Tag Archives: gardening

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.

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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.


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.


Salem Garden Tour 2017

My takeaway from the weekend’s garden tour in Salem is a renewed appreciation of structure in the garden: fences, pergolas, pillars and garden sheds were everywhere in evidence, and both the small and large gardens were oriented towards the architecture of their adjacent houses. I’ve always been a bit more botanical-based, but now I find myself desperately wanting a little garden house! It was a very eclectic tour, ranging from very small gardens on River Street to a palatial garden on Chestnut, with a beautifully structured classical garden on Federal Street in between. We toured in the morning, well before a torrential downpour in the later afternoon–which must have stranded lots of people under available porches, or some other convenient structure. As for plant material, there was mildew-free bee balm, very well-kept roses, lots of vines, and lavender that is much more lush than mine. As always, I feel grateful to the gardeners/homeowners who put themselves out there and allowed us all to trespass for a while.

Garden Tour River 2

Garden Tour First

Garden Tour River 3

Garden Tour Santolina

Garden Tour River

Garden Tour Sheds

Garden Tour Shed

Garden Tour Federal 8

Garden Tour Federal 7

Garden Tour Federal 6

Garden Tour Federal 5

Garden Tour Federal 4

Garden Tour Federal 3

Garden Tour Beale 2

Garden Tour Beale 3

Garden Tour Chestnut

Garden Tour Beebalm

Garden Tour Apples

Garden Tour Chestnut lastSalem Gardens (+sheds) on River, Federal and Chestnut Streets.


Peaking and Strolling (in Gardens)

I’m looking forward to the Salem Garden Club’s biennial tour tomorrow, “A Stroll through the Garden’s of Salem’s McIntire District”, which will take place right in my neighborhood. All proceeds go towards the club’s community beautification projects, which are numerous and conspicuous! My garden was on this tour a while ago, early on in my knowledge of gardening in general and relationship with this particular garden, so I remember thinking “July–that’s so late” when they gave me the date. But several ladies assured me that Salem gardens peak in July. When the date for the tour came up, my garden was indeed peaking. I was happy about that in one way, but sad in another–I decided that I didn’t want my garden to have just one peak but rather to “crest” through the summer. So I changed its constitution a bit and brought in more plants picked for their leaves rather than their flowers. Right now the mallows are flowering, the meadowsweet just popped, and the first of the daylilies–but the roses are in a funk and the lady’s mantle is done. Something weird is going on with my bee balm–lots of powdery mildew which I’ve never seen before. But the border plants, germander, calamint, and veronica, are finally established and doing just fine. It’s all a bit subtle, which is what I’m going for, but I’m sure that tomorrow we will be able to peak in on gardens that are really peaking!

Garden First

Garden 8

Garden Mallows

Garden 4

Garden 3

Garden 2

Garden 6

Garden 9

Garden Stroll Poster


Salem Roses

You can have your showy, ant-filled peonies: at this time of year it is all about roses for me. This is rose week in Salem–everywhere you go (except perhaps for the Ropes Mansion Garden, which peaks in late summer), there are beautiful roses in bloom. I’ve got some relatively new bushes in my garden as last year there was a roofer-induced massacre. When I first put in roses, I chose only hard-to-find old garden varieties of the rosa gallica type: I was a purist who prioritized history over flowering (similar to the pink and white varieties below in the Derby House garden, which look much better than mine ever did—I also had an herb garden full of straggly herbs used as medieval plague cures). These heirloom roses were a bit too shrubby for me, and so I replaced them one by one with more modern varieties, mostly from David Austin. And after the decimation last year, I went all David Austin: pale pinks and yellow, almost-orange, no red. They all popped yesterday (see collage), and I went for a walk to see some more: so here you have it, my rose-tour of downtown Salem.Rose Collage

June Roses 1

June Roses 3

June Roses 4

June Roses 5

June Roses 6

June Roses 7

June Roses 9

June Roses 8

My roses, a cascade on Cambridge Street, in front of the John Ward house, off Orange Street, the Brookhouse Home side garden, and Derby House garden.


Cultivating American History

The Smithsonian Libraries have produced a summer-long digital and actual exhibition on the history of American gardening titled Cultivating America’s Gardens and it features a Salem garden! I’m not surprised; I’ve consulted the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens on more than one occasion and it has several wonderful slides of Salem gardens, most unidentified. The “old-fashioned” garden of the Misses Laight on Chestnut Street in the 1920s opens up one section of the exhibition, “Gardening as a Link to the Past”, which doesn’t surprise me either: Salem’s Colonial Revival ethic and aesthetic certainly extended to horticulture. Besides “the Past”, Cultivating America’s Gardens has six additional sections/themes: “Gardening for Science” (“botanizing” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), “Rolling out the Lawn” (the emergence of the Great American Lawn from the Victorian era through World War II), “Gardening to Impress” (Gilded Age gardens and World Fairs), “Gardening for the Common Good” (Victory gardens and school gardens), “Gardening as Enterprise” (selling seeds), “Gardening for the Environment” (sustainable gardening), as well as a concluding section on the Smithsonian’s role in preserving America’s garden heritage. My discoveries from the online exhibition? The word “botanizing”, which I never knew was a verb, the “tastemaker” Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934), author of more than 300 articles for Garden and Forest as well as the influential Art OutofDoors: Hints on Good Taste Gardening, and the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women, founded in Massachusetts in 1901, the first of its kind open to women. I definitely want to learn more about that!

Curated Gardens Laight

Curated Gardens Victorian Lawns

Curated Gardens Gilded

Curated Gardens War

Curated Garden collage

Curated Seeds

PA624001

The Laight Garden in Salem, 1920s; Catalog for Ross Bro’s. Co., Farm & Garden Supplies (Worcester, Massachusetts, 1909); The Blue Garden at Beacon Hill, Newport, Rhode Island, 1920s; Editorial cartoon: “War Garden to Do Its Duty”, drawing after J.N. Darling in the New York Tribune, about 1917 (LOVE THIS); the gardens of Alexander Hamilton and Dolly Madison as envisioned in 1920 by Peter Henderson & Co.’s Everything for the Garden catalogs; Burpee’s Seeds Contest entry, 1925; The Concrete Jungle, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2002, Lawrie Harris, photographer, all Smithsonian Institution Libraries.


Weekend Slippers

I spent most of my weekend in slippers, in my third-floor study, writing and reading in preparation for Saturday’s symposium and two other academic presentations I have to give this summer. With only a few precious breaks–dinner with friends, a brief visit to the Salem Arts Festival, and several forays into my garden—I was immersed in witches and wonders. But the first foray into my garden brought me into a state of wonder as I saw that my Lady’s Slippers (18 of them this year!) had popped! Every few hours I took a break to gaze at them with adoration, and take pictures of course. The light was full of contrasts this weekend as rain threatened but never quite appeared (until last night), providing them with perfect opportunities to shine.

Weekend slippers

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Weekend slippers 3

Weekend slippers 5

Weekend slippers 6

Weekend slippers 7

Lady's Slipper best


May Flowers

I’m sorry that my posts are short and spare these days, with more space between them: this is the busiest time of the year for me. The spring semester is technically “over”, but it dies a lingering death: with reports to write, two commencements and many meetings to attend. I want to spend as much time in my garden, which is overrun with violets, but can only snatch an hour or two each day. The weather has been very erratic here: rainy and raw last weekend, followed by lots of sun and very hot days, then a big cool-down. It ranged from 90-something degrees to 60 degrees at the end of the week: on Thursday night I sweated through our graduate commencement wearing my polyester and velvet academic regalia in an un-air-conditioned gymnasium, but yesterday I was pretty comfortable, even a bit chilly. Fortunately, it’s a beautiful time of year, so even though I don’t have much to say to you at the moment I have lots to show you: some shots of the most beautiful May flowers in my garden and around my neighborhood. We have shifted from the pink period of spring into a mostly-white-with-purple-accents phase, with many more colors to come.

May FLowers T

May Flowers TBW

May FLowers LW

May Flowers A

May Flowers LV Trillium, lungworts, anemones and lillies of the valley in my garden above; viburnam, wisteria and irises at the Ropes Garden below, along with the best viburnam hedge in Salem along Federal Court and Solomon’s Seal in the Peirce-Nichols garden.

May Flowers BW

May Flowers Ropes

May Flowers I

May Flowers V

May Flowers SS2

May Flowers SS

P.S. I did see some real mayflowers in the Salem Woods a few weeks ago but unfortunately did not take a picture!


Midsummer Mallows

I like several varieties of plants in the large mallow (malvaceae) family, most particularly the older common varieties rather than the showy hollyhocks and hibiscus which are really too big for my garden. There are musk mallows and malva sylvestris at the front of one border, but in the back is my very favorite: marsh mallow, or althaea officinalis. This is an old, fabled plant which is tall and velvety, with soft pink flowers, appearing just about now. Like all plants which officinalis status, marsh mallow was an important medicinal plant in the ancient, medieval, and early modern eras, the basis of soothing syrups and balms for throats, stomachs, skin–even teeth. The marsh mallow plant had edible uses in the past too: its sap was extracted and mixed with nuts and honey (and later sugar and corn syrup) to make a confection, and its root was boiled for use in both sweets and “sallets”. Modern marshmallows have no marsh mallow in them, but several “organic” skin creams do. I looked in vain through my sixteenth-sources for a sweet marsh mallow recipe, but found it as a principal ingredient in one of the recipes to cure lovesickness in Jacques Ferrand’s classic seventeenth-century treatise. So there you are: a plant that is both utilitarian and beautiful.

Mallow 3

Mallow 9

Mallow 1

Above: my marsh mallows. Below, hollyhocks in the Ropes Mansion Garden–I’m showing you close-ups rather than the entire plants because they seem to be stricken with some sort of rusty disease. My other mallows have this too–not very attractive–but the marsh mallows seem immune! 

Mallow 7

Mallow 6

Mallow 5

marsh-mallow Fidelia Bridges Prang

Salem-born Fidelia Bridges’ Marsh Mallows, produced for Prang in the 1880s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Illustrations of the Improv’d Garden

I discovered the prolific British illustrator Clare Melinsky just recently, and apparently too late to obtain the examples of her work that I covet the most: illustrations based on several eighteenth-century gardening manuals by clergyman John Laurence, including: The Clergy-Man’s Recreation: Shewing the Pleasure and Profit of the Art of Gardening, The Gentleman’s Recreation: Or the Second Part of the Art of Gardening Improved, and (an apparent pseudonym) Charles Evelyn, The Lady’s Recreation: Or, the Art of Gardening Farther Improv’d (bound together in variant editions, 1717-1719, along with The Fruit-Garden Kalendar: Or, a Summary of the Art of Managing the Fruit-Garden). These are wonderful little practical books, and Melinsky’s clean linocut prints look like they are culled from the texts: they are period perfection and absolutely charming. Melinsky’s portfolio includes everything from The Witches of Salem: A Documentary Narrative (London: Folio Society, 1982) to the covers of the Bloomsbury boxed set of hardback “signature editions” of Harry Potter, and lots of flora and folktales and Shakespeare in between. Everything looks lovely, and I look forward to enjoying more of her work as time goes by but right now I’m pretty fixated on the unattainable “improv’d garden”  images–though her similar Robert Burns postcards might just suffice.

Melinsky Cards Collage

Melinsky Cards Collage Garden

Melinsky Collage

Melinsky Kew Gardens

Laurence Gardening Improvd Front

Melinsky Witch Linocut

Clare Melinsky’s Linocut “Gardening Improv’d” cards, along with a more “modern” illustration of Kew Gardens and a witch (just because) from here and here; Frontispiece ilustrations to Laurence’s Gardening Improv’d parts II and III, 1719.

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