Today we celebrate a botanist who gave Meriwether Lewis a crash course in botany.
We'll also learn about a poet who wrote some touching poems that incorporated the natural world.
We hear some words about getting the garden ready for growing - straightforward advice on getting started.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book about a garden style that’s never gone out of style: cottage gardening.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a pioneer naturalist who wrote books that became a beloved part of many modern childhoods.
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February 10, 1766
Today is the birthday of the American botanist, naturalist, and physician Benjamin Smith Barton.
Benjamin worked as a Professor of Natural History and Botany at the University of Pennsylvania, where he authored the very first textbook on American Botany. In 1803, at Thomas Jefferson's request, Benjamin was tutoring Meriwether Lewis to get him ready for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Now Meriwether had many strengths, but he had little knowledge of natural history or plants. Thanks to Benjamin's tutelage, Meriwether was an awesome specimen collector on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
After the Expedition, Benjamin was supposed to create a book describing all of the plant specimens found on their great voyage. But, for some reason, he never began writing. Instead, the job ultimately fell to Benjamin's assistant, Frederick Pursh.
And when Frederick ended up having a falling out with Benjamin, he secretly took the specimens and fled to England. Once there, Frederick found a patron and published his Flora of North America in two years' time — much to the embarrassment of Benjamin Smith Barton and all American botanists.
And, there's an incredible story that came out two years ago, in February, regarding Benjamin. The story featured a little yellow butterfly that was found pressed between the pages of one of Benjamin's manuscripts from 1812 - his Flora Virginica. And it turns out that a delicate, tiny, yellow-winged butterfly was discovered by a library fellow named E. Bennett Jones at the American Philosophical Society as he was looking through the book.
Well, naturally, this caused a stir, and butterfly experts were called in to examine the specimen, and they believed that it was placed deliberately since the butterfly was found on the pages listed "Plants beloved by Pollinators - such as Monarda."
After this incredible discovery, the Barton Butterfly, as it came to be called, was carefully removed and preserved in a suspended container.
And there was a final touching detail to this story: the butterfly left an indelible mark on the manuscript. Even with the specimen now safely preserved in a glass box, the pages bear a little mark of a golden butterfly-shaped stain in the spot where it lay pressed for over 200 years before it was discovered.
February 10, 1882
Today is the birthday of the English writer Winifred Mary Letts. Gardeners love her quote on spring:
That God once loved a garden, we learn in Holy writ.
And seeing gardens in the Spring, I well can credit it.
Winifred also wrote a poem about spring called "Spring the Cheat." This is one of many poems Winifred wrote about the Great War - WWI.
Winifred wrote "Spring the Cheat" to remind people that they were not alone in their suffering. And her poem illustrates how pointless existence seems during wartime. And Winifred contrasts the season of rebirth - spring (which is cyclical), with a war-induced season of loss (which usually spreads across many seasons and is wildly at odds during spring).
Luminous evenings when the blackbird sways
Upon the rose and tunes his flageolet,
A sea of bluebells down the woodland ways, —
O exquisite spring, all this — and yet — and yet —
Kinder to me the bleak face of December
Who gives no cheating hopes, but says — "Remember."
Another poem that will thrill gardeners is Winifred’s delightful verse that was written to honor the birth of a dear friend’s baby (Peter John Dobbs). Winifred's poem is called To a May Baby, and I've often thought it would be perfect for a spring baby shower invitation.
To come at Tulip Time how wise!
Perhaps you will not now regret
The shining gardens, jewel set,
Of your first home in Paradise
Because you might not quite forget.
To come at Swallow Time how wise!
When every bird has built a nest;
Now you may fold your wings and rest
And watch this new world with surprise;
For whom the earth has donned her best.
To come when life is gay how wise!
With lambs and every happy thing
That frisks on foot or sports on wing,
With daisies and with butterflies,
Had nought so sweet as you to bring.
When one is first beginning to garden or gardening in a place one does not yet know, soil can seem dumb and unhelpful, just dirt. It is gray and empty, or yellow, clammy, and stony, or perhaps it is black and full of worms. Little pebbles might be interspersed all through it, or big ones, or maybe there is a rock ledge a spades-depth away. The plants thrive or languish in mysterious ways.
As one begins to work in it, a sense of the soil sharpens. One gets to know it's grit or muddiness, it's smell and warmth or chill, how it holds or drains water, what creatures inhabit it. One might notice how these qualities connect with each other, how they show themselves in the ways the plants grow. Most of all one discovers that the soil does not stay the same, but, like anything alive, it is always changing and telling its own story.
— Carol Williams, American gardener and author, Bringing a Garden to Life, Preparing the Ground
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2020, and the subtitle is A Celebration of Britain's Most Beautiful Cottage Gardens, with Advice on Making Your Own.
In this book, Claire shares every possible type of cottage garden. Famous profiles include writer Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset; the glorious cottage garden at Sissinghurst by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson; Beatrix Potter's cottage garden property known as Hill Top, and many more. Best of all, Claire thoughtfully offers down-to-earth advice to gardeners who wish to learn how to create their own cottage garden.
This book is 176 pages of cottage garden inspiration: winding garden paths lined with hollyhocks, climbing roses and honeysuckle, orchards, and wildflowers.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
February 10, 1957
Today is the anniversary of the death of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
One of the reasons so many of us have a soft spot in our hearts for the Little House books is because Laura was so descriptive; she was a natural storyteller.
In retrospect, I think you may be surprised by the amount of material in Laura’s books that was devoted to the natural world - ma’s gardens, the landscapes Laura and her family experienced, and the reverence for life - plants, animals, and human - all of it is so cherished by Laura and her loved ones.
In 2017, the author Marta McDowell wrote a book called The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and in it, she highlights the frontier landscapes that inspired the Little House books.
And Marta’s book sheds new light on Laura as a naturalist. In a blog post, Marta challenged us by writing:
“I’d like to suggest a thought experiment. Instead of categorizing Laura Ingalls Wilder as an American children’s author, think of her as a nature writer as well…
Long before she was a writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a gardener and farmer, growing food for the table and raising crops for sale. Nature was her home, as well as little houses. Through her life and work, Wilder sowed a deep appreciation for the world outside one’s own door. Her books still inspire budding naturalists to plant, preserve and appreciate their own wilder gardens.”
Well, Marta and I had a lovely chat featured in Episode 585 of the Still Growing podcast if you’d like to check it out. And one time, we even had a nice little lunch together as she was passing through the Twin Cities. Marta is one of my favorite modern garden authors, and I loved her idea of writing about Laura as a naturalist.
In researching Laura, I discovered many wonderful things she had written about the natural world outside of her wonderful Little House books.
In the Missouri Ruralist, Laura wrote,
“The voices of nature do not speak so plainly to us as we grow older, but I think it is because, in our busy lives, we neglect her until we grow out of sympathy. Our ears and eyes grow doll and Beauties are lost to us that we should still enjoy.
Life was not intended to be simply a round of work, no matter how interesting and important that work may be. A moment's pause to watch the glory of a sunrise or a sunset is so satisfying, while a bird song will set the steps to music all day long.”
In early February 1918, over a hundred years ago this month, Laura wrote:
“Now is the time to make a garden!
Anyone can be a successful gardener at this time of year and I know of no pleasanter occupation these cold, snowy days, then to sit warm and snug by the fire making a garden with a pencil, and a seed catalog. What perfect vegetables do we raise in that way and so many of them! Our radishes are crisp and sweet,our lettuce tender and our tomatoes smooth and beautifully colored. Best of all, there is not a bug or worm in the whole garden and the work is so easily done.
In imagination we see the plants in our spring garden, all in straight, thrifty rows with the fruit of each plant and vine numerous and beautiful as the pictures before us. How near the real garden of next summer approaches the ideal garden of our winter fancies depends upon how practically we dream and how hard we work.”
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