Today we celebrate the man who went to Mexico as an ambassador and sent back the plant that became synonymous with Christmas.
We'll also learn about a gardener who worked for 50 years to create one of England’s top gardens.
We hear a charming account of spring’s flower show.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a fantastic book for gardeners looking to ferment their harvest this year.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a sweet little story about the State Flower of Idaho.
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March 2, 1779
Today is the birthday of the physician, botanist, and American statesman, Joel Roberts Poinsett.
In the 1820s, President John Quincy Adams appointed Joel to serve as a US ambassador in Mexico. Joel was introduced to a beautiful plant that the Aztecs called the cuetlaxochitl (“qwet-la-SHO-chee-til”) but today it's better known as the Poinsettia.
The Aztecs used to extract a purple dye from the Poinsettia, which they used for decorative purposes. Like euphorbias, the Poinsettia has a white sap that the Aztecs used that white sap to treat wounds, skin diseases, and fever which is how it got the common name “Skin Flower.” The Aztecs also used the leaves of the Poinsettia to make a tea to increase breast milk in nursing mothers. In warm climates like Mexico, the poinsettia grows year-round and can grow up to 16 feet tall.
In 1825, when Joel Poinsett sent clippings back home to South Carolina, botanists had new common names for the plant: “the Mexican Fire Plant” or “the Painted Leaf.”
The botanist Karl Wilenow (“Vill-ah-no”) named the Poinsettia the Euphorbia pulcherrima. Pulcherrima means “very beautiful.”
And already in 1836, English newspapers were reporting about the Poinsettia in great detail:
"Poinsettia Pulcherrima, the bracts which surround the numerous flowers, are of the most brilliant rosy-crimson color, the splendor of which is quite dazzling. Few, if any of the most highly valued beauties of our gardens, can vie with this.
Indeed, when we take into consideration the profuse manner in which it flowers, the luxuriance of its foliage, and the long duration of the bracts, we are not aware of any plant more deserving in all select collections than this lovely and highly prized stranger."
Every year, on December 12th, the day Joel Poinsett died, we celebrate National Poinsettia Day.
March 2, 1875
Today is the birthday of the head gardener at Warley Place, John Jacob Mauerer.
Jacob’s story is intertwined with the enormously wealthy English horticulturalist Ellen Ann Willmott, who was 17 years older than him.
In 1875, the year Jacob was born, Ellen’s parents moved to Warley Place, a beautiful natural property set on 33 acres of land in Essex. As it turned out, Ellen lived there for the rest of her life.
Every member of the Willmott family loved gardening, Ellen’s parents often invited the Swiss botanist and world-renown alpine specialist Henri Corravon to be a guest in their home.
When Ellen’s wealthy aunt and godmother, Countess Helen Trasker, died, Ellen inherited some significant money. And when her father died, Ellen became the owner of Warley Place. With her large inheritance and the keys to the property she had grown to love, Ellen planted to her heart's content. Ellen also quickly hired over 100 gardeners to help transform Warley Place into one of the world's top botanical gardens.
One time, while Ellen was visiting Henri Corravon’s nursery in Switzerland, she learned that he was quite pleased with a new gardener named Jacob. After watching him work, Ellen hired him away with a promise to provide him a retirement package, which included a house to live in and a pension of £1 per week. The year was 1894, and Jacob Mauerer was 19 years old when he left Switzerland for Warley Place.
Well, Ellen proved to be a hard taskmaster and a cold, unfeeling boss. She fired any gardener who was deemed responsible for allowing a weed to grow in one of her beds. And, Ellen once derided her own sex, saying,
“Women would be a disaster in the border.” (and by that, she meant the garden.)
Ellen blew through her inheritance quickly. She used her money to set up three lavish homes - each with impressive gardens of their own: one in France, one in Italy, and Warley Place. And Ellen also funded trips for plant explorers like Ernest Henry Wilson, and in return, she not only received the latest plants, but many were named in her honor.
For all her fortune and connections, Ellen died penniless and heartbroken. Ellen had been wreckless with her spending, and her personality could be distasteful, haughty, and demanding.
By the mid-1900s, Ellen’s top breeders began to leave Great Warley. Jacob became Ellen’s most trusted employee, and he stayed on with his large family living in a building on the property called South Lodge.
Today, while there are many people who long to restore Warley to its former glory, most folks forget that Ellen’s Warley Place was created on the backs of men like Jacob Mauerer, who worked unbelievable hours without recognition or regard.
Jacob raised his family at South Lodge in impoverished conditions on 18 shillings a week while he worked 6 days a week at Warley. To supplement the family’s food, Jacob grew onions, leeks, and potatoes, and he tended to these crops in the evening after his daily job was finished. Occasionally he would find partridge eggs on the edge of the pond. The eggs were the only bonus Jacob ever received. And while Jacob could write in English very well, he had trouble speaking English.
Jacob and his wife Rosina had four sons: Max, John Jacob Jr., Ernest, and Alfred. Their five daughters came next, and Jacob named them all after flowers: Rose, Violet, Lily, Marguerite, and Iris. Iris’s delivery was difficult, and Rosina developed tuberculosis and died a year later. Ellen tried to find a place for Rosina to get treatment, but when she couldn't find a facility, she did nothing else to help Rosina or Jacob’s family. Iris was born in May of 1917, and by the following May, Rosina died. She was just 34 years old.
The most heartbreaking passages from Ellen’s biography are when Audrey describes the conditions of Jacob’s work. Like when botanical guests from Kew and Universities would visit. While the distinguished guests could tell that Jacob was very knowledgeable and was an excellent gardener, they couldn’t understand him when he spoke during tours, and so invariably, they would just turn and leave him in the garden. All the credit for the garden would invariably go to Ellen. In fact, Gertrude Jekyll once said Ellen was,
"...the greatest living women gardener on the planet."
Today we know that feat was accomplished with the help of over a hundred men and by Jacob, who worked at Warley for half a century.
Then there was this passage that really gives a glimpse into Jacob’s life as the head gardener:
“Ellen would never actually cross the threshold of South Lodge, for it would have seemed to her a very undignified thing to do. Instead, she approached as nearly as she thought she could do without loss of face, and, standing just inside the yard but not inside the bones of the little hedge which separated off the vegetable garden, she would yell “Jacob! Jacob!” in a high-pitched authoritative staccato. At whatever time of the day or night, and whether or no he was in the middle of a meal, Jacob hastened to the call: he was bred to obey, and she expected it of him.”
There is so little information about Jacob that I put together a family tree for his family on Ancestry. I could see that he remarried the Warley Place caretaker’s daughter Maggie after losing his wife. I could see that he had died in Switzerland. What I discovered in Audrey’s book was that Jacob was 69 years old when his boss Ellen Willmott died, and Audrey describes what happened next to Jacob this way:
“Jacob suffered greatly from the dismembering… of the garden, he attended so faithfully… he sorrowfully packed up his beloved plants. (Apparently the whole garden was taken apart, boxed up, and shipped away.)
And he had the worry of what… to do when the estate was finally sold: he saw the promise of a little house and the 1 pound per week pension which had first persuaded him to leave Geneva fading before his eyes. He saw his life's work crumble.
[His] anxieties press too hard... He began to show fears of being followed and persecuted…
South Lodge was sold, and Jacob and his wife had to leave.
Jacob felt the need to return to his native Switzerland. There he lived with Maggie for two unhappy years of increasing mental anguish, until in the summer of 1937 he committed suicide — the bitter end of a lifetime of labor and a hard reward for a kindly and lovable man.”
Isn't that terribly sad?
Today, Warley Place is a wild nature reserve maintained by the Essex Wildlife Trust in England.
The goddess spring is thought of as being truly rural, but that is a mistake. She makes her first appearance in great stoney cities like New York. When the suburban garage roof is still white with frost, and the perennial bed is a glacier, spring comes to town.
Here, just around the corner from billion-dollar banks, are show windows filled with downy new-hatched chicks, and along the curb are thickets of naked young apple trees and clumps of bundled-up evergreens.
Further uptown... spring hires a hall and displays... a flower show. Bless her kind heart.
[And] in walk the familiar creatures loved of old, and wonderful blushing debutantes: a proud young Rose; a yellow Darwin tulip whose bulb is worth its weight in Silver; new sweet peas, showing off their lustrous frocks; dainty Primrose visitors from the old world; strange bright Gallardias from western deserts; new Gladioli from Nepal by way of Indiana; new Welsh daffodils Americanized in Virginia — all these move in spring’s procession.
“There is one thing about it,” says spring as she mops her fevered brow... “I don't have to [market] my goods. My customers like [everything] that I display. They are already persuaded.”
— Leonard H Robbins, Cure It With a Garden, Spring’s Fashion Show
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2014, and the subtitle is Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Vegetables & Herbs in Krauts, Kimchis, Brined Pickles, Chutneys, Relishes & Pastes.
In this book, Kristen and Christopher share how to make fermented foods, and with their straight-forward guidance, you’ll soon realize it is the easiest and most miraculous activity you’ll ever experiment with in your kitchen. The Shockey’s are pros when it comes to fermenting, and they share their top recipes for fermenting 64 different vegetables and herbs.
Fermentation is not a mystery, but it can be intimidating without a clear understanding. Kristen and Christopher’s step-by-step directions will help you master the process of lacto-fermentation - a classic preserving method - from brine and salt to techniques and seasoning. In addition to their tried and true recipes, Kristen and Christopher add suggestions, tips, and advice for each vegetable.
This book is 368 pages of fermentation basics that will help you create nutrient-dense live foods packed with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and probiotic goodness for you and your family.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
March 2, 1931
On this day, the Idaho State Flower was officially adopted: the Mock Orange.
In the 1800s the Mock Orange was known as the Syringa.
And the botanical name for Mock Orange Philadelphus Lewisii help us know that Meriwether Lewis discovered this plant on the Lewis and Clark expedition on the 4th of July in 1806.
Native Americans used the straight stems of Mock Orange to make Arrows which is how it earned the common name Arrowwood. Both the leaves and the bark contain the compound saponin, which tells us that Mock Orange is a natural source of soap.
Mock Oranges are a gardener’s favorite shrub, thanks to their beautiful flush of late spring/early fragrant summer flowers. A 1924 article said,
“The Mock Orange comes in the wake of the Lilac, a little more resplendent and more carefree... as if to ease our sense of loss for that fair daughter of the springtime.”
And I thought you would enjoy learning how the Mock Orange came to be the State Flower of Idaho:
The story centers on a woman named Emma Sarah Edwards. Emma’s father, John Edwards, had served as the Governor of Missouri. John and his wife Emma Jeanne had raised Emma in Stockton, California. As a young woman, Emma had attended an art school in New York. But, on her trip back home to California, she stopped in Boise to visit friends. Her visit ended up being a turning point in her life when she landed a job as an art teacher.
To her surprise and delight, Emma won the state contest for her design of the Idaho State Seal, which Emma described this way:
“The State Flower, the wild syringa, the Mock Orange grows at a woman’s feet while the ripened wheat grows as high as her shoulders.”
Well, Emma lived the rest of her days in Idaho. And she had the distinct honor of being the only woman to design a state seal.
In 1957, Emma’s signature and the Mock Orange was removed from the seal when it was updated by the artist Paul Evans. But, in 1994, after a public outcry, Emma’s name was restored to the state seal - along-side Paul’s. However, the Mock Orange, the State Flower of Idaho, did not get put back on the seal and it remains omitted to this day.
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