“What a chaos of beauty there is upon a June morning! Standing in the midst of the garden one experiences a sort of breathlessness of soul.” (Louise Beebe Wilder, 1918)
This week I combined another botanical garden tour with a favorite gardening book. On this trip, I’ve brought along Adventures in My Garden and Rock Garden, by Louise Beebe Wilder.
The garden, Leach Botanical Gardens, introduces us to another grand old lady of gardens—Lilla Leach.
I just discovered ‘Lilla’ a couple of years ago, and have visited her garden now several times since, but ‘Louise’ has been my garden companion and mentor for over thirty years.
There are many pictures of Lilla to be had, but as for the authoress of my book–Louise Beebe Wilder–? I cannot tell you. Her likeness remains elusive. Not even Google has the power to conjure up her image. [update: I have unearthed some glimpses of her]
She was described by contemporaries as ‘contagiously charismatic’, with deep-set eyes in a round face.
Yet her words are with us. The image of her garden is with us. Her passion, vision and enthusiasm is still with us.
I once planted a rose for the charismatic, faceless Louise.Lilla Irvin Leach (1886-1980) studied botany at the University of Oregon before she was married in 1913 to John Leach. He had been wooing her for some time, but was finally successful when he promised he could take her on plant hunting expeditions where no other botanist could go. The way to a girl’s heart…
In time, they bought the property on Johnson Creek that would become her botanical garden playground, and John built her a lovely manor house they named Sleepy Hollow.
Meanwhile, on the eastern coast, during this same period, Louise Beebe Wilder was creating her own garden adventures in the beautiful walled garden of Balderbrae. Louise was and still is ‘widely recognized for her inspired writing, her profound horticultural expertise, and the sage yet sensible advice her many books conveyed.’ [From the introduction to a reprint of Colour in My Garden, written by Lynden B. Miller]
Though written between the end of World War I and 1938, the garden books of Louise Beebe Wilder are still sought after and treasured by gardeners everywhere. It is curious, in a way, as she writes in that quaint, old-fashioned style that is supposed to be no longer readable.
Yet Louise is eminently readable…her descriptions of color are unparalleled. In writing of ‘the thin scarlet glare‘ of the Oriental poppy, she employs, not just terms of coloration, but dimension and the quality of light, as well. Such images stay with us, clinging to our thoughts as though we had just experienced the sensory-rich poppy, and not merely read about it.
Her flowers are lovingly described in poetic terms as wanton, elfin, shy, soft-breathed; while weeds are thugs, miscreants, lascivious, incorrigible and embarrassingly fertile; new plants are ‘babies’ and ‘tender tuftlets’. You know where you are in Louise’s garden. And a good thing, too, for the air throbs thrillingly, and the ground pulsates with possibilities.
Writing styles ebb and flow with the fashions as do hairstyles and fad diets, yet the faint air of Victoriana that clings to Louise’s prose merges so beautifully with her crisply stated scientific and horticultural authority that we are carried along effortlessly; smiling, taking notes, and enriching nurseries both near and far as we follow our new dreams.
The particular book chosen for this garden tour is slightly significant. Adventures in My Garden and Rock Garden is the third of Louise Beebe Wilder’s gardening books, but represents a huge change in her life. Gone is Balderbrae, the dreamy garden of her early married years. (my dream garden, as well). In the post World War I era, everything has changed.
Well, everything except Louise’s passion for gardening.
This wistfulness for the old garden, yet excitement for the new suburban garden, is everywhere peppered throughout the lovely prose of her text. I am glad for her, as I can’t help but miss the old Balderbrae walled garden, and regret the loss even as I read of her new resolves.
‘The new garden is now entering upon its second summer, and as I look out across its blossomy expanse this blue June day I know that we are off on a very gay adventure indeed; that excitements lie before us not dreamed of in the old garden, that rewards are here to be won; that buried in the old pasture are limitless potentialities of blessing and beauty; that the dark earth itself is thrilling to its core with its newly released power to arise in spires of Larkspur, to laugh out in Roses, to cradle soft young grass, where so lately, and for so long, rank weeds and briars fought and bickered, choking its aspirations toward higher expression.’
I love her spirit, and how she freely uses the word ‘adventure’ in her garden writing. No less than three of her many books on gardening have ‘Adventure’ in the title:
Adventures in My Garden and Rock Garden (1924)
Adventures in a Suburban Garden (1931)
Adventures With Hardy Bulbs (1936)
Both Lilla and Louise were women who were bold in their outlook; visionary woman who loved plants and considered their discovery, acquisition and placement of these as ‘adventures’.
Decades before Euell Gibbons was stalking the wild asparagus, Lilla was astride her burro Violet and penetrating deep into the Kalmiopsis wilderness in pursuit of the elusive Erythronium revolutum, while Louise Beebe Wilder was On the Trail of the Evening Primrose, and rushing ‘recklessly hatless to the garden’ toward ‘this elemental tenderness’ called Spring.
On the website about Lilla and John Leach we read:
‘Lilla and John, with their burros Pansy and Violet, reportedly traveled more than 1,000 miles of primitive trails on their Siskiyou expeditions. It was there, on June 14, 1930, that Lilla made her most important discovery, a pink-flowered shrub in the Heath Family, never before noted by botanists. Lilla later wrote that when she spotted the plant beside the trail, she writes:..”[I] dropped to my knees … I had never seen anything so beautiful before.” She believed at once that she had discovered a new species.’
Many plants that have made us ‘drop to our knees’ with delight were the result of enthusiastic plant explorers such as Lilla Leach.
As to that, many plants that entered my own personal gardens of the past were a direct result from my reading of Louise. I fell completely in love with her description of the Thalictrum family of plants—‘those gossamer, ethereal things’; I pined for the ‘bluest flame’ of Fringed Gentian, and she even had me reconsider the humble Pinks (dianthus spp.).
Concerning the Dianthus glacialis, she frankly admits, with wry humor:
‘Mrs. Wolcott reports this plant as amiable in her garden. It has never been so with me, resisting my most ingratiating advances and callously passing into the beyond under my imploring gaze. I refer you to Mrs. Wolcott.’
Reading Louise gave me a new appreciation for poppies— ‘They will live ardently’—and even a life lesson in her admonishments for their care:
‘The Alpine Poppy is a most hardy and sturdy small creature. It wants no coddling…no fat, clogging food; and he who seeks thus to tempt them is doomed to speedy bereavement.’
[note to self: keep my stash of chocolate truffles out of sight of the Alpines]
Reading Louise made me want more toads:
‘Toads.. should be encouraged in the garden, for they have hearty appetites and devour countless insects, and they do no harm to plants. We have entertained for several years the fattest and solemnest toad I ever saw. Every spring, early in May, he appears from the same corner of the garden, a trifle depleted after his winter sleep, but soon to be his corpulent self again, for he loses no time in getting to work on the fat insect fare which he loves.’
Reading Louise alerted me to the fact that there was something unnatural in a yellow ‘evergreen’. I had never noticed this anomaly before. Do we really want something that is ‘ever-yellow’? She flatly states:
‘For the yellow evergreen I have no use unless it be to point a moral or adorn a tale….and when an evergreen is not only yellow but weeps in a dejected, stringy way, as does Retinispora filifera aura, I think we are come to a strange pass in our admirations and enjoyments. I can take no pleasure in these sallow lamentations.’
Oh, is it any wonder we love Louise?
We are not lost to all yellows, though. Reading Louise gave me a new appreciation for soft mists of sulfurous yellow, paired with glaucous foliage; she introduced me to the possibilities of glaucous as, not only a color, but a texture, as well. The curious charm of buttery yellow Dutchman’s breeches paired with dare-I-say-diaphanous-clouds of blue campanula, on her recommendation, gave me much pleasure for years.
It was from Reading Louise—in the chapter ‘Magenta the Maligned’ that I became aware that magenta was a ‘dear, besmirched hue,’ associated with a sort of floral original sin and that even Mrs. Earle… [Alice Morse Earle]
‘…usually so sympathetic and tender toward all flowers, says that even the word magenta, seen often in the pages of her charming book, “makes the black and white look cheap”.’
Who knew? This made me rethink my lipstick.
Truly, the charm of reading old gardeners lies, not just in their expertise, but in their opinions. They Knew Things, and spoke with a clear voice. They were passionate, driven, experienced, and often prejudiced in curious ways.
In coming back around to the musings of Nan Fairbrother discussed in my last post, Green Thoughts, in reading Louise we find no hesitation, second thoughts, no philosophical hair-splitting, for on the matter of why gardening brings value to life, and how it contributes to happiness, she is quite forthright.
‘This is happiness,’ she says.
‘In the old world’, writes Louise, ‘gardening is recognized not only as a science, but as a high art…it seems to me, in my enthusiasm, that there could be no more uplifting and refining influence, not only upon the family life, but upon the nation at large.’
‘It was John Sedding whose beautiful and appreciative book on “Garden Craft” I earnestly commend to all lovers of the subject, who speaks of the garden as a “sweetener of human existence.”
Quoting again from John Sedding, she writes:
…. ‘he says: “Apart from its other uses, there is no spot like a garden for cultivating the kindly social virtues. Its perfectness puts people upon their best behavior. Its nice refinement secures the mood for politeness. Its heightened beauty produces the disposition that delights in what is beautiful in form and colour. Its queenly graciousness of the mien inspires the reluctant loyalty of even the stoniest mind. Here, if anywhere, will the human hedgehog unroll himself and deign to be companionable.’
I no longer have either of my gardens where I ‘unroll myself’. I do have a windowsill garden that houses a few herbs such as basil, parsley and mint…or what I might call in Louise-speak ‘the animating spirits of salad and soup’.
But there are always consolations, for in June…. ‘so prodigal, so extravagant of all that makes the world beautiful…’ what more can be said of this season that is ‘as maddening as it is lovely’?
In June, read Louise.