My garden is a bit of a wild tangle right now, as usual, but I love it; I’ve finally got the layers that I have been seeking for some time, along with the right mix of leaves and flowers and textures. And the mix of colors is good–I have gradually weeded out annoying colors like red (I actually love red indoors but passionately dislike it out-of-doors, even to the extent of red roses. Not sure why). It’s pretty much at peak; I knew I was going to be in class all week so I took some pictures this past weekend when the weather was absolutely beautiful: sunny and not too humid or hot. Now it’s muggy and rainy, and all the flowers are water-logged and a bit past their prime. The roses look very spotty so I’m not showing them here. Next week will be vicious deadheading week; I always leave the Lady’s Mantle flowers too long because I love them so much, so it’s going to be a big job to cut them back. Yes there are red berries on the thriving baneberry but that is my exception–it’s a great plant and you really don’t want berries to be any other color (its flowers are white). I absolutely love, love, love the fuschia flower of the bee balm in the last picture–wish I could remember its varietal name!
Tag Archives: Garden
I am looking out on my garden this foggy morning thinking it is definitely going to rain–which would be momentous for it is Saint Swithun’s Day, and according to lore and legend: St Swithun’s Day if thou dost rain/for forty days it will remain/St. Swithun’s Day, if you be fair/for forty days ’twill raine nae mair. I wouldn’t mind a little rain every day for the next month and a half, typically a very dry time in our parts. Swithun was a ninth-century Bishop who became the Patron Saint of Winchester Cathedral in England after his remains were translated from outside the cathedral walls to a new shrine within it in 971–on this very day. He is sometimes fondly referred to as the “drunken saint” not for his propensity to imbibe but rather because of his stated preference for the exterior grave site, where his earthly remains would be exposed to the “drippings” of water–but he became too important to remain without. His Winchester shrine by smashed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (which I’m talking about in class today), but it has been (somewhat) reconstituted within the Cathedral–and there’s a very lovely rose named for him as well.
Saint Swithun, Bishop of Winchester, c. 1930, Isabel Florrie Saul, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum; the reconstituted shrine at Winchester Cathedral; David Austin St Swithun climbing rose (I have one; but it doesn’t look like this now!)
I’m ashamed to admit that a relatively large part of my paycheck goes to Anthropologie each month or season, so as I became aware that I was in the vicinity of one of their rarer garden stores as I passed through Connecticut last week, I had to make a slight detour for the Westport Terrain. What a store–I was a bit overwhelmed, which doesn’t often happen to me in a shop scenario. Actually, it’s a combination nursery/garden store/ housewares store/gift shop/bar-restaurant–there was a lot going on when I arrived, too much for me! I certainly hadn’t planned on getting any plants as I was on the road (and I like nurseries to be a bit more dirty) but I thought I might get some planters–as I had never really replaced the ones that were stolen last summer. But there were too many planters to choose from! And too many watering cans, baskets, and vessels of all kinds–along with candles and lanterns and wreaths and everything else. Sensory overload–though I plan to return, better prepared, in the not-too-distant future.
A shout out today for a very common, definitely invasive, and relatively ugly plant: Tussilago farfara, better known as Coltsfoot. The Coltsfoot in my garden is a holdover from the days when I would only have ancient medicinal herbs rather than pretty herbaceous hybrids: they were all rather unattractive so they didn’t last long, though I have incorporated some of the more manageable ones into my perennial beds. I have been unsuccessful at ridding the garden of Coltsfoot so I learned to live with it–and now I rather like it! (A good life lesson). It’s a ancient shade herb that flourishes in any setting–as you can see from the pictures below, it’s growing out of the bricks. It flowers very early in the spring–even in late winter in Britain I think–with a yellow dandelion-type flower, and after that it’s just low-lying leaves that will spread everywhere. I rip most of it out every two weeks or so and then it comes back. I will say that it is a very neat plant despite its tendency to spread. It’s a nice shade groundcover, if you watch it carefully. It never turns brown or wilts; it just wants to take over the garden (world). Coltsfoot is included in all of the classical, medieval, and early modern herbals as a “cough dispeller” (it is often referred to as “coughwort”) and a cure for any and all ailments of the lung, which are improved by smoking its leaves. I wonder if it could serve as a tobacco alternative? Many of the artistic depictions of Coltsfoot—medieval and modern–get it wrong, as the straggly flowers and rather more attractive (hoof-shaped?) leaves never appear at the same time: this was very confusing to the ancients, who portrayed it as two different plants.
Coltsfoot and Marshmallow in British Library MS Egerton 747 (Tractatus de herbis; De Simplici Medicina; Circa instans; Antidotarium Nicolai), c. 1280-1310; Coltsfoot in the Botanica Pharmaceutica, 1788, Walter Crane’s Floral Fantasy in an English Garden, 1899, on a 1930s London Transport poster (Victoria & Albert Museum) and a vintage Swedish tablecloth (from Etsy seller annchristinljungberg), and in my garden.
They’re back, thank goodness: the two most precious plants in my garden, Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and yellow Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum). I had feared their demise because of our cold winter and their relatively late arrival, but the Jacks look as exotic as ever (though a bit shorter than usual) and the Lady Slippers are back with a vengeance: fifteen whereas last year there were only twelve. The garden is booming right now, despite some chilly nights–the night before last I think it was around 40 degrees. There are fewer bleeding hearts and Solomon’s seals, but those that survived are lovely, and the other ladies (mantle) are as vigorous as ever. I’ve had these slippers for over a decade now, and I’ve never seen any predators around them, but when I went out into the garden late last afternoon to take some more pictures (not quite satisfied with the first batch) there was a squirrel hovering dangerously close to them: he was up to something, I know it! I had the funny feeling that I had seen this scenario before, and I had, in a lovely illustration by the eighteenth-century British naturalist and illustrator Mark Catesby, who paired his yellow lady’s slipper with a black squirrel. My squirrel was the plain old garden variety gray kind, but just for a second, he appeared to be striking a similar pose.
Jacks-in-the-Pulpit, Lady’s Slippers, Sweet Cicely, and Bleeding Hearts in my late May garden; page from Mark Catesby’s Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants. Second Edition, Vol II. (1754), University of Wisconsin Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture
These late spring plants are so magical I actually develop a temporary tolerance for late Victorian “flower literature”, which I generally find a bit too sweet (and simple). Inspired by their sisters who celebrated “Shakespeare’s flowers” across the pond, a generation of American lady poets wrote odes to American wildflowers, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Lady’s Slippers prominently among them. When you’re surrounded by these almost-anthropomorphic plants, you do feel like you’re amidst a kingdom of sorts! Here’s Sarah J. Day on the elfin origins of Lady’s Slippers, from her 1900 collection Mayflowers to Mistletoe: a Year with the Flower Folk: When the fairy Cinderellas/Tripping it before their Queen/Startled by the stroke of Midnight/Fled in haste the moonlit scene/They their gold and broidered slippers/Left behind them on the green/Straightaway then the elfin pages/Sent to clear with care away/Gathering all the scattered slippers/Hang them up in neat array/Just within the shadowed woodland/”Where they grow”, dull mortals say.
When I first planted my garden, I was studying horticultural texts from the late medieval and early modern eras, and determined to have the same plants that I was reading about in my own backyard. In particular, I sought out plants that ended with the suffix wort, Old English and German for “plant” or “root”, believing that these ancient plants would connect me to the past–no matter what they looked like! And so, for the past decade or so, I’ve had some rather straggly plants in my garden just because of their heritage–or supposed heritage. Actually some “wort plants” are quite commonly used in modern gardens: varieties of stachys (woundwort), epimedium (barrenwort–containing an aphrodisiac essence), St. John’s Wort, pulmonaria (lungwort), the indestructible groundcover herniaria glabra (rupturewort, sometime called “burstwort”), saponaria (soapwort), astrantia major (masterwort). According to the Doctrine of Signatures and their appearance, the vernacular names of these plants reflect their uses. I have all of these plants in my garden still: they survived our tough winter. However, it seems that some of my lesser-know wort plants did not: I seem to have lost my motherwort (leonurus cardiaca, of which Nicholas Culpepper commented in 1653, there is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart … and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul for mothers and everyone else), the variety of campanula that is called “throatwort” is gone, as are many of my ferns, including a maidenhair variety referred to as “spleenwort” in the medieval herbals. Actually the motherwort was much too big for my garden, so I don’t think I’m going to miss it, or the very common mugwort (artemesia) which seems to be gone as well. I ripped out my spiderwort (tradescantia) long ago because it was so ungainly, and I’m not convinced it was even that old: from the 17th century on, the word wort seems to be rather liberally applied to plants of all kind, even those from the New World.
Bloodwort and Hazelwort from Leonhard Fuchs’ New Herbal of 1543 (all plates available here; a great resource!); my surviving soapwort, lungwort, and barrrenwort.
Beautiful weather here, at long last. Yesterday, Mother’s Day, was nothing short of spectacular. Everyone was in a blissful mood. I’ve been running, literally, around town, trying to ramp up my endurance but I always take my camera with me so I suppose I’m not really that serious about it. I don’t want to miss anything: blooming bleeding hearts, turtles in Greenlawn cemetery (they always seem to line up on the same fallen branch in order of weight and size), unusual houses (the two white ones are hard to pin down in terms of style and period: would be grateful for more informed opinions), groundhogs (couldn’t get the picture, sorry), bubbles. My garden came to life almost overnight: last week I was in despair, but now it looks like the jacks-in-the-pulpit and lady’s slippers are about to bust out of the ground along with most (not all, but most) of my perennials. I’m going to fill in some of the holes that I do have in the shade garden with brunnera macrophylla (with purple flowers below), which has proved itself to be both pretty and hardy.
Salem (and bubbles in Concord):
Yesterday afternoon we went up to New Castle, New Hampshire to have brunch with my family at Wentworth by the Sea, built as the Hotel Wentworth in 1872, abandoned a century and a decade later, and “restored” (rebuilt?) ten years ago. It was a big part of my early life and even though it’s not the most sensitive of restorations it was nice to see it full of smiling happy people yesterday. I’ve included a photograph of its dark days in the 1990s for contrast. We drove home past long lines at each and every ice cream stand along the way–although in New England, you see that in February.
New Castle, New Hampshire:
I’m rather depressed about my garden: I think I lost a lot of perennials–including many dear old friends–over this past bitter winter. This is generally the week–or even earlier–that my favorite spring plants pop up, but so far all I see is trillium and pulmonaria in the “woodland garden” out back. Notably missing is my all-time favorite, the almost-magical Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which should definitely have popped up by now. I think my Jacks are dead, although several of my gardening friends tell me to not give up hope as we are as much as four weeks behind this year, but there is not a single little sprout to be found peeping through the mulch. I fear for my Lady Slippers, but they come up a bit later so I have not given into despair quite yet. The center perennial beds seem to be in better shape than the shady back, with the exception of the germander edging border that I’ve been slowly developing over the past few years: quite a few of the individual plants have been lost, breaking the uniformity of the border. I’m tempted to just rip them all out and start fresh with a hardier plant, and so I would really welcome suggestions for low-lying, traditional, hardy, front of the border alternatives.
So I am not spending these first precious days of May dancing around my lush, flowering garden (in a flowing white dress) because it is neither lush nor flowering: looking for inspiration (or escape) I am instead delving into the “Enchanted Garden” sub-sub-sub genre of paintings. Of course medieval-esque fantasy gardens are a favorite Pre-Raphaelite theme, but even before their Decameron-inspired images appeared in the nineteenth century, artists were inspired to amplify nature in rather seductive ways. In the later sixteenth century, the popular poem by the Italian poet Tarquinato Tasso, Gerusaleme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated), inspired several paintings of enchanted gardens. The poem turns the Crusades into an epic fantasy, in which heroic Christian knights confront all sorts of obstacles in the Holy Land. One particular knight, Rinaldo, is enticed by the beautiful Saracen sorceress Armida to enter her lush garden, and there she keeps him occupied for quite some time, until he is rescued by his comrades. I like the painting by Flemish artist Jan Soens best among several illustrations of Rinaldo and Armida, because it seems to focus as much on the garden as on the sorceress.
Jan Soens, Rinaldo and Armida in the Enchanted Garden, c. 1581-1611, The Walters Art Museum
Several centuries later, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron inspired several pre-Raphaelite painters to depict one of its most popular stories (the 5th to be told on the 10th day): the tale of the besotted Ansaldo, who conjured up a magical May garden in the midwinter for his lady love, Dianora, who had promised him that she would leave her husband and run away with him if he completed this seemingly-impossible task. Ultimately Ansaldo releases Dianora from her promise, and the garden dissolves “like the morning dew”, but it seems to have been a collective aim of British romantic painters to recapture it and other enchanted gardens for posterity.
Marie Spartali Stillman, Messr. Ansaldo Showing Diavola His Enchanted Garden, 1889; John Waterhouse, The Enchanted Garden, 1917, Lady Lever Art Galler, and study for above, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections
Also romantic, in a more naive way, are the paintings of British artist Helen Fielding (1900-1979) who depicted her Lancashire environment in an ever-charming way, including a garden that seems enchanted in all seasons, here pictured, as vividly remembered, in the spring of 1908. I love the inscription on the back, from the Christie‘s catalog: The Enchanted Garden was very/beautiful in April, when Father thought it would be better to send Mother, George and I also the Aunts, Grandma and Miss/Carter (who wore pink) to Grandpa’s at Blackpool/to be safely out of the way of the Suffragettes/in Lees. We saw for the first time the/Wild Cherries in flower and small trees/covered in the palest pink blossoms/which Grandpa said was the Crab apple, George and I had never seen trees/with blossom which covered them like/snow, also in the Enchanted Garden was/the pond which would soon be full of frogs/and tadpoles and the year was 1908/Helen Layfield Bradley 1975. I know just what she means by “trees covered with blossoms like snow”, don’t you? Still waiting for that here.
Helen Fielding, The Enchanted Garden, 1975
As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me: Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.
Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).
Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)
Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.
We certainly did not suffer the weight of snow dumped on the upper midwest yesterday, but T.S. Eliot’s weighty observation that April is the cruelest month seemed particularly apt when we woke up to white: and it seemed more like ice than snow! It might be aesthetically pleasing to see newly-sprouted grass and flowers frosted with white, but it does make you fear for your garden. Mother Nature is indeed a cruel master to tempt plants out of the protective earth with a warm weekend, and then slam them with an arctic frost! It was so warm a few days ago that I finally switched out the evergreen shrub in my front stoop pot with a tender purple-flowered variety, and now its leaves are black and curled. The same cats which frolicked in the back yard a few days ago are now back on their radiator perches, looking at me with suspicion.
iPad version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), with really neat annotations.