Category Archives: Nature

A Statesman’s Summer House

I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend for a spectacular summer wedding on Dublin Lake, and of course I made time for side trips; the Granite State continues to be a place of perpetual discovery for me after a lifetime of merely driving around or through it, to and from a succession of homes in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. On the day before the wedding, some friends and I drove north to see The Fells, the Lake Sunapee home of John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who served in the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Hay is the perfect example of a dedicated public servant and statesman, attending to President Lincoln as his private secretary until the very end, at his deathbed, and dying in office (at The Fells) while serving as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He was also a distinguished diplomat, poet, and a key biographer of Lincoln. Fulfilling the conservation mission that was a key part of his purchase and development of the lakeside property, Hay’s descendants donated the extended acreage surrounding the house to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s, and it eventually became the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge. Hay’s daughter-in-law Alice Hay maintained the house as her summer residence until her death in 1987, after which it was established as a non-profit organization, open for visitors from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekends.

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When it comes to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century country or summer residences in New England which are now open to the public, it seems to me there are three essential types: those of very rich people (think Newport), those of statesmen (The Fells; Hildene in Manchester, Vermont; Naumkeag in Stockbridge), and those of creative people (The Mount in Lenox;  Beauport; Aspet, Augustus Saint-Gauden’s summer home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire). The last category is my favorite by far, but there’s always lots to learn by visiting the houses of the rich and the connected, and John Milton Hay was as connected as they come. I was a bit underwhelmed by the house, which is a Colonial Revival amalgamation of two earlier structures, until I got to its second floor, which has lovely views of the lake and surrounding acreage plus a distinct family feel created by smaller interconnected bedrooms opening up into a long central hall. The airiness of the first floor felt a bit institutional, but this was an estate built for a very public man, after all. For the Hays, I think it was all about the relation of the house to its setting, rather than the house itself.

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The gardens surrounding the house also seemed a bit sparse although it was a hot day in late July and we might be between blooms; certainly the foundations and structures are there, especially in the rock garden that leads down to the lake. This was the passion of Hay’s youngest son, Clarence, who established the garden in 1920 and worked on it throughout his life. After his death in 1969, the garden was lost to forest, but it was reestablished by the efforts of the Friends of the Hay Wildlife Refuge and the Garden Conservancy. When you’re standing in the rock garden looking up at the house, or in the second floor of the house looking down at the rock garden and the lake beyond, you can understand why the well-connected and well-traveled John Milton Hay proclaimed that “nowhere have I found a more beautiful spot” in 1890.

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Hildegarde’s Gardening Book

The granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hildegarde Hawthorne (Oskinson) followed in the family business and published a wide variety of works over her lifetime (1871-1952), including children’s books, travel books, poetry, and biographies. I posted previously on one of her “rambles” books, Old Seaports of New England, because it features Salem prominently, but it is not my favorite of her titles: that preference is her garden book, The Lure of the Garden (1911). Gardening books by society ladies such as Hildegarde are a dime a dozen in this era, but The Lure of the Garden is different: it’s not a practical tome or simply an appreciation of the botanical beauty, but rather a series of essays on different cultural aspects of the garden, in her time and over time: from “Our Grandmother’s Garden” to “Childhood in the Garden” to “The Social Side of Gardens” to “Gardens in Literature”. It’s beautifully written (I think shorter-form essays are her strong suit) and beautifully illustrated, by Maxfield Parrish, Jules Guérin, Sigismond de Ivanowski, Anna Whelan Betts, and others, with plates in both color and black and white, paintings, drawings, and photographs. Throughout the book, the theme of the garden as a private refuge and true reflection of one’s inner self emerges, both very literally in considerations of enclosure and garden gates as well as through textual and visual illustration, as she shows off her connections and takes us into the “Gardens of Well-Known People” such as Parrish, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cecilia Beaux, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Parrish. For all this (and because I am dealing with the menace of powdery mildew right now), I think my favorite chapter is “Some Garden Vices”, in which the garden is portrayed as an autonomous entity, showering “pity and love to its ugliest weed” to a touching though infuriating extent: it will spare no pains to convey to this voracious plant all the delicately prepared food destined for your lilies or your phlox, will discover the utmost art in draining its water toward the thick roots of its favorite, give it sun and shadow, sweat and labor for it. If you snatch the hateful progeny from its arms, leave only the slightest portion of root behind, that patient, devoted garden will nurse the battered and wounded thing back again to life and health, to flaunt triumphantly in bed and border. As this is Hildegarde’s extravagant prose in reference to weeds, you can imagine her descriptions of more covetous cultivations.

Lure of the Garden Cover

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Hildegarde Hawthorne’s The Lure of the Garden is available here.


Rose Reverie

These are the rose weeks of the summer in central New England: while newer varieties of roses are bred to be repeat- or ever-blooming the older varieties bloom now, so if you walk the streets of an older city or town you’re going to see bursting bushes behind and over fences and along porches and foundations. Often red or a very very dark pink. I’m not certain what cultivar these roses are: at first glance they appear to be of the gallica variety, the oldest type of rose to be cultivated in Europe which was brought to North America in the seventeenth century. Certainly several of the rose bushes in the “Colonial” garden behind the Derby House are gallica, cultivated for their medicinal and household uses as much as for their beauty. When I’m walking down the street taking photographs of rose bushes at this time of year and happen to spot a homeowner in close proximity, I always ask about their roses, and I nearly always get the answer: oh they’ve been there forever.

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Salem was a horticultural haven in the nineteenth century, so it’s fairly easy to find out what people were growing and showing. When I look through periodicals like the New England Farmer, and Horticultural Register or the Transactions of the Essex Horticultural Society it is pretty clear that most people were more excited about dahlias than roses at mid-century, though Francis Putnam did have quite a collection of showy roses on hand, including La Reine, Duchess of Sutherland, Aubernon, Baron Prevost, Madame Laffey, Madame Damame, Mrs. Eliot, Devoniensis, Bon Silene, Bossuet, and Anne Boleyn, though he was a florist by trade. I have a pink David Austin Anne Boleyn rosebush in my garden, though I doubt it’s the same cultivar as Mr. Putnam’s nineteenth-century varietal. According to Alice Morse Earle’s Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth (1901), an even more storied English rose, the “York and Lancaster” striped gallica, could once be found on the grounds of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street. Interest in the “old-time” roses was clearly reviving in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as was the lore attached to all sorts of flowers according to the “language” attributed to them, but serious garden writers always cautioned against mixing up the York and Lancaster with its similarly-striped cousin, the “Rosa Mundi” rose, which had even earlier “historical” origins.

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Roses Collage

Rosa Mundi Cutis Botanical MagazineJohn Ramsbottom’s “King Penguin” book, 1939, with its York and Lancaster illustration; Mrs. L. Burke’s The Language of Flowers, 1865; Rosa Mundi from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1790s.

Enough of history and let’s see some more roses about town, including my own (first up) which are modern David Austin varieties: my house was a working (rooming) house for much of its life and I doubt there was space (or time) for a flower garden, so I don’t have any old rosebushes. I don’t like any red in the garden for some reason (though I love it indoors), so it’s pink and yellow and ivory for me. Then we have: one of my favorite pocket gardens on Botts Court, two very dependable displays nearby, and the particularly lush roses behind (not in) the Ropes Mansion Garden—just love these. It’s summer now.

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We just Beauties See

I’ve always loved the seventeenth-century poem by Ben Jonson It is not Growing like a Tree with its closing lines In small proportions we just beauties see; And in short measures, life may perfect be. It evokes the ephemeral perfection of late May and early June, when the bleak New England “Spring” finally ceases and we are rewarded with a burst of flowering amidst all that new, lush green. As I write this, at night, I’m still kind of cold, but it certainly is beautiful out. I got my garden under control last week: I lost some things but most of my very favorite plants are doing just fine, including the “ladies”, slippers and mantle. I take long walks on these long days, and pictures of everything beautiful, even plants I don’t really like. I’ve never been a rhododendron fan, and as those are peaking right now, it is difficult to avoid them: consequently I have included an unusual yellow variety. Peonies are also just too much for me, but who can resist capturing those show-offs now? I actually find irises creepy, but they are so colorful and fleetingly stalwart I snapped them too. So here is a portfolio of late spring/early summer flowers, primarily from my own garden, the Ropes Mansion garden, the Peirce-Nichols garden which is the place to go for Bleeding Heart at this time of year, and the Derby Garden at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, where the first of the peonies are just starting to pop. But you can spot flowers just walking down the streets of Salem at this time of year, along or through the cracks of an old fence.

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What’s blooming now in Salem: Lady’s Slippers, Sweet Cicely, Jacob’s Ladder, Wisteria, Irises, Mock Orange, Rhododendron, Bleeding Hearts, (flowering) Wisteria, Dame’s Rocket, Clematis, Columbine, Peonies, Comfrey.

Where are all the Quince Trees?

I am encountering so many references to quinces in my early modern recipe books and regimens: to eat, to preserve, in tarts and jellies and marmalade, of course. These English people really loved quinces, or they depended on them, and so they brought them to New England, where every garden apparently had a quince tree or bush; apparently only one was needed because they were so fruitful. There was even a moment in time when quinces were considered as a possible staple crop here in Salem: according to Felt’s Annals of Salem, there was a succession of crop failures which led to scarcity of corn in the 1760s, provoking a public inquiry “whether some foreign vegetables might not be introduced, which would serve as a substitute for bread”. The “quince of Portugal” was proposed, along with the “Spanish potato” (did they not know that the potato was a native North American crop?). This is a good clue, confirmed by some of the English evidence: apparently the English variety of quince was not so pleasing as the Mediterranean variety, thus it needed a lot of cooking, steaming, boiling, roasting and sugaring: just perfect for what the English liked to do to all sorts of foods. According to Thomas Moffatt in Health’s Improvement (1655), quinces were worth the trouble: though their raw flesh be as hard as raw beef unto weak stomachs, yet being roasted, or baked, or made into Marmalade, or cunningly preserved, they give a wholesome and good nourishment.” This was fine for the seventeenth century, but in the nineteenth century I think people wanted to just pick a piece of fruit off the tree and eat it, and consequently Robert Manning, Salem’s superstar horticulturist (and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle) just gives a few paragraphs to quince trees in his New England Book of Fruits and seems more interested in grafting his beloved pears onto them to create dwarf varieties. As quince also served as a type of pre-modern gelatin the development of alternative sources and processes in the nineteenth century were factors that must have aided its gradual disappearance as well. By the later nineteenth century, there were only to be found in “grandmothers’ gardens” and now—nowhere.

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Quince Cakes

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Quince Bush Arthur Wesley Down 1895 MFAQuince, Cabbage, Melon & Cucumbers, by Juan Sanchez Cotan, 1602, San Diego Museum of Art; a Quince tree in Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants), 1542the eighteenth-century recipe book of the Marchioness of Wentworth and a recipe for “Quince Cakes”;  “Quince stock when grafted or budded with a Pear”, Robert Manning’s New England Book of Fruits, 1847; Arthur Wesley Dow, “Our Quince Bush”, 1895, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Well, except for the Bonnefont Herb Garden at the Cloisters (below) and there are a few quince boosters out there so maybe we will see a revival. Since they are small trees, they are perfect for urban courtyard gardens like mine, so I’m looking for a space…..and speaking of small urban gardens, for those of you in Salem (or nearby), the creator of one of the most impressive gardens in Salem (which you can see here) is giving a talk this Thursday night in the atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum. No doubt her garden is illustrative of her knowledge, which means we will all learn a lot!

Quince Cloisters

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

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Remarkable Roots

Fair warning: this blog is going into a very random phase, even more random than usual. Normally around this time of year I would have some sort of Labor Day or “Back to School” post, but as I have just started a sabbatical I am unaccountable to any calendar but that of my own projects–of which I have several. I might post on these occasionally, or I might use the blog to take a break from scholarship. Faithful readers know how I feel about Salem’s ever-intensifying Haunted Happenings, so know not to count on me for any October coverage: last year I got out of town for six straight weekends from September to November and that worked very well for my piece of mind. That’s the standard advice offered to anyone who is critical of Halloween in Salem—embrace it or leave town; you know what you were getting into–but in my case it is actually good advice! Fortunately my study is way up on the third floor of our house–and in back, overlooking the garden rather than the street–so when I’m not traveling I can hide away, far from the maddening crowds. So that’s the setting for the next few months, and I’m not sure what I’ll come up with for this space/place. Today is a good case in point: I was looking into the medical use of several plants in the sixteenth century, including artemisia and byrony, and found myself among the digitized manuscripts of the British Library. One manuscript in particular, Giovanni Cadamosto’s Herbal with accompanying treatises on food, poisons, remedies, and the properties of stones (MS Harley 3736; late 15th or early 16th century) provided me with a little escape/break, mostly because of the amazing roots of several of the plants illustrated within.

Scary Root Antora

Scary Roots Brionia

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Scary Roots Dragonhead

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Scary Roots Jordana

Scary Roots Mandrake

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Scary Roots Morsb Serpen

Scary Roots Polma chi

I am familiar with this manuscript, but I never realized just how many fantastic roots it contained: suddenly that’s all I could see! We all know about that of the magical Mandrake, of course, but that’s just one of eleven by my count. Anthropomorphism always interests me, but in this case it’s a bit perplexing, as this text represents a more realistic Renaissance attempt to draw from nature rather than just relying on traditional motifs. These roots contradict that naturalism, but then again we’re in that transitional time, when a bit (or more) of whimsy could be retained. I’m still working on the plant identifications: “Antora” might by a yellow variety of aconitum or monkshood, “Dragontea” might be dracunculus vulgaris, or dragon lily, and “Palma Christi” must be the castor bean plant, which went by that common designation.


Beautiful but Deadly

In support of the summer-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in Salem, better known as the House of the Seven Gables, Salem State has offered up a Hawthorne film series in partnership with the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and this week our last film will be shown: Twice-Told Tales (1963). Since we started with The House of the Seven Gables (1940), it will be interesting to see Vincent Price, who played Clifford in that film in a rather straightforward fashion, in what I assume will be his more characteristic over-the-top style. He plays key characters in all three stories of this anthology film, and Dr. Rappaccini himself in the central story, Rappaccini’s Daughter, which just happens to be my favorite Hawthorne short story (it was actually first published in book form in Mosses from an Old Manse rather than Twice Told Tales, but I’m sure this was of no concern to Hollywood). Rappaccini’s Daughter is the favorite Hawthorne tale of many, and it has inspired many visual and literary impressions and adaptations—particularly in the last decade or so. Its allegory makes it endlessly captivating for successive generations, but I think its most recent popularity is due to its rather macabre storyline: the transformation of a young beautiful woman who tends a garden of poisonous plants and in doing so becomes both immune but also a poisonous vessel herself is Gothic in the extreme.

Poison Garden Jessie Willcox SmithJesse Willcox Smith, 1900

My particular fascination is the paradox of beauty and toxicity in nature. How can plants as beautiful as monkshood and foxglove be deadly? I have neither in my garden at present, but my very first garden at this house was comprised entirely of plants used in the medieval and early modern eras as plague cures. It did not last long, as most of these plants were really unattractive and I didn’t have quite enough sun for them anyway, so I dug it up and dispersed the more attractive plants in a more conventional flower garden. My favorite survivor of the “plague garden” is rue, a beautiful and ethereal blue-ish gray shrub with yellow flowers that I just sheared off yesterday, with not a care in the world for the potential harm that its leaves could have caused to my skin. How could the “Herb of Grace” cause harm? Obviously it’s not the plant itself but ignorance of its “attributes”; it’s not the medicine but the dose. It’s not nature; it’s man (or woman).

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Poisonous Actea RubraMy newly-shorn rue and its illustration in my favorite Renaissance herbal, that of Giovanni Cadamosto (late 15th Century, British Library MS Harley 3736); A much more OBVIOUS poisonous plant in my garden, baneberry or Actaea Rubra: beware of those berries!

Even more paradoxical than a poisonous plant is a poisonous garden, as gardens are supposed to be places of rest, relaxation, wonder and contemplation: sanctuaries where one can find refuge from the busy (and threatening) world outside. Rappaccini’s Daughter is set in Padua, so I believe that Hawthorne was likely influenced by its famous Botanical Garden, established in 1545 and still thriving with over 7000 plant varieties including a collection of poisonous plants, “which are also in the medicinal plants sector because in suitable quantities they can be used to treat illness and diseases”. Also didactic, but a bit more menacing, is the Duchess of Northumbria’s Poison Garden in Alnwick, England, which features more than 100 lethal plants, several of which are in cages, all just part of a much larger botanical attraction and experience. The Duchess wanted to pique the curiosity of children in horticulture, and it probably doesn’t hurt that her estate “starred” as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. She also produced a series of books for children titled The Poison Diaries, the first of which has absolutely amazing illustrations by Colin Stimpson of venomous plants “in character”. Scary, but not nearly as scary as the Poison Tree which “stole” into William Blake’s garden, his own creation.

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Poison Tree BlakeAlnwick’s Poison Garden; a Colin Stimpson illustration from the Poison Diaries; William Blake’s Poison Tree from Songs of Experience, 1794, British Museum.


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