Tag Archives: Garden

Tansy Time

In my garden the tansy is “riding high”, to use the words of the nineteenth-century “peasant poet” John Clare. An old medicinal and culinary herb native to Eurasia, tanacetum is part of the large aster family and so looks right at home in the late summer garden. Its vulgar variety looks like a weed, but I have a variegated form that turns slightly silver in September. The low-maintenance leaves are a good foil for my other plants all summer long–but it does take over if you don’t watch it,  and  I’ve been too busy to watch it. It’s a wild tangle, ready to bloom.

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Now I could cut off sprigs and make fly-repellent bouquets for the house, but I don’t really have that many flies. If I were really ambitious, I could let it bloom, and dry its little yellow button-like flowers to produce a dye for fabrics. In the medieval and early modern past, Tansy bordered on a “woman’s herb”:  a really potent potion could apparently induce abortions/miscarriages, while a diluted distillation could aid conception along with other “women’s troubles”, including hysteria. At Easter, its tender fern-like leaves were put in an omelet to produce a “tansy”, and it was also used to make tea, flavor ale, and, according to some of the nineteenth-century American “dispensaries” I consulted, infuse rum. All the herbals up to the nineteenth century reference it as a curative for indigestion, fevers, and jaundice. So there are a lot of diverse claims for tansy, but I’ll probably let mine continue to flop around the garden until fall.

Its perceived utility guaranteed Tansy a place in all of the major pre-modern herbals, and even the florilegia (“flower books”) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the best examples of the latter, the Hortus Floridus compiled and engraved (with some family help) by Crispijn van de Passe junior (1589-1670) definitely focuses on bulbs in general and tulips in particular (during this time of “Tulipmania”) but also manages to include the humble Tansy.

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Tansy Hortus

Tansy September Hortus

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(c) Derby Museums and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Tansy (near right)  in the Tractatus de herbis, BL MS. Egerton 747, Italy, c. 1300; Plates from  Crispijn van de Passe, including Tansy (far right),1614—you can see the  entire book here. Ernest Townsend, still life of tansy and agrimony in a vase, c.1915-23, Derby Museums and Art Gallery.

I did find a lovely blog which offers instructions for a tansy dyebath as well as examples of the finished project—this looks like something that even I could do! I really would like to find some use for this abundant plant, although I must admit that previous batches of dried herbs turned first into dust magnets and then into fuel for the winter fire.

Tansy Yarns

Tansy-dyed wool (on the right) from Local Color.


Surviving Summer

Like much of the country, last week was hot and humid, with nearly every day in the 90s: it was hazy, still, and repressive. On Friday it reached 100 degrees. By Saturday I had almost lost the will to live, but on Sunday we woke up to a “cool” and clear morning in the 70s, and this week is forecast with more typical New England summer weather. I’m not really a summer person anyway and triple H weather generally drives me inside, but as it was an event-filled week and I was determined to save my garden (every single day the weather report indicated “chance of thunderstorms” but there was not a single drop of rain all week) I spent considerable time outside. What got me through the week: a bedroom air conditioner, garden hoses, sunscreen, bug spray, soft Splendid tee shirts, Witch Hazel, gin & tonics, tents (see below), movie theaters, the Accuweather extended forecast which gave me hope for the future.

With daily watering, the garden survived, despite this bug, which is eating a lot of the larger-leaved plants. Fewer slugs, though, and my lacecap hydrangea has bloomed for the first time in years.

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Our summer camp at Winter Island, a very packed harbor, and the reenacting Redcoats’ camp at Derby Wharf early Sunday morning.

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Thunder Month

In his annual almanac, the seventeenth-century astrologer John Gadbury calls July the Thunder Month, [when] it was customary at Malmsbury-Abbey, to ring the great bell call’d St. Adam’s Bell, to drive away the THUNDER AND LIGHTNING. If the last week of June is any indication of things to come, his characterization will prove correct for July 2013. We’ve had rain pretty much every day over the past week, and it is raining again today. A bit of thunder and lightning, but nothing too dramatic…yet.*** It’s quite humid so the feeling is more tropical than New England, but the garden is thriving.

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John Gadbury, Ephemeris, or a Diary Astronomical, Astrological and Meteorological for the Year of our Lord 1696; a Strobridge Lithograph Company calendar for July 1901, which could also work for July 2013, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Other texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries–astrological, agricultural, and “medical”–predict: if the first of July be rainy weather, ’twill rain more or less for four weeks together, which wouldn’t bother me at all. They also offer the following prescriptions for July:  don’t eat “strong”, substantive or spicy foods, nor any “muddy” fish, green fruits, or beets, drink but a little wine, eat sage and rue on a bit of bread every morning, and take as much “verjuyce” as possible, as it cools and refreshes the body (and the mind). Verjuice is a juice made of crushed and strained sour (unripe, green) grapes or apples mixed with a variety of herbs, and it appears to be experiencing a bit of a comeback at the moment, so maybe my early modern experts were right.

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***Tornado watch later in the day: very unusual for New England.


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.

N0023138 Hypericum androsaemum (Tutsan)

St Johns Wort Egerton 747 BL

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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.


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!


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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Fool’s Parsley

My scholarly, botanical and materialistic interests intersected the other day when I came across a beautiful Arts and Crafts wallpaper print by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey named “Fool’s Parsley”, first produced in 1907. Even though it’s not really appropriate for my 1820s house, I love art nouveau and Arts and Crafts wallpapers in general, and Voysey’s designs in particular. The more I looked at the design, the more it reminded me of Sweet Cicely, one of my favorite plants in the garden, and so it was no surprise to learn that these two plants are in the same family. Though they have a very similar appearance, these herbs have very different natures:  while Sweet Cicely “is so harmless you cannot use it amiss” according to the old herbalists, Fool’s Parsley is very, very poisonous. Beauty can be deceiving.

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Fool's Parsley 1856 Herbal

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“Fool’s Parsley”, or Aethusa cynapium, in a 1907 wallpaper pattern by Charles Voysey, Victoria & Albert Museum, London and 1856 and 1542 herbals by Constantin von Ettingshausen and Leonhart Fuchs, respectively, Wellcome Library, London.

Fool’s Parsley is often called “Lesser Hemlock” in herbals from the Renaissance onwards, emphasizing its Socratic connection and toxic qualities rather than the evergreen tree. Along with Sweet Cicely, it belongs to the large Umbelliferae plant family, named for and distinguished by its lacy, umbrella-like flowers and including such beneficial vegetables and herbs as carrots, celery, dill, chervil, parsnips, and, of course, parsley. Besides the deprecating designation, there are many stories and anecdotes of poor fools who mistook the poisonous parsley for the passive one and ended up with severe nausea, headaches, and worse. But for CFA Voysey, this lethal plant was as beautiful as a rose, and by all accounts, his very best birds embellish the design.

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Fools Parsley 1893

Trustworth Studios has reproduced Voysey’s design in light and dark colorways; Fool’s Parsley page from an 1893 German herbal, Etsy seller CabinetOfTreasures.


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