Tag Archives: horticulture

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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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

Mary and Elizabeth Capel Lely

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.

Elizabeth Carnarvon Painting RC

Duchess of Beauforts Hortus

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.


The Rampant Ropes

If you are in the vicinity of Salem or even eastern Massachusetts RUN, don’t walk, to the Ropes Mansion Garden off Essex Street for the most flagrant display of August abundance I have ever seen! (Perhaps you should wait until tomorrow though, as we have pouring rain today). I have posted many pictures of this beautiful formal garden over the years, in every season, but it is nothing short of stunning this particular summer. Everybody’s having a good garden year, myself included, but the Ropes Garden has outbloomed us all. It has several notable advantages: a circular plan devised by horticulturist John Robinson in 1912 which creates all sorts of colorful contrasts and perspectives, a perfect mix of annuals and perennials, natural and man-made enclosures, and a full-time professional gardener. I could go on and on with flowery praise but let’s get to the pictures, which of course will not do the garden justice: about half of these I took in the afternoon, the remainder at dusk–I was looking for contrast at both times because it’s difficult to capture the vividness of flowers (especially so many flowers) without.

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Very Common Coltsfoot

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.

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Coltsfoot 1788

Coltsfoot Floral Fantasy Crane

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Coltsfoot tablecloth

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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.


Worts and All

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.

Wort Fuchs Bloodwort-001

Wort Fuchs Hazelwort-001

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Bloodwort and Hazelwort from Leonhard Fuchs’ New Herbal of 1543 (all plates available here; a great resource!); my surviving soapwort, lungwort, and barrrenwort.


Bright white May Days

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):

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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:

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Wentworth photo

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Christmas Roses

I like to decorate with live plants at the holidays–and all year round–but I don’t particularly care for the traditional Christmas plants: cyclamen is too gaudy for me, as are Christmas cacti, and I can’t stand the smell of paperwhites. I suppose amaryllis are alright, but I can never get them to bloom on time and, again, I find them a bit showy. Poinsettias are too predictable (and I have cats). So the only flowering plant that I seek this time of year are hellebores, varieties of which are alternatively called “Christmas Roses” (helleborus niger) and “Lenten Roses”. You’ve got to love a winter-blooming flower, and the association with Christmas is based not only on the season but also on the story of a penniless shepherdess who sought to give a gift to the baby Jesus–an angel turned her tears into pale waxen flowers, which were, of course, the greatest gift. Like tears, hellebore petals are seemingly-fragile, especially in contrast to their sturdier stems, and white, like winter (although there are pale pink varieties too–but the Christmas rose is white). There is another dissonance between the virtues of the plant and its seasonal beauty:  all of the classical and medieval herbals testify to its toxic qualities.

Hellebore BM Egerton

Hellebore after John White BM 1600

Hellebore Mary Delaney BM 1770s

Hellebore Cooper Hewitt early 19th century

Hellebore McIntosh

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A succession of hellebores:  British Library MS. Egerton 747, Salernitan Herbal c. 1280-1310; two images from the British Museum: after John White, c. 1600 and Mary Delaney, 1770s; early 19th century British soft paste plate from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian; a Charles Rennie MacKintosh drawing, c. 1901-1914, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; one of my potted hellebores, overlooking a snowy Chestnut Street.


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