Today we celebrate a gardener who was also a Founding Father and a Governor of New York.
We'll also learn about a botanist who brought back the Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae "strel-IT-zee-ah REJ-in-ee") as well as a plant that is now the oldest living potted plant at Kew.
We hear a charming poem that takes us through the seasons by an English poet who was friends with many poets, including Mary Wollstonecraft.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a good ol’ garden book that teaches how to grow your own food.
And then we’ll wrap things up with another delightful story about the Mistletoe - this one is a heart-warmer.
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December 23, 1745
Today is the birthday of the American Founding Father and gardener John Jay.
When he wasn’t serving as the second Governor of New York and the United States' first Chief Justice, John Jay loved to garden.
John’s ancestral home was in Rye, New York. And today, the Jay Heritage Center oversees the Jay Estate and the incredible landscape, which includes stone ha-ha walls from 1822, one-and-a-half acres of historic sunken gardens from the 1700s, a meadow, an apple orchard, and elm tree allée.
And here's a little fun fact about John Jay: His great-granddaughter, Mary Rutherfurd Jay, grew up on the ancestral Jay estate. She became one of America's earliest landscape architects and an advocate of horticultural education and women's careers.
In 1801, John and his wife, Sarah, retired to their farmhouse in Bedford, Westchester County. Yet, their dream of settled farm life was cut short when Sarah died at age 45. John never remarried, and he lived out his remaining 30 years on this earth as a gentleman farmer.
Today the John Jay Homestead features four gardens that reflect the John Jay family:
- The Formal Gardens feature a fountain and a sundial.
- The Terrace Garden features deer resistant plants and an apple orchard in a nod to John Jay’s original orchard.
- And the old cutting garden is now an Herb Garden that was re-designed by Page Dickey, who laid out a 17th-century English knot garden.
- There’s also a Teaching Garden to inspire kids to get involved in horticulture.
Personally, I find the most touching garden of all is the blue and white North Courtyard Garden, which was inspired by a book of pressed flowers from John’s daughter, Maria Jay. This charming blue and white garden features violets, poppies, and irises, which bloom from spring to fall.
And, I should mention that all of the gardens at the John Jay homestead are tended by local garden clubs.
December 23, 1805
Today is the anniversary of the death of the Scottish gardener, botanical illustrator, and the very first plant hunter for Kew, Francis Masson.
Together Francis and Carl ventured into the veldt and the Blue Mountains. Surviving the extreme heat, lack of water, and dangerous wild animals, Francis made it back to England in 1775. With his gardener’s eye for ornamentals, Francis brought back many plants and seeds to England. In a letter to Linnaeus, Francis reported he had “added upwards of 400 new species to his Majesties collection of living plants”.
Among Francis’ specimens were gladioli, irises, kniphofias, lobelias, and pelargoniums as well as the stunning bird of paradise flower, which was named to honor the wife of George III, Queen Charlotte: a patroness of the arts, an amateur botanist in her own right, and a champion of Kew Gardens. And the name of the plant recognized the fact that the Queen was born in Germany in an area called Mecklenberg-Strelitz. And so, the botanical name for the Bird of Paradise is the Strelitzia reginae ("stray-LIT-zee-ah REJ-in-ee.”)
As for Francis, after his trip to South America, he went on expeditions to North America, Portugal, and Northern Africa. But in 1785, Francis returned to his favorite destination: South Africa. This time, Francis spent a decade there - botanizing deep into the country’s interior. And it was during this time that Francis discovered the arum lily and the calla lily. And when he wasn’t plant hunting, Francis was busy cultivating his magnificent personal garden in Cape Town. Today, gardeners marvel at Francis’ drawings of South Africa's Cape Floral Kingdom.
In the twilight of his life, Francis experienced a dreadful voyage to North America. Between two run-ins with pirates and terrible weather, Francis’ ship barely made it to New York. And after discovering the Trillium grandiflorum on his way to Canada, Francis died on this day in 1805.
It was Francis Masson who pioneered plant exploration and transformed European gardens through his discoveries of over 1700 species. Today at Kew Gardens, you can see the oldest potted plant in the world - it’s an Eastern Cape Giant Cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii). It basically looks like a large potted palm cycad. It was brought to England in 1775 after Francis Masson’s first trip to South Africa.
Through springtime walks, with flowers perfumed,
I chased a wild, capricious, fair
Where hyacinths and jonquils bloomed,
Chanting gay sonnets through the air;
Hid amid a briary dell
Or ‘neath a Hawthorn-tree,
Her sweet enchantments led me on
And still deluded me.
While summer’s ‘splendent glory smiles
My ardent love in vain essayed,
I strove to win her heart by wiles,
But still a thousand pranks she played;
Still o’er each, sunburned furzy hill,
Wild, playful, gay, and free,
She laughed and scorned; I chased her still,
And still, she bantered me.
When autumn waves her golden ears
And wafts o’er fruits her pregnant breath,
The sprightly lark its pinion rears;
I chased her o’er the daisied heath,
And all around was glee -
Still, wanton as the timid hart,
She swiftly flew from me.
Now winter lights its cheerful fire,
While jests with frolic mirth resound
And draws the wandering beauty nigher,
‘Tis now too cold to rove around;
The Christmas- game, the playful dance,
Incline her heart to glee —
Mutual we glow, and kindling love
Draws every wish to me.
— Ann Batten Cristall, English poet and schoolteacher, Through Springtime Walks
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2014, and the subtitle is A Back to Basics Guide to Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Fruits and Vegetables.
In this book, Monte puts together a simple resource for gardeners eager to reap the benefits of homegrown vegetables and fruits.
Monte shares detailed instructions for fall and winter food growing and the specific health benefits for each crop. Learn how to grow, how to harvest, and how to store your own food.
This book is 240 pages of guided instruction from Monte Burch - showing you how to grow all types of vegetables, fruits - and even grains.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
December 23, 1978
On this day, The Oshkosh Northwestern out of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, published a story called Mystical Mistletoe Is Historical Sprig By Pat Vander Velden.
“Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman naturalist, was one of the first freelance writers to recognize mistletoe as a lucrative story idea. He chronicled the esteem that the druids held for the mystical evergreen that grows on oak, elm, apple, hawthorn, and poplar trees.
According to Pliny, the druid’s name for the plant was ol-liach "all heal." The druids thought it could cure everything from sterility to the common cold.
As late as the 17th century, Nicholas Culpepper said,
"Mistletoe is good for the grief of itch, sores, toothaches, and the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts."
Nathaniel Hawthorne was not that impressed. In 1855 he wrote about mistletoe and called it
"An uninteresting plant with white wax-looking berries dull green on parasitical stem."
Hawthorne was puzzled by the raging fad of the day.
"The maids of the house did the utmost to entrap the gentlemen, old and young, and there to kiss them. After which they were expected to pay a shilling."
Obviously, Hawthorne was frugal and didn't approve of paying for his affection.
Probably the most famous of writers to refer to mistletoe is Charles Dickens. In The Pickwick Papers, Mr. Pickwick kisses Lady Tollimglower under the mistletoe.
"Mister Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honor to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower ... led her beneath the mystic branch and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum . . . "
The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is lost somewhere between the druids and Dickens.”
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