Category Archives: Nature

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.

Roses Collage 2

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.

Quince San Diego

Quince Fuchs

Quince Cakes

quince newenglandbookof00mannrich_0070 1847

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

Gardening event

 


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

Scary Roots Colstanga

Scary Roots Corrola P

Scary Roots Dragonhead

Scary Roots F

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 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.

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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.


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.

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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

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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.

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Garden 41

Peirce Nichols

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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

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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!

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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.


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