Today we celebrate a botanist remembered for his work with Pears and Camellias.
We'll also learn about a botanist who specialized in grasses and traveled extensively to collect them.
We’ll learn about the work of a forensic botanist back in the early 1980s.
We take a moment to savor December - courtesy of a verse from the American naturalist and writer Hal Borland.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book that came out this summer, and it brings the goodness of the Catskills right to your table.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a cute little story about a plant name you won’t soon forget.
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December 16, 1886
Today is the anniversary of the death of the Massachusetts merchant, amateur horticulturist, and politician Marshall Pinckney Wilder.
When Marshall started out, his father gave him three options: attend college, start a farm, or work in the family store. Marshall elected to farm.
But Marshall was unexpectedly pulled into the family business after his uncle died. In a twist of fate, Marshall was a natural businessman, and he helped take the family wholesale business to even more successful heights.
With his financial success, Marshall bought an old farm in Dorchester, Massachusetts, for $5,500. Marshall called the property Hawthorn Grove. But shortly after moving into Hawthorn Grove, Marshall’s young wife Eliza died. With four small children to raise, Marshall quickly married again.
After his personal affairs were squared away, Marshall began designing ten acres worth of gardens on the property - complete with several large greenhouses. Marshall devoted all of his spare time to horticulture, and he loved to dabble in plant breeding. Historical records indicate that Marshall developed a double California Poppy.
But without a doubt, Marshall’s favorite pursuits were Pears and Camellias. Marshall successfully cultivated two European Pears - the Bartlett and the Anjou. In Pears alone, Marshall experimented with over 900 varieties.
And Marshall’s Camellia collection made him quite famous in certain botanical circles. In all, Marshall Wilder created over 300 Camellia varieties. And Marshall’s top award-winning Camellias were all named after the women in his life: Mrs. Abby Wilder (named for his second wife), Mrs. Julia Wilder (named for his third wife - who was also Abby’s sister), and Jenny Wilder (named for his granddaughter).
In 1839 a greenhouse fire destroyed all but two of Marshall’s beloved Camellias. Still, Marshall bounced back quickly the following year thanks to his success in the wholesale business.
When Marshall wasn’t gardening at Hawthorne Grove, he was active in horticulture organizations in and around Boston. In addition to serving as the third president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Marshall was the founder and first president of the American Pomological Society. And on Google right now, it says,
"The American Pomological Society was founded by Marshall Pinckney Wilder in 1848, to foster the growing of fruit and the development of new varieties, and is the oldest fruit organization in North America."
When the great Landscape Architect Andrew Jackson Downing suddenly died, it was Marshall Wilder who delivered his eulogy before the Pomological Congress in Philadelphia in 1852.
And, since 1873, the Pomological Society awards the "Wilder Medal" to pomologists who demonstrate outstanding service to horticulture in the broad area of pomology.
During his lifetime, Marshall became quite famous for his horticultural activities. After his death, Marshall's private plant collection was used to create the Boston Public Garden.
And here’s a fun fact about Marshall Pinckney Wilder: He had a nephew who became a well-known American author and speaker with dwarfism and shared the same name as his uncle - Marshall Pinckney Wilder. And it was Marshall’s nephew named Marshall who inspired the phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That phrase was written by Elbert Hubbard, who was inspired by the younger Marshall’s passion, optimism, and innovation.
December 16, 1935
Today is the anniversary of the death of the botanist and agrostologist Albert Spear Hitchcock.
During a trip to Ecuador, Albert took a marvelous photo of an Espeletia with the common name Frailejones ("Fray-lay-HOE-ness") or Big Monks. These large plants are in the sunflower family, and they are reminiscent of mullein with their hairy leaves. But these plants are succulents, and at high altitudes, they can capture water vapor from passing clouds. Peter Rockstroh wrote this about Espeletia in a blog post a few years ago,
"Of all the botanical oddities to be found in Colombia, Frailejones are probably one of the most striking. Their distinctive shape is unmistakable, and their image is iconic of the páramo ecosystem.
Frailejones are members of the cosmopolitan sunflower family (Asteraceae), giant "daisies" in the genus Espeletia. They are the tallest plants in the family, with some reaching nearly 60'/18.5 m.
When not in bloom, few people would even recognize them as members of this family. They can look quite spooky, as some populations retain their dead foliage folded over the stem, forming a thick coat to avoid water from freezing in the xylem.
When these plants are standing in the mist, it is easy to understand how they could be mistaken for friars wearing thick, brown robes. Hence the name Frailejón in Spanish, a “Big Friar.”
Although the "Big Friar" or the "Big Monk" easily captures attention, Albert Hitchcock’s name is synonymous with grasses.
In the back half of his career, Albert joined the USDA, and from that point forward, his professional career was devoted to grasses. Albert helped to establish the nearly completely comprehensive grass collection at the National Herbarium in Washington. Albert’s book called the Manual of Grasses remains a primary reference for the subject. In addition to his masterpiece on grasses, Albert wrote over 250 botanical works during his lifetime.
A staunch conservationist, Albert was alarmed at the rapid rate of destruction of the world's tropical forests and jungles. Albert was also a tremendous mentor and colleague. Sadly, Albert suffered a heart attack while he was on his way home from a major Botanical conference in Amsterdam. Albert died on board the ship City of Norfolk.
After Albert’s death, the botanist Agnes Chase prepared his eulogy, and she recounted how Albert once walked nearly 250 miles over a three-week-long botanizing trip. And Agnes remembered that Albert had fashioned a special wheelbarrow to haul his specimens around - and she recalled this excerpt from Albert's writing about the experience,
“I waded through water almost up to my knees, pushed my wheelbarrow, and still managed to keep my collection dry.
The mosquitoes were very bad.
I had to [wear] my coat, put cheesecloth around my head, and a pair of extra socks on my hands.
My shoes had worn through, and my feet were blistered...
But, for all the discomforts, the collecting was magnificent, and I felt fully repaid."
Albert Hitchcock's massive private herbarium and library were donated to the Smithsonian in a fitting final gesture.
December 16, 1982
On this day, the News-Press out of Fort Myers, Florida, shared a story called "Botanist Determines if the Gardener did it" by Walter Putnam.
Here’s an excerpt:
“When police investigators are stumped by a thorny problem, they sometimes call in University of Florida scientist David Hall to help them nip a case in the bud.
If the gardener did it, Hall is the one to help prove it.
He could be considered a "Quincy" of the plant world. Unlike the television hero and real-life medical examiners who collect criminal evidence through autopsies, Hall gathers his from stems and twigs.
"I first got into forensic botany when Dr. Dan Ward and I were asked to help on a South Florida murder case.
A guy was suspected of strangling a woman. He told police that she invited him in...
But they found bits of bark on the windowsill and in his pants cuffs. We matched that bark to bark on the tree outside her window. He'd climbed in the window and attacked her.”
Hall's specialty is plant taxonomy or identifying plants.
"When you deal with names of plants, you have to know a whole lot about other things about them: the ecology, their physiology, the morphology (shapes of plants)."
Hall recalled one suit in which the family of a train accident victim claimed the crossing sign had been down long before the collision.
The railroad maintained the victim's car had knocked it over. A type of fungus growing on the signpost proved it had been on the ground long before the accident.
"I've never been called to testify, not in a single [case]. They've all been settled out of court.”
December is a blizzard in Wyoming and a gale on the lakes, and the Berkshires frosted like a plate of cupcakes.
It is bare trees and evergreens.
It is wrestling weed stems and a gleam of partridgeberry on the hillside, a cluster of checkerberries, and winter greens in the thin woodland.
It is ground pine, older than the hills where it grows, and it is a seedling maple from two years ago clinging to one last scarlet leaf.
It is a stiff-tailed young squirrel scrambling up an oak tree, and it is a mask-faced coon in the cornfield listening for the hounds.
It is ice on the pond, lichen on the rock, a flock of chickadees at the dooryard feeder.
– Hal Borland, American naturalist and writer, The Golden Circle, December
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2020, and the subtitle is Over 75 Recipes.
In this book, Courtney takes us to the Catskills, where she shows us that the food is centered around fresh vegetables and fruit, meat, dairy, wild game, and foraged produce.
A chef, photographer, and graphic designer, Courtney lives on a farm in the Catskills in upstate New York. Her lovely cookbook is the perfect showcase for all of Courtney’s strengths. Courtney’s book is divided into seasons and shares recipes from favorite local hangouts. Along with excellent harvesting and growing advice, Courtney’s recipes bring the goodness of the Catskills right to your table.
This book is 240 pages of delicious recipes and inspiring photography that will transport you to upstate New York.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
December 16, 1916
On this day, an adorable little story was shared in the Star Phoenix out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“A famous botanist was pacing slowly along a country road, his eyes, as usual, roaming from side to side for new plants to study.
Suddenly an eager look swept across his futures, and he leaned over the low fence enclosing a cottage garden.
He had found a plant he did not know.
What could it be?
If only he had a specimen of it to study!
At that moment, a shock-headed lad strolled along the road and stopped to gaze open-mouthed at the botanist.
"I say!" called the botanist, urgently.
"See that there that pale pink one in the corner? Do you know it?"
"Aye," said the country boy, briefly.
"What's its name? Do you know what family it belongs to?"
The lad jerked a grubby thumb over his shoulder toward the little cottage as he spoke more briefly still:
Note: Edited for readability.
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