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Queen of the Garden

My garden is peaking now: next week I will shear off flowers and get another full-flowering in late August or early September. In between a few flowers will light up the back but it will mostly be a sea of green. This is fine with me; I have chosen plants as much for their leaves as their flowers. In my little garden, Midsummer is signaled by the flowering of meadowsweet, one of my very favorite perennials. I have a double-blooming variety (Filipendula vulgaris ‘Flore Plena’) which I purchased from Perennial Pleasures up in northern Vermont long ago: it is very dependable and very showy, and probably much too big for my small garden. Meadowsweet is commonly referred to as the “Queen of the Meadow” (in its native Europe) or the  “Queen of the Prairie” (in the U.S.) but I think of it as the Queen of my garden! Like most of my plants, it is more of an ancient wild flower than a proper “Garden Flower” (determined, like most things, by the Victorians I believe): if a plant does not have a proper medieval “wort” name and quasi-mythological medicinal heritage, it doesn’t find its way into my garden. Meadowsweet was alternatively known as dropwort, bridewort, and meadwort in the pre-modern past, and was used as a strewing and flavoring herb, as well as a painkiller and digestive. In the nineteenth century, salicylic acid was isolated from meadowsweet, a key event in the development of aspirin, which was named after the plant’s previous Latin name, Spiraea ulmaria. Though not named as one of the nine sacred herbs in the Anglo-Saxon Lacnuga (“Remedies”) manuscript, this particular Queen has ruled for quite some time.

July 2016 garden: I’ll let my cat Trinity lead us to the Meadowsweet in a meandering way.

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I love my lungworts–another important medieval plant that looks lovely from May through September. Trinity wasn’t really interested in the meadowsweet, but here they are, for several different angles: I would love to see a prairie/meadow full!

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Getting Ready for the Fourth

Salem celebrates the Fourth of July in a big way, with a Horribles parade at Salem Willows in the morning and fireworks accompanied by an orchestra at Derby Wharf in the evening. The Fourth is not perhaps as big an extravaganza as it used to be a while ago when a huge bonfire of barrels ruled the day (or night) in our city, but it is still big. I walked around and saw everyone putting out their colors today, and past the rather sad-looking Friendship which is missing its masts and getting hauled out for repairs the day after the holiday. The money shot of Fourth of July photography is the fireworks against the rigging and sails of the Friendship, so this year Salem photographers are going to have to be very creative! I put my own bunting on the house and stocked the refrigerator: my only regret is that I failed to make the famous Fourth of July punch featured on Chestnut Days past and in the 1947 Hamilton Hall Cookbook: apparently it takes two months to “ripen” so two days will simply not do.

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Festooned for the Fourth on Chestnut, Essex, Carlton, Williams and Winter Streets in Salem, the mastless Friendship, and the 1947 recipe for Fourth of July punch–too late for this year but keep in mind for next.

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17 Lady’s Slippers

I have been paying very little attention to my garden as I’ve been busy, and we are getting a new roof, which involves flying shingles, tarps and ladders and the trampling of plants. I don’t want to look! After the roofers are gone I will assess the damage and dig in, but for now I just gaze out the window or walk quickly through the garden, as if I have blinders on. Then it suddenly occurred to me the other day that I had not seen my lady’s slippers, which are fortunately in the back, out of harm’s way. It’s always a guessing game as to how many slippers this one plant (now about 15 years old) will produce: generally there is an increase of one slipper per year, but last year (perhaps because of our historic winter) their number actually decreased, to thirteen. So with some trepidation, I walked slowly to the back of the garden, behind the ferns, and there they were in full bloom and glory: seventeen lady’s slippers, four more than last year. Amazing! Glorious! Wondrous! And above all, inspiring: now I must get out there to tend to the rest of my (less spectacular) plants.

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Lady’s Slippers on the first of June, 2016.


Green and White

Summer has come to Salem over the last few days and everything is very green–and white, the perfect colors of renewal. The viburnum is so dominant this time of year, but so are spirea and white dogwoods, along with azaleas, deutzias and lilacs. And those are just the shrubs and trees: you can look up, down, and over and see a trail of white just about everywhere at this time of year. The Peirce-Nichols garden has a field of pink bleeding-hearts, but just a few steps away at the Ropes Mansion are my favorite white ones (my own, sadly, did not come back this year), along with beautiful border of white irises. I’m off to replace my bleeding hearts (if I can find the white ones–pink are far more plentiful) and look for some new shrubs for the perimeter of my garden, as I am very tired of my boring forsythias as well as a sad espaliered crab-apple tree. I am open to suggestions: not just for white-flowering shrubs, but no pink please!

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Green, (black) and white around Salem, late May 2016.


Searching for a Spring Wine

May–my favorite month of the year, representing the end of the school year, high time for gardening, that perfect shade of soft spring green, my anniversary, and a kind of wistful merriment which is actually more academic than experiential–because I’m generally too busy in May to engage in such merriment. But I always feel like the need to find a celebratory drink to toast to the spring, and the summer to follow. The traditional beverage is May Wine (Maiwein), which I have made on several occasions: a sweet white wine infused with sweet woodruff and a few other additions. My sweet woodruff has yet to really appear, much less bloom, so I don’t think that’s going to work this year. So I went backwards in time and beverage books looking for something new/old, beginning with George Edwin Roberts’ Cups and their Customs (1863), which has a fantastic title page but not much else.

Spring Wine Cups and Their Customs

Then I went way back to the sixteenth century and a favorite “receipt” book, Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswife’s Jewell (parts one and two): here there are medicinal waters but nothing to accompany May merriment. In the Elizabethan age, that would be left to a host of imported wines, I think: malmsey, sack, claret, canary, brandy. Heavy, sweet wines which are not appropriate for Spring in any case. Jump forward to the mid-seventeenth century and a trio of popular “celebrity” cookbooks featuring the recipes of Charles I’s exiled and widowed Queen Henrietta Maria, ostensibly penned by her personal chef: The Queens Closet Opened. Being Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrurgery, Preserving, Candying, and Cookery, A Queen’s Delight; or, the Art of Preserving, Candying and Cookery, and The Compleat Cook, all first appearing in 1655. I looked through a later, lovely digitized edition of A Queen’s Delight at the Beinecke Library at Yale and found several fruity “country wines”: raspberry looks good, “water of time for the passion of the heart” interesting.

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Over the course of the seventeenth century, Englishmen (and women too, I assume) were realizing that their dependence on imported foreign wines was not in their personal or national interests and searching for domestic substitutes. A succession of tracts appeared encouraging the planting of orchards and providing recipes for cider, perry, and a host of fruit wines. One of the most influential of these publications was John Worlidge’s Vinetum Britannicum: Or, a Treatise of Cider, and Such other Wines and Drinks that are extracted from all manner of Fruits Growing in this Kingdom (1676). As its title page illustration suggests, this is a rather practical publication: I really don’t have the inclination to make cider but perhaps I could buy some and doctor it up?

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So that idea brought me to one of my favorite modern books:  Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist. The Plants that create the World’s Great Drinks. Two of Stewart’s recipes could be candidates for my “toast to spring” drink: cider cup, an adapted version of medieval dépense made by combining hard cider with fruits and ginger beer (or ale), and Kir Normand, in which crème de cassis is mixed with cider. Or I could just pick up one of Salem’s own Far from the Tree ‘s seasonal ciders and leave it at that!

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Buy Local; or Why invent the Wheel?


Christmas without Stockings

Our stockings were hung on the mantle with care but I wore no stockings with my Christmas dress:  it was far too hot! It was 69 degrees by my last observation, the warmest Christmas in greater Boston since 1932. That’s a bit deceptive though, as I did a little research (weather history–now there’s a rabbit hole!) and found that Christmases in the high 50s/low 60s degree range were not all that uncommon in the twentieth century. There were windows open throughout the house, I was cooking with the back door open, we had drinks and appetizers out in the backyard. People wanted to spend time outside, so the usual mid-afternoon Christmas feast was pushed up to evening, along with the presents. So many thoughtful ones, including a cocktail shaker shaped like a 1950s rocket from my stepson and a necklace with a propeller charm from my husband—and new chimneys, of course. The only low point of the day was a jammed (by me, and too many potato peelings) garbage disposal, for the third year in a row. Like clockwork.

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Christmas 2015: out back and front, a green and misty morning giving way to sun, oysters outside, Bette Davis’s adorable hat in The Man who came to Dinner (1942), too sunny for Christmas dinner!


Chimneys, Mantles & Mice

I just finished sweeping up the last bits of mortar and plaster dust in the house, the consequences of some oddly-timed house projects: a major rebuilding of two of our towering chimneys and some minor plastering and painting in our central hallway. So after I clean myself up, I’ll be ready for the Christmas festivities! I hope that wherever you are, things are a bit more peaceful, and less dusty–and if it is your preference (it certainly is mine), colder: we are expected to hit 7o degrees on this Christmas Eve, 2015. What an odd year, weather-wise, with Snowmaggedon in February and Christmas in July in December–such extremes are portents of the future, I fear. Before everything gets messed up again, I took some pictures of both inside and outside, decorations and scaffolding. We have a great tree this year, if I do say so myself, but as I find it impossible to photograph Christmas trees I’m not sure you will be able to appreciate its glory. You’ll have to trust me. My mantle decorations are the usual excessive winter wonderland installations. I was inspired this year by two particular creatures: an Asiatic dormouse in the form of an Asian export soup tureen dated 1760 I spotted at the Peabody Essex Museum and a Christmas card featuring a drypoint etching of a rabbit by the artist Bruce North from 1996. Nice mice are hard to find though, and the combination of mice and rabbits made my double parlor look a bit nursery-ish, so I mixed it up a bit with foxes and of course, deer.

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Christmas Inspiration

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