20 December 2013


I love reading interviews with gardeners. Being in the gardening world, as I am, and visiting so many amazing gardens, I always find myself wondering about the gardeners behind them: Where do they find their inspiration?  What training have they had and from where? Why did they use a particular technique? What was their favorite tool? and If I asked nicely would they give me a cutting of that plant!?

One gardener who constantly inspires me is Jimmy McGrath, who is partly responsible for the path my own gardening life has taken in recent years. It was through him and his Longwood classmate, Mark, that I learned about the PG Program there. After Longwood Jimmy went to Great Dixter, where I met him one unusually snowy April morning. He went on to the Jerusalem Botanic Garden, then spent time gardening at DeWiersse in Holland. After a brief return to the States, Jimmy and his other half set off for England and I was able to reconnect with him there, chatting and catching up next to the colored fountains playing in the park next to Marble Arch that reminded us of the fountain terrace at Longwood. While in London, Jimmy worked on the fantastic landscape scenes featured in the Olympics opening ceremony - a once in a lifetime dream job! Then he was off to garden at Gravetye Manor, with the colors, forms, and textures of William Robinson's wild garden buffeting him with inspiration. Jimmy is a gifted artist and I always love when he posts his drawings on his blog, wishing I had the discipline to develop my own artistic ability more. Now he's gardening in Spain, enjoying the warm Mediterranean climate while I shiver through a cryogenic north east winter!

I have such admiration for Jimmy so I was truly surprised when he asked to interview me for a new blog that he and a friend here in the States were setting up. Me? Really? Aw, shucks! I don't know why I still find myself surprised by the way own garden path has meandered, and am constantly in awe of the company in which I find myself. Gardeners truly are remarkable people! So grab a cup of tea and go visit Jimmy's blog. There you will find beauty, art, horticulture, and inspiration.

Thanks, Jimmy! I'm proud to call you friend!

21 November 2013

This Dose the Poison Makes

I've been neglecting my blog so thought I'd try to make up for it by posting something really cool. My intern at work is fascinated by poisonous/medicinal plants, which we have a few examples of on the grounds, but this....this is cool!

Click below to find The Power of Poison: An Enchanted Book

05 July 2013

The Off Duty Gardener's To Do List

Courtesy of Yannick Boulet (gardener extraordinaire at Great Dixter).

28 June 2013


A few weeks ago I cut open a large pink grapefruit and found a surprise. A seed had begun to sprout inside the fruit. There before me were two cute little cotyledons and a nice fat white radicle, which I'd succeeded in cutting in half. I rushed to fetch a bowl of water and put the seed in to soak while I filled a tray and soaked some seed starting mix, luckily purchased the day before.

It's taken the little seedling a while to recover its roots but I'm happy to say it's putting on new leaves and doing splendidly. I moved the pot out into the rain last night because there's something magical about rain water. With any luck that magic will soak in and given some time I'll have a sweet little tree. 

I don't expect to get any fruit off it, since this is zone 7 and it probably wouldn't survive winters out of doors but it'll make a nice potted exotic for the porch in summer. If I ever have a green house or live in a warmer climate I can plant it and perhaps one day pluck a juicy grapefruit from its branches and boast that I grew it from a seed.

07 June 2013

Happy Birthday, Celia Fiennes

Today marks the 351st anniversary of Celia Fiennes's birth. Someone recently asked me what made me decide to study her for my dissertation. The quick answer was that I found her descriptions of country house gardens compared to contemporary engravings of the same gardens rather interesting. That and because my tutor said it would make a good topic to study, which it was, but the more I read and re-read her diary, the more reasons presented themselves for studying the life of a traveling noblewoman born 306 years before I was.

As I began reading her travel diary, it dawned on me that I had visited many of the same places she had and I also kept a diary of my travels. Starting in 2003 I've visited England almost every year to visit gardens, sometimes with a trusty travel buddy (I'm lookin' at you, Cat!), sometimes with a tour group, even once for a working holiday. Each time I start planning a trip I buy a new Moleskine blank notebook, and start filling it with maps, locations of gardens on the itinerary, B&Bs, and contact information.

Itinerary for my historic garden tour 2012, as part of my MA Garden History. Most of the destinations were places that Celia had visited. One stop happened to be at the Garden Museum in London to hear a panel discussion on gardeners' favorite gardens. I got autographs from Mary Ann Robb from Cothay Manor; Alan Titchmarsh; and Fergus Garrett from Great Dixter (2012)

Celia's diaries don't have drawings or maps although there is a curiously blank half page in one of them that leads one to speculate that she had intended to draw or paste something there but sadly we'll never know what it was.

My photo of Celia Fiennes diary manuscript (Broughton Castle, 2012)

Celia was born June 7, 1662 to Nathaniel Fiennes, second son of the 1st Viscount Saye and Sele and his second wife Frances. He was a Colonel in the Civil War Parliamentarian Army who was tried and sentenced to death for surrendering the city of Bristol to a much larger army lead by Prince Rupert. Luckily he was exiled to the continent and his death sentence was eventually commuted. He returned to England and served as a member of Cromwell's parliament but then retired, bought the manor at Newton Tony and settled down to the quiet life of gentleman farmer and manorial lord.

Newton Tony was (and still is) a small village in Wiltshire near Salisbury.  The river Bourne (which is a Middle English word for small stream) runs through the middle of the village. On one of her journeys from Newton Tony to Winchester she remarks, 'The Little raines I had in the morning before I Left Newtontony made the wayes very slippery' . When I visited in September the little river was dry but heavy winter rains will cause it to flood, sometimes right up to the doorsteps of the thatched cottages nearby.

Thatched cottages dating to the 17th century and the dry river Bourne at Newton Tony (2012)

Being of noble birth enabled Celia to visit many of the illustrious country houses around England. Several were owned by relatives and she was a frequent visitor. What is so remarkable about her travels is that she undertook them in a time when travel abroad (meaning 5 miles from your doorstep) simply wasn't commonplace, especially for an unmarried woman. England in the 17th and early 18th centuries was a wilderness, with none of the smooth roads and neat hedgerows that greet the UK tourist today, yet with all the hardships accompanying travel on horseback she managed in one year to log 'about 1045 miles of which I did not go above a hundred in the Coach.'

Many of the hedgerows she talks about are the result of enclosure. The hedges were planted to mark one's property boundaries as agriculture moved away from the medieval Feudal model to a more capitalist and commercial one. Celia sometimes traveled whole days between miles of hedgerows without being able to see the surrounding country, the hedges were so high. Some of the B and C roads in the country are still like this and make for an exciting car ride, especially when you round a blind curve to find a lorry bearing down on you.

I've made it a goal to follow in Celia's footsteps and visit all the places she has. It will take some years, unless someone wants to give me a really big check so I can do it all in one go (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, hint, hint), but visiting the country houses and seeing them - some still exactly as Celia describes them - is such a fantastic feeling, like you really can travel back in time. I wish she could accompany me so I could ask her how things really were back then, and to see her reaction as she recognizes (or not) the places she once described in such detail.

I'd also love to ask her what she thinks about her diary being considered such an important historical resource to so many scholars. I'm sure she never meant it to be published for she had the connections and opportunities to do so during her lifetime if she wished, yet her diaries survived thanks to her family and made their way into academic consciousness. Since there is so little known about her, I've started researching her biography. No easy feat, let me tell you, but I've found a few interesting documents that shed more light on who she was and hope to be able to pull them together with more information about her travels at some point.

For now, I salute her pioneering spirit and look forward to my next trip across the pond to follow her travels. I leave you with her own reasons for traveling, which are sage words even by today's standards, no matter where you live:

Now thus much without vanity may be asserted of the subject, that if all persons, both Ladies, much more Gentlemen, would spend some of their tyme in Journeys to visit their native Land, and be curious to Inform themselves and make observations of the pleasant prospects, good buildings, different produces and manufactures of each place, with the variety of sports and recreations they are adapt to, would be a souveraign remedy to cure or preserve ffrom these Epidemick diseases of vapours, should I add Laziness? -it would also fform such an Idea of England, add much to its Glory and Esteem in our minds and cure the evil Itch of overvalueing fforeign parts; at least ffurnish them with an Equivalent to entertain strangers when amongst us, Or jnform them when abroad of their native Country, which has been often a Reproach to the English, ignorance and being strangers to themselves.

Nay the Ladies might have matter not unworthy their observation, soe subject for conversation, within their own compass in each county to which they relate, and thence studdy now to be serviceable to their neighbours especially the poor among whome they dwell, which would spare them the uneasye thoughts how to pass away tedious dayes, and tyme would not be a burthen when not at a card or dice table, and the ffashions and manners of fforeign parts less minded or desired. But much more requisite is it for Gentlemen in gl service of their country at home or abroad, in town or country, Especially those that serve in parliament to know and jnform themselves ye nature of Land, ye Genius of the Inhabitants, so as to promote and improve Manufacture and trade suitable to each and encourage all projects tending thereto, putting in practice all Laws made for each particular good, maintaining their priviledges, procuring more as requisite; but to their shame it must be own'd many if not most are Ignorant of anything but the name of the place for which they serve in parliament; how then can they speake for or promote their good or Redress their Grievances ? But ... herein I have described what have come within my knowledge either by view and reading, or relation from others which according to my conception have faithfully Rehearsed, but where I have mistaken in any form or subject matter I easily submitt to a correction and will enter such Erratas in a supplement annext to ye Book of some particulars since remark'd; and shall conclude with a hearty wish and recommendation to all, but Especially my own Sex, the studdy of those things which tends to Improve the mind and makes our Lives pleasant and comfortable as well as proffitable in all the Stages and Stations of our Lives, and render suffering & age supportable & Death less fformidable and a future State more happy.

Happy Birthday, Celia!

04 June 2013

When in Rome, Part III

It's Tornado Season here in the Mid-South and a series of murderous storms has recently battered Oklahoma. Thanks to the modern marvel that is social media, home videos and photos of the deadly tornadoes allow you to witness the calamity and share in the misery of those affected from the safety of your own mobile device. We've become a society so reliant on recording events via cell phone that I fear we'll lose our ability to observe and relay information any other way. Why worry about being able to describe something when you can hold out your phone and show a picture?

Now imagine if you could read an eyewitness account of, say, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. written with perfect clarity 25 years after the event? Well, you can, and that should really blow your mind (no pun intended). If you studied the classics you may have heard the names Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. The elder Pliny was an author, naturalist, and natural philosopher. In his spare time he was also the naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian. He died on that volcanic day, leading his ships on a rescue mission to save the people on the coast from the disaster. Many of them survived, he did not.

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L: Pliny the Elder R: Pliny the Younger (wiki)

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, the younger Pliny, followed his uncle into the service of the Roman court. He was a lawyer, magistrate and author, raised and educated by his uncle who no doubt taught him the art of observation in his natural studies. He was staying at his Uncle's house on the northern tip of the Bay of Naples when the mountain exploded. He was 18 years old. Imagine the impression such a spectacle would make. In a letter to the historian Tacitus, penned some 25 years later, he describes the early stages of the eruption:

"My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it."

Artist's rendition of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as described by Pliny the Younger.
["The Eruption of Vesuvius as seen from Naples, October 1822" from V. Day & Son. In G. Julius Poullet Scrope, Masson, 1864. Historical Draw from George Julius Poulett Scrope (1797-1876)].

Notice he described the ash plume as being "like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches". It's this description that is the reason for the umbrella pine in the herb garden at the Getty Villa. The Villa is impressive not only for being an art museum housing Getty's vast collection of ancient Greek and Roman antiquities, it's also an architecturally accurate replica of a 1st century Roman villa, with gardens composed of historically accurate plants, right down to the herb garden.

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The umbrella shaped canopy of Pinus pinea (2013)

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The Getty Villa herb garden, with the Umbrella Pine, also called Stone Pine, at the far end. (2013)

The herb garden was created to resemble a working garden as it would have been 2,000 years ago. While the climate in So Cal allows for genus from all over the world to thrive, Getty chose only historically accurate plants that would have been found in a Roman garden. Not only were these plants useful for food or medicine, many of them had sacred associations cherished by the people of that ancient culture. Here's a run down of just a few that I saw growing at the Getty Villa:

The Stone Pine, apart from being the basis of Pliny's description of the volcanic eruption that so dramatically destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, is the source of pine nuts, and was considered by the ancient Greeks to be the property of the sea god Poseidon since they grow on the sea shore and the lumber was used for ship building. At the Getty Villa you can pretend you're a very rich Roman, because if you were a Roman of the Pliny's standing, and you had a seaside villa, you would have had an Umbrella Pine in your garden.

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The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), with their distinctive feather duster shape, is where dates come from, which can also be made into date wine. The dry leaves were used to weave baskets (beware the sharp spines on the petiole) and the trunks were hewn to make fishing boats. The genus name derives from the Greek word for the date palm used by Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder, φοῖνιξ (phoinix) or φοίνικος (phoinikos). It most likely referred to the Phoenicians; Phoenix, the son of Amyntor and Cleobule in Homer's Iliad; or the phoenix, the sacred bird of Ancient Egypt. The species name comes from the Ancient Greek dáktulos "date" and the stem of the Greek verb ferō "I bear".

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Grapes thrive in the Mediterranean and were an important food source. Conveniently, the fruit was and is ideal for making - you guessed it - wine. Those Romans did love their wine.
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At the Getty Villa the grape arbor is made using ancient techniques such as wrapping the structure with new vines which then grow to become a living rope holding the posts and beams together.

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Detail of the grape arbor with vines purposefully wrapped around the posts and beams. (2013)
What's that? You see metal bolts? Well, sure you do. It's the 21st century and there are liability issues with having a structure that people walk beneath in a public garden. But think about this: the Romans invented arches which enabled them to build all those impressive aqueducts, they invented concrete, they even invented the steam engine. They certainly knew how to manipulate precious metals into exquisite jewelry and lesser metals into swords, armor, and deadly accessories on chariots so who's to say they didn't also make metal bolts? Food for thought...
The Romans used herbs for medicine, scent, cooking, even in myth and magic. Lavender attracted bees which made delicious and healing honey. The busy little bees were also useful for pollinating the garden flowers, including the citrus trees, which were introduced to the Med by Alexander the Great.

Portrait of the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC - 17/18 AD) wearing his crown of Laurel, by Luca Signorelli (1475-1523).

Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) was planted around homes and temples, believed to ward off lightning. Laurel wreaths were a symbol of elevated status in ancient Greece and the Romans adopted and adapted this symbolism so that it became a symbol of victory. Crowns of laurel, both real and fashioned of gold, adorned the heads of emperors, conquering generals, poets and the learned upon receiving their degrees. In fact, the French word baccalauréat comes from the Latin bacca, a berry, and laureus, of the bay laurel. The leaves are used in cooking, either fresh or dried, and make a fine seasoning for soups, stews, and pasta dishes. The phrase 'to rest on one's laurels', meaning to be satisfied with past successes, comes from the ancient tradition of being awarded the laurel crown.

In addition to a crown of laurel victorious gladiators were also given olive oil, an extremely valuable and highly prized commodity. Pressed from the edible fruit of olive trees (Olea europea), the versatile oil was used for cooking, cleaning, heating and lighting lamps.

The quince, Cydonia oblonga, native to rocky slopes and woodland margins in South-west Asia, Turkey and Iran, which were under Roman rule in the 1st century, produced an edible fruit (not to be confused with its relative, Chaenomeles, the flowering Quince) that was associated with the goddess Aphrodite. Our friend Pliny the Elder mentioned an edible variety and brides were said to nibble a quince fruit to sweeten their kiss and improve fertility. The furry leaves of lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) was used for bandages and, if you're in a pinch, makes a very soft natural toilet paper (or so I've read).

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Acanthus leaves and the flowers of species tulips adorn this column at the Getty Villa (2013).

Plants and flowers were important to Roman culture and featured prominently in their architecture and decor. The leafy motif on Corinthian columns was first used by the Greeks but was adopted into Roman architecture and mentioned by Vitruvius (born c. 80–70 BC, died after c. 15 BC) in his Ten Books on Architecture. Flowers grown in the gardens were represented in the frescoes that decorated villa walls.

Red anemones and white species tulips growing in the Peristyle Garden are included in the frescoes decorating the peristyle walls (2013; click to embiggen).
These give just a taste of the kinds of plants, their uses and associations in Roman times. For a comprehensive list of the plants found in the Getty gardens, visit the Getty Villa website. Nature was undoubtedly a familiar entity to the Romans, and was well observed as is evident in ancient writing (take the Song of Songs, for example).
It would be interesting to travel into the future and see how many of the eyewitness accounts of our modern disasters survive, and the information they contain. Would they just be images and some media text full of facts and figures, or will someone write it down some years later, recalling details and using elements of nature to describe them? As I was reviewing my photos for this article, I couldn't help noticing that the twisted trunks of these plum trees looked like tornadoes, rising from the ground in a tortured spiral to a spreading canopy floating above.

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For information on visiting the Getty Villa, visit their website. For more on the design and use of Roman gardens, see And if you live in the Mid-South USA, heed the warnings and be careful when those storms hit!

18 May 2013

When in Rome, Part II

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Ancient Rome! My tutor wrote that 'the Empire was marked by extravagant excess with intervals of reform, brilliance, chaos, madness and terror.' The Roman Empire was fabulous for absorbing elements of other cultures and making them Roman. Etruscans, Greeks, Egyptians and all sorts lent their cultures to the Romans. Anything goes, as they say. The Doctor described it as being like Soho, only bigger. At its height the Empire spread across most of modern day Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.

This map shows the greatest extent of the Roman empire c117 AD
As they went forth and conquered, so they also revered, and the religious traditions and figures of other cultures were added to the Roman melting pot. Greek gods were given new Roman names and just as Egyptian pharaohs were viewed as deities, Caesars likewise became gods. There appeared to be a god for every occasion, necessitating the building of temples and shrines, which festooned the Roman cities, towns, even the roads. Suburban homes had household gods, a resident spirit (genius) associated with a particular place (loci). Mixing the original Latin with English, 'the genius of the place' becomes a familiar term to students of landscape design but rather than invoking the ancient Roman philosophy, modern practitioners are most likely quoting 18th century poet Alexander Pope who admonished designers to "consult the genius of the place in all"*.

The Getty Villa does a fine job of honoring the genius loci in its design. Nestled in a narrow coastal valley, with a climate very much like that enjoyed in the Gulf of Naples, it combines elements of Roman villa and town gardens that look and feel as much at home in Southern California as they would on the Neapolitan coast.

Plan of the Getty Villa 1. Atrium; 2. Inner Peristyle Garden; 3. East Garden; 4. Outer Peristyle Garden; 5. Herb Garden; 6. Amphitheatre (

Roman villas were essentially country retreats for the wealthy elite. Thanks to Pliny the Younger's letters, we have a good idea how these villas were used and decorated. Getty did such a splendid job of siting and designing his Villa that Pliny's description of his own could very well apply to both:

You are surprised that I am so fond of my Laurentine...but you will cease to wonder when I acquaint you with the beauty of the villa, the advantages of its situation, and the extensive view of the sea-coast...The courtyard in front is plain, but not mean, through which you enter porticoes...enclosing a small but cheerful area between...The gestatio [an avenue for exercise either on horseback or in a horse-drawn vehicle] is bordered round with box, and, where that is decayed, with rosemary." (Letter XXII to Gallus)

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The Outer Peristyle Garden looking out to the Pacific Ocean (2013)

Dwellings in towns such as Pompeii and Herculaneum were walled and generally without windows for privacy, security, and to keep out the stench from the streets. Practically all houses had gardens, even the most humble. If you were rich, you had several. Upon entering the home of a Roman town dweller you would find an atrium, a family space in which the central portion of the roof is open to the sky for ventilation. There might also be a corresponding basin formed in the floor beneath to catch rain water.
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The Atrium at Getty Villa. The floor basin is covered by this sculpture. (2013)

Beyond the atrium is the peristyle, a paved enclosure surrounded by columns. The open space permitted fresh air into the house and illuminated the rooms surrounding the peristyle court. At Getty's Villa plants, flowers, and fountains decorate the court just as they did in the original at Herculaneum. The playing fountains and birdsong soothe the senses, imitating nature in an artfully contrived setting. The cool shade of the marble corridors give relief from the midday sun and make this a place one would want to spend a day in repose, away from the noise of the city. 

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View of the Inner Peristyle Garden from within the Atrium (2013)
These corner fountains are replicas of those found in ancient Roman ruins (2013)

In the first century B.C., the Roman architect and writer Vitruvius dedicated his treatise on architecture and design to the Roman Emperor Augustus. He put forth the idea that design must incorporate the qualities of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas – firmness (technology), utility (function), and delight (aesthetic beauty). His prescription for a peristyle was quite specific:

Peristyles, lying athwart, should be one third longer than they are deep, and their columns as high as the colonnades are wide. Intercolumnations of peristyles should be not less than three nor more than four times the thickness of the columns. (Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture).
Romans were nothing if not big on regularity.

If your station in life prohibited such columned extravagance, you could paint a fresco on one or more walls to give the illusion of a much larger and grander garden. Even the columns could be painted on.

A garden fresco decorating the wall of a home in Pompeii (British Museum)

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Restored fresco at the Getty Villa, Outer Peristyle Garden (2013)

Another space for growing flowers, vegetables, and medicinal plants was called a xystus. Like the peristyle courts, the xystus might be decorated with statues, water features, or a pavilion. The East Garden at the Getty Villa is what I would consider to be the xystus, and features two fountains: one central font, raised high, and a niche fountain, replicated from one found at Pompeii decorated in a mosaic of shells and tiles. 

East Garden at Getty Villa (2013)

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Pompeii niche fountain replica with masks of Leonidas and Pericles (2013) 
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Mosaic detail (2013)

The Outer Peristyle Garden is the Villa's grandest peristyle court, with a 200-foot long pool, surrounding covered peristyle walk providing shelter from the elements, and a splendid view to the sea. The Roman love of orderliness is seen in the symmetricality of the garden and use of repeated shapes - the upright columns, rounded tree canopies echoed in shorn box balls, the placement of statues and busts on plinths, even the rectangular arches formed by the peristyle repeat, drawing the eye around the site. The dominant color here is green with a few accents making this a calming, soothing space where the villa owner can escape hectic Roman city life.

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The Outer Peristyle Garden, looking east (2013)

Hold on. I almost forgot - we're not in Ancient Rome, we're in 21st century Los Angeles. If you take away the tourists with their audio guides, mobile phones, and funky modern togas, not to mention the cafe and gift shop, wandering along the shaded corridors of the Getty Villa gives you a pretty good idea what being in a real Roman villa garden was like.

In Part 3 I'll tell you about the plants in these gardens and their significance in Roman times.

If you're in London between now and September, you can pop by the British Museum and check out their exhibit on Life and Death of Pompeii and Herculaneum featuring lectures, presentations, and objects from both cities. Preserved as they were by volcanic material, much of what we know about first century Roman life was found in these important cities. For tickets and visiting hours, go to the museum website.

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The Getty Villa herb garden (2013)
Eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope wrote many epistles with his views on garden design. The following excerpt is from Epistle IV To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington c. 1738, and has been quoted in countless texts on landscape and garden design:
*Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

06 May 2013

When In Rome...Part I

...or, at least Los Angeles...

One of the frustrations of studying a subject like garden history is not being able to hop in a time machine and visit gardens created thousands of years ago which no longer exist. How I would have loved to have joined the Doctor and Donna* on their visit to Pompeii in 79 AD to see some of the gardens of the ancient Romans.

OK, well, maybe not, since they were there on Volcano Day.

Basically, run.

Among the villages destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on that fateful day was Herculaneum. It, along with four other villages, was destroyed when the mountain exploded, sending 'superheated pyroclastic material'** raining down upon it (Dr. Evil would incorrectly call it 'liquid hot mag-MA'. Yes, you just read that in his voice with your pinkie to your mouth, didn't you!). Buried beneath 20M (50-60 feet) of ash, the town was better preserved than its more famous neighbor. It was rediscovered in the early 1700's and later excavations revealed much of the city still in tact, including the lavish seaside villa belonging to Julius Caesar's father-in-law Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Since its rediscovery, it has been called Villa dei Papiri due to the number of carbonized papyrus scrolls found there.

Plan of the Villa dei Papiri, village of Herculaneum, destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD (attrib)

Fast forward several hundred years to the 20th century California seaside town of Pacific Palisades near Malibu. There, a one J. Paul Getty was amassing a fortune in oil and cultivating a keen interest in art and history. As he traveled throughout Europe, he began collecting art and artifacts from ancient Mediterranean civilizations, displaying them at his own lavish home overlooking the Pacific. Getty's collection continued to grow so in the early 1970's he decided to build a museum that would allow him to showcase it to the public in the perfect context.

The Outer Peristyle Garden at the Getty Villa (2013)

Getty consulted with architect Stephen Garrett on the design of his new museum, which he based on the plan of the Villa dei Papiri as published in Le Antichità di Ercolano (The Antiquities of Herculaneum). Nestled in a deep hillside valley, construction of Getty's Villa began in the early 1970's. Although Getty now lived in England, he eagerly oversaw every step of the process. Sadly, he died only two years after it opened, having never seen it.

The Getty Villa, as it's now called, opened in 1974, an exact replica of the peristyle garden from Villa dei Papiri. The overall campus combines architectural elements representing Roman homes from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Aplontis, all destroyed by the volcano. Four distinct plant communities comprising about 300 varieties live at the Villa: native (to Italy), those from similar climates, So Cal and Mediterranean natives, and species that are historically accurate to ancient Rome. All give the Villa a feeling of authenticity that should characterize every historic garden recreation.

According to his architect, Getty 'had very clear views about what he wanted to achieve here. He wanted a person that came here to get some idea of what a villa way back 2,000 years ago would actually have felt like'.

Well, it seems we can travel back in time after all.

The central pool of the Outer Peristyle Garden (2013)

Stay tuned for Part II where I'll talk more about the individual gardens and how they represent the suburban gardens found in ancient Roman cities. In the meantime, enjoy this video about the History of the Getty Villa.

Admission to the Getty Villa is free but timed tickets must be reserved in advance. There is a fee for parking. For more information and a calendar of events, visit The Getty Villa website.

*Leave it to me to include a Doctor Who reference in a piece about Roman gardens! (Doctor Who, series 4, episode 2: The Fires of Pompeii)

** A pyroclastic flow is described by the US Geological Survey as ‘A ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano as fast as 100 km/hour or more. The temperature within a pyroclastic flow may be greater than 500° C, sufficient to burn and carbonize wood. Once deposited, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments may deform (flatten) and weld together because of the intense heat and the weight of the overlying material’.

01 April 2013

No Foolin': April 2013 History Carnival

Welcome to the April, 2013 edition of the History Carnival, a monthly showcase of the best history blogging there is. I'm pleased as punch to host the 120th carnival for the first time here, so while the kids are eagerly gobbling the last of those candy eggs, grab a balloon, some cotton candy or nibble the ears of a chocolate bunny, and see what there is to see!

Nominations fell into a few distinct categories: Medical, Social/Political, Food, and what I considered Entertainment.

To kick things off, and in time for the 125th anniversary of the Matchgirls' Strike of 1888 later this year, Natalie Bennett over at Philobiblon writes about Matchwomen – founders of New Unionism. A new book by Louise Raw called The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History tells a different side of the traditional tale; of the young women who unionized and got what they wanted, thus kicking off a major part of British political history.

Over at the Women's History Network Blog they've written about Women, Politics, Parliaments – Bringing about Democracy, an informative post about the democratic representation of women in the Australian Parliament while the UK History of Parliament Blog discusses the Welsh representation in Parliament during the Cromwellian Protectorate in Welsh Electoral Arithmetic, 1640-1660.

Apparently, the state of the economy over in Britain isn't any better off than it is here in the US, as James Pennock writes over at History Matters in his post called Taxing Times in 2013 and 1013: The Anglo-Saxon State We're In. Funny how history repeats itself, innit?

Quarry Hill Flats, Leeds: ‘They didn’t get it wrong – well not for me anyway!’ at Municipal Dreams talks about the sense of community at the now non-existent rehousing scheme in Leeds. Built to house the working class, the multi-storey flats boasted amenities that modern middle class apartment flats don't have today. Deemed a failure, the development was bulldozed in the '70s. My humble opinion is that much of what was subsequently built in the '70s should be bulldozed.

Paul Doolan at Thinkshop writes about Collective Memory, how it is "manufactured and distributed, passed on and passed down, through huge variety of media", how we as individuals and a culture are shaped by it, and how collective memory for one culture can be a memory of another kind for a different culture. Something to think about in our ever shrinking global community.

Just about every American school kid learns something about Johnny Appleseed but what my class was never told was that his popularity was due to his growing of cider apples. Being a fan of a good pint of hard cider myself, I was interested to learn of this cheap and cheerful drink's role in Hard Cider and the Election of 1840, as told by William Kerrigan over at American Orchard. Cheers!

As an excellent segue into the history of food, we learn about Early Modern Comfort Foods from Amanda Herbert at The Recipes Project. She traces the route of the Brigham account book which passed from owner to owner and crossed the Atlantic, collecting recipes for familiar and exotic foods. Having arrived in the New World, the familiar recipes gave comfort to New World settlers, who also imported many of the culinary plants with which they created these homely dishes.

Using a metaphor of cheese-making and maggots, historian Niamh Cullen writes about  Carlo Ginzburg and the ‘euphoria of ignorance’: Thinking about how to do history. Ginzburg uses the metaphor from 16th century Italian miller Menocchio to illustrate a new way of looking at historical research.

Everyone knows that sex sells, and a clever use of this maxim at The Renaissance Mathematicus on how to Pep up your sex life with a pinch of salt by Thony C. hooks you in and introduces you to the biography of a one Dr. Thomas Moffett who wrote Healths Improvement: or, Rules Comprising and Discovering The Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing all sorts of Food Used in this Nation in 1655. The good Dr. co-compiled the Pharmacopaeia Londinensis, later transcribed by Nicholas Culpepper, the apothecary, whose Herbal I enjoy perusing. As a bit of trivia, Dr. Moffett's daughter attained lasting nursery rhyme fame as Little Miss Muffet due to her father's work as an arachnologist.

Medically speaking, The Coolest Thing You’ll See All Day: The Renaissance Anatomy “Pop-Up Book” comes from Jennifer Sherman Roberts at Out of Time. I wish they'd thought of this when I had to take 7th grade biology. And don't we pine for the days when library books carried plates asking readers to 'report to the local librarian any case of infectious diseases occurring in the house while a library book is in (your) possession'?  Infectious Pleasures at Centre for Material Texts will regale you with the story of just such a book.

If you want to amaze and amuse your friends at parties, Jennifer Ouellette at Cocktail Party Physics tells you how in Casting the Yarrow: An 18th Century Method for Calculating Pi. It seems a one Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, figured it out. He also wrote Histoire Naturelle which inspired Darwin's Origin of Species.

Finally, for sheer historical entertainment, read about  Lord and Lady Grange; Or, Why It Is a Great Pity the 18th Century Never Got Around to Inventing Reality TV by Undine at Strange Company. Dr. Phil can't hold a candle to these two. If your taste runs a bit more modern military, try  Five D-Day Veterans Talkin' Saving Private Ryan at Oral History Audiobooks.

Thanks for coming to the Carnival! Stay tuned for next month's carnival at The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History. To submit your nominations, go to The History Carnival.

13 March 2013

Tweet, Twote, Twat

A former colleague of mine recently graced Facebook with an F-bomb laced rant disparaging Twitter users and our beloved hashtag (#). He wanted to know when it started being called a 'hashtag' since it's always been the 'pound', insisted that it go back to being the 'pound' sign, then proceeded to tell all us Twitter users, in no uncertain terms, what to go do with ourselves.

All I had to say was: #howrude!

Actually, I was a bit surprised, as this guy is part of the generation of Digital Natives - those who have grown up with technology and its associated on line networking sites, as opposed to those of us who remember social networking being a series of hand written letters sent through the post or notes surreptitiously passed in class, lengthy phone calls on phones with lengthy cords, and occasionally cans with string. Aside from a refresher on exercising professionalism in social media, the post made it clear that my former colleague could do with a lesson on Twitter and the history of the humble hashtag. At the very least, he could do with a thesaurus.
The hashtag, or # on your keyboard, has been used in computer coding for longer than my fuming friend has been alive. It's used to mark metadata, enabling information to be grouped and searched by a key word or short phrase. Americans know the '#' symbol as the 'pound' key on our telephones and its infuriating use in automated phone systems that entreat us to enter our information "followed by the pound key" only so we can sit on hold for several months until a real person answers and asks for the same information all over again. Similar systems in England say, "then press the hash key". Rightly so, since in England and most of the eastern hemisphere the pound symbol is universally acknowledged to be '£', the symbol for UK currency, the Pound Sterling.

To be blind is bad, but worse is to have eyes and not see. Had my articulate acquaintance ever travelled much or bothered to keep abreast of current trends in social media he would understand the difference between 'pound' and 'hashtag' rather than assault our sensibilities with an excessive use of colorful metaphors (bonus points if you can name the cultural sci-fi phenom from whence that phrase came).

If you're a Twitter user, you will be well acquainted with the hashtag, which has gained omnipresence in social media since its first use on Twitter in 2007. At first it was a way to follow real time news associated with a natural disaster. It has since blossomed into a way to categorize everything from Justin Bieber's hair to breaking world news (some wretched souls actually view those as being one and the same). There are now guidelines for hashtag etiquette, suggestions for the appropriate length of a hashtag, even 'hashjacking' (jumping into a preexisting conversation about a trending hashtag to promote your product or services). According to, "The primary purpose of a hashtag is to bring conversations on the same topic into a single thread to make it convenient for information consumers to view and compare ideas." Such is the mania for hashtags that someone's even gone and named their baby Hashtag (oh, the poor child!).

Here's how it works: a Tweeter - if they're not too verbose and use up their 140 character allowance - can enter the hashtag followed by a word or phrase, such as: #Olympics, #royalbaby, #Trees, #ReplaceMovieTitlesWithPope, #FlowerShow, #meme, #DoctorWho, #onthisday and so forth. The hashtag can also be incorporated into the tweet text but beware of overuse that makes the message difficult to read. Once those hashtags are in place I can go on Twitter, enter a search word and, providing my search word has been hashed (not sure if that's the proper technical term, I just made it up), all the tweets and topics associated with that hashtag are mine for the reading. Like so:

I can always tell when people are confused with social media conventions since the hashtag isn't used on Facebook, yet some people insist on applying hashtags to their Facebook posts. Either they're confused or they're using an on-line social media manager that allows you to enter a status once and upload it to all your social media accounts simultaneously. Hashtags simply have no meaning on Facebook, I'm sorry to say.

I'll admit I was late to the Twitter party, joining in earnest when I met a merry bunch of historians in London who all seemed to be tweeting (I'm looking at you, London Historians!) and boy, am I glad I got there in the end. It's been a great tool for keeping up with history and garden (and garden history) issues and trends around the world, for promoting my blog, and for supporting friends' businesses. I follow an equal number of foreign and domestic people and institutions and have to say that we Americans are lagging when it comes to using social media most effectively. Attitudes such as that so clearly expressed by my former colleague do nothing to recommend us to the wider world, either in our understanding of this growing technological phenomenon or as residents in the ever shrinking global community.

So strongly do I believe in the growing use and popularity of this thing called social media in promoting our businesses and ideas that I even created a voluntary position for myself to aid a friend who's too busy to keep up with all this stuff: Social Media Butterfly. So why not join the party? Come on over to Twitter and follow me @dawiles. I promise I won't go overboard with the hashtags. #Much

25 February 2013

Sir Christopher Wren - Rebuilder of London

Today marks the 290th anniversary of Sir Christopher Wren's death. Hailed as one of England's most distinguished architects and largely responsible for rebuilding my beloved London after the Great Fire of 1666, I thought it would be only proper to pay a small tribute to his genius here.

christopher-wren-1-sized nndbdotcom
Sir Christopher Wren with St. Paul's in the background.  (attrib)
Born 20 October 1632 in Wiltshire, Wren was well educated, attending Westminster School when his father moved the family to Windsor, then at Oxford. He excelled in maths and sciences, and was appointed Professor of Astronomy first at Gresham College in London then at Oxford in 1661. He was very highly regarded by Isaac Newton, among others. In 1662 he was one of the founding members of the Royal Society.

Also keen on physics and engineering, Wren became interested in architecture and in 1664 was invited to design the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Next came a commission to design a chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge and from then on architecture was his main profession. He never forgot his scientific roots, though. His Monument to the Great Fire of London - a free-standing fluted Doric column that rises 202 ft (62 m) - was designed to be used as a zenith telescope.

After the Great Fire decimated most of Medieval London, Wren created an ambitious rebuilding plan for the entire city. He designed and rebuilt 51 city churches including the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral that once loomed over the city. Miraculously surviving the Blitz during WW2 and though now obscured by high rises and waterfront buildings on the Thames, St. Paul's still stands guard over the city and when you're standing near it, it hits you just how massive and extraordinary a structure it is.

South face of St. Paul's Cathedral as seen from the top deck of the No. 15 bus riding west.
Wren was created Surveyor of the Royal Works in 1669 which gave him control over all government building in London, and he was knighted in 1673. In 1682 Wren was commissioned to design a hospital in Chelsea for retired soldiers. It still serves as a retirement home for retired soldiers and the internationally acclaimed Chelsea Flower Show is held on the hospital grounds. His other works include The Royal Observatory and the Royal Naval Hospital, both at Greenwich, as well as renovations and expansions to the palaces of Hampton Court and Kensington. He died, after a distinguished and no doubt exhausting career, on 25 February 1723. His gravestone in St Paul's Cathedral features the Latin inscription which translates: 'If you seek his memorial, look about you.'

So, to commemorate his great and lasting contribution to architecture and the most splendid city in the world, I've put together this collection of images of Wren's surviving buildings that I've seen. When I took some of these photos, I didn't realize they were Wren's work until I went inside or looked it up later (I'm not an architectural historian, is my excuse, but I'm learning!). In verifying place names I've come to the conclusion that one simply cannot wander London without bumping into Wren.

St Martins Ludgate
St. Martins Ludgate on Ludgate Hill near St. Paul's. Rebuilt 1677-84.
St Dunstans in the East
St Dunstan-in-the-East, located midway between The Tower of London and London Bridge. Rebuilt 1688-71. Severely damaged in the Blitz, only Wren's tower and a few walls survive. The ruins have been made into a lovely public garden.

Sheldonian Theatre
The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 1664-68.

Royal Observatory Greenwich
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 1675-76.

St. Bride's Church on Fleet Street, 1672. The tiered spire, added in 1701-3, is the inspiration for centuries of wedding cakes!

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The remains of St. Mary Aldermanbury. Gutted by a bomb during the blitz, the shell was dismantled and all the stones moved to Westminster College in Fulton, MO where the church was reconstructed and dedicated as a memorial to Winston Churchill.

Christ Church, Greyfriars, near St. Paul's. Rebuilt after the Great Fire, destroyed by enemy bombing December, 1940 . The former nave area is now a public garden and memorial.

Kensington Palace, formerly Nottingham House, was extensively enlarged by Wren when William and Mary acquired it in 1689.

The west face of St. Paul's. On the south face there is a phoenix carved in the stone with the Latin word 'Resurgum': I Shall Rise Again. And rise again it did.

Inside the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

St. Magnus the Martyr, at London Bridge, as seen from the top of The Monument, 1671-87.

Façade of Hampton Court Palace designed by Wren for William and Mary.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Royal Naval College, originally constructed as Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, and home to my Alma mater, 1696 - 1712. I felt smarter just standing there.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London, 1671-77
Tower of St. Alban, Wood Street, 1685. The church was partially destroyed during the Blitz. Only the tower now remains and is a private dwelling in a traffic island.