Tag Archives: plants

A Feminine Focus in the Garden

It wasn’t just Memorial Day: I feel like I’ve finally come to the end of a long string of obligations and am ready to focus on house, garden, reading, wandering about. We’re finally renovating our kitchen, so that will be a major focus for the next few months: I’ll do a “before” post next week, before nearly everything is torn out of that space, and then we’ll be able to celebrate the “after” later. The garden is looking good, although I fear it will turn into a construction zone. I do have a few last presentations—on Zoom of course–to give to several women’s organizations about the history of Salem women and the quest for suffrage. It is unfortunate, but certainly understandable, that that big anniversary is being overwhelmed by the pandemic, but I want to mark it in the best way I possibly can. As I was thinking about women’s history—and gardening at the same time—-I realized that a big part of garden history is women’s history, in all periods, as women are always charged with provisioning in one way or another throughout history. Certainly this was not an original thought, but it nevertheless led me down various trails, and I ended up spending a rather blissful Memorial Day (after I gave a speech!) looking though the photographs of women photographers over the last century or so. This is just one small aspect of the intersection of women’s history/garden history: I’m going to explore more this summer.

When I’m interested in something, I’m generally interested in something in the past, and then I bring it forward, but this exploration started with two contemporary garden photographers whose work I had been admiring online and in a book I just received:  the Luxembourg photographer Marianne Majerus and the American photographer Stacy Bass. The former is almost like a painter in the garden; likewise the latter is a master (mistress) of light.

Garden Marianne Majerus


Garden Marianne Majerus Garden Images


Stacy Bass Gate (3)Photographs ©Marianne Majerus Garden Images and ©Stacy Bass: much, much more @ Marianne Majerus Garden Images and Stacy Bass Photography.

Is there a tradition of women’s garden photography? I had to go back, following English and American lines (even though Majerus is from the Continent she was trained in England and seems to photograph a lot of English gardens!). Though not strictly a garden photographer, I explored the wonderful work of still-life photographer Tessa Traeger, and through Traeger’s portrait rediscovered the AMAZING Valerie Finnis, whom I identified primarily as the namesake of variant of artemisia before I dug a bit deeper: what an extraordinary plantswoman and photographer! Even though she was a serious botanist, gardening seems like such a social activity for Finnis: she like to photograph people in their gardens, and she was also very, very fashionable, like her subject below, Rhoda, Lady Birley. I’ve just ordered Ursula Buchan’s collection of Finnis’s photographs, Garden People, and I can’t wait to receive it.

Garden Tessa Traeger

Garden Tessa Traeger 2

Tessa Traeger Valerie FinnisFinnis CollagePhotographs by Tessa Traeger, including her marvelous portrait of Valerie Finnis in 2000, National Portrait Gallery. Garden People includes this amazing Valerie Finnis portrait of Rhoda, Lady Birley.

The Smithsonian and Library of Congress have several archival collections of women photographers, including those who specialized, or at least ventured into, garden photography: I love the dreamy mid-century images of Molly (Maida Babson) Adams (1918-2003) who photographed gardens up and down the Eastern Seaboard over her 40+ year career. I did not identify the pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) with gardens before this little visual journey of mine, but they certainly constituted a sizable percentage of her impressive output.

Gardens Maida Smithsonian

Garden Maida Buttrick Garden Concord MA Smithsonian

Garden Johnston (2)

Johnston CollagePhotographs by Molly Adams of gardens in Maine and Massachusetts, and Frances Benjamin Johnston of gardens in Virginia, Long Island, and Rhode Island, Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress. 

And I ended up with the charming photographs taken by another pioneering woman photographer, Etheldreda Laing (1872-1960), who experimented with the first color photography process—autochrome—by taking wonderful photographs of her daughters Janet and Iris at their home, Bury Knowle House in Oxford, over a succession of summers between 1908 and 1914: before-the-deluge images indeed! And also, I think, the female gaze.

Garden Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-rose-arch Iris and Janet Laing 1910

Garden Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-blue-bonnet Iris L 1910

Garden Iris and Janet Laing c 1914The Laing daughters, Iris (younger) and Janet (older) in their mother’s photographs, 1908-14. More on autochromes here.

Yellow Roses

The combination of last week’s very hot weather followed by serious rain meant that this weekend the roses started popping out, about a week or so earlier than usual. In the past I have been a negligent rosarian (t is a word) but this summer I’m determined to do better: as you can see below, some of my roses are being attacked by some little pest, whether it’s an insect or a mildewy disease I do not know–but I am determined to find out and root it out! Though I love red in general and red roses in particular, I don’t like that color in my garden:  it’s too dramatic. I like everything in the garden to be kind of faded and mixed together, and red doesn’t mix well. So I prefer yellow roses above all, even though Kate Greenaway (my source for all things Victorian) tells me that yellow roses mean “a decrease of love, jealousy” in her Language of Flowers.  Surprising symbolism for such a warm and sunny color! For some reason, I also have a bright orange rose bush, which I don’t particularly care for but as it’s such a vigorous climber–and completely resistant to any pest– I would never tear it out. And if the roses are blooming in New England the lady’s mantle is too–this year it looks particularly abundant.

Yellow roses 021

Yellow roses 014

Yellow roses 024

Yellow roses 037

Yellow Roses Wallpaper V and A William Morris 1877

Yellow Roses Briar Wallpaper CFA Voysey 1901

Yellow roses 054

Yellow roses 049

Yellow (and pink and orange) roses in my garden interspersed with Mr. Darcy on the deck, “Roses” wallpaper by William Morris (1877) and “Briar” wallpaper by C.F.A. Voysey (1901), Victoria & Albert Museum London.

Very Odd Apples

My title actually refers to tomatoes rather than apples, a great example of a New World crop that was introduced into Europe though the “Columbian Exchange” and then brought back to America in the eighteenth century. Like another consequential import from the western hemisphere,  the potato, the tomato was slow to find acceptance among Europeans, primarily due to its first introduction in print by the Italian physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli (Matthiolus) in his 1544 Commentaries (the tomato page from a 1590 edition is below).  Matthiolus refers to the tomato as a “poma aurea” or golden apple, which is generally taken as evidence that yellow tomatoes preceded their red counterparts across the Atlantic.

Matthiolus tells his readers how to eat the tomato (fried in oil with salt and pepper) but he also classifies and compares the new vegetable (fruit?  He is confused as well) to the mysterious magical mandrake, which gives it a rather malevolent reputation in the early modern era.  Northern naturalists included the tomato in their “new” herbals in the sixteenth century, with name variations but the same magical associations. Conrad Gesner stressed the aphrodisiac qualities of mandrake but maintained its connection to the new plant in his Historia Plantarum (1553),  and thus “golden apples” became “love apples” (and sometimes “wolf’s peaches”) in northern Europe while in Spain the term “Moor’s apples” prevailed.  The most beautiful herbal of the sixteenth century, Leonart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium, included an illustration of the tomato in its later editions, as did Rembert Dodoens’ Cruydeboeck:

The most comprehensive herbal issued in sixteenth-century England, John Gerard’s Herball, was primarily plagiarized from Dodoens’ earlier work (there was a lot of “sharing” in the early modern publishing industry), but Gerard was a gardener who experimented with tomato cultivation (and consumption) himself.  He found the plant to be “of rank and stinking savour” and added this commentary:  In Spain and those hot regions they use to eat the Apples [of love]  prepared and boiled with pepper, salt, and oil:  but they yield very little nourishment to the body, and the same naught and corrupt.  Likewise they do eat the Apples with oil, vinegar, and pepper mixed together for sauce to their meat, even as we in these cold countries do mustard.”  An early reference to tomato sauce, this observation also tells us a lot about the difference between Mediterranean and northern European cuisines, then and now!

Taking their cue from Gerard, the tomato was scorned in Anglo-American cuisines until the modern era, despite efforts by such varied advocates as Thomas Jefferson, who cultivated tomatoes at Monticello, and the Neapolitan artist Michel Felice Corne, who escaped the Napoleonic Wars by departing Naples in 1800 on one of Elias Hasket Derby’s Salem-bound ships, the Mount Vernon.  Corne lived and worked in Salem for the next six years, ostensibly introducing both Italian painting techniques and Italian tomato sauce to the town, but Salemites would have none of the latter.  It would take another half-century or so, and a huge wave of Italian immigration, for “love apples” to become American (again).

Michel Felice Corne, The Ship Mount Vernon of Salem Outrunning a French Fleet

An 1869 Advertisement, Library of Congress

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