May 25, 2022 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Miss Amanda Palmer, George Orwell, The Ripley Garden, Potted History by Catherine Horwood, and Louisa Yeomans King


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Historical Events

1803 Birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson, American transcendentalist, essayist, philosopher, and poet.
After graduating from Harvard, Ralph decided to go by his middle name, Waldo.

He was beloved by his fellow Harvard classmates, and many became his lifelong friends. Waldo served as his class poet. 

Waldo met his first wife, Ellen, on Christmas Day six years later. Two years later, he lost her to tuberculosis. Her death eventually made him a wealthy man — although Waldo had to sue his inlaws to get his inheritance.

After losing Ellen, Waldo traveled to Europe and visited the Royal Botanical Garden while he was in Paris. The experience was a revelation to him. There Waldo began to see connections between different plant species thanks to Jussieu's natural way of organizing the garden.

The American historian and biographer Robert D. Richardson wrote about this period of heightened awareness for Waldo. He wrote,

Emerson's moment of insight into the interconnectedness of things in the Jardin des Plantes was a moment of almost visionary intensity that pointed him away from theology and toward science.


When he returned to the states, Waldo became friends with other forward thinkers and writers of his time: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle.

In 1835, Waldo married again. His second wife was named Lydia Jackson. Waldo changed her name to Lidian, and he also had many pet names for her, like Queenie and Asia - but she always called him "Mr. Emerson."

Around that time, Waldo began to think differently about the world and his perspective on life. As the son of a minister, his move away from religion and societal beliefs was quite impressive. In 1836, Waldo published his philosophy of transcendentalism in an essay he titled "Nature." He wrote:

Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word;
but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but [a] language put together into a most significant and universal sense.
I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.


Waldo also advised,

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.


As Waldo grew older, he immensely enjoyed gardening. His time in the garden also proved revelatory. Waldo had hired workers to help him in the landscape as a younger man. As a mature man, he recognized the benefits of exercise and a feeling of satisfaction from doing garden work all by himself. Waldo wrote,

When I go into the garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and [good] health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.


He also quipped,

All my hurts my garden spade can heal.

In the twilight of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson was invited to join a group of nine intellectuals on a camping trip in the Adirondacks. The trip had one mission: to connect with nature. Waldo's traveling companions included Harvard's naturalist Louis Agassiz, the great botanist James Russell Lowell, and the American naturalist Jeffries Wyman. They had a marvelous time.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote,

The landscape belongs to the person who looks at it.


And another Waldo quote is a personal favorite,

The Earth laughs in flowers.


Finally, here's a little prayer Waldo wrote to thank God for the gifts of nature.

For flowers that bloom about our feet;
For tender grass, so fresh, so sweet;
For song of bird, and hum of bee;
For all things fair we hear or see,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee!


1909 On this day, Miss Amanda Palmer, a teacher at Wilmington Normal School in Wilmington, North Carolina, shared her experience of taking her students on nature-based field trips. Her report was published in the Atlantic Educational Journal.

Amanda wrote,

On a field trip, a pupil... gains more of life's lessons than could possibly be learned in the schoolroom. These trips lead the children to ask questions, which the teacher must answer. 

My class is composed of children in the fourth year primary.

On one trip, trees of the neighborhood were studied. The flowers commanded our attention on still another trip. [Flowers like] the wild carrot, the yarrow, and wild mustard were examined. On one occasion a great mullein, or velvet dock, was brought into school. It was greatly admired by the children. On the next field trip no child had to be told what a mullein was. They, themselves, each saw and knew the mullein.

On our trips, we sometimes catch glimpses of shy, wild creatures-a water-snake or, perhaps, a prairie hen. Again we may see only tracks here, the tiny footprints of a field-mouse; there, the path of a snake.

On one trip we looked for birds especially, using field glasses. After hearing and seeing many birds, we sat down, about six o'clock in the evening, to listen to the concert--not one for which we were forced to give a silver offering, but a concert free to all. It was the sweetest music ever heard.

On May 25, 1909, we either saw or heard these birds: A phoebe, a pewee, a flicker, a cuckoo, a black and white warbler, a magnolia warbler, a chestnut-sided warbler, a water thrush, a Maryland yellow-throat, a red-start, a catbird, a brown thrasher, a Carolina wren and a hermit thrush.

I think it is very instructive to show children the various birds' nests. They have observed, with keenest wonder, the blackbird's nest, the swinging nest of the oriole, the mud-lined nest of the robin, the feather-lined nest of the plain English sparrow, and the horsehair-lined nest of the red-eyed vireo ("vir-ē-ˌō").

I have [recently] added... a catbird's nest and a barn swallow's nest.

[And when I was] in Haddonfield, N. J., I learned where a hummingbird's nest was. It will be [added to] the school's collection.


And then Amanda ends with this recommendation.

[The following nature books are] helpful and interesting: The Audubon Leaflets, The Home Nature Study Library, and Julia Rogers' Among Green Trees.


Wilmington Normal School (where Amanda taught) was the first school in Wilmington, North Carolina, to admit African-American students. The school operated from 1868 to 1921.


1939 On this day, George Orwell, English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic, wrote that his hens had laid two hundred eggs in the previous two weeks.

When George returned to his home in Wallington after the Spanish Civil War, he recorded the activity of his chickens as he recovered from his war injuries and another bout of lung issues. George noted everything about his chickens: their daily egg production, their behavior, and what they ate and required in terms of care.

George's diary begins in April, three years after arriving at Wallington,

We have now twenty-six hens, the youngest about eleven months. Yesterday seven eggs (the hens have only recently started laying again.)

Everything greatly neglected, full of weeds, etc., ground very hard & dry, attributed to heavy falls of rain, then no rain at all for some weeks. . . .

Flowers now in bloom in the garden: polyanthus, aubretia, scilla, grape hyacinth, oxalis, a few narcissi.

Many daffodils in the field...These are very double & evidently not real wild daffodil but bulbs dropped there by accident.

Bullaces & plums coming into blossom.

Apple trees budding but no blossom yet.

Pears in full blossom.

Roses sprouting fairly strongly.


Well, there you go - a little update from George Orwell about his garden over 90 years ago.

And before I forget, there's a fabulous book from 2021 called Orwell's Roses by Rebecca Solnit, and when it debuted, it received all kinds of critical acclaim. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, and the writer, Margaret Atwood, raved that it was an exhilarating romp through Orwell's life and times — and also the life and times of roses.

And Harper's said that it was "A captivating account of Orwell as a gardener, lover, parent, and endlessly curious thinker."

And then the publisher wrote this,

In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” So begins Rebecca Solnit’s new book, a reflection on George Orwell’s passionate gardening and the way that his involvement with plants, particularly flowers, illuminates his other commitments as a writer and antifascist, and on the intertwined politics of nature and power.


1988 On this day, the Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian was dedicated.

Tucked in between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Ripley Garden is home to rare and unusual trees and shrubs as well as annuals and perennials - many in elevated beds, Which is terrific for folks of all different abilities and also for little children, it gets the garden up to eye level. And it's lovely for people like me with rheumatoid arthritis or arthritis in general because you don't have to stoop Over to see the flowers,

It's all brought up to at least waist level, and you can examine Many of the specimens very closely. And also just want to say that this garden is immaculately maintained.

The garden was the inspiration of Mary Livingston Ripley. She was a lifelong plant scholar, collector, gardener, and wife of the Smithsonian's eighth Secretary. Mary came up with the idea for a "fragrant garden" in a location slated to become a parking lot. In 1978, she rallied the Women's Committee of the Smithsonian Associates to support the garden. That group was an organization Mary founded in 1966 to raise money for Smithsonian projects. Ten years later, on this day in 1988, the Women's Committee recognized their founder and friend, Mary Livingston Ripley, by naming the garden after her.

In 1996, Mary Livingston Ripley's obituary shared some fascinating details about her life.

During the twenty years her husband worked at the Smithsonian, [Mary] frequently accompanied him on scientific expeditions to exotic reaches throughout the Far East.  She volunteered her time to fundraising and gardening exhibits at the museum.

Mary was an avid gardener at her homes in Washington and in Litchfield. She was the person behind the Smithsonian's huge collection of orchids.

She was also adept at skinning birds and turning over rocks in search of insects.

Today, a lovely woman named Janet Draper is the horticulturist for the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden - a position she has relished since 1997. You can see her work on the Smithsonian Gardens Twitter feed. It's one of my favorite feeds on Twitter to follow. So check that out.

And also, I'm a friend of Janet's on Facebook. So I get to see all her posts about the incredible flowers and rare specimens planted in that garden. The garden posts are just absolutely astounding.

Janet is a wonderful person, and I met her during the Garden Bloggers Fling in DC several years ago. So I would be remiss not to mention the wonderful and dedicated Janet Draper in conjunction with the Ripley Garden.


Grow That Garden Library™ Book Recommendation

Potted History by Catherine Horwood
This book came out in 2021.

It's one of my favorites. This is a revised edition, and the subtitle is: How Houseplants Took Over Our Homes.

This is a great little garden history book, and it's all about houseplants.

Now houseplants are crazy popular, and that's one of the reasons why Catherine revised this book. It was over a decade ago when the first edition came out, and so this is the second edition.

As Catherine mentions, a surprising amount has changed in the story of plants in the home since this book first appeared. Now, what has caused this massive expansion in popularity? Well, in addition to the pandemic, which turned so many people toward gardening and growing houseplants. That trend had already started but was definitely nudged along by the pandemic.

Catherine believes three factors have contributed to this overwhelming demand for houseplants. First, improved propagation techniques lead to increased availability and lower prices, which is fantastic.

For me, our local Hy-Vee grocery store has a beautiful floral section. I find it quite interesting that the houseplant area is right at the east entrance of my store - that's the side that I always like to go in, of course, because the houseplants are there.

But I am entirely fascinated that houseplants are impulse buys these days and are positioned at the front of the store. And while cut flowers are offered, they are not as close to the entrance as houseplants - they're a little further in the store. 

Another factor behind the houseplant craze is changing lifestyles - particularly of millennials. Millennials are definitely into houseplants. When I took my daughter to college this past fall, her roommate took up half of the windowsill with her houseplants, and then my daughter's houseplants took up the other half of the windowsill. But as a wise gardener - and knowing that my daughter's room was facing north plus knowing Emma would forget about plant care - 99.9% of the houseplants I sent along with Emma were permanent stems or fake. That said, I did have two super tough live plants in the mix. One of them was moss in a closed terrarium environment.

Yes, I am a gardener, and yes, I love houseplants — but I'm also a realist.

The other factor causing the phenomenal growth of houseplants is social media. Just the other day. I saw someone post a picture of their living room on Twitter, and it was filled with houseplants. Somewhere in the back of this jungle, you could just see one lone chair, and the caption was, "Is this too many houseplants?" Even I was like, yes - that is too many houseplants. So crazy.

There is no doubt that social media has encouraged this trend of houseplants, bringing plants indoors and turning your home into a conservatory.

In the introduction, Catherine tells of a man named Sir Hugh Platt. He was a garden writer, and he published one of the first books on gardening techniques. He was also the first person to write a little section about having a garden within doors.

Sir Hugh Platt would have loved an idea house that I saw a couple of years ago.

Sponsored by one of our local nurseries, the home is updated in the spring and fall with all of these wonderful decor ideas.

One particular year, they took one of the bedrooms upstairs and turned it into an indoor potting shed. Fantastic idea.

The upstairs bath doubled as a place to wash your hands or water some plants.

The little potting bench in the middle of the room was so cute. They also repurposed a bookshelf to serve as their system for organizing all their garden paraphernalia, their garden books, and their garden supplies. A beautiful display of different containers and pots - and tons of terracotta - made me go wild for this room idea.

So, if you love this craze of indoor houseplants, you will love Catherine's book of houseplant history and the fascinating stories behind some of our most beloved houseplants.

And what better time of year to read about houseplants than right now? This week, most gardeners are starting to move their houseplants back outside for summer, where there'll be deliriously happy before they have to come back in for the winter.

And if you are giving someone the gift of a houseplant, then, by all means, order a few copies of Catherine's book to include that along with the present. Talk about amping up a houseplant gift!

Sizewise, this is a little book. I love it by the chair in my garden library. And the cover is so pleasant. It's beautifully illustrated with just a single little houseplant.

It is just so stinking cute.

It's 176 pages of houseplant history. So who wouldn't love that?

You can get a copy of Potted History by Catherine Horwood and support the show using the Amazon link in today's show notes for around $8.


Botanic Spark

1905 On this day, Louisa Yeomans King wrote in her diary recorded in the book The Flower Garden Day by Day:

MAY 25. Species lilacs are wonderfully interesting.
If there is room, get a few of these;
if there is no room, get one or two,
and if there is room for but one, get Syringa sweginzowi superba, or Syringa oblata for its crimson leaves in October, the only lilac to color so.


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And remember: For a happy, healthy life, garden every day.

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