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!