Tag Archives: horticulture

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 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.

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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.


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.


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