Tag Archives: horticulture

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.

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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.


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.

V0043169 Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginica): fruiting stem with flower

Witch Hazel Redoute 18p

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”.

Witch Hazel White BM

L0032213 Hazeline bottles, advertisement, 1903-04

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.

Witch Hazel Derian

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)

St Johns Wort Egerton 747 BL

St Johns Wort V and A 19th c

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.


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).


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