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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.

Fourth Home

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Fourth Essex

Fourth House Carlton St

Fourth House Williams Street

Fourth Derby Wharf

Fourth Collage HH

Fourth Windowboxes

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.


Elizabethan Caterpillars

Oddly enough, I was thinking about caterpillars before the big Tudor revelation of last week: the confirmation that a lavishly embroidered cloth-of-silver altar cloth in a small church in Herefordshire was fashioned from a dress which might have belonged to Elizabeth I. The cloth was discovered by Historic Royal Palaces Joint Chief Curator Tracy Borman, who has included it in her newly-released book, The Private Lives of the Tudors. Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty. Apparently Elizabeth had a reputation for casting-off her clothing to favorites, and her faithful servant Blanche Parry hailed from Bracton, the small village where this luxurious cloth has been hanging for over 400 years. The photographs of the cloth, particularly close-ups, show familiar Elizabethan flora and fauna (in a pattern that does indeed look very familiar to that of the dress which Elizabeth wears in the famous “Rainbow” portrait), including a rather conspicuous caterpillar hovering over a bear.

Caterpillar Cloth HRP

Jacobean Jacket METThe Herefordshire altar cloth (@Historic Royal Palaces) and a fitted jacked from a bit later (c. 1616) featuring a caterpillar among a world of flora and fauna, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So why was I thinking about caterpillars in general and Elizabethan caterpillars in particular? For the usual mix of scholarly/materialistic reasons. I am prepping for my summer graduate course on Elizabethan England, while at the same time spring cleaning the house and indulging in a bit of seasonal decoration, which for me means swapping out Spring rabbits for Summer bugs and snails: I had just replaced a John Derian glass tray featuring a card-dealing rabbit with one bearing a colorful caterpillar when I read the news about the Herefordshire discovery. And I’m rereading one of my favorite books, Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution which captures perfectly the dynamic world of fledgling naturalists and “scientists” in later-sixteenth century London. Harkness is probably better known for her fictional bestsellers of the past few years but for me, this is her jewel. I really had a hard time conveying to my students just how focused Elizabethans were on the natural world before it was published; certainly you can see–they can see– this preoccupation in Tudor decorative arts, and most particularly textiles, but I’m hoping that Harkness will really bring it home to them.

Caterpillar Tray John Derian

Jewel House Cover HarknessJohn Derian’s caterpillar tray & Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House.

So back to the caterpillar, which is such a distinctive creature in terms of both appearance and activity: it transforms and consumes, dramatically. Which quality determined their metaphorical characterization in Elizabethan England? Definitely the latter: when Shakespeare writes of a commonwealth of caterpillars in Richard II, he is referring to devouring parasites whom Bolingbroke has sworn “to weed and pluck away”. Another Shakespearian reference is to false caterpillars in Henry IV, Part 2: a rebellious group of “scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentleman” who (once again) are preying on the people: prey, “pill”, pillage: the caterpillar is hardly the wondrous creature of the first British entomologists Thomas Penny and Thomas Moffett, who maintained a more empirical perspective. The latter’s great work (which is largely based on the former!), Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrum (posthumously published in 1634), is more focused on metamorphosis than munching.

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Thomas Moffett’s Insectorum sive Minimorum animalium theatrium (1634–but largely based on Thomas Penny’s 500-page manuscript from the 1590s).


May Flowers for Mother’s Day

Yesterday I went searching for some May flowers for Mother’s Day and it was a more difficult task than you might think on May 7. Our cold and wet (well, this last week at least) weather has pushed flowering back quite a bit here in Salem. I checked out my three most dependable spots for flower shots: the Derby House garden, the Ropes Mansion garden, and my own garden. I did not yield too many flowers as you will see below: a few bulbs at Derby, just one fringed Bleeding Heart at Ropes, and my beloved and dependable lungworts are the only spots of color out back (except for my neighbor’s newly-red shed). This is not surprising for a week in which my radiators were radiating every single morning when I woke up and every single evening when I came home. The flowering trees are especially far behind: my dogwoods are barely opening although I see spots of color across the street in the Chestnut Street park. Lady’s Mantle–a particularly appropriate plant for Mother’s Day–needs no flower, especially when it’s wet, as its velvety leaves catch and turn raindrops into diamonds.

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Flowering in Salem, May 7, 2016.


Animal Adaptations

I don’t think I will ever tire of anthropomorphic animals, no matter how old I get. This weekend, to mark National Handwriting Day (not really, but any excuse to shop), I purchased a print of a letter-writing fox from the Litus Gallery, and then went back for more. The very dynamic discussion in response to my Samantha statue post last week referenced the word “whimsical” several times, so I wanted to reorient myself to that word and sense and to me, these works are most definitely whimsical, fanciful, even dreamy. But beyond the aesthetics, many of the Litus images (as alluded to by their titles) are also referential: the title of my fox is “Michael Drayton writing the Second Part of the ‘Poly-Olbion’, Fleet Street, 1617 and I also purchased a print of a clerk-like cat titled “John Selden leaving Hare Court, Inner Temple, August, 1614.” I don’t think that either the poet or the jurist was painted in these situations, but other examples of the Gallery’s work are based directly on particular paintings. I thought it would be interesting to match up the originals with the adaptations. The differences are not hard to discern!

Fox Writing Letters

Animal Adaptations Collage 1

Animal Adaption Collage 2

PicMonkey Collage 3

PicMonkey Collage 4 Rembrandt

Animal Adaptation Collage 6 Blake

Animal Adaptations Collage 5

Weighing the Fruits after Jan Vermeer’s ‘Woman Holding a Balance’; Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C./ The Turnip Spinner (After Chardin’s ‘Gabriel Godefroy watching a top spin’/ Jean-Siméon, Portrait of the Son of M. Godefroy, Jeweler, Watching a Top Spin, c. 1735, The Louvre/ The Eight Lives of Mr. Tybalt (after Nicolaes Eliaszoon’s ‘Portrait of Nicolaes Tulp’; Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, Portrait of Nicolaes Tulp, 1633, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam/The Book-Keeper (after Rembrandt’s ‘Young Man at His Desk,’); Rembrandt, Scholar at his Desk, 1631, Hermitage Museum/ I want, I want, after William Blake; William Blake, “I want, I want” from For Children: the Gates of Paradise (1793)/ Il Ladro di Fragola (after Jean Baptiste Chardin’s ‘Basket with Wild Strawberries’; Jean Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Basket with Wild Strawberries, 1731.

All Animal Adaptations available at the Litus Gallery.


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