Tag Archives: Flora and Fauna

What to do with my Woad?

I tended to my garden intensively for the first time this spring yesterday: late, I know, but the end of the academic year is just too busy for me to engage in anything beyond department business. I did a bit of raking and snipping earlier on, but yesterday was the very first day that I really got my hands dirty:  very satisfying. The weather has been absolutely beautiful here; if anything, it’s a bit dry, but I feel terrible complaining when other parts of the country are experiencing either drastic drought or flooding! There are definitely some losses out there: lots of veronica, bee balm, St. John’s Wort, avens. I have two less lady’s slippers than last year and only one jack-in-the-pulpit, but I’m happy that these extra-special plants appeared at all. The side border that runs along Hamilton Hall is absolute perfection if I do say so myself: I am totally in love with the front line of lady’s mantle and sweet cicely. Another plant that looks particularly good this year is epimedium or barrenwort–sometimes also called bishop’s hat. What a great plant: dry shade, little maintenance, neat and tidy! As you can tell from this rambling list of plants, I tend to go for old-fashioned plants and herbs in particular: my garden preferences, like so much of my life, are based on history and curiosity more than anything else. I like to mix old herbs and modern perennials together, and the contrasting combinations are often a bit…….odd. But such is the result when you choose a plant for its heritage rather than its appearance. I’ve got a conundrum now as I brought some woad back my favorite herb farm (The Herb Farmacy, Salisbury, Massachusetts). For the sake of heritage, I had to have this ancient dyeing plant, but does it really belong in my small urban garden? It’s not particularly attractive, a biennial to boot, and blue is my least favorite color.

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The obligatory May lady’s slippers picture; epimedium, espaliered yew, sweet cicely, unplanted woad. Below, John White’s “ancient” woad-stained Pict warriors, from Thomas Harriot’s briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588) and the British Museum. Despite the claims of Julius Caesar and Pliny, there’s a lot of doubt among historians as to whether or not the ancient inhabitants of Britain really stained themselves blue with woad in preparation for battle: just ONE reason why every medievalist I know detests Braveheart!

Woad Stained Pict Warriors John White BM

May it always be May

May seems especially sweet this year after our cruel winter, and last week was particularly beautiful–with the wisteria and the dogwoods in full flower along with many of my favorite plants: bleeding hearts, Solomon seals, Alexanders, and lilies of the valley. It was also one of the busiest weeks of the academic year, with grading, senior events, and graduation, so I rushed around from place to place while still managing to stop and smell the lilacs. Warm days, cool nights: perfect hair and cotton sweater weather. Gorgeous, golden light in the late afternoon and early evening spilling into my north-facing front parlor. The only off-key event of these lyrical days was the Mad Men finale which was just not worthy, in my opinion:  I don’t want to see Don Draper chanting om! Sorry for the digression–I just had to get that out there. Back to the real world, which I would like to always be May-like, but then, of course, May would not be May, but just everyday.

Pictures of May in Salem starting with a colonial musician walking down Chestnut Street, then the view from my bedroom, the view from my office, and lots and lots of flowers.

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First Flowering

Yesterday was the first truly warm day of 2015 in Salem so I took a long, long walk in order to escape department drama and find some color: successful on both counts! Everyone had the same idea, and so young and old, firm and infirm, and fully-dressed and half-dressed were out and about. This is the time to see flowering shrubs and trees: the dogwoods are not quite out, but the magnolias certainly are, and I’ve got three notable examples below: one particularly lush shrub that everyone drives by without due appreciation on busy North Street, an older, sparer tree in the garden of the Gardner Pingree House, and a perfect tree on the Common (which I think I feature every year at about this time–along with various spring bulbs). There was just one single flower on the old Wisteria that climbs up the Andrew Safford House, so I gave it a spotlight.

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Botanical Sisters

My garden looks like it might have survived our harsh winter so I’m starting to turn my thoughts outward–slowly, and in a rather detached manner. There’s still quite a bit to do inside as the end-of-semester end game is pretty busy, and once I get fixated on the garden I become less productive in the interior realm! The other day I was showing my students a beautiful painting of a famous Royalist family, the Capels, whose prominent garden is featured in the background. While my eyes were lingering on the garden, their questions were about the children in the foreground: what were their fates after their father followed King Charles I to the execution block in 1649? I couldn’t account for every Capel child in the picture at the time (now I can) but I could relay the horticultural history of the two Capel girls on the right, Elizabeth and Mary. I don’t think this kind of information was what my students were looking for, but they were quite polite about it.

NPG 4759; The Capel Family by Cornelius Johnson

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Cornelius Johnson, The Capel Family, c. 1640, National Portrait Gallery, London; Peter Lely, Mary Capel, later Duchess of Beaufort, and her sister Elizabeth, Countess of Carnarvon, c. 1658, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As you can see in both paintings, the youngest Capel sister, Elizabeth (who is on the left of her elder sister Mary in the Johnson portrait and the right in the Lely) is associated with flowers in both her childhood and her adulthood. She is extending a rose to her baby brother Henry above, and below she holds one of her own flower paintings–a noted personal preoccupation during her relatively short life (1633-1678). Around 1653 she married Charles Dormer, the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, with whom she had four children. During their marriage she maintained the Dormer residence at Ascott House in Buckinghamshire, and continued to explore her interest in flowers through both gardening and painting. One of her botanical compositions, a Dutch-inspired still life, is in the Royal Collection. Mary Capel, later Seymour, then Somerset and the first Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), moved well beyond her sister’s aesthetic interest in plants into the realm of scientific botany, becoming an avid collector and cataloger of the vast collection of worldly plants she assembled for the Beaufort gardens and conservatories at Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. She commissioned both a 12-volume Hortus Siccus, comprised of dried specimens of her plants, many “pressed by the Duchess herself”, and a two-volume florilegium to document her collection, ensuring her reputation in the long line of notable British plantswomen.

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Vase of Flowers by Elizabeth, the Countess of Carnarvon, 1662, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014; Specimens from the Duchess of Beaufort’s Hortus Siccus, Natural History Museum, London.

Two Days of Sun

Two days of sun has resulted in nearly (but not absolutely) all of the snow disappearing from the streets of Salem, so finally I am able to show you colors other than white. It is an early New England spring, so the predominant color out there is brown, and there remain several hills of dirt-covered snow out at the Willows–a striking reminder of just how much of the white stuff we received in February. It will be interesting to see when those hills actually melt: I’m thinking June! But I’ve decided not to show you those: they are impressive, but so dirt-covered they look like actual hills emerging from a muddy parking lot–not pretty. This was a pretty weekend, so I want to capture it by showing pretty (and very random) pictures of things I saw around town as I was simply walking around in the sun, like everyone else, noticing things I had not seen for months. First–one last image of predominate white: it was definitely a cats-seeking-sun kind of weekend.

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Spring First Muster Salem Common

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A Federal Street cat and rope wreath; the First Muster commemoration on Salem Common, colorful houses off the Common and Bridge Street; the view from a Salem Willows house.

A Very Porcine New Year

Along with four-leaf clovers, chimney sweepers, mushrooms, and horseshoes, pigs were the most common symbols of good luck for the New Year a century ago, and they appear on all sorts of greeting cards for that purpose. This is a tradition that is more continental than British, and more eastern European than western–although some of the most charming New Year’s pig postcards I have seen are French. The lucky pig does not seem to have taken hold in New England expressions–even those by the Polish-born Louis Prang–but in New York State (or more specifically, Saratoga Springs), smashing a peppermint variety heralds in the New Year. Traditional New Year’s Day fare from central Europe features pork as well, though this seems a bit contradictory to me–why would you want to eat your lucky charm? Best wishes to everyone for a joyful 2015: may we all be as happy as veritable pigs in clover!

The best pigs are from Vienna……Carl Josza, Raphael Kirchner (c. 1899-1900), and more Mela Koehler (c. 1910), from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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Skiing (Swedish) and Skating (French) pigs, c. 1914-1915

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German postcards from the Spehr collection, available here: all the symbols (minus mushrooms) from 1908, and a pig on top of the world in 1915.

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Thanksgiving Colors

We spent Thanksgiving up in my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Salem. When we arrived York looked very different than still-green Salem, coated in icy snow. Many people in the southern counties of Maine and adjacent counties of New Hampshire lost their power due to a Thanksgiving-eve snowstorm, but we were fortunate to have light and heat and lots of food and drink. While waiting to eat on Thanksgiving Day, we took a drive around the grey town: York (encompassing York Harbor, York Village, York Beach and Cape Neddick) is a summer town and it always looks strikingly stark to me in the winter. I’ve also got some pictures of my stepmother’s Thanksgiving table here–before we messed it up. When we returned to Salem, all was icy and white but today is forecasted for the 50s so the terrain is returning to that golden brownish-green hue so characteristic of November.

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This cat o’nine tail exploded before we left; the rest burst while we were away (just one day and night!) Impossible to clean up all this fluff.

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Thanksgiving table: Della Robbia plates and Shaker chairs.

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Fifty shades of grey off Nubble Light.

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White on white: one of my favorite houses in York, and the gargoyle outside my parents’ house.

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My favorite childhood painting.

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Back home; sunny Sunday.


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