Today we celebrate a botanist of the American West and the husband of Kate Brandegee.
We'll also learn about the woman who created the legislation for the New Jersey State Flower, the Violet.
We hear some words about the role of the botanist from one of our horticultural greats.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book about transitioning from a beloved garden to something new… this story is special.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a touching tribute to a gardener, a public servant, and a nursery owner.
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February 16, 1843
Today is the birthday of the American botanist Townshend Stith Brandegee.
Townshend was born into one of America’s oldest and prominent families, and he was the oldest of twelve children. Townshend’s middle name, Stith, was his mother’s maiden name. Townshend was descended from three generations of men named Elishama.
Townshend’s great grandfather, Elishama Brandegee I, had fought in the Revolutionary War. By 1778, Elishama bought a pretty piece of land in Berlin, Connecticut, known as the mulberry orchard. The History of Berlin tells a charming story of how Townshend’s great grandmother, Lucy, made a red silk gown with the silk from her silkworms. Apparently, she intended to give the dress to Martha Washington, but somehow she ended up wearing it and keeping it for herself.
The Brandegee family continued to grow Mulberry (Morus) trees on the property. In fact, Townshend’s grandfather, Elishama Jr., founded the very first silk and cotton-thread company in Berlin. A successful entrepreneur, Elishama Jr, owned a mercantile store, which was the largest store between Hartford and New Haven, and people came from miles around to do their trading. His grandmother, Lucy, was a teacher and founded a private all-girls seminary, now a private prep school for girls known as the Emma Willard School.
Townshend's father, Dr. Elishama Brandegee, became the town physician, and by all reports, he was beloved by all who knew him. Townshend and his dad shared a love of nature, and as a young boy, Townshend created his very own fern collection.
Townshend came of age during the Civil War, and somehow he managed to live through two years of service in the union army. After his military service, like his father before him, Townshend attended Yale and graduated from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School. He forged his own path as a young civil engineer, and he ended up working on much-needed railroad surveys in the American West. In his spare time, both as a student at Yale and as a young engineer, Townshend botanized, and he even made some discoveries and sent specimens to Harvard’s Asa Gray.
Townshend’s unique combination of surveying experience and botanical work proved invaluable as he began creating maps of the western forests. In fact, it was his love of forests that brought him to the greatest love of his life: Katherine Layne Curran.
When his father died in 1884, Townshend’s inheritance allowed him to pursue his interests without any financial worries. And in the late 1800s, if you were a young botanist with means and interested in West-coast botany, all roads lead to the California Academy of Sciences.
In her early forties, Katharine Layne Curran was the curator of the Academy. She had been married to an alcoholic and then widowed in her twenties. She’d survived medical school when females were just breaking into the field of medicine, and she’d given up her career as a physician when it proved too difficult to set up a practice as a woman. By the time she met Townshend, the last thing Katharine had expected to find was love.
And yet, these two middle-aged botanical experts did fall in love - “Insanely in love” to use Katharine’s words - and to the surprise of their friends, they married. Kate always referred to Townshend as “Townie.”
Equally yoked, Townie and Kate’s happy honeymoon was a 500-mile nature walk - collecting plant specimens from San Diego to San Francisco.
After their honeymoon, Townie and Kate moved to San Diego, where they created a herbarium, library, and garden praised as a botanical paradise.
In 1899, the jeweler Frederick Arthur Walton, who was reported to have the largest private cactus collection in England, visited Kate and Townie in San Diego. Frederick shared a review of the Brandegee’s spectacular garden in his magazine called The Cactus Journal:
“The garden of Mr. and Mrs. Brandegee… [is] a wild garden, being situated upon the mesa, or high land overlooking the sea.
Mr. and Mrs. Brandegee are enthusiastic botanists, and have built a magnificent herbarium, where they spend most of their time.
The wild land round the herbarium is full of interesting plants that are growing in a state of nature, while being studied and described in all their various conditions.
Mrs. Brandegee has preserved specimens of all the kinds she can get. In some cases where the plants are very rare, I asked how she could so destroy such beauties. She replied that her specimens would be there to refer to at any time, with all its descriptions and particulars, whereas if the plant had been left growing, or sent to some botanical gardens, it would probably have died some time, and all trace have been lost.”
Townie and Kate continued botanizing - individually and together. During their lifetime, botanists could travel for free by train, and the Brandegees used these free passes regularly in their travels throughout California, Arizona, and Mexico.
On one trip to Mexico, Kate left early, and she managed to survive a shipwreck. The story goes that Townsend asked about the fate of the specimens before asking about Kate. Yet, this anecdote shouldn’t discount their very loving marriage; they were both just maniacally focused on their botanical work.
In 1906, when an earthquake destroyed the Berkeley herbarium, the Brandegees single-handedly restored it by donating their entire San Diego botanical library (including many rare volumes) and herbarium of over 80,000 plants.
Keeping in mind that Townshend's substantial inheritance had funded all of their botanical efforts, Townie and Kate requested a modest stipend of $100 per month in exchange for their life’s work. Despite years of haggling, Berkeley never agreed to pay the Brandegees a cent for what was the richest private plant collection in the United States.
Incredibly, the Brandegees continued to be selfless when it came to Berkely. They followed their plants and books to campus, where Townsend and Kate worked the rest of their lives pro bono. And while Townshend was honored with the title of curator of the herbarium, Kate was not given a title.
In the early spring of 1920, a 75-year-old Kate was walking at Berkeley when she fell and broke her shoulder. Three weeks later, she died. On April 7, 1925, five years later - almost to the day - Townshend joined Kate on his final journey.
February 16, 1971
On this day, the New Jersey State Flower, the Violet, was officially adopted by the legislature after a proposal from Josephine S. Margetts.
In 1967, when Josephine Margetts was elected to the New Jersey State Assembly in 1967, she became the first woman to represent Morris County, New Jersey, since 1938.
Politics was in Josephine’s blood. Her grandfather, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, ran for Governor of Pennsylvania. And Josephine’s late husband, Walter T. Margetts Jr., served as New Jersey’s state treasurer.
A nursery and orchard owner, Josephine was environmentally conscious, and she introduced legislation to protect the land and waterways of New Jersey - even helping to ban the use of DDT.
Long before Josephine was born, the violet was unofficially selected as the State Flower of New Jersey. By the late 1960s, New Jersey was the only state without legislation supporting an official state flower.
And so, with the urging of local garden clubs, Josephine introduced legislation in February of 1971 to make the violet official State Flower of New Jersey.
When it came time for Josephine’s bill to be debated in the legislature, Josephine’s peer Sen. Joseph J. Maraziti, R-Morris, read this poem:
“Roses are red,
Violets are blue
If you vote for this bill
Mrs. Margetts will love you.”
Josephine’s legislation was passed 30-1. The sole dissenting vote was Sen. Frank J. Guarini, D-Hudson. He told the press,
"I'm a marigold man."
Two years later, in 1973, a newspaper called The Record out of Hackensack New Jersey, shared an Op-Ed titled, Consider the Lilies of the Field.
“Conventional, chauvinist wisdom would have it that Mrs. Margetts introduced the bill because she's a woman and women are well, you know interested in growing things, flowers and plants and trees, the fruit of the earth. But Mrs. Margetts is not one of your everyday garden club ladies.
She studied at the Ambler School of Horticulture, she operates a commercial apple and peach orchard in Pennsylvania, and she has a holly nursery on the grounds of her home in New Vernon. The house on the property is rather substantial for a Jersey farmhouse if memory serves, it has 14 bathrooms, but no matter.”
As Josephine no doubt knew, Violets are spring flowers, and they’ve been around for a long time. The ancient Greeks enjoyed violets. If you enjoy floriography ("FLOOR-EE-ah-grah-FEE") or the symbolic meaning of plants, the heart-shaped leaves offer a clue to their meaning: affection, love, faith, and dignity. The color of violets can add another layer of meaning. Blue violets especially symbolize love and devotion. White violets symbolize purity and yellow violets symbolize goodness and high esteem.
The chief work of the botanist of yesterday was the study and classification of dried, shriveled up mummy's whose souls had fled. They thought their classified species were more fixed and unchangeable than anything in heaven or earth that we can now imagine. We have learned that they are as plastic in our hands as clay in the hands of the potter or color on the artist canvas and can readily be molded into more beautiful forms and colors than any painter or sculptor can ever hope to bring forth.
— Luther Burbank, Address to the Pacific States Floral Congress, 1901
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2020 (I bought my copy in November), and the subtitle is A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again.
When Margaret Roach reviewed this book, she wrote,
"An intimate, lesson-filled story of what happens when one of America’s best-known garden writers transplants herself, rooting into a deeper partnership with nature than ever before."
If you’ve ever moved away from a beloved garden, or there is a move in your future, you’ll find Page’s book to be especially appealing. Uprooted is Page’s story about leaving her beloved iconic garden at Duck Hill - a landscape she molded and refined for thirty-four years. Set on 17 acres of rolling fields and woodland, Page’s new property is in northwestern Connecticut, and it surrounds a Methodist Church, which is how Page came to call her new space, Church House.
What does it mean to be a seasoned gardener (at the age of 74) and to have to start again?
How does a gardener handle the transition from a beloved home to the excitement of new possibilities?
Uprooted gives us the chance to follow Page through all the major milestones as she finds her new homeplace. We get to hear about her search for a new place, how she establishes her new garden spaces, and her revelations as she learns to evolve as a gardener.
If you’ve ever wondered how on earth you’ll ever leave your garden, Page will give you hope. And, if you’re thinking about revamping an old garden space or starting a new garden, you can learn from Page how to create a garden that will bring you joy.
As an accomplished garden writer, Page’s book is a fabulous read, and the photography is top-notch. And although the move from Duck Hill marked a horticultural turning point in her life, Page found herself excited and reenergized by her brand new space at Church House.
This book is 244 pages of the evolution of a gardener as she transitions from Duck Hill to Church House with a lifelong love of nature, gardens, and landscape possibilities.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
In researching Josephine Margetts — the woman who created the bill for the State Flower of New Jersey (the Violet), I came across her obituary. When Josephine Margetts died in March of 1989, Fran Wood wrote a touching tribute to her that was featured in The Daily Record out of Morristown, New Jersey:
“Snow was falling on the day they remembered Josephine Margetts last week. It was gathering in little drifts on the trees outside her back door, collecting on the glossy leaves of some 15 varieties of holly…
The fresh flakes formed in little peaks on the bird feeders just inches away from her breakfast table, covered the glass roof of the greenhouse where lantana, gardenias and scented geraniums had flowered for more winters than anyone could remember and accumulated along the fence rails next to the vegetable garden where she used to raise more produce than her family could eat in a summer.
If the loving cultivation of these grounds, the perennials, the flowering shrubs and trees and all those hollies she planted and nurtured had been Mrs. Margetts' only accomplishment, it would have been worth remarking on. For gardening was a successful business as well as a private pleasure for her.
Besides operating a licensed holly nursery on her home grounds, she and her family turned out some 10,000 bushels of peaches and apples each year at their Pennsylvania farm.
Like all true gardeners, Mrs. Margetts got tremendous satisfaction from planting a seed and watching it grow.
She considered herself no less rewarded by those things that grew on their own accord like the tiny white pine seedling that appeared in the middle of a flagstone path one spring. She hadn't the heart to pull it up, she said, and so it grew and grew until it rivaled the height of the tallest hollies and its expanding girth forced strollers to detour around it.
Gardening was far from Mrs. Margetts' sole accomplishment, of course, but her inherent appreciation for the beauty of the land and the miracles of nature were at the root of her environmental legacies to New Jersey.
As a state assemblywoman, she sponsored New Jersey's first "wetlands" legislation, the Wetlands Act of 1970, aimed at protecting some of our most vulnerable saltwater areas. She also sponsored the Pesticides Control Act, the Municipal Conservation Act, the National Lands Trust and the Appalachian Trail Easement all bills whose goals were the preservation of natural resources.
The Environmental Quality Act, which she also sponsored, made it a law for state agencies seeking construction funds to first submit detailed project studies to the state Department of Environmental Protection for approval.
She also supported equal opportunity for women long before the word "feminist" was coined.
But it was the environment, the beauty of nature, that stirred this farm girl most deeply, and her passion for it didn't lessen even in her last year or so, when the plants nearest to her were Boston ferns, a Christmas cactus and pots of ivy, and the closest she got to the outdoors were the vistas of lawns and gardens and trees seen through the windows of her room. During those months, she kept a small library of books within arm's reach among them Gov. Tom Kean's The Politics of Inclusion, James Herriot's Dog Stories, The Fine Art of Political Wit and several volumes detailing the laws of New Jersey. And, in their midst, were Cam Cavanaugh's Saving the Great Swamp, the Directory of Certified N.J. Nurseries and Plant Dealers, New Jersey: A Photographic Journey, by John Cunningham and Walter Choroszewski and several well-worn (and, no doubt, well-loved) garden books.
There was something symbolic about the snow that fell as Josephine Margetts was laid to rest last week. For as it covered the lawns and shrubs and gardens she knew and loved, it also blanketed every square inch of the state she knew and loved and whose natural beauty and precious resources she worked so devotedly to preserve.”
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