Tag Archives: horticulture

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.

Late November in Salem

November is the month where you notice things that go unnoticed in other months: leaves hide and distract, and snow covers. This has been such a busy semester that I feel like I’ve been walking around with blinders on, but this past weekend I took them off and took a long walk around Salem and saw new (to me), developing, and seasonal things: roses that bloomed and then froze, building projects everywhere, details of houses and landscapes that I had never noticed before. The light is so clear at this time of year as well, so there is color popping out of the starkness, unlike March, the other stark (though muddy) month. I snapped a few pumpkin-colored houses to get me in the mood for Thanksgiving.

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They’re still here (in the Charter Street Burying Ground), even after October; the 17th-century Pickman house (I’m still obsessed with this family–more next week).

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The trees next to the Peabody Essex Museum are truly more beautiful without their leaves, and I wonder who tagged the Marine Arts Gallery next door? Frozen red roses in front of the PEM’s 17th-century John Ward house.

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So happy that the Washington Arch on the Common is being repaired, along with the Common fence; two brick houses on Pickman Street: the first is completely covered by ivy in the summer, the second (“The Mack”) I never noticed before–great entrance.

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Great house off Bridge Street; more frozen roses.

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Three very different pumpkin-colored houses, on Derby Street, in the Willows, and on Lafayette Street–I was losing the light with the last one.

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

Tansy Passe

(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.

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 (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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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.

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)

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

Big Pumpkins

In typical contrarian fashion, I left Salem on Thursday when everyone was coming in for the big parade that signals the beginning of our city’s Haunted Happenings festivities. I was going to try to get in the spirit this year, but I’m not sure if I can. It is certainly difficult to be dour all the time when there are so many fairy princesses running around Salem and I’m sure I annoy everyone around me with my constant critique, but it’s just difficult for me to jump on the “festival” bandwagon:  Salem’s transformation into Witch City, the Halloween destination, seems so solidly and cynically grounded in the 1692 witch trials and the tragic death and suffering of innocent people. I can’t forget that, so I went to the Topsfield Fair in search of big pumpkins.

The Topsfield Fair has been held every year since 1898 as the county fair for Essex County, a region that was urban/rural a century ago but is now quite suburban.  Essex County farmers are dwindling but Essex County gardeners are still going strong, so there were great fruits and vegetables on display but relatively few animals:  and far too few pigs!  Here are some prize-winning chickens (in the Court of Honor–love that), carrots, garlic, honey and a quilt that seems to summon up the spirit of the fair: a very random sampling.

But it was the pumpkins I came for, and one in particular:  the pumpkin grown by a Rhode Island man that set the world record at 2,009 pounds.  I found it encased in the middle of the plants and vegetables building, while the second, third, and fourth-place finishers were shunted off to an empty arena, alone and forgotten. I accidentally came upon them when I went to look for the Clydesdales. I was glad to see the white one (grown by one of Topsfield’s own) as I jumped on that bandwagon quite a while ago.

Appendix:  One idea for my own (smaller) pumpkin, back in Salem:

The 8th Wonder of the World

It’s almost shameful to follow up a post on my garden with one that is acknowledged to have been one of the most beautiful in early modern Europe, but be assured I am suggesting no comparison!  A seventeenth-century German garden called the Hortus Palatinus (the Garden of the Palatinate) was so beautiful, so majestic, and such a bold expression of the mastery of nature that contemporaries referred to it as the 8th wonder of the world. Somehow, it’s all the more legendary because it was such a fleeting creation: elaborately planned by French engineer extraordinaire Salomon de Caus for the challenging terrain adjacent to Heidelberg Castle over a five-year period prior to 1619, it was installed that year and perhaps lasted a year or two before becoming a victim of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that ravaged much of central Europe.  Fortunately the image and elements of the garden were captured in de Caus’s book, entitled Hortus Palatinus, which has been digitized by the University of Heidelberg.

Engraving by Matthäus Merian from the Hortus Palatinus (1620); painting by Jacques Fouquières, circa 1620.

The garden was commissioned by Frederick V, Prince-Elector of the Palatinate and the briefly-reigning “Winter King” of Bohemia, as a romantic tribute to his new bride, Elizabeth Stuart, the eldest daughter of James VI and I of Scotland and England. De Caus, an exiled French Huguenot who was a favorite of the Stuarts and had served as Elizabeth’s tutor, seems to have possessed a variety of talents:  he is mathematician, civil,mechanical, and hydraulic engineer, landscape architect, and horticulturist all at the same time. The Heidelberg garden was not only a schlossgarten carved out of the earth, it was a walled world of waterworks, moving statues, and mechanical birds, all enhancing its wondrous reputation.  So too did its romantic associations:  Frederick and Elizabeth seem to have had that rare royal marriage that was actually based on affection, and the surviving “Elizabeth Gate” , supposedly erected overnight in 1615 on the orders of the Prince-Elector as a surprise gift to his wife, is a living testament to (at least their early) relationship.

Frederick V and Elizabeth, early 17th century line engraving by Balthasar Moncornet, National Portrait Gallery, London; the Elizabeth Gate at Heidelberg.

The ultimate legacy of the garden is de Caus’ 1620 book, published about the same time that its namesake was being destroyed!  The amazing illustrations of Matthäus Merian (among others, apparently) bring us into the garden and its world, and preserves it forever.

More images from the Hortus Palatinus at the University of Heidelberg, and Salomon de Caus’ design for a mechanical bird, from his earlier work,  Les raisons des forces mouvantes (1615).

Overgrown, “Old-fashioned” Gardens

For the decade that I’ve worked on my garden I’ve been going for a lush, flower-packed, “old-fashioned” look, popular a century ago when there was a strident Colonial Revival reaction against Victorian gardens. Recently a good friend gave me a copy of a special edition of The Mentor (which had a logo/mission which I just love:  learn one thing every day) published in 1916 with a focus on “Historic Gardens of New England”, and after perusing the pictures inside, I realized that I’ve attained my goal, in a way. The author of the featured article, Mary Harrod Northend, was a native of Salem and consequently asserts that “the old-fashioned garden of New England reached its highest development” in her (my) fair city, though she highlights gardens in Newburyport, Portsmouth, and other New England towns as well.  Besides axial paths, arbors, and sundials, the key characteristic of her chosen gardens are their flowers:  not the exotic varieties preferred by the Victorians, but native (or better-yet, brought over by the colonists) varieties that will attain that perfect, bursting-forth-from-the-border look: peonies, hollyhocks, phlox, dianthus, bachelor buttons.  All contained within box borders, of course.

I’ve got the box borders (which really need trimming now) and the sundial, and some of Northend’s preferred flowers but others (hollyhocks and peonies) would take over my small garden so I’ve chosen other plants–like the meadowsweet on the left–that are still taking over my small garden.

To control the chaos, I’ve been putting in germander for edging; Northend doesn’t mention this great plant (similar to rosemary but hardy here in New England) but the Elizabethans loved it for their knot gardens. I’ve also included a few close-ups of some of my favorite plants, in bloom now:  alstroemeria (set against variegated calamint) and red baneberry (set against astilbe).

In the shade garden in the back is a “plant” over which I’ve clearly lost control:  a monstrous hydrangea shrub, now grown into a tree.  It seems to be tapping into the water pump for the pond right next to it, and is reaching for the sky! Follow the path and you run right into it–unfortunately I can’t seem to get a good picture of just how giant it is.  It’s scary.

And now some of Northend’s 1916 Mentor pictures for comparison:  the first is of the Hoffman house on Chestnut Street in Salem (now currently for sale), which featured a famous garden established by merchant/horticulturalist Charles Hoffman in the late 1830s and maintained for over a century.  The photograph below is centered on the “ancient” Dutchman’s Pipe-draped summer house, no longer there.  There has to be some structure in the center: pergolas, arches and arbors prevailed in the old-fashioned garden.

Tending the Garden (not)

Usually I like it when my personal and professional lives intersect, but not now. I am working on two courses this summer and several writing projects, all of which involve Renaissance gardening texts in one way or another. So I’m reading about what I should be doing in the garden, and not doing it, for lack of time and energy. Like many scholars before and around me, I’m pretty dedicated to restoring gardening to the Renaissance art (and science) it once was, and I’ve got lots of evidence to support my view. Depending on their status and wealth, sixteenth-century people saw gardening as a way to reclaim paradise lost, glory in God’s creation, and, of course, feed themselves; it was serious business all around.  In England, there was an intensifying and rather democratic demand for gardening advice, resulting in about 20 titles published in the sixteenth century alone, with more to come in the next century.

Looking over these texts today, the practical passages seem to be speaking to me, particularly those offering weeding advice, since I am not out back weeding.  Obviously I would prefer to read about it!  Here is Thomas Tusser giving me instructions for June, in verse, in his A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandry (1557; later expanded to Five Hundreth Pointes of  Good Husbandrie): in June get thy wedehoke, they knife and thy glove:  and wede out such wede, as the corne doth not love.  Slack no time thy weding, for darth nor for cheape:  thy corne shall reward it, or ever thou reape.  Well, I am slackingTusser’s contemporary Thomas Hill, author of The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), does not agree with the former’s technique:  In this plucking up, and purging of the Garden beds of weeds and stones, the same about the plants aught rather to be exercised with the hand, than with an Iron instrument, for fear of feebling the young plants yet small and tender of growth. He want me to dig in and get my hands dirty, but as my rather overgrown garden is full of well-established plants, I think I can go for the iron–I really like this “skrapple” in William Lawson’s New Orchard and Garden (1618).

I’m skipping over to two slightly less practical garden writers of the seventeenth century:  John Parkinson, King James I’s apothecary and a gardener himself, and the more famous Francis Bacon, who included a charming little essay on gardens among his Essays (1625).  Parkinson’s books are appealing because they demonstrate his own interests and expertise, cultivated on his estate near present-day Covent Garden.  London was an emerging metropolis in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it still had patches of undeveloped land and urban gardens, as illustrated by Ralph Agas’s contemporary map of the city.

North of the Strand was Mr. Parkinson’s garden at Long Acre, where he cultivated the English flowers that are the subject of his two major works, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise, 1629), and Theatrum Botanicum (The Botanical Theatre or Theatre of Plants, 1640). Parkinson’s books gave plant-specific advice, from an upper-middle-class urban perspective, thus they are perfect for a suburban gardener such as myself. In their own time, Parkinson’s books were no doubt popular because of the inclusion of woodcut illustrations, like the mallows below.

Francis Bacon’s little essay on gardens is part of his major collection, Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall (1625). This was a definite sideline for him, and I can’t imagine it receiving much attention at the time of its publication given the horticultural competition, but centuries after there are some lavishly-presented editions of the essay, which offers more inspiration than advice.

Bacon’s Essay on Gardens, 1625, 1902 & 1905 ( Illuminated Manuscript on Vellum by Alberto Sangorski, courtesy Book Aesthete).

Enough reading and writing: time to get out there, among the weeds and spent flowers:  it’s mid-June, and duty calls. Everything is satisfactory in the shade border in the foreground (thanks to the very tidy Lady’s Mantle), but the central garden is not getting its close-up until I clean it up, one way or another.  Not this morning, however, as it is raining, and all of my experts tell me that the best time to pull weeds is two days after the rain.

Ever Eglantine

I’ve got roses on the brain, but not just any rose, eglantine roses, a wild, shrubby variety (otherwise known as sweetbriar or Rosa rubiginosa or eglanteria) at once very common but surprisingly elusive now.  I’ve been thinking about these roses for several reasons.  It is late May, and my roses are about to bloom, and I’ve come to the realization that I just don’t like several of them:  hyper-hybridized varieties that let me down every summer. Too pumped up and showy.  I want to go back to basics, and the eglantine rose is a very old rose, pared down and rambling, with a lovely scent. Chaucer wrote about this rose, as did Shakespeare, and Elizabeth I adopted it as her favorite symbol.

A beautiful sweetbriar rose in the Cloisters Garden.

So I have personal reasons for thinking about the eglantine rose, but also scholarly ones.  Summer classes start this week, and after an administrative semester, I’m back to teaching (gratefully): a course on “Shakespeare’s England” and one on Renaissance art, science and technology.  Content from both will probably appear in future posts, and the eglantine rose definitely ties in to the first, because “Shakespeare’s England” was largely Elizabethan England, and Elizabeth loved eglantine roses. The last Tudor had her family emblem, the Tudor Rose, and she used it often, but she adopted the more natural eglantine, symbolizing royalty and chastity, as a personal device, particularly after she had forsaken marriage in favor of “marrying England”.  The “Phoenix Jewel”, from about 1574, show Elizabeth surrounded by intertwined Tudor and eglantine roses (as the Virgin Queen, she preferred white), though in the more public “Phoenix portrait”, from about the same period, she is holding the Tudor Rose. Almost two decades later, William Rogers’ print “Rosa Electa” shows her with the Tudor Rose on one side (left) and the eglantine on another:  at this last phase in her long reign, she was widely associated with eglantine roses, even sometimes referred to as the Eglantine.

The Tudor Rose in BL MS Royal 11 E xi, ff. 2v-3 (a canon for Henry VIII); The “Phoenix Jewel”, circa 1574, British Museum; The “Phoenix Portrait”, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575, National Portrait Gallery, London (on loan to the Tate Museum since 1965).

More visual evidence of the first Elizabeth’s association with eglantine roses is her court painter Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature, Young Man among Roses (1585-95), in which a young courtier (often identified as Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex) pays tribute to her simply by standing among eglantine roses (with his hand on his heart).  And then there is George Peele’s exhortation to his fellow Englishmen and -women to wear eglantine, and wreaths of roses red and white put on in honor of that day, for her Accession Day, November 17.

Nicholas Hilliard, Young Man among Roses (1585-95), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

After Elizabeth, the eglantine rose continues to be admired, though perhaps not with the symbolism it had before. It’s a simple, country rose, contrasted with more extravagant varieties:  natural, wild.  Like all roses, it acquires all sorts of romantic associations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only to be turned into a tobacco brand in the twentieth!

“Rosa Eglanteria Zabeth” (Queen Elizabeth’s Eglantine Rose), Pierre-Joseph Redoutélater 18th century;  The “Wild Rose”, W.L. Ormsby lithograph, NYPL; a lithograph by Jane Elizabeth Giraud from “The Flowers of Milton”, 1846, NYPL; Tobacco Card, Duke University Emergence of Advertising Digital Collection.

The prettiest paper eglantine roses seem to be on paper:  William Morris chose the rose and its vine for one of his earliest, and most popular designs, “Trellis” (1864), and there is a lovely, simple pattern reproduced by Carter & Company Historic Wallpapers based on paper found in a house in Georgia that dates from the 1840s.  I love this company’s slogan:  History repeating itself….

“Trellis” wallpaper by William Morris, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; “Marietta Eglantine” wallpaper by Carter & Company Historic Wallpapers, LLC.


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