17 July 2014

A Gardener's Garden

Every gardener has a favorite garden. Or two, or twelve. And every gardener I've ever met knows a garden - a gardener's  garden - that inspires them, that speaks to their soul, and leaves them with a renewed passion for their profession every time they visit. This is mine:

15 July 2014

What's That Plant?

I simultaneously love and hate when someone asks me the name of a plant that I don't know. I love it because it means as soon as the conversation ends I'll be able to dash to my library to look it up and will learn something new. I hate it because I'm a professional horticulturist with extensive training and education and we're supposed to know these things, right?

Then I remember the story about Christopher Lloyd, one of the - if not The - greatest plantsmen of the 20th century. If he was visiting a garden and encountered a plant that was unfamiliar to him, he'd nudge it with his toe and nonchalantly ask his host, "What are they calling this these days", a cheeky reference to the fact that taxonomists are constantly changing plant names and a brilliant way to mask his extraordinarily rare ignorance. Unfortunately that trick doesn't work when you're the one being asked and you don't know the answer.

So there I was at work - in a garden that's still new to me and that I'm still getting to know - when a guest asked me, "What's that plant?" and pointed to a variegated ground cover with seed heads that clearly mark it a member of the Umbelliferae, which the taxonomists have changed to Apiaceae (see, Mr. Lloyd was really onto something). This puts it in the same family as carrots and Queen Anne's Lace but I recognized it as neither of those. Whatever it was, it was happily colonizing a small space under an apple tree and doing a splendid job of crowding out the Sarcococca*.

After this cursory and incomplete identification, the guest went to her lunch and I went about the rest of my day, temporarily forgetting about the Mystery Plant. Until five o'clock this morning, when I reluctantly awoke from a very pleasant dream with "variegated umbellifer" in my mind and couldn't get it out (we plant geeks obviously have very strange cognitive functions).

You'll be happy to know, then, that the plant in question is a variegated form of Aegopodium podagraria, commonly called Gout Weed** and it's Number 1 on Canada's 10 Most Unwanted List. Introduced to America from Europe and Russian Asia, it was known in those parts as a medicinal and pot (culinary) herb back in the Middle Ages where it was used to treat gout. The 16th century herbalist John Gerard described the thuggish habit I observed thusly:

'Herbe Gerard groweth of itself in gardens without setting or sowing and is so fruitful in its increase that when it hath once taken roote, it will hardly be gotten out againe, spoiling and getting every yeare more ground, to the annoying of better herbe.'

I didn't ask the Sarcococca if it was annoyed, but it sure looks it.

Its botanical name is derived from the Greek words “agios” meaning goat and “podion” which means little foot, combined to "Little Goat Foot" because the shape of the leaf is thought to resemble the shape of a goat’s foot.

Another of its names, Bishop's Weed,*** comes from it's being commonly found near monastic ruins. Monks grew and traded medicinal plants, they being practically the only persons who could travel extensively in the Middle Ages without much fear of being set upon by highwaymen. Saint Gerard lent his name to the plant, as well, being the lucky saint invoked to cure the gout. The roots and leaves have diuretic properties and were boiled or crushed then applied as a poultice, or eaten in a bitter spring salad. It's also thought to be helpful in alleviating symptoms of rheumatism, kidney, bladder, and intestinal disorders, and hemorrhoids (not sure how they discovered that one).

All in all a very useful addition to the early physic garden and the variegation makes this variety a very decorative plant, but it's ruffian personality dictates a ruthless hand in controlling its spread both in the garden and in the wild. It spreads by underground rhizomes and by seed, so cutting off the flower stalks immediately after blooming and pulling it out roots and all are the best control methods. The variegated leaves do make a nice ground cover in an area of dappled shade so long as it's kept in bounds.

Now armed with this bit of information, I'll be ready the next time someone asks me what it is. I might even give it a nudge with my toe and say, "This one? Well, in the Middle Ages it was known by a whole list of names but these days they call it something completely different..."

*Sarcococca hookeriana: also called Sweet Box, makes a nice groundcover. Leaves are deep glossy green in shade with clusters of fragrant white flowers in late winter and early spring.

**Other names include: Ground Ash, Ashweed, Pot Ash, White Ash, Ground Elder, Dog Elder, Dwarf Elder, Garden Plague, Farmer’s Plague, Snow-on-the-Mountain,  Jack Jumpabout, Jump About, Goat’s Foot, Bull Wort, Bishop Wort, Bishop Weed, Herb William and Herb Gerard (whew!)

***Not to be confused with another member of the Apiaceae also called Bishop's Weed for similar reasons, Ammi majus, seen here used to great effect in the garden at Great Dixter.


13 July 2014

A Review of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

I was extraordinarily fortunate to be doing my MA in London during the year which saw the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the XXX Olympiad. What a year!

In the autumn of 2011 a landscape architect who worked on the design of the Olympic Park gave a presentation to our class; a design teaser of what was then being built. While I was writing my dissertation my tutor, Tom Turner, very generously gave me a ticket to the park so I was able to see it in all its Olympic glory (I can also boast that I ate at the World's Largest McDonald's). In this video Tom and fellow University of Greenwich professor Robert Holden, Landscape Architects both, discuss the post-Olympic landscape of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I would love to see it again, in light of this review.

07 June 2014

Happy Birthday, Celia!

Were she alive today, Celia Fiennes would be celebrating her 352nd birthday. In the spring and summer 317 years ago she would have been embarking on what she called 'My Northern Journey' in which she traveled from London up to Scarborough and back, traveling about 635 miles on horseback or by coach over 7 weeks.

A page of Celia's diary noting the beginning of her Northern Journey (Wiles, 2012)
1697 is the only travel date she mentions in her diary. And it struck me looking at the photo of the journal entry in her own hand: She made these travels in the year 1697. Sixteen. Ninety. Seven.

No cars, no busses, no trains, sometimes no roads. No electricity, no 4G wireless, no Wi-Fi hot spots, probably no map (she would have hired guides), and none of the modern conveniences that we all take for granted nowadays. I never get tired of reading Celia's diary. In this digital age where selfies are all the rage, I wonder how much of the experience is lost when viewed through a camera lens or on a phone screen as one whizzes through a town or flits from one monument to the next. Hardly anyone keeps a journal any more. Yes, there are blogs (hello!) but one big zap from a power surge like, oh say, Betelgeuse going supernova will wipe out the servers and the blogs will be lost forever. So will the entire solar system, but that's another post for another day.

Burghley House, 'eminent for its Curiosity', built between 1555 and 1587. It had just been remodeled in the modern style by the Fifth Earl when Celia visited in 1697.
Of course I'm guilty of being a rabid picture taker and feel a great surge of gratitude to the inventor of digital photography every time I click the shutter but I'm more grateful to Celia for opening my eyes and mind to another way of seeing the places I visit. I still marvel at the level of detail she includes in her diary and wonder how she managed to retain all that information until she was able to sit down with quill and paper to record it. Seriously, I've seen her diary and she didn't write it in the coach on a bumpy dirt road between destinations.

Celia included a description of her family's seat, Broughton Castle, in Oxfordshire (Wiles, 2012)
Broughton Castle, as it looked 273 years after Celia's death (Wiles, 2012)
Still, these days we tend to rely on the camera to capture views and help us recall details when not too terribly long ago those details would have been recorded by hand, either in prose or drawing. There are no drawings in Celia's diary, though it's reasonable to expect she knew how, 17th century ladies of noble birth being schooled in the arts and all. Either she simply didn't take the time or what sketches she may have done have not survived.

Audley End, built between 1603 and 1616. If Celia's figures are to be believed, at the time of her visit there were 3 courts, 30 towers, a cupola, and 750 rooms. (Wiles, 2005)
Each time I travel I keep a journal of the journey but have not the capacity for memorizing such minute details that Celia did. She challenges me to do better at recording what I see, which helps make the traveling more enjoyable. That's especially true when I visit a place she'd also been to. Several times I've stood before a grand country house, in one of its rooms, or in the gardens with her description in hand and can instantly see how much has changed. Sometimes not much has and a little thrill travels up my spine. Is this the same view she saw? Would she have noticed those trees, that architectural detail, that painting on the wall, did she approach the place on the same road I did? Following in an historic figure's footsteps has to be one of the greatest highs in the life of a historian.

The Chapel at Chatsworth. Celia noted it as being 'very lofty...and supported by 4 large pillars of black marble two at the alter 2 just at the bottom to support the gallery for the Duke and Duchess to sitt in' (Wiles, 2012)

I will be celebrating Celia's birthday in a part of the country that's new to me and I hope I'll be able to take the time to notice things the way she did. Who knows, maybe my travel journals will be found 300 years from now and used to compare what is then to what was now. Better take good notes, then. I might even attempt a sketch or two.

Happy Birthday, Celia!

12 May 2014

On the Case: Garden Detective

As a gardener, there are times when I visit a garden and my hand automatically reaches for my hip and the secateurs that should be there, the itch to restore order to an unruly border a constant garden visiting companion. As a garden historian there are times I step through a garden gate and find myself thrown back in time, too easily seeing the ghosts of gardeners past. It's when these two sensations collide that I know I've found some place special.

I discovered just such a place last week when my friend Dan Maffei, a landscape designer, asked me to take a look at a property he's working on. What was once a farm on the Philadelphia Main Line is now under corporate ownership but the 1930's mansion perched atop a hillside over a once formal garden complete with grotto and reflecting pool, all screaming 'American Country Place Era', are what stopped me in my tracks and made my mouth form a soundless, "Oh."

View of the garden at the rear of the house, complete with grotto.

Overgrown yew hedges and junipers left to smother their neighbors do their best to obscure the garden features but we garden detectives are trained to read beneath the overgrowth (Dan laughed at me as I declared, "I'm going in!" and dove headlong into the thicket). Massive boulders forming a terrace of 'natural' paths with scraggly azaleas struggling to bloom in the shade, the boulders themselves in danger of being consumed by tree roots, and the outlines of a fountain basin still imprinted on the ground tell me this was once a grand garden indeed. Strong axial alignments and a plant palette popular in the 20's and 30's all give tantalizing hints but the identity of the original designer remains a mystery. For now.

This conifer's roots have been growing over the rocks for some time.

The pool terrace

Ever since my tutor used the term I've preferred 'garden detective' to 'garden historian'. It really is surprisingly accurate, after all. In seeking to discover who designed this garden I've got to follow seemingly random leads and apparently minor associations, looking for clues wherever I can. It's a fascinating process, and I was only too thrilled to take the case. I shall be, to the best of my ability, the horticultural Sherlock to my friend's Watson, for while I endeavor to solve the garden mystery it will be Dan who saves it's life.

The goal isn't necessarily a wholesale restoration of the garden, though that depends on what is revealed about its creators and the ultimate desire of the present owner. I think there's more to this garden, though, and while I find myself wishing fervently for a TARDIS (yes, fandoms colliding, I can't help it) I know with a little digging the garden's ghosts will reveal themselves to me in time.