Category Archives: Nature

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).

Poisonous Rue 3

Poisonous Rue 2 Cadamosto

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.

poison04

Poisonous Diaries 2

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.


Celebrated Gardens of Salem

A while ago I scored the first volume of a classic text of early American gardens, Gardens of Colony and State, compiled and edited for the Garden Club of America by Alice G.B. Lockwood in 1931. I’ve seldom been without it since; I can’t say that “I can’t put it down” because it is a heavy tome, but I’ve been dipping into it whenever I have a free moment. It’s an absolutely amazing publication: scholarly, detailed, engaging, illustrated, comprehensive. I’ve planned all of my summer road trips around it, even though I suspect I might find myself on sites of former historic gardens more often than not.

Gardens 1

Gardens of Colony and State is nothing less than an illustrated history of American gardens and gardening to 1840: the first volume covers New England and the Midwest, while the second volume presents the South and West (and garden enclosures from across the nation). It is remarkably well-sourced, but also as accessible as you would imagine a garden club publication to be, and its illustrations are nothing short of invaluable. While Salem trades on its darkness now, in 1931 it was still quite well known for its horticultural heritage, and so it rates an entire chapter in the first volume: there is Boston, Salem and Newburyport, and everywhere else in Massachusetts. Lockwood starts off with the Reverend Francis Higginson’s observations on “the bounty of the soil of Salem” in 1629 and shows us the Endicott pear tree and sundial (purchased by the Reverend William Bentley–is this still in the Crowninshield-Bentley House or up in the storage bunker/Collection Center in Rowley?) and then it’s all about Elias Hasket Derby, who employed one of the nation’s first professional gardeners, an Alsatian emigré named George Heussler (whom contemporaries referred to as “Dutch”) for both his town and country gardens. We get to see charming drawings by Samuel McIntire of the former’s grounds—from the Essex Institute/Peabody Essex Museum, of course.

Garden Sundial

Garden Derby 1

Garden Derby 2

We then proceed through the nineteenth century, and visit Salem’s most famous gardens, most of which were laid out or maintained by “Scotch gardeners” (How many gardens are due to the Scotch gardeners! proclaims Lockwood). The botanist John Robinson’s garden at 18 Summer Street was long ago paved over for a parking lot while elsewhere grass and more carefree perennials have replaced the very intensively-cultivated gardens of the Victorian era. An interesting connection: the “Scotch gardener” of Captain Charles Hoffman’s garden at 26 Chestnut, Hugh Wilson, came over from the old country with Peter Henderson, the so-called “father of horticulture and ornamental gardening” in the United States who operated several commercial market gardens and a successful seed company, and they maintained a close connection throughout their lives. Doubtless Henderson made some contributions to the three greenhouses Hoffman and Wilson maintained in the vicinity of 26 Chestnut–one at the rear of his property and two additional ones along Hamilton Street.

Garden Robinson

Garden 26 Chestnut

Across Chestnut Street were the renown gardens of two maiden ladies: Miss Huntington’s garden at #35 and Miss Laight’s garden at #41 Both gardens were featured in several periodicals at the turn of the twentieth century and Lockwood includes older photographs of each—one wonders if they were simplified in the 1930s when the Great Depression reigned and there were probably no more Scotch gardeners on the street. We then read about the botanical experiments of John Fiske Allen at # 31 (more greenhouses!), and enterprises of Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle, in the pastoral paradise of North Salem. By far the most poignant photographs in the Salem chapter of Gardens of Colony and State are those of the Peirce-Nichols House on Federal Street, another PEM property and McIntire creation, if only because of the stark contrast of past and present.

Garden 35

Garden 41

Peirce Nichols

Peirce Nichols Garden 4

Peirce Nichols Garden

Peirce Nichols Garden 2

Gardens page


Coming up Roses

I’m in a bit of a funk about our city right now, but still mid-June is glorious nearly everywhere in New England, and Salem is no exception: it’s time to celebrate the roses, and the lushness all around us. Roses are spilling under and over fences all over town, whether they are wooden picket, wrought iron, or chain-link. We have passed through the period of the peony and the rhododendron (not a fan of either–too lush) into that of roses, lady’s mantle, and mountain laurel. I wish I could keep the roses going in my own garden, but they seldom put on such a flagrant display after June: they just spurt, and it doesn’t matter how much Neem oil I spray on them, their leaves always turn yellow. But they look good now! Here is this year’s crop, followed by some of my favorite roses around town. Rose bushes are difficult to photograph: the one just below my collage, which is on the fence of the Phillips House on Chestnut Street, is actually more lavender than pink.

Roses collage

Roses 24

Roses Fence 2

Roses Cambridge

Roses Ropes

There are several of the old Rosa Gallica, or “apothecary’s rose” shrubs in the colonial garden behind Salem Maritime’s Derby House, and I also saw some in the garden of the Munroe Tavern in Lexington as I was driving by last week. I would love one, but I’d kill it. I was scouting out the site of the new archival center that the Lexington Historical Society is building adjacent to the Tavern: now I’m jealous of both Lexington’s old roses and the imminent accessibility of its archives!

Roses Lex 2

Roses Lexington

Roses Monroe

Back in Salem and in my garden, the lady’s mantle is peaking, as is the rue (which lasts for most of the summer–a truly marvelous herb), and I found some beautiful variegated catmint for a new border: the cats walk right by it so I don’t think it’s a particularly potent variety. I also put in some masterwort (astrantia) plants along the border of the shade garden: their flowers look like little jeweled brooches and I hope they keep appearing all summer long.

Roses Ladys Mantle

Roses Rue

Roses Catmint

Roses Trinity

RosesSalem and Lexington flowering, June 2018.


Aesthetic or Au Naturel?

This past weekend I spent an hour or so browsing (digitally) through Eugène Grasset’s La plante et ses applications ornementales (1896) and then stepped outside to see that my lady’s slippers were in full bloom:  no competition, they win hands down. There are nineteen this year: every year I seem to gain one slipper. Other spring plants are enhanced in Grasset’s “applications”, but for the most part I think I prefer nature at this time of year. Yet has things that I don’t have so I think I’ll showcase both, as this was a man that could even make a dandelion look beautiful!

Nature Trillium

Nature Lady Slippers 3

Nature Lady Slippers My trillium are finally in bloom about two weeks behind everyone else’s; the lady slippers!

Nature

Grasset Solomon Seal

Grasset Columbine The PEM’s Peirce-Nichols garden has a veritable sea of bleeding hearts, but I was too late for the Solomon’s Seal and Columbine so I give you Grasset.

Nature Iris

Grasset Iris 2

Nature Roses

Grasset Wild Rose Irises and Roses from the PEM’s Ropes Garden, and Grasset’s versions.

There are no trees in La plante et ses applicationes ornementales but Salem has one of the most beautiful trees/shrubs in bloom right now: the Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), a southern native that can be found in many cemeteries up here, but also notably in front of the grand Wheatland-Phillips house at 30 Chestnut Street. I’ve always thought that this tree suited the exterior embellishment of this house perfectly, but it looks lovely in the Harmony Grove cemetery as well. Even its shadow is beautiful.

Nature Fringe Tree 3

Nature Fringe Tree 2

Nature Fringe Tree

Fringe Tree Shadow

Grasset Dandelion Salem’s Fringe trees and Grasset’s dandelion design.


Trillium Time

Spring has finally arrived in Massachusetts, transforming gardens, grass, and trees in the space of a week. Woodland plants are my favorite ephemeral heralds, so yesterday I drove to the New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods to check them out. In a sea of bluebells and creeping phlox there were all sorts of varieties of trillium, which is what I was really after. It was a hunt of sorts, but not really that difficult, as my prey stood out.

First up are the varieties of the trillium cuneatum: whip-poor-will flower, large toadshade, and sweet little Betsy.

Trillium Cuneatum Whip-Poor-Will Flower

Trillium Cuneatum Large Toadshade

Trillium Cuneatum Little Sweet Betsy

Beautiful creamy trillium grandiflorum white wakerobin, “bent trillium” or trillium flexipes, and “nodding” trillium, which was hard to photograph, because it was indeed nodding.

Trillium Grandiflorum White Wakerobin

Trillium Grandiflorum White Wakerobin.jpg 2

Trillium Flexipes Bent

Trillium Nodding

Trillium recurvatum, prairie wakerobin, and yellow trillium, trillium luteum.

Trillium Recurvatum Prairie Wakerobin

Trillium Yellow

And the more striking pink and red varieties: I’m not sure what the formal name of this pink variety is, but the reds are trillium sulcatum, “southern red”, and trillium erectum, red wakerobin.

Trillium pink2

Trillium southern red sulcatum

Trillium Erectum Red Wakerobin

I definitely missed several varieties, but all in all, not a bad afternoon catch. And now I want a garden shed with a mossy roof!

Trillium House


Back Bay Easter

We were a small party for Easter this year so we went to the St. Botolph Club in Boston for a buffet of oysters, salmon, eggs benedict, coq au vin, and lamb (no ham). This is the artsy old Boston club, and I always enjoy going there because the walls are lined with the work of its members past and present. In the crimson library, there is a portrait of an artist who I became acquainted with through his connections to several Salem artists at the end of the nineteenth century: John Leslie Breck. I’ve come to admire his work over the past few years, and I always “check in” with him whenever I go to St. Botolph’s. Though known as one of the young artists who brought Impressionism to the United States (in successive exhibitions at St. Botolph’s), Breck’s portrait is one of earnest realism: he looks handsome and troubled, or maybe I am just imposing that state on him as I know he ended his own life at the age of 39 in 1899.

Back Bay Easter

Back Bay Easter Dining Room

Back Bay Easter Library

Back Bay Easter Breck

PaintingsbyJohnLeslieBrock1890_0000

I don’t mean to be so maudlin, but that portrait always makes an impression on me. But it was a lovely Easter afternoon with great food and company and a walk down Commonwealth Avenue searching for signs of spring. We found some, mostly man- made, but there were a few flowering buds—we are on the brink! Walking back to the car from the Public Garden, I looked for my favorite version of the three Lutheran solas: I was just lecturing on them in my Reformation class last week, and I took a photograph for some extra validation for/from my students.

Back Bay Easter Box

Back Bay Easter last

Back Bay Easter 4

Back Bay collage

Back Bay Easter 3

Back Bay Gloves

Back Bay Bushes

Back Bay Easter Flowers

Back Bay Solas


March On

The first of March: a notable historical day from my own geographical perspective, as it marks the anniversaries of both the incorporation of the first English “city” in North America, my hometown of York, Maine (in 1642), and the commencement of the most dominant event (unfortunately) in the history of my adopted hometown of Salem, Massachusetts: the Witch Trials of 1692. March is also one of my favorite months, so I always wake up happy on its first day. I am sure that this is a minority opinion among my fellow New Englanders, for whom March is generally perceived as the muddiest monthIt certainly can be muddy here, and cold, snowy, rainy, dark, windy, and raw. But it can also be bright (like today) with a brilliant sun that seems to highlight the material world in stark detail. It is the month of all weather, and also a month of transition. That’s what I like about it:  you are heading somewhere in March (towards spring); you are not already there (like winter or summer). I like to be en route, in transition, looking forward, in the process—and March feels like that to me, all month long. If you look at magazine covers from their turn-of-the-last-century Golden Age, advertising artistry rather than celebrity, many seem to convey that movement, if only to depict the wind. At least those that don’t feature rabbits.

M27740-26 001

March Harpers 1895

March 1896 2

March Inland Printer 1896

March Black Cat

March 1897

M33739-10 001

March Scribners 1905

M33739-1 001

March covers from 1895 (2); 1896 (3);1897; 1900; 1905 & 1907; Swann Auction Galleries, Boston Public Library, and Library of Congress.


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