval references, most notably to ambergris. Though there were diverse theories about its exact source, everyone seemed to accept that whales were somehow connected to the exotic substance.

Whale Medieval

Birthwort, serpent & a sperm whale in a Salerno herbal, British Library  MS Egerton  747,  c. 1280-1310.

Centuries later, it is apparent that it was not just whales that were wondrous in early modern England but beached or stranded whales, gigantic creatures that were far from their natural surroundings. And I can understand the fascination; I remember discovering the remains of a whale (just a blubbery part really) on a rocky beach in Maine when I was a child and running home to tell my parents, small bone in hand, quite vividly. Another memory I have of a whale comes from much later, when I was researching my dissertation and came across a seventeenth-century pamphlet reporting the foiled attempt of a Jesuit to sneak into England in the body of a whale. Few things were as threatening as Jesuits in post-Gunpowder Plot England, so this secret papal mission of sorts makes sense in the scheme of things, but I lost track of the reference and never found that source again. This past weekend, I found something similar:  A True and Wonderfull Relation of a Whale with a “Romish Priest” in its belly, no doubt the tract of my faulty memory.

Whale 1645

Two seventeenth-century tracts that look slightly more “scientific” but also contain “prodigious” accounts are A True Report and Exact Description of a mighty Sea-monster, or Whale (1617) and Strange News from the Deep, Being a Full Account of a Large Prodigious Whale (1677). These accounts date from the same century when the English were actively engaging in whaling well off-shore in the North Atlantic, so apparently it was only whales at home that were wondrous. Those in the deep possessed another characteristic–value–which would only increase in the coming centuries.

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Whale 1677


Yellow Roses

The combination of last week’s very hot weather followed by serious rain meant that this weekend the roses started popping out, about a week or so earlier than usual. In the past I have been a negligent rosarian (t is a word) but this summer I’m determined to do better: as you can see below, some of my roses are being attacked by some little pest, whether it’s an insect or a mildewy disease I do not know–but I am determined to find out and root it out! Though I love red in general and red roses in particular, I don’t like that color in my garden:  it’s too dramatic. I like everything in the garden to be kind of faded and mixed together, and red doesn’t mix well. So I prefer yellow roses above all, even though Kate Greenaway (my source for all things Victorian) tells me that yellow roses mean “a decrease of love, jealousy” in her Language of Flowers.  Surprising symbolism for such a warm and sunny color! For some reason, I also have a bright orange rose bush, which I don’t particularly care for but as it’s such a vigorous climber–and completely resistant to any pest– I would never tear it out. And if the roses are blooming in New England the lady’s mantle is too–this year it looks particularly abundant.

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Yellow Roses Wallpaper V and A William Morris 1877

Yellow Roses Briar Wallpaper CFA Voysey 1901

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Yellow (and pink and orange) roses in my garden interspersed with Mr. Darcy on the deck, “Roses” wallpaper by William Morris (1877) and “Briar” wallpaper by C.F.A. Voysey (1901), Victoria & Albert Museum London.


Summer Arrives

Summer arrived in Salem in a big way this past weekend with several days of 90+ degree heat; it felt more like early August than June. This is a bit of an aberration, and we should be back in the 70s this week (it’s raining this morning). I braved the heat and went out into the garden, armed with a quart of “half-and-half”, half lemonade, half unsweetened strong black iced tea–my second favorite summer drink (after gin & tonics). On Sunday I was able to have a few of my VERY favorite summer drinks out in the garden of the Salem Athenaeum, at the annual garden party. This event is timed to coincide with the blooming of the massive multicolored rhododendrons in the garden, and I think the timing was perfect this year.

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At home the lady’s slippers have arrived and the catmint is in full bloom, beckoning Moneypenny. On a less happy note, someone stole my three large planters–filled to the brim with hydrangeas and Memorial Day flags!!!!–as well as my neighbors’ in the middle of the night. Not a tragedy obviously, but sad that someone would do this.

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Path leading into the garden of the Salem Athenaeum, lined by huge rhododendrons, which frame a beautiful 18th century house next door. Another beautiful house, on Chestnut Street, with the street’s only surviving Elm tree in front. I’m on a quest to find all the elms I can this summer, so if you know of a particularly majestic one in eastern New England, please let me know!


Wayward Wisteria

I walk to work along a street named Wisteria, where there is no wisteria to be found, and planted wisteria in my backyard 12 years ago, but it has yet to bloom; nevertheless, it is wisteria-blooming time nearly everywhere else in Salem. Maybe even just past-time, so I took a walk and tried to capture some good shots of the exuberant purple and white blooms, which was not too difficult. The great thing about wisteria it that it needs support, so you get architecture and flowers at the same time. Even when the wisteria was not in bloom–as in my backyard, or on my next-door neighbors’ beautiful fence, or the arbor at the Ropes Mansion, it was still quite abundant in its more restrained way. Given the east Asian source of wisteria, I can imagine Salem’s merchants and adventurers bringing it back from China and Japan in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, carefully packed in their ships’ holds, to adorn their houses, fences and outbuildings–and so it does.

Wisteria at my next-door neighbors’ (side and back) and across Chestnut Street:

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On a Tudor “automobile house” on Botts Court:

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The Ropes Garden and Federal Court:

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And the surreal wisteria tunnel at the Kawachi Fuji Gardens in Kitakyushu, Japan, via Slate.com.

Wisteria Tunnel


First Foray

Between my end-of-semester obligations and travel I have completely neglected my garden during its busiest season, so I took my first foray out there this weekend for a quick assessment. As usual, there have been losses (even with the impressive snow cover we had this year) and gains: ferns, ferns, and more ferns, popping up everywhere. My borders of lady’s mantle on one side and golden alexanders on the other are fine, but the center perennial bed needs work–so off to the nursery I went. There are several nurseries that I like in our (greater) area, but this weekend I went up to one of my most dependable destinations, Rolling Green Nursery in Greenland, New Hampshire: nice people, nice layout, good selection, good advice. This year, they seem to have expanded their selection of garden statues quite dramatically. After a brief glance at the big hand and mushroom, I went straight for the germander, a great herb for edging, of which Rolling Green seems to have a constant supply. Then it was off to the water garden for inspiration (ours is a mess), shade plants, and shrubs.

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Back at home, I made my first foray into the dirt to plant and weed (already!) and rearrange; a few spots look okay, but most of the garden is not ready for prime time yet.

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Early May Meander

May is my absolute favorite month but also the busiest time of the year for me, with grading and other end-of-the-semester obligations, annual meetings for every single Salem organization to which I belong, and lots of stuff to attend to in the house and, of course, the garden. Frenzied activity and frustration, and lots of running around. This past week we have had absolutely beautiful weather: in typical New England fashion, everything just burst. So I took sporadic breaks from grading, not my favorite activity, and meandered about town. I did not have to go very far, as my neighborhood is particularly beautiful this time of year, and sometimes (often, after every other one) I can just raise my head up from the pile of blue books before me and look out the window and see something beautiful or interesting.

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A photo shoot on Chestnut Street last weekend, involving quite a lot of people, and a single artist painting the park on the same day.

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Admiring one neighbor’s lush yard, and another’s “spiderweb” window.

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My jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) have arrived!!! Four this year!!!

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Sorry this cardinal is a little blurry, but I chased him all around the neighborhood, determined to get his picture, and this is as close as I could get.


May Day

Thanks to fond childhood memories (which I wrote about in last year’s May Day post) and my own rather whimsical penchant for the past, the first of May is one of my favorite days of the year. This year it is even better than usual because it marks the end of classes (yes, professors look forward to this just as much as students, perhaps more). There is lots of age-old advice about May Day, which, combined with artistic representations of bringing in the May–feasting, dancing, and processions (all while wearing garlands)– leads me to believe that it was once a much more important holiday than the non-event it is today. This is just a small list of things that you are supposed to do or not do in May, culled from a variety of sources, most from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries:  take off your “flannels”, organize a parade (especially if you are a milkmaid or a chimney sweep), cut down trees and greenery and deck the halls, dance, pick a May Queen, move house (???), but do not get married (unfortunately my anniversary is in May) or sleep with a blooming Hawthorn branch in your bedroom.

For my own May Day observance, I’ve collected a few flowery images from the past–where May Day is depicted with a strong undertone of liberation on at least this first day of the merry month of May–and my own present-day Salem. I think everyone feels a bit more liberated in the springtime, and students and professors at semester’s end.

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Thomas Lord Busby, Costumes of the Lower Orders of London, 1820 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

Here is a rather fanciful depiction of  milkmaids and chimney sweeps in their May Day costumes, with the traditional Jack in the Green in the center, covered by a more masculine version of the traditional garland. Quite elaborate costume for the “lower orders”! This is one of 24 hand-colored etched plates “engraved from nature’ by Thomas Lord Busby in 1820: a rather voyeuristic, and expensive, collection that is brand new to me. Both milkmaids and chimney sweeps (but no Jack in the Green) are the central subjects of Francis Hayman’s earlier (and even more romanticized) painting, The Milkmaids Garland, or Humours of May Day (1741-42), below.

May Day Garland

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

More than a century later, Walter Crane’s images of May Day are both romantic and relevant: as devoted to the cause of the “lower orders” as he was to his art, he created the iconic Garland for May Day, 1895 which grounded politics in the same traditional imagery that is evident in his later illustration for Charles Lamb’s A Masque of Days (London: Cassell & Company, 1901).

May Day Garland 1895

May Day Masque of Days Walter Crane

Rather than a full-floral display, there are pops of color around town this morning:  it’s still early Spring in Salem. In my own garden, my perfect pulmonaria (lungwort) was in full flourish, and the boring forsythia a little past. Elsewhere in Salem, there was a lot to see on this May Day morning on my brief run around before (the last day of) classes.  I particularly like the last little striped flowers in the herb garden behind the Richard Derby House at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site–some type of tulip?

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