Today we celebrate a man who was regarded as the most revered British field-botanist of his time.
We'll also learn about the botanist who considered China to be his real home.
We’ll hear thoughts on holly and ivy from one of my favorite gardeners.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book of Sunday poems inspired by the natural world.
And then we’ll wrap things up with the woman who wrote a book called Garden Cinderellas - what an excellent title.
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January 13, 1834
Today is the birthday of the botanist and former Keeper of the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Kew, John Gilbert Baker.
Regarded as the most-revered British field botanist of his time, John had a profound understanding of plants and an earnest desire to preserve them.
Professionally, John was referred to as J.G. Baker.
The scope of his work brought him into contact with an incredible span of plant species. In addition to his impressive collecting, John identified ten plant families, and he wrote helpful handbooks on plant groups, like the Amaryllidaceae ("am-ah-rilla-DAY-see-ee"), the Bromeliaceae ("bro-mee-lee-AYE-see-ee), the Iridaceae ("eye-ri-DAY-see-ee"), the Liliaceae ("lil-ee-AY-see-ee"), and the ferns. And in addition to all of that, John described and developed the very first key for the Hemerocallis or the daylily.
And, here's a little fun fact about John: He once met Beatrix Potter (who was an amateur botanist in her own right in addition to being an author). And, as luck would have it, Beatrix wrote about meeting John in her journal on May 19, 1896 - although it didn't seem like she was very impressed with him. She wrote,
"We met Mr. Baker... A slim, timid-looking old gentleman with a large thin book under his arm and an appearance, of having been dried in blotting paper under a press."
John was mentored by the botanist Hewett Cotrell Watson. Hewett was a few generations older than Darwin, and he was one of the first botanists to research plant evolution. And it was Hewett's work that paved the way for a new science now known as ecology.
In his old age, Hewett burned all of his botanical correspondence. But thankfully, John persuaded him not to burn his herbarium. And so, upon his death, Hewett Cotrell Watson left his house and his land - as well as his books and botanical collections - to the person he thought would most-appreciate them: his protégé, John Gilbert Baker.
In 1899, John was awarded the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society. Eight years later, he received the Veitch Memorial Medal. Both of these awards were well-deserved.
Today, Wikidata has several pages of data devoted to the plants named by John. It's an impressive list. Conversely, John Gilbert Baker is honored by many plant names, including the Iris bakeriana.
January 13, 1884
Today is the birthday of the eccentric Hawaiian-based botanist, anthropologist, and explorer Joseph Francis Rock.
Joseph was born in Austria but ended up immigrating to the United States before eventually settling in Hawaii, where he was beloved. In fact, Joseph became Hawaii's first official botanist. Joseph started teaching as a Botany professor at the University of Hawaii in 1911, and he also served as a botanist for the Hawaiian Territorial Board of Agriculture. After working for 13 years in Hawaii, Joseph left to explore China - and that quest would become his primary passion.
It was 1920 before Joseph left Honolulu for China for the very first time. And when he traveled, Joseph always carried a copy of David Copperfield to remind him of his own terrible childhood. And although Joseph knew he was beloved in Hawaii, he always said that he considered China to be his “real” home.
In fact, when comparing China to the rest of the world, Joseph said China was better since it was the place,
“where life is not governed by the ticking of the clock but by the movement of celestial bodies.”
In total, Joseph spent much of his adult life - more than 20 years - in southwestern China. And often, Joseph was the very first explorer to enter these interior locations that he visited.
In fact, there were many times when Joseph became so embedded in the country that his peers would go too long without hearing from him, and they would begin to think that Joseph must have died. How would they ever find him? Many could only guess that his body was probably somewhere in the Tibetan or Yunnan ("YOU-nan") mountains. Yet, thankfully, Josephalways turned up.
And it’s important to note - especially when you consider how much Joseph traveled - that Joseph never traveled alone. When Joseph explored, he always went with a large party comprised of two dozen mules, 20 men, and an escort of nearly 200 soldiers for protection against bandits. And as for his personal effects, get this: Joseph brought a folding bed, a table and chairs, a full set of silverware and china to dine on, an Abercrombie & Fitch canvas bathtub for hot baths, and a hand-cranked phonograph so he could listen to his favorite music: opera.
Now, when he returned to Hawaii, Joseph recounted many hair-raising stories from his time in China.
There was this one time when Joseph had collected plants along the base of Mount Gongga ("Gan-GAH") in China's Tibetan Borderland. Now, Mount Gongga is known as "The King of Sichuan ("SITCH-ooh- an") Mountains. Joseph incorrectly predicted it was the tallest mountain in the world (but it's actually the 41st-tallest). Well, one spring, Joseph had an especially great time collecting around the base of Mount Gongga. So, naturally, he wanted to visit it again. But, when he returned in the fall, Joseph and his party were halfway up Mount Gongga when a runner reached them with a letter from the tribal King. Apparently, after Joseph's first collecting trip, a severe hail storm had destroyed the fields. The tribe blamed the catastrophe on Joseph's mountain botanizing, which they believed offended the god of the mountain. And the King's letter warned that Joseph and his party were in danger of being attacked and killed by the tribe if they continued up the mountain. So, the King requested that Joseph abort the trip - which he did.
Years later, even after being kicked out of the country, Joseph wrote,
''I want to die among those beautiful mountains rather than in a bleak hospital bed all alone.''
In addition to plants, Joseph had a knack for languages. He cataloged and transcribed Chinese manuscripts and actually wrote a dictionary of one of the tribal languages. He had an enormous intellect and was multi-talented. In addition to being a botanist and a linguist, Joseph was regarded as a world-expert cartographer, ornithologist, and anthropologist.
Now, from a gardening standpoint, it was Joseph Rock who brought blight-resistant Chestnut trees to America. Naturally, he had sourced them in China.
The Chestnut is in the same family as the Oak and, today, there are nine species of chestnut in the Northern Hemisphere. The four main species of Chestnut (Castanea spp.) are European, Chinese, Japanese, and American chestnuts. Depending on the species, Chestnut trees can live to be hundreds of years old.
And Chestnuts are unique in that they have very little protein or fat. Instead, Chestnuts are carbohydrates, and they are the only nuts that contain vitamin C.
And there's one additional plant that I always associate with Joseph Rock: the Rhododendron. Joseph Rock also brought American gardeners more than 700 species of Rhododendron. How could we ever thank him enough for that? In fact, some of Joseph's original Rhododendron seeds were first successfully grown in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And in 1903, the Rhododendron was designated the official State Flower of West Virginia.
Referred to as the King of Shrubs, the word Rhododendron comes from two Greek words: "rodon," which means "rose," and "dendron," which means "tree,” hence Rose Tree. And Rhododendron flowers are produced in trusses (a truss is a flower-like structure composed of many flowers). Finally, Rhododendrons are in the Ericaceae ("er-rah-KAY-see-ee") plant family, which also includes Blueberries, Cranberries, Heathers, Huckleberry, Mountain Laurels, and Trailing Arbutus.
So the next time you see a Chestnut Tree or a beautiful Rhododendron, tip your hat to Joseph Rock.
Holly and ivy are the primary images of many Christmas cards, symbols of life carrying on when much else appears dead or has vanished beneath the frozen surface. I would almost go so far as to say they should be in every garden, but perhaps I should substitute "something evergreen" instead of being so specific.
Not everyone has the room or the right conditions for large-growing evergreens. I am thinking of laurels and rhododendrons in particular. But hollies can be found in all shapes and sizes; many are plain, but no less handsome, while several are variegated.
There are seven pages of holly in Messrs Hilliers’ Manual of Trees and Shrubs to tempt the reader, and a walk among the Holly Collection at Kew Gardens will undoubtedly fire the imagination. Some will be difficult to obtain, but nurserymen will be pleased to propagate more unusual plants if enough of us ask for them.
If you look out of your favorite window now, are you satisfied with the view?
Does it lack design?
Would a small-leafed, narrowly-pyramidal holly do anything for it, and how many plants can you see which remain green - or grey, or bronze - throughout the winter, furnishing the bare soil at ground level?
— Beth Chatto, garden writer and gardener, Beth Chatto's Garden Notebook, January
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2017, and the subtitle is Sabbath Poems 2014 and 2015.
Over three decades ago, Wendell Berry started spending his Sundays in nature, when the weather allowed,
“walking and wandering around familiar territory, seeking a deep intimacy only time could provide. These walks sometimes yielded poems. Each year since he has completed a series of these poems dated by the year of its composition.”
The New York Times bestselling author of Paddle Your Own Canoe, Nick Offerman, raved,
"[Berry's] essays, poetry, and fiction have fertilized a crop of great solace in my life, and helped to breed a healthy flock of good manners, to boot.”
This book is 80 pages of grounded and incredibly moving poetry - inspired by the natural world.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
January 13, 1974
Today is the anniversary of the death of the American botanist, garden lecturer, and garden writer Helen Morgenthau Fox.
In 1928, Helen wrote a book called Garden Cinderellas: How to Grow Lilies in the Garden, and Harvard’s Ernest Henry Wilson wrote the forward to this book.
Helen shared two stories in this book that made me smile.
First, Helen talked about researching her book at the Department of Agriculture in Washington.
“In the library of the Department of Agriculture at Washington, I found all that has ever been published on Lilies to the present time.
At my request, the valuable old herbals, botanies, and flower monographs were piled on my desk as nonchalantly as if they were so many newly-published novels. It was a privilege to touch the creamy rough surface of such famous old herbals as Parkinson or Clusius and read their quaint descriptions. One day I had Redouté’s “Les Liliacés (The Lilies)” in my hands, and when I found it contained only a few of the true Lilies, I felt quite like the fox in the fable because the price has always kept it way out of my reach.”
Helen also shared that she had sent out a survey to determine which Lilies were being grown across the United States. The survey responses paved the way for Helen to make some new friends, and she shares an experience that will be familiar to most gardeners: making new friends while looking at flowers.
“Sending out the questionnaire made many new friends for me, and I was delighted to come across a lady who was growing washingtonianum ("Washington-ee-AYE-num"), parryi ("PARE-ee-eye"), japonicum ("jah-PON-uh-kum" (From Japan)), brownii ("BROWN-ee-eye"), and other generally difficult Lilies very successfully in western New York.
My Lily friends were most kind, and one of them telegraphed me when the neilgherrense ("Nil-guh-ree-EN-see") was in flower in his garden since he knew I had not seen it. So I traveled to Washington to look at the visitor from far away blooming as if quite at home in this strange country. There, on a broiling July day, three Lily fans generously spent hours showing their treasures and explaining to a stranger, whose only bond was a mutual love of flowers, what they had done and especially what they hoped to accomplish.”
Note: The Neilgherrense Lily is native to the Nilgiri hills in India. The term Nilgiri is Tamil for the Blue Mountains. The strikingly blue color of the hills is attributed to the bloom of a shrub, Strobilanthes kunthiana ("stroe-bih-LAN-theez Coon-tee-AYE-nah").
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