Today we celebrate a man who revealed the medicinal properties of Digitalis or Foxglove.
We'll also learn about an English author and gardener who wrote about the gardens of her life, and she turns 88 years old today.
We hear an excerpt about a Scientist, Explorer, revolutionary, and Outcast who became one of New Zealand's Great Explorers.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book about high-end garden design.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a story about the man who revived the town, Landscapes and gardens of Colonial Williamsburg.
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March 17, 1741
Today is the birthday of the English botanist geologist, physician, and chemist William Withering.
William became the very first person to study the bioactivity of the flower known as Digitalis or Foxglove.
In this respect, William's training as a physician served him well. And the story goes that one day, he noticed a person suffering from what was then called dropsy, which is an old word for a person who's suffering from congestive heart failure.
Now, in this particular case. William observed that the patient in question showed remarkable improvement after taking a traditional herbal remedy that included Digitalis or Foxglove.
Now William gets the credit for discovering the power of Digitalis because he studied the various ingredients of this old herbal remedy. He determined that it really was the Digitalis that made all the difference when it came to heart issues.
In 1785, William published his famous work called an account of the Foxglove and some of its medical uses. Now Foxgloves are a beautiful plant for the ornamental or cottage garden. These are plants that produce beautiful tall flower spikes. And each spike can contain 20 to 80 purple to pink flowers that are tubular and whitish on the inside.
Now Foxgloves are a toxic plant, and if you eat any part of the plant, it can result in severe poisoning. And this is important to know because when Foxglove first emerges out of the ground, it can be confused for comfort or plantation. Since both of those plants are used as edible plants by many people - it's important to be able to distinguish them and to remember where you're planting Foxglove in your garden.
The fact that the Foxglove so closely resembles Plantain when it first comes out of the ground is a helpful way for gardeners to remember that Foxglove is in the Plantain family.
In addition to the common name, Foxgloves, Digitalis has many adorable common names, including Fairy Fingers, Fairy Thimbles, Rabbits Flower, and Scotch Mercury.
And there's a delightful old legend about the Foxglove, and it goes like this, that bad fairies gave the blossoms to a Fox who needed to put the flowers on his toes so that he could muffle the sound of his feet, as he hunted for prey.
And here's another fun fact about the Foxglove: it's a cousin to another beloved cottage garden flower, the Snapdragon or Antirrhinum majus ("ant-er-EYE-num MAY-jus").
Now, with regard to its toxicity, which is a very legitimate concern. The gardener and garden writer, Katharine S. White, wrote this:
“At a very early age, I remember, I was to recognize what plants are to be avoided completely. At a very early age, I remember I was taught how to recognize and stay away from deadly nightshade, poison ivy, and poison sumac. (I was, just as early, taught the delights of chewing tender young checkerberry leaves and sassafras root.)
To me, it would be ridiculous, though, not to grow monkshood, foxglove, hellebore, larkspur, autumn crocus, poppies, lilies of the valley, buttercups, and many other flowers now present in my borders just because they have some poison in them.”
So as you can see the Foxglove is in good company when it comes to toxic plants.
Now when the botanical illustrator Walter Crane painted flowers, he often personified them. And when he drew the Foxglove, he did not draw it alone - he drew a Foxglove family. And he wrote,
"The Foxgloves are a happy group, comprised of cousins and brothers and sisters."
And finally, the English author and poet Meta Orred wrote,
Her lips like foxgloves, pink and pale,
Went sighing like an autumn gale;
Yet, When the sunlight passed by,
They opened out with half a sigh.
Her smile, the last faint vesper light
As swoons the eve to sleep away,
Remaining through the summer night
A lamp of love by which to pray.
March 17, 1933
Today is the birthday of the great British writer of fiction for both children and adults, Dame Penelope Margaret Lively - so that makes her 88 years young today. Happy birthday, Penelope.
Penelope wrote one of my favorite garden books. It's called life in the garden, and I found myself enthralled with this book from the very first chapter. If you don't own a copy, get one, and you will love it - not only for what's written on the inside but also for the beautiful botanical cover on the outside.
Penelope’s writing often reflects on common themes like life and memory, and time.
And in this book, in particular, Penelope writes about one of her passions: gardening.
Now, Penelope had the unique experience of growing up in a home in Cairo, Egypt, where she experienced the joy and wonder of a courtyard garden. And then she moved to a family cottage in Somerset.
As an adult, her own gardens flourished, and Oxford and London.
Now, as someone who loves botanical history and literature, what I especially appreciate about Penelope’s book is that she not only shares her own garden experience but also she takes us on a garden tour. We get to experience great gardens like Sissinghurst. And we also get to learn a little bit about creative people who loved to garden, like Virginia Woolf and Philip Larkin.
And it was Penelope Lively, who said one of my all-time favorite garden quotes. She uses the word “elide,” which means to suppress or strikeout. She said,
“To garden is to elide past, present, and future. It is an act of defiance of time.”
As his former friend made his way down the street, Ernst was reminded of a line out of Darwin's Researches. Writing of the climber’s expectation in the ascent of a mountain, Darwin had said that the promise lay with the projection of the climber and that what was withheld would always outstrip what was granted.
What was withheld would always outstrip what was granted.
What was granted? Ernst reflected on his life. The ordinary business of it. The illnesses and the sunny days. The delivery at the kitchen door. The sound of rain upon the bedroom glass. What was withheld was the sense behind the living. The dream that never ceased. And, of course, the end of the arrow’s flight. And watching Klaus make his way along the footpath, Ernst saw what a blessing this withholding was, too. For who would continue with the project of living if they could see straight to its end.
— Thom Conroy, The Naturalist
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2018, and the subtitle is Best-designed Gardens and Parks on the Planet.
Here's what the publisher wrote about this book:
Discover the greatest in garden design: Garden Design Review is the inaugural edition of an exclusive new compendium of the most outstanding projects and products in garden planning and landscape architecture around the world. A garden not only extends living space outdoors; it also enhances the quality of life.
This illustrated garden book presents more than 50 contemporary garden projects from some of the most internationally renowned landscape architects and garden designers.
Now the featured gardens are profiled with beautiful photographs and interviews with the garden designers and the landscape architects, and they share their work process in detail. They include the concept for the property, the materials that they used, and their plant choices. So this book makes for a wonderful behind-the-scenes tutorial.
This book is 256 pages of an indispensable garden guide for professional garden designers and landscape architects as well as home gardeners looking for luxury inspiration.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
March 17, 1928
It was on this day that the pioneering landscape architect, Arthur Shurcliff began working on the Colonial Revival Gardens that ended up making Colonial Williamsburg a world-famous attraction.
Just after he received his degree in mechanical engineering from MIT, Arthur discovered the field of landscape architecture, and he couldn't let it go. Now back when Arthur was in school, there were no formal degree programs for Landscape Architecture. And so Arthur ended up cobbling together his own curriculum at the Lawrence School of Science at Harvard.
The massive project at Williamsburg was funded by John D Rockefeller, and Arthur's mission was staggering: a total community restoration.
By the time that Arthur took over the project on this day, St. Patrick's day, in 1928, he already had over 30 years of experience in the field.
Of course, it wasn't just the buildings that needed restoration; it was the land, paths, streets, gardens, and green spaces. And Arthur kept detailed notes about the transformation and his daily quest to uncover the past.
And one of my favorite diary entries from Arthur about this project said,
“Wednesday morning saw me in the old-fashioned gardens in the heart of the town.
These old places… now gone to decay are filled with a kind of golden glory which is lacking in the new gardens.
The old lattice trellises, ruined box hedges, and even the weed-grown paths seem to have the glamor of the sunshine from the olden days.”
Thanks to Arthur, every aspect of the town of Williamsburg was fully researched. When it came to garden plants and plant selection, Arthur insisted that authenticity was paramount. For example, Arthur's team actually searched for original fence post holes to determine the colonially accurate backyard. And in light of little details like that, it's no wonder that it took Arthur 13 years to finish the restoration of Williamsburg.
In researching Arthur, it's clear that every now and then, his passion could get the best of him. There's a funny story that I love to tell with regard to Arthur's experience and Williamsburg.
There was a woman in Williamsburg who lived at the St. George Tucker house. She kept her own diary, and she wrote, in January of 1931,
“Today, I was asked to go over the yard with Mr. Arthur Shurcliff…
I found him a very alarming person! Somehow the idea of changing the yard and garden is much more repellent to me than changing the house, and this is such a terribly enthusiastic man!”
And when Arthur returned in May, she wrote,
“[He came] down like a wolf on the fold again today. He rushed in and out... with charts and plans for all sorts of alarming ‘landscapes’ in our yard.
He has boxwood on the brain.”
She was right. Arthur's signature plant was the Boxwood, which he called “Box” for short. And for his Williamsburg make-over, Arthur required boatloads of Box.
“In replanting Williamsburg places, much use should be made of Box… even allowing it to dominate the parterres and bed traceries…
Generous use of Box in this manner [will define the] display and [help with the] upkeep of flowers especially in the dry season...”
Happily for Arthur, over the course of his time and Williamsburg, his charm eventually counteracted any hesitance by the townspeople caused by his exuberance.
When Colonial Williamsburg was revealed to the public in 1934, Arthur's Colonial Revival style gardens complete with Boxwood caused a sensation.
Soon Revival Garden Design appeared in suburbs all across America.
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