Today we celebrate a woman who became a renowned floral artist late in life.
We'll also learn about an English poet and politician who loved nature.
We’ll recognize some of the final sentiments about the wonder of nature from a television dramatist, screenwriter, and journalist.
We hear an adorable excerpt about growing a mitten tree.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book about a botanist who loved the gardens, landscapes, and ecology of the Southern Coastal Plain.
And then, we’ll wrap things up with the story of the scientist who helped with the first color photograph.
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How Constance Spry radicalized the art of floristry | House & Garden | Fiona McKenzie Johnston
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May 17, 1700
Today is the birthday of the botanical tissue paper decoupage artist Mary Delany.
Mary Delany led an extraordinary life. When she was 17, her family had forced her to marry a sixty-year-old man. Mary soon discovered he was an alcoholic. To make matters worse, when he died, Mary’s husband forgot to include her in his will.
Despite her lack of inheritance, Mary quickly realized that, as a widow, she had much more freedom than she had had as a young single woman.
Fate brought fortune for Mary, met and fell in love with an Irish doctor and pastor named Patrick Delany. They married in June 1743. Although her family wasn't thrilled with the idea of a second marriage, Mary did it anyway. She and Patrick moved away to his home in Dublin. Patrick’s garden was a thing of beauty, and Mary wrote to her sister:
"[The] fields are planted in a wild way, forest trees and … bushes that look so natural... you would not imagine it a work of art ... [There is] a very good kitchen garden and two fruit gardens which ... will afford us a sufficient quantity of everything we can want. There are several prettinesses I can't explain to you — little wild walks, private seats, and lovely prospects. One seat I am particularly fond of [is] in a nut grove, and [there is] a seat in a rock … [that] is placed at the end of a cunning wild path. The brook ... entertains you with a purling rill."
After twenty-five years of wedded bliss, Patrick died. Mary was widowed again, this time at the age of 68. But Mary's life was not over.
In another stroke of luck, Mary hit it off with the wealthy Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, and together they pursued botanical activities. The two women loved to go out into the fields and collect specimens.
Through the Duchess that Mary got to know Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.
When Mary was in her early 70s, she took up decoupage - which was all the rage at the time - and she created marvelous depictions of flowers. Today, historians believe Mary probably dissected plants to create her art. Botanists from all over Europe would send her specimens. King George III and Queen Charlotte were her patrons. They ordered any curious or beautiful plant to be sent to Mary when in blossom to use them to create her art.
Her paper mosaics, as Mary called them, were made out of tissue paper. Mary created almost 1000 pieces of art between the ages of 71 and 88.
If you ever see any of her most spectacular decoupage pieces, you'll be blown away at the thought of them being made from tiny pieces of tissue paper by Mary Delany in the twilight of her life in the late 1700s.
May 17, 1824
On this day, the diaries of the English Romantic poet, satirist, and politician, Lord Byron, are burned by six of his friends.
The act intended to protect his privacy has also been described as “the greatest crime in literary history.”
The loss likely impacted botanical literature as Lord Byron also wrote about gardens and nature.
Lord Byron famously wrote:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
May 17, 1935
Today is the birthday of the English television dramatist, screenwriter, and journalist Dennis Potter.
Best known for his two hit movies, Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986), Dennis sat down for an interview with Melvyn Bragg, and it was titled Seeing the Blossom.
At the time. Dennis was at the end of his life. He was dying from pancreatic cancer. And in a brave and incredibly candid move, he spoke about what his life was like, knowing that the end of his life was near and how it gave him a heightened appreciation for what was going on around him. He said,
“. . . Now at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early is a plum tree, it looks like an apple blossom but it's white. And looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ...Now, last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were — and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.”
Finding missing mittens is hard work.
It would be easier to grow new ones!
Let’s try planting the other mitten right here in the garden. Next spring, when the snow melts, a little mitten tree might sprout.
Miss Seltzer and I would take good care of it all summer long.
In the fall, we’d pick the ripe mittens.
Then I’d give mittens on Christmas.
And mittens on birthdays.
And mittens on Valentine’s Day!
― Steven Castle Kellogg, American author, and illustrator of over 90 children's books, The Missing Mitten Mystery
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2008, and the subtitle is Roland McMillan Harper, Pioneering Botanist of the Southern Coastal Plain.
In this book, Elizabeth shares the first full-length biography of the accomplished botanist, documentary photographer, and southern coastal plain explorer Roland McMillan Harper who was born in 1878.
The celebrated plant scientist of the New York Botanical Garden, Bassett Maguire, said that Roland had "the greatest store of field experience of any living botanist of the Southeast.”
And yet, the years obscured Roland’s scientific contributions, including his unique insights on wetlands and fire. Along with his brother Francis, Roland traced William Bartram's route through Alabama and the Florida panhandle.
And in his work describing plant species and writing papers, Roland corresponded with the leading botanists of his time, including Nathaniel Britton, Hugo de Vries, and Charles Davenport.
This book is 296 pages of the life story of a maverick botanist from the north who fell in love with the gardens, landscapes, and ecology of the Southern Coastal Plain.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
May 17, 1861
On this day, the first color photograph was taken.
The picture was of a tartan ribbon displayed by Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell to the Royal Institution in London.
Maxwell is remembered for his formulation of the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation.
In 1922, when Albert Einstein visited the University of Cambridge, his host announced that he had done great things because he stood on Isaac Newton's shoulders.
Einstein corrected him when he replied, "No, I don't. I stand on the shoulders of Maxwell."
In 1879 James Clerk Maxwell wrote a letter to his friend William Thompson.
It's a letter gardeners can delight in, and it was titled Peacocks as Gardeners.
We got our original stock from Mrs McCunn, Ardhallow.
At that time (1860), the garden there was the finest on the coast and the peacocks sat on the parapets & banks near the house.
Mr. McCunn was very fond of his garden and very particular about it, but he also cared for his peacocks...
Whenever he went out, he had bits of bread and such for them.
Mrs. Maxwell (my wife) always gets the peacocks to choose the gardener and they have chosen one who has now been seven years with us.
At seed time (in the garden) they are confined in a [little house] where they have some Indian corn and water. When the hen is sitting, she is not [confined], for she keeps to her nest and nobody is supposed to know where that is, but she comes once a day to the house and calls for her dinner and eats it and goes back to her nest at once.
The peacocks will eat the young cabbages, but the gardener tells them to go...
They find it pleasanter to be about the house and to sit on either side of the front door.”
A professor and researcher, James, once likened the work of academia to the life of bees, writing,
“In a University we are especially bound to recognise not only the unity of science itself, but the communion of the workers in science. We are too apt to suppose that we are congregated here merely to be within reach of certain appliances of study, such as museums and laboratories, libraries and lecturers, so that each of us may study what he prefers. I suppose that when the bees crowd round the flowers it is for the sake of the honey that they do so, never thinking that it is the dust which they are carrying from flower to flower which is to render possible a more splendid array of flowers, and a busier crowd of bees, in the years to come. We cannot, therefore, do better than improve the shining hour in helping forward the cross-fertilization of the sciences.”
Isn’t that a grand way to look at the legacy of your work?
This past week, I’ve been putting together my roster of student gardeners for 2021. As we work together during the summer, we end every session with 10 minutes of photography. The kids capture incredible color images with their phones. James Clerk Maxwell would be delighted.
I am delighted at how easy it is for them to share their images of my garden with my iPhone using the airdrop feature. But in terms of legacy, think for a moment of the typical teenager’s camera roll on their phone. It’s loaded with memes, selfies, pets, and friends. Maybe a sibling or two. But after a summer of working in my garden, these kids will have hundreds of images of flowers, landscapes, leaves, stones, water, raindrops, insects, and Sonny.
How do we get kids interested in horticulture? We have to change what they see every day. We have to get flowers on their phones.
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