Today we celebrate one of my favorite botanists and his personal story of love and love of poetry and nature.
We'll also learn about an extraordinary gardener who could grow anything - and I mean anything.
We’ll hear Rosemary Verey’s thoughts on patterns.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a behind-the-scenes look at the 2009 White House Garden and the modern community garden movement.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a celebration that may drive you nuts - but we will celebrate nonetheless.
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January 21, 1854
Today is the birthday of the Washington DC-based USDA botanist Erwin Frink Smith.
Erwin had attempted to solve the problem of the Peach Yellows - a disease caused by a microorganism called a phytoplasma, and it was affecting Peach orchards. It was called the Peach Yellows disease because the main symptom was that new leaves would have a yellowish tint.
Now, if Erwin had solved the Peach Yellows' problem, he would have become world-famous - but he didn't. Years later, it was actually the botanist Louis Otto Kunkel who discovered it was a type of leafhopper that was carrying the disease.
Still, Erwin was a peach of a guy. In researching Erwin, I discovered a rare combination of kindness and intellect. And Erwin was ahead of his time.
Erwin developed a reputation for hiring and promoting female botanists as his assistants at the Bureau of Plant Industry in Washington DC. After giving these women tasks based on their strengths instead of their job descriptions, Erwin's team was able to work on projects that charted new territory for female botanists.
The happiest day in Erwin’s life was no doubt when he married the pretty Charlotte Mae Buffet on April 13, 1893. Together, Erwin and Charlotte shared an epic love for each other and for reading and poetry. Tragically, after twelve years of marriage, Charlotte was diagnosed with endocarditis. She died eight months later, on December 28, 1906.
Erwin dealt with his grief by putting together a book of poetry, stories, and a biography of Charlotte. The book is called For Her Friends and Mine: A Book of Aspirations, Dreams, and Memories. Erwin wrote,
"This book is a cycle of my life— seven lonely years are in it. The long ode (on page 62) is a cry of pain."
There's one passage from Erwin describing Charlotte’s fantastic ability to attune to the natural world, and I thought you'd find it as touching as I did when I first read it:
“Charlotte’s visual powers were remarkable. They far exceeded my own.
Out of doors, her keen eyes were always prying into the habits of all sorts of living things...
Had she cared for classification, which she did not, and been willing to make careful records, she might have become an expert naturalist.
Whether she looked into the tops of the tallest trees, or the bottom of a stream, or the grass at her feet, she was always finding marvels of adaptation to wonder at...
She made lists of all the birds that visited her neighborhood. She knew most of them by their songs, and some times distinguished individuals of the same species by little differences in their notes...
She knew when they nested and where, how they made their nests, and what food they brought to their young.
In studying birds, she used an opera-glass, not a shotgun.
She was, however, a very good shot with the revolver.”
January 21, 1881
Today is the birthday of the incredible American gardener, plant whisperer, and horticulturist Rae Selling Berry.
Almost totally deaf by the time she was an adult, Rae was an excellent lip reader - and many suspect her deafness helped her attune to plants.
In the early 1900s, Rae started a new hobby: gardening. Like many gardeners, Rae began gardening with a few pots on her front porch.
It wasn’t long before Rae was collecting and growing rare plants - not only on her homeplace - but also on the two vacant lots she rented next door.
After subscribing to a variety of English garden magazines, Rae decided to order her plants and seeds from the world's best nurseries. Rae also subscribed to exotic plant explorations so that she could get seeds from the top explorers like George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward, and Joseph Rock. Rae wanted the latest and greatest plants - and once she got them, she mastered growing them.
In addition to Rhododendrons, Rae had a weakness for Primula. During her lifetime, no one grew Primulas better than Rae Berry Seling. And to illustrate just how much Rae loved Primulas, in April 1932, Rae wrote an article for The National Horticultural Magazine where she profiled the sixty-one species she grew in her gardens - the article was understatedly titled Primulas in My Garden.
In 1938, Rae and her husband bought a new property in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The location of the property along a great ridge offered a number of microclimates and growing conditions. Best of all, Rae’s new place included water - springs and small rivers, as well as a marsh and a wetland. Each of these features offered unique advantages as Rae picked locations to situate her incredible collection of rare plants.
Now it's often said of Rae that she was in tune with the most finicky of plants. Rae had an uncanny ability to understand the needs of her various specimens, and she put those needs ahead of design aesthetics. Her incredible Rhododendron collection grew happily in simple raised frames behind her house. And in the spring, visitors to her garden were in awe of her beds featuring great masses of blooming Rhododendrons.
In the 1950s, Rae received a single corm of the Chilean blue crocus - Tecophilaea cyanocrocus ("tee-KO-fy-LEE-ah sy-ANN-oh-cro-cus"). Native to the Andes in Chile, this unbelievable blue crocus is exceptionally rare to see in cultivation… unless you are Rae Berry. Apparently, there was one memorable spring, when seventy-five Chilean blue crocus bloomed in Rae's garden. Can you imagine?
It was Rae Selling Berry who said:
“You don’t tell a plant where to grow; it will tell you.”
I enjoy patterns, man-made and natural, and as soon as I start looking around me, they are everywhere.
The countryside in winter has tree skeletons silhouetted against the sky — trees without leaves. One day their background is dark grey, another it is clear blue, but there is always a natural pattern of trunk and branches, a lesson in symmetry with variations.
As the snow slowly melts, man-made patterns, still filled with snow, scar the fields where the wheel marks of tractors crossed the newly sown corn last autumn, sometimes straight, sometimes following the line of the walls or hedgerows.
— Rosemary Verey, gardener and garden writer, A Countrywoman's Year, January
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2012, and the subtitle is The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.
In this book, we are reminded of the wonderful kitchen garden that Michelle Obama planted on the White House’s South Lawn in April of 2009.
This book takes us inside the White House Kitchen Garden - from planning and planting to the final harvest.
You’ll learn about Michelle’s worries and joys as a new gardener.
Best of all, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at the garden along with the recipes created by White House chefs.
Finally, if you have an interest in putting together a school or community garden, there are plenty of tips. There are many inspiring stories of gardens from across the country, including the Houston office workers who make the sidewalk bloom; a New York City School that created a scented garden for the visually impaired; a North Carolina garden that devotes its entire harvest to those in need; and other stories of communities that are transforming the lives and health of their citizens.
This book is 272 pages of gardening that stretches from the recent gardening history of the White House to the great gardening going on in communities across America.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
January 21, 2001
Today is National Squirrel Appreciation Day, which was founded in 2001 by Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in Asheville, North Carolina. Christy created the special day to acknowledge that food sources for squirrels are scarce in mid-winter.
Gardeners are generally of two minds when it comes to squirrels. They either don't mind them, or they really dislike them.
Thanks to their tremendous athleticism, Squirrels are a challenging pest in the garden. For instance, it may seem impossible, but squirrels have a 5-foot vertical. Nowadays, their ability to leap is well-documented on YouTube.
Squirrels are also excellent sprinters and swimmers. And they are zigzag masters when they run - a wicked skill that helps them evade predators.
A squirrel nest is called a drey. Squirrels make their nests with leaves, and the mother lines the inside of the drey with grass.
Now, as squirrels bury acorns and other seeds, they either sometimes forget or simply don't return to some of their buried food. But, lucky for squirrels, they can smell an acorn buried in the ground beneath a foot of snow.
As gardeners, we should remember that squirrels perform an essential job for trees. They help the forest renew itself by caching seeds and burying them. In fact, the job that squirrels do in caching seeds is absolutely critical to some trees' survival.
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