February 23, 2021 The Father of the RBGE Archives, Agnes Arber, Marion Delf-Smith, English Cottage Gardening by Margaret Hensel, and the Very Best Flowers for Drying

Show Notes

Today we celebrate a woman known as the Lady of Botany, yet today few people know her life story, and fewer still appreciate her difficult professional journey.

We'll also learn about another female botanist who started one of the first degreed botany programs for women in England.

We hear a story about a mink who set up residence in a winter garden from an avid gardener and writer.

We Grow That Garden Library™ with a delightful book about Cottage Gardening. What could be more charming?

And then we’ll wrap things up with the story of a dried flower expert who created everlastings for celebrities and he also shares some of his favorite flowers to preserve for long-term joy and delight.



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Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour (1853-1922) – An Appreciation | RBGE.org |  Leonie Paterson


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Important Events

February 23, 1879
Today is the birthday of the British plant morphologist and anatomist, botanical historian, and philosopher of biology Agnes Arber.

Since her father was the artist Henry Robertson, Agnes learned to draw as a child, and throughout her life, she illustrated all of her own botanical work. Agnes’ mom, also an Agnes, fostered her love of plants.

Mentored and befriended by the botanist Ethel Sargent, Agnes mastered the microscope. Ethel was a profound role model in Agnes’ life. She not only taught Agnes her earliest lessons in botany, but she also modeled a unique approach to her work because Agnes watched Ethel successfully conduct her work in a small laboratory she had built in her home. Later, when Anges wrote her first book on her dear monocots (which are grass or grass-like flowering plants), she dedicated her work to the woman who was godmother to her only child Muriel Agnes Arber and the brightest beacon in her botanical career and: Ethel Sargent.

In 1909, Agnes married a paleobotanist, Edward Alexander Newell Arber, of Trinity College at Cambridge. And it was thanks in part to Edward that Agnes moved to Cambridge from London and made a life there. Edward promised Agnes that “life in Cambridge offered unique opportunities for the observation of river and fenland plants.” Despite Edward’s appeal, for Agnes, Cambridge was tough. Cambridge was a much harder place for a female botanist than London - where Agnes would have had more opportunities, connections, and acceptance.

Sadly, Agnes and Edward would be married for only nine years as Edward died in 1918. And so, before her 40th birthday, Agnes found herself both a widow and a single mother to six-year-old Muriel. After securing help with childcare and household duties, Agnes carried on with her botanical work -  she wrote constantly, she was poorly compensated for her work, and she never re-married.

A few years after Agnes arrived in Cambridge, she started working at the Balfour Laboratory, which was owned by Newnham College and was a place for teaching women. Now, the creation of this laboratory was a direct result of allowing women admittance into Cambridge. And although women could attend Cambridge, they could not go to labs or classes, and so the Balfour Lab became their only option for conducting experiments.

Over the 19 years that Agnes worked at Balfour, the female students gradually disappeared as classes and lab opportunities opened up for them in botany, chemistry, geography, etc. By 1925, Newnham College was ready to sell the lab to Cambridge; they needed the cash, and it seems only Agnes needed the lab.

Yet when Agnes reached out to Cambridge, both the University and the head of botany, Albert Seward, rejected her - suggesting she might seek out a space to work at the botanic garden.  And so, an accomplished botanist and the widow of a Cambridge professor no less was left with nowhere to work. And so, seven years after her husband’s death, Agnes, like her mentor and friend Ethel Sargent, set up a home laboratory in the back of her house over the kitchen. Agnes worked from home for the rest of her life.

A lover of researching whatever captured her curiosity, Agnes allowed her intellect to veer into areas seldom explored by her botanist peers, such as history, philosophy, poetry, and art. Yet, each of these disciplines molded and refined Agnes’s perspective on plant morphology, and they put her in a unique position to write her most impactful philosophical works in the twilight of her life. When it came time for Agnes to publish her final work, Cambridge snubbed her again when they declined to publish it. As per usual, Agnes persevered without the University’s help.

Agnes became interested in botanical history after reading the old herbals. In 1912, Agnes released a book called Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. Agnes's work reviewed the primary herbals written for a 200 year time period between 1470 and 1670. These beautiful books formed the basis for early botanical education, and, luckily for Agnes, many were housed at Cambridge. In her book, Agnes examined how the plant descriptions and illustrations evolved over time. An instant classic, Agnes forever changed the way herbals were reviewed and written.

In her philosophical work, The Mind and the Eye, Agnes argued that there was a blurred line between the science and art of botany. Botanists cannot fully capture a flower through data alone, just as the painter cannot paint all that a flower contributes to nature. Any gardener who sees their garden with their head and their heart can relate to Agnes’ philosophy.

When she was 67 years old, Agnes became the first female botanist to be elected as a Royal Society Fellow. Two years later, she became the first woman to receive the Linnean Society’s Gold Medal for her botanical work.

Known by many in her circle as the “Lady of Botany,” Agnes wrote,

“A record of research should not resemble a casual pile of quarried stone; it should seem "not built, but born,” as Vasari said in praise of a building.”

Today, you can toast Agnes with a gin made in the UK. The gin is made in her honor and it's called Agnes Arber gin. And it's made with nine botanicals, including angelica, cassia, coriander, grapefruit, iris, juniper, lemon, licorice, and orange. And I think Agnes would be especially touched by the beautiful hand-drawn botanical illustrations on the label of every bottle. If ever there was a female botanist that deserved to be toasted, I believe Agnes Arber fits the bill.


February 23, 1980
Today is the anniversary of the death of the British botanist and botanical pioneer Marion Delf-Smith.

A botanical trailblazer, Marion started the botany program at London's Westfield (a women’s college preparatory school) in 1906. To make the program a reality, Marion fundraised relentlessly, and then she bought everything the program needed to teach botany, mount specimens, store collections, and conduct fieldwork. Ultimately Westfield became one of the only places in the world where women could learn how to study botany. And in 1915, almost a decade after starting her degree program, Marion was finally able to award Bachelor’s degrees in botany to her students.

Sixty-Seven years after starting her botany program, Marion was honored by her students on the occasion of her 90th birthday. Marion died seven years later, on this day in 1980. She was 97 years old.

And there’s a lovely side note about Marion’s botanical career. At one point, Marion served as an editor for a botanical comedy magazine called "The Sportophyte." Marion’s poem,  "A Botanical Dream," was featured in a volume of The Sportophyte, and I thought I would share some quick definitions to help you appreciate her verse.

Gymnosperms produce seed cones like conifers and the Ginko.
The Medullosae and Pteridosperms are extinct plants in the seed-fern group.
Calamites are extinct swamp plants related to horsetails - except that they could grow as tall as a ten-story building.
Cryptogams are plants that reproduce by spores (not flowers or seeds).  
Sphenophyllum cones would refer to the spore-filled cone of an extinct group of plants that are a sister group to modern horsetails.
Finally, Palaeozoic is a reference to a long-ago era. The end of the Paleozoic period marked the most extraordinary extinction event on earth.

A Botanical Dream

Last night as I lay dreaming
There came a dream so fair
I stood mid ancient Gymnosperms
Beside the Ginkgo rare.

I saw the Medullosae
With multipartite fronds,
And watched the sunset rosy
Through Calamites wands.

Oh Cryptograms, Pteridosperms
And Sphenophyllum cones,
Why did ye ever fossilise
To Palaeozoic stones?


Unearthed Words

The most predaceous winter visitor we have had was a mink that took up residence under the woodpile one winter. The end of the pile was only 20 feet or so from the place where the drain pipe struck out of the pond, which tends to be open even when other areas of the pond are frozen. The Mink had found the perfect carryout restaurant right across from his winter Abode. We timed him: 20 seconds from leaving the woodpile to returning with a crayfish. We never saw him return empty-handed.
— Jo Busha, Time and the Garden, February


Grow That Garden Library

English Cottage Gardening by Margaret Hensel

This book came out in 2000, and the subtitle is For American Gardeners, Revised Edition.

In this book, Margaret shares everything she knows about English Cottage Gardening; and she’s as charming as her topic.

Margaret breaks down ten cottage gardens owned by everyday gardeners in England and America. By deliberately not focusing on estate gardens, Margaret shows Daily Gardeners how anyone can cultivate the charm of a cottage garden. With inspiring photographs, Margaret focuses on plants that are easy to grow and give the look cottage gardeners love - enchanted shapes and natural forms, gentle colors, and endearing varieties.

The last section of the book shares a glossary of 76 plant recommendations, including the Latin and common names, how to use them in the garden, as well as a list of places to find old rose varieties.

This book is 256 pages of an English Cottage Garden masterclass taught by a garden designer who loves to teach the most novice gardener to create enchanting gardens and vistas right outside their windows.

You can get a copy of English Cottage Gardening by Margaret Hensel and support the show using the Amazon Link in today's Show Notes for around $10 


Today’s Botanic Spark

Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart

February 23, 1991
On this day, the Hartford Courant shared an article written by Anne Farrow called Garden of Everlasting Delights.

This fantastic article features Gregg Fisk of Gregg Fisk Designs and his incredible dried arrangements and flower drying skills. Gregg’s creations are truly a cut above the rest, and his celebrity clients have included Barbara Streisand and Lady Bird Johnson. And a photo of one of his swags highlights outstanding features like small flower pots, hydrangea, globe amaranth, and love-in-a-mist.

Now as for Gregg’s favorite plants to grow for drying, here’s what Gregg suggests:

“Some of the basics are globe amaranth, the everlasting signifying immortality; American statice, a ruffle-edged annual that's durable and can be grown in a variety of colors; strawflowers; asters; zinnias; heather' in several different colors; and nigella, a flower with a delicate mauve seed head and a beautiful name: love-in-a-mist.

The current crop of books on growing flowers for drying also recommends hosta, the ubiquitous of shade-garden perennials; poppies, which have a globe-shaped seed case that dries easily, astilbe, ivy, baby's breath and the evocatively named money plant, which has a silvery, translucent seed case.

Another must-have for the home gardener is the rose. [Gregg] recommends planting a climbing rose, sometimes called the faerie rose… [which adds] a finished, old-fashioned appearance to dried arrangements.

From the herb family, [Gregg] chooses rosemary, which has a dark, blue-green needle and a wonderfully piney perfume; bay, for its fragrance; and both Silver King and Silver Queen artemisia. The artemisias, which really are silver-colored, look handsome and puffy in the garden and in dried arrangements.

The bright golden florets of yarrow, a perennial grown in the earliest New World gardens, is another of the herbs he always chooses, as are the low-growing lamb's ear, which has a velvety, gray-green leaf that is soft even when dried. Often shown in herb kits for children because it is so touchable, lamb's ears are particularly pretty in wreaths with a lot of pink flowers or placed in a bowl of homemade potpourri.

White lilacs can [hang-dry] easily and turn a pearlescent cream color.

Hydrangeas, too, can be hang-dried and then dyed in a variety of shades. Asters, a garden classic, dry beautifully in beach sand.

Experimentation teaches you a lot, [and Gregg] has found an ally in… the microwave oven.

Though the procedure for drying flowers in the "mike" is more complicated than simple hang-drying methods, the results, particularly with… peonies, daffodils, marigolds, and roses, justify the effort required. The special advantage of microwave flower drying is that the delicate natural color of the bloom is preserved because the drying time is a fraction of traditional methods.”


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