Eternity Was in That Moment

‘Each hour of the day sets free some lovely thing.’   —Louise Beebe Wilder

Seeds are life in miniature.

Not miniature like an atom, of course, but the kind of miniaturized beauty I can hold in my hand. Perfectly designed, yet diverse in shape and form, I can feel the texture, marvel over its simple complexity, delight in the ingenuity behind it, and finally, with wild abandon and seeming carelessness, scatter these fractionary bits of wonder to the four winds, knowing the future of color, bloom and fragrance has just been set aloft.

Seeds are a time capsule in miniature. Travel back in time via seeds. If you save seeds from your own harvests, you can give your senses a trip through the ages. Heirloom seed cultivating gives you a chance to savor the sort of cucumbers that a Roman emperor once fancied, or to smell the perfume that Cleopatra once had strewn about her rooms.

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The secret—the oh so marvelous secret—is held bound in these strange and lovely packets. For it is a secret, this life. We don’t understand it, we just benefit from it. A gift.

Seeds are eternity in miniature. They can freely distribute a sense of timelessness, and give regular infusions of hope. They are tiny powerhouses, manufacturing a future of food, color and fragrance. How fascinating is this miniature world—this little factory, really—busily working away unseen to our eyes! Or, to put it more mundanely, while we are doing dishes, driving to work, adding new batteries to our remote, or whatever else occupies our day, seeds are storing energy to feed us, wow us with fragrance, or dazzle us with color. Making us happy. All timed—all designed by a designer—to go off perfectly, in season, and sun or rain.

‘It is only to the gardener that time is a friend, giving each year more than he steals.’ — Beverley Nichols

In the world of design, there is always the underlying question—‘who did it first’? For design follows design. Biomimicry, biomimetics, call it what you will, it’s a fascinating subject.

Like seeds, ideas are nurtured, gathered, carefully stored, and passed on from one generation to another.

Do you know the Designer of this perfect gift? If you do, thank him. And share the bounty. Sow seeds of gratitude.


Additional notes:

For another example of a design and engineering marvel–the honeycomb–I loved this article.

Coming soon: Maurice on the Bee…

Quote credit in title: William Congreve

Moon Garden

‘Thoreau says it is necessary to see objects by moonlight as well as by sunlight to get a complete notion of them.’

My results to capture the lovely moon last night…looking more like the neighbor left his porch light on

Last night I toured my new garden space by the glow of the full moon. It was rising above the treeline, in all pale magnificence, and I hoped to absorb a bit of the silvered light that filtered down and transformed my ferns into fairy wands.

The lack of success in a fabulous tonal mood capture you can blame on my feeble photography skills, my iphone capacity, or the fact that the sweetly deafening symphony of the crickets disarmed my best intentions. (Have you ever tried to track down where crickets are chirping from? They are masters of ventriloquism!)

Gertrude Jekyll (1908) and Vita Sackville-West (writing in 1950) both popularized the idea of a ‘moon-garden’, or an all white and gray garden that would glow with luminosity by the light of the moon. And Beverley Nichols wrote in his Garden Open Tomorrow (1968):

“It has taken me over thirty years of tireless experiment to discover the glory of grey in the garden, to reach the stage where I can write that it now seems to me as important as any of the colours on the gardener’s palette, and maybe even more important.’

Yet no one wrote more compellingly about this subject than Louise Beebe Wilder.

garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

A selection of garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

Louise Beebe Wilder

In 1918 Wilder published what was to become her most popular gardening book, Color In My Garden. Her chapter entitled White Flowers in the Night Garden, is a masterpiece of evocative prose. In just a few well-crafted paragraphs, Wilder infuses about as much drama into a night-time walk in the garden as it is possible to have.

Re-reading this chapter, with the moon in mind, made me want to drop everything, rush out and begin to plant my night garden.

‘We are conscious of a powerful reserve in the graven beauty of the night garden. It gives us little, drawing into itself while yet it presses upon us with a curious impersonal insistence. Its stillness is more exciting than sound, and every small happening seems fraught with significance; the silent flitting of a moth, the delicate rush of a capricious breeze fixes all our attention.’

When Louise Beebe Wilder wrote of this garden, she was dreaming of the future. Her night garden had not yet been planted. Yet, as a seasoned gardener (and lover of color) she had spent many hours enjoying her garden by moonlight, and thus her comments have the note of authority.

‘And while we stand, held by the imperturbable personality of the night, the moon slips from her garment of clouds…lovely forms develop out of gloom and stand forth in ‘silvered symmetry’.

dogwoodwhiteflowers

All of this reminds me of Antinous. Let us step over for a moment to the giddily enthusiastic, slightly snarky, and utterly charming world of Beverley Nichols. If you have met him via his gardening books, then you have met Antinous.

‘Antinous is the only statue in my garden. Even if I wanted more statues, I should never be able to have them, because Antinous is so beautiful that he would put all the other statues to shame. They would fold their grey marble arms over their faces, and drift away, to hide in the woods.IMG_1075

My Antinous, I feel, is of a different class. He is very beautiful, in himself. He once stood in the garden of an old house in Bedford Square. He was covered with grime and his limbs seemed stained eternally. I saw him first after lunch on a grey day of February.

Was it joy or sorrow that I was to read in those silvered features?…But always he kept his secret — he remained a white and lovely enigma against the fathomless curtains of the night.’

Of course not all of us can have a cool marble statue that stands, luminous and otherworldly, in our small urban gardens. But we can plant white pools of flowers, if we have a bit of space, and give the moon a chance to exert its transforming power.

Or, as Louise puts it: ‘to release us from the stricture of the dark.’


Side note:

Reading Beverley Nichols, and his fixation with his garden statuary, gave me pause. Although thoroughly enjoyable to read about, I really wonder if it is true, as he claims (in A Thatched Roof) that he single-handedly was responsible for the expensive introduction of electrical power to the tiny hamlet of Allways. And all because he wanted a light to shine perpetually on Antinous. True? Does anyone know?

I have been a bit fascinated with garden statues, myself… or at least photograph them a great deal… see yesterday’s post here.

Mimosa Morning

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This morning I was unexpectedly transported to the French Riviera where I found myself eating candied mimosa blossoms of exquisite fragility.

This is what can happen when you start your day with a particularly absorbing book.

The funny thing is, if you google ‘mimosa’, the first array of images that come up are of the cocktail that features champagne and orange juice. Lovely for mornings but not a tree with blossoms. And I’m quite certain that if you google ‘morning mimosa’ Google would skip the tree reference entirely. (it is a lovely tree…) And if you google ‘candied mimosa’ you just get hungry for that promised delicate, ethereal crunch.

Reading by the light of early morning sun is a delight. First, you need an old book with fascinating, esoteric subject matter.  imageFlower Cookery by Mary MacNichol, (1967) is one of my treasures. If you need a recipe for pralined mimosa blossoms that hails from deep antiquity and the French Riviera, there it is, sandwiched in between Mignonette and Motherwort.

It even comes with a poem.

“Les Mimosas” the flower-girls cry as they offer us branches
along the curve of their sea a-bloom in the sunlight;
Like dust, like foam are the blooms, but many and golden
On branch that I hold in my hand…”  [Flower Pieces by Padraic Colum, 1938]

Since I am still immersed in Beverley Nichols—now that I have a garden again, and see my last post—I was reminded of how he loved mimosa blossoms.

‘The finest mimosa I ever saw…was so covered with blossom that it looked like an immense gold powder puff. One could stand under it, and gently shake the branches, so that the delicate dust drifted on to one’s head, and one enjoyed all the sensations of a blonde–whatever they may be.’   —Down The Garden Path

Reading by morning sunlight is enhanced if the book is old, with thick paper. The texture shows up beautifully in morning light, unlike some of us who, as we age, tend to avoid being seen before noon. The binding might creak a little as it turns and gives, expanding under the warmth of eastern sunlight,  but so does your easy chair. And perhaps your joints.

This, incidentally, is where an electronic device will let you down. Morning is not the time for harsh glare or flickering letters that seem to be forming themselves (ahem, page ‘refreshing’)  anew each moment. No, for this exercise one must have textured pages of real paper, all showing their age very well in bright sunlight.OldBookStack

I would like to try this recipe for mimosa blossoms. I would like to stand under a tree and let the golden powdery bloom turn me into a blonde for a moment while I munch on my sweet candied puffs. But first, I need to plant my mimosa tree. And wait for it to bloom.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,
you must first invent the universe.”
—Carl Sagan

I start my day with reading, for I never know where it will take me.

 

Still At Allways

‘To John Borie, still at Allways’

Is John Borie still at Allways? I have always wondered…

In his curious dedication to A Thatched Roof, Beverley Nichols infuses a sense of timelessness. At Allways, a rambling old Tudor cottage in Huntingdonshire, nothing will ever change. The fifteenth century low lintels will still bang heads, bees are still gathering nectar, the roses drug the air with perfume, the grapevine is still scratching at the window—wanting in, the graceless Undine is dancing on her lawn, and John Borie is still there.

Speaking of timelessness, in my side bar, it has had showing, for some time, the book ‘Currently Reading’ as A Thatched Roof. This was true then, when I posted it, and it continues to be true, as I am still reading it.

I am still at Allways.

‘Therefore this book is not a sequel to an early love, it is rather the other half of the same love. The first book was about a garden; this one is about the cottage which stands in that garden.’  —Beverley Nichols, A Thatched Roof

How could one want to leave? A delightful reminiscence, as with Nichols’ other books of gardening and house-keeping, A Thatched Roof is of the sort that can be picked up and put down, re-read, mulled over, glossed over, chuckled over, and generally be quite useful when the mind needs to be somewhere else, but the body and brain need a safe place to rest.

This is not to trivialize Nichols’ writing. I have quite enjoyed his books related to home and garden, and some of his asides, commentary, and psuedo-factual characters are extremely funny. Who can forget shy and anxious Miss Mint, whom Nichols obviously adored, or gimlet-eyed Mrs. M, whom Nichols obviously detested…?

‘Then loathsomely refreshed, she sat up, and fixed her gimlet eyes upon me.’

As charming as it is, A Thatched Roof sat neglected on my bookshelf for years. I kept beginning it, then putting it down. Why? It was simply too powerful. Surely an odd thing to feel from a writer whose output has been described as ‘rather twee’? Yet Nichols writes with such sprightly reminiscence, with such warm gushes of affection and affectation about his experience with home and garden, that in my situation for five years in a city condo, without either, it was too difficult for me to read.

‘It is always next year when you have a garden.’

It is a book that provided the perfect accompaniment to our recent move, dovetailing here and there in a surprising twist. In it, we experience Nichols’ pure joy in home ownership, his adventures with a dour Scottish housekeeper and the hilarious shenanigans he goes through in an effort to keep her from having to work, we thatch a roof, dig a well, stock the pantry, move in the piano with great ceremony (‘I always feel the piano is a living thing and I hate to see it with its legs wrenched off’), agonize over proper window placement, decorate The Garden Room, discuss with catty delight ‘how white has been done to death’, fall quite terribly in love with Bristol blue glass, and enjoy a host of other waftings into the winsome world of Beverley Nichols, 1920’s Bright Young Thing and fey man about town.

This is the first of what may be a series of posts featuring A Thatched Roof. It is appropriately named for, with all its lightness, few things are more important in a frail human’s life than the acquisition of a roof. Even the determinedly anti-materialist Thoreau began his transcendental, life-changing Walden experience by an old fashioned roof raising.

My new roof from under which I write is not so thatched as Beverley Nichols’ quaint cottage existence, living on a different continent, in a different time and generation as we are. (And I’m quite convinced, with a touch of Nichols’ own querulousness, I would not want anyone but the Duke of Wellington to thatch my roof. Mr. Penrose, that is.)

But that’s getting ahead. It’s easy to do when reading daffy darling Nichols, who has a tendency to rush giddily into everything from philosophical grape tending to the perfect ethereal blue to poetic bee keeping. It is one of the secrets of his charm. His humility is another.

‘I wanted music. I had music….but it would not flow through my pen. It is a terrible thing to be filled with an emotion that one cannot express. People are always telling you, in these days, of the danger of suppressed sex. The dangers of suppressed poetry are surely greater. For the room was charged, drunken, electric–any word you care for–with poetry. The white walls were thick with images….

Yet with all this tolling, this fainting, this sadness among the blossoms, with all this shadowy drift of beauty to the grave, I could make no poem….that is the ultimate bitterness…to put a pen in a man’s hand, and then to freeze his hand, so that he cannot write.

Well, at least you will admit that I have been honest about it.’

Nichols has a way of saying more when he is not trying, and those moments come flitting throughout his prose. I have already mentioned the roses in my new (old) yard—two neglected bushes, giving me flowers of delightful beauty and sweetness. No better ‘welcome to your new home’ could there be. Yet, if you could see the sorry looking bushes they came from, you would wonder how on earth these blooms came about.

RosesSilhouette

After Nichols has saved an ivy with gentle watering and ‘kind words’ he writes the following:

‘I feel at liberty to ask you a question.

Have you this same odd affection for things, like my ivy, which show tremendous courage in the face of adversity? For plants, and animals and people, even if they are common plants…It may be a purely personal weakness, but I feel that somewhere there must be someone who shares it with me.

Often, in the garden, I have found some plant that has seeded itself in a spot where you would think its frail roots could not possibly gain a hold. Perhaps it is only a common rock-plant that has pitched its gay camp on some wind-swept, barren wall, and is flying its yellow flag in the teeth of every wind. But though it is ‘common’, the miraculous courage of such a plant defeats me. I I could no more destroy it, even if it is an intruder, than I could tear up a rose tree that was decked in all the crimson regalia of July.’

RosesOutsideI do feel an odd affection for these roses. rosesMarigoldIt’s impossible to know who planted them or how long they’ve been neglected, but I do know they are survivors.

Who doesn’t respect a survivor?

It’s unlikely we’ll name them Hoover and Al Smith, as Nichols’ named his ivy plants, but they will certainly get the benefit of every ‘kind word’ I can give them. And Nichols’ hoped for ‘somewhere there must be someone who shares it’ has struck a chord with likely more than just me.

A Thatched Roof begins, in the Foreword, with the lovely lines of Cowper:

‘Time as he passes us has a dove’s wing,
Unsoiled and swift and of a silken sound.’

Like the rustle of a dove’s wing, or the fragrant floating path of rose petals, let us continue enjoying these silken sounds floating to us through time.


In an upcoming post–more about my odd pairing of Thoreau and Nichols.


Additional notes:

Beverley Nichols: 1898-1983

Books by Beverley Nichols related to gardening and household lore (via wiki):

Gardening, homes and restoration
• Down the Garden Path (1932) ISBN 978-0-88192-710-8
• A Thatched Roof (1933) ISBN 978-0-88192-728-3
• A Village in a Valley (1934) ISBN 978-0-88192-729-0
• How Does Your Garden Grow? (1935)
• Green Grows the City (1939) ISBN 978-0-88192-779-5
• Merry Hall (1951) ISBN 978-0-88192-804-4
• Laughter on the Stairs (1953) ISBN 978-0-88192-460-2
• Sunlight on the Lawn (1956) ISBN 978-0-88192-467-1
• Garden Open Today (1963) ISBN 978-0-88192-533-3
• Forty Favourite Flowers (1964)
• The Art of Flower Arrangement (1967)
• Garden Open Tomorrow (1968) ISBN 978-0-88192-552-4

Heart of a Gardener

“All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight – the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.” Vita Sackville West

Watercolor garden

Can you feel the closeness of spring? Do you feel the energy stirring in the soil? Does the ‘great ghostly barn owl’ sweep silently across the pale shadows of your winter garden? I am thinking of gardeners everywhere, in this time of sweet madness, for I remember being held in the same thrall. Plans for new beds get drawn on graph paper, notes are made for new color combinations, plant and seed catalogs are lingered over with a lover’s eye, and the all important shade of butter yellow blooms to pair with violet clouds of campanula is looked for with the intensity of a newly crowned prom queen shopping for shoes.

Louise Beebe Wilder, writer and gardener extraordinaire, would become particularly giddy this time of year, writing, in 1918; ‘we can resist no longer, but rush recklessly hatless to the garden, feeling, if not actually repeating, Lowell’s lines: “Every clod feels a stir of might, An instinct within it which reaches and towers.”

“I cannot help hoping…” said Vita Sackville-West, echoing this sentiment, albeit in a much more restrained style.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years almost as much as gardening is reading about other gardeners and their various trials and successes; even rambling, prosy, moralizing essays written by gardeners from the Victorian past can be fascinating. The articulate minds, the liquid prose and warmhearted lore of the gardener/essayist has helped to pass many a winter day, when the garden was sleeping, the birds were still and the ground was frozen.

“It is a pleasure simply to read a list of the titles of their books.” Nan Fairbrother

In a sense, the writing gardener of the ages has kept all of our collective flowerbeds thriving over generations, continents, and even social boundaries. ‘They have such enthusiasm,’ writes Nan Fairbrother, in her book ‘Men and Gardens’, in discussing the garden writers of the seventeenth century; ‘such curious and enquiring minds, they ride their hobby horses with such zest. It is a pleasure simply to read a list of the titles of their books.’ A pleasure, indeed. I look forward to reading her recommended ‘Cornu Copia, a Miscellanium of Lucriferous and Most Fructiferous Experiments, Observations and Discoveries Immethodically Distributed to Be Really Demonstrated and Communicated in All Sincerity’ (1652).

Yet, today, and for reasons that I suspect I know; I am thinking of Ellen Willmott.

You’ve seen her name, I’m sure. If you garden, or have ever bought a packet of seeds, you have come across some form of her name. If you love flowers, plant lore, history, and crusty old umbrella-wielding spinsters with an attitude, then you have already likely found Miss Willmott’s story interesting.

When I first began to search for information on this mysterious lady who was so apparently dear to the plant hybridizers of the Edwardian generation, the internet was young. Google was woefully inadequate as a resource for my esoteric pursuits of knowledge. Wiki was not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Then I stumbled across—amazingly enough—one of my favorite resources in which to find credible information.

A Book! An actual biography. ‘Hardcover with dustjacket’’; (words that I still find thrilling). ‘Miss Willmott of Warley Place, Her Life and Her Gardens’, was written by Audrey Le Lievre and published by Faber & Faber in1980. *

(Since then, the internet has many more gems to offer on the legacy of Ellen Willmott. Here are just two I have enjoyed:

Ellen Willmott: Gardener and Plantswoman

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/the-essay-miss-willmotts-ghost-1117862.html)

I suppose there are greater heights to be scaled by one who is truly ambitious, but to have one’s name immortalized by a hybridizer is a pretty heady prospect. Think footnotes, indexes, and Hortus Third. Ellen Willmott enjoyed this sensation many times over.

Other ladies that have been so endowed aren’t as clingy to our curiosity. The beloved ‘Miss Lingard’ of garden phlox fame has brought a moment or two of wonderment. I’ve spared a thought for ‘Nelly Moser’ as I enjoy her clematis, and I had long attributed a doting hybridizing husband to ‘Mrs. Moon’. But Miss Willmott had spawned almost an entire plantsman’s catalog. Was she that beautiful? Was she a femme fatale? Or were her graces of the saintly type, inspiring plant breeders to devise ways to honor her memory?

I pictured Miss Willmott in the latter category. Demure, kindly; no doubt tending one of those ethereal cottage gardens idealized by the painter Claude Strachan.

For such dainty visions I blame Miss Mint and Miss Wheeler. These delightful ladies of gardening literature could certainly be blamed for little else, save for lulling myself and others into the comfortable notion that all vintage flower-loving spinsters smell like lavender and murmur things like ‘goodness’ as they stoop over a plant in distress.

Miss Mint, you’ll remember, is of Beverley Nichols’  Laughter on the Stairs  fame. She was a rare little creature in that she aroused Nichols’ most ardent protective instincts–a distinction usually reserved for cats and neglected plants. This retired governess, described as ‘short and grey and mousey’, but also shy and endearing, was known particularly for her use of the three letters N.W. H. on all of her correspondence. ‘Nothing Wrong Here’, was her earnest message to the world. She wanted to save others the same agonies of anxiety she suffered when watching the postman approach. Thus they could open a letter from her without the least threat of imminent doom. (Once, the comforting acronym was missing from her letter–adequately explained in time by the fact that Miss Mint’s morning glories had come up all wrong.)

I met Miss Wheeler through the pages of Mirabel Osler’s A Gentle Plea for Chaos. There, we take a cozy tour of Miss Wheeler’s cottage garden, full of old-fashioned treasures that she cares for as lovingly as if they were precious family mementoes–and in some cases they are. Primulas, wallflowers, penstemon, and tender gentian all crowd together like scraps of fabric in an heirloom quilt. A lovely specimen of Hardy Plumbago has an honored place–“My mother’s favorite flower”, along with an enduring agapanthus handed down from her great-aunt. The agapanthus brings on a tender sigh from Miss Wheeler;  “I love having something belonging to my great-aunt because she was so lovely.”

Wait–! Let’s get back to that Hardy Plumbago, and look at it more closely. It’s a Ceratostigma willmottianum! And moving down the herbacious border, what do we see growing in Miss Wheeler’s garden but–“Miss Willmott’s little rose”–(rosa willmottiae)!

You see, a gardener is never far from Miss Willmott.

After several encounters with Miss Willmott’s name and Latin versions of it during my armchair tour of Louise Beebe Wilder’s gardens at Balderbrae, my search for Miss Willmott began in earnest. Mrs. Wilder particularly enjoys the Tulipa willmottiae, as it turns out. And after reading about Lathyrus odoratus “Miss Willmott”–a sweet pea described as an “enchanting boudoir pink”, and “compliant enough to bloom” in warmer weather than most–I was hooked. I was already beginning to picture Miss Willmott having tea with Miss Mint and Miss Wheeler, touring their herbacious borders together and cooing in unison like small gray doves.

But wasn’t there a sassy coral potentilla named ‘Miss Willmott’? And a tall other-worldly Verbascum “Miss Willmott’, known in its common form as Witches Candles? And a forbiddingly spiky Eryngium giganteum named ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’?

Hmmm. ‘S. W. H.’ (Something Wrong Here).

Take the Eryngium giganteum-Sea Holly, for one. (please!) The story has oft been told of how this plant, ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ received its name. Miss Willmott, as the story goes, liked to surreptitiously sow seed of this vigorous, thistle-like plant whenever she was a visitor to a garden, thus leaving her hosts with a gift that would most assuredly keep on giving. To further stir the imagination, the plant looked ghostly and spectral in the twilight. A mischievous joke? A way to ensure the immortality of a favorite plant? Or perhaps to ensure her own immortality? Eryngium flowers are considered everlastings, so perhaps the gesture was more a pathetic wish than a roguish trick. The famous plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas, intrigued by the tale, asked readers of a popular gardening journal if anyone could confirm the story, and thus the origin of the name. By that time in the mid-1960’s, no one could.

The image of the accommodating sweet pea had long since faded from my hopeful view, as well as the shy wallflower, and I was beginning to think more of the tenacity of a weedy thistle, springing up everywhere from Aethionema to Zinnia.

The real Miss Willmott was beginning to emerge out of the sentimental mists of my wishful thinking. Yes, she was prickly. Yes, she was tenacious. She could be exasperating, and was even once described as ‘the cankered Ellen’. She was also one of the most respected women in the world of horticulture. There was no romantic story behind the seemingly endless catalog of names, merely sense, logic, and a lot of hard work. There was no lovestruck hybridizer desperate to secure her affections; though attractive, Ellen Willmott never married, was never known to be in love, and never inspired love. Her skills were infinitely better in nurturing plants than in nurturing human relationships. To a man or woman who showed a talent for plants, she could be generous. To anyone of dubious gardening credentials, she showed herself capable of withering scorn.

Though born to wealth and privilege, and in the rosy days of Edwardian England, Ellen Willmott was first and foremost a gardener. She just gardened on a grand scale. At its height of production, her gardens at Warley Place grew over 10,000 species and varieties of trees, plants, and shrubs. Thriving there were ferneries, orchid houses, palm houses, orchards, an alpine garden, and ponds. Ellen Willmott had the distinction of being among the first female botanists to be admitted into the erudite Linnaean Society, and her great wealth funded many expeditions for botanical explorers such as E.H. Wilson. Thus many of the plants discovered on these expeditions came back bearing her name in some form. Some of these she expected to have named for her, not unreasonably, and others were voluntarily given as a mark of tribute.

Her gardens at Warley Place were much more than the pristine and park-like grounds of just another wealthy Edwardian gentlewoman with a hobby. They functioned as an extension of such valued institutions as Kew Botanical Gardens (then Royal Botanical Society of Kew), and Arnold Arboretum. Through letters of introduction from Kew, Ellen Willmott was able to make connections with the Botanical Gardens of Munich and Vienna. Thus, a rich exchange of horticultural information and plant material flowed from these institutions to Warley Place and back again.

Ellen Willmott was meticulous and unstinting in her plant propagation techniques, and had oversight of all stages of work done in the gardens and greenhouses. As a laborer, carrying trug and trowel, clad in working clothes and large floppy hat, she was a familiar figure in her own gardens, and often surprised her staff by showing up to work beside them. This, besides demonstrating her own conviction that she knew best how to get the job done, also ensured quality control amongst her hired help. Thus it was well known that she was often able to successfully grow a rare or capricious new plant, seed or bulb where others, such as even Kew, had failed.

Ellen Willmott was accomplished in many areas–woodworking, music, singing, and in fact her enthusiasm for the organ led her to travel regularly to London for lessons. Yet it was no secret as to the true passion of her life. “Do you play the organ?” asked a curious acquaintaince. “No,” she retorted, inexplicably. “But I can handle a spade.”

Yes, she could handle a spade. But now we come to the part where we, like Miss Mint, dread the postman’s approach for fear of receiving bad news.

The story of this remarkable woman is one of decay, as well as triumph. As her biographer La Lievre wrote, ‘Money in itself was of no interest to her: she cared for it only in its creative capacity’. Thus, with no practical skills in money management, Ellen Willmott’s great wealth dried up. Without money, there were no gardeners. Without gardeners, Warley Place became a ruin, defenseless against neglect and vandalism. Sadly, the once great gardens at Warley Place would not be able to survive for generations to enjoy.

Ellen Willmott had once carelessly remarked about a colleague that “his character was as ugly as his garden.” Her own judgement of another was coming back to haunt her. With her beloved Warley Place slowly sinking into ruins, she seemed to have no defense, or no desire for defense, in presenting a more pleasing aspect to the world’s probing gaze. This is all the more poignant when we consider what she wrote to a friend long before her losses occurred: “As you know, my plants and my gardens come before anything in life for me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves I read or write about them.’ *

Thus, like the Eryngium she had made famous, Ellen Willmot became hard and spiky with age. Hers was not a graceful exit. She became suspicious, cantankerous, even malicious, her eccentricities legend. She delighted in alienating people. “Has the old devil kicked the bucket, yet?” called out one passerby, as Ellen Willmott lay sick and alone. No, she had not, as it turned out. She lived to attend another flower show–showing up like a ghostly Sea Holly in the twilight gloom–wearing a sprig of Pentapterigonum rugosum in her buttonhole.

What’s in a name, indeed? Who would have thought, on my lavender and old lace-inspired journey, that I would find ‘an old devil’ at the end of it? As picture postcards and sprigs of carefully pressed flowers only capture the wistful nuances of a journey, and rarely tell the whole truth of it, so the name ‘Ellen Willmott’ means much more than a ruffled petal, a double white scented lilac, or a rare seed brought from the misty hills of China.

She was not a cozy stereotype, or a pretty paper doll to add to our mental scrapbook. She was a real human being, with all of the flaws, perhaps more, that we usually attach to that designation. But it is a tolerable truth; a bit ragged, to be sure—like a garden just hit by the first frost; still there are preserved within those enduring elements of beauty.

The gardener today has reason to be thankful to Ellen Willmott. Through her influence and meticulous care, many plants that are now beloved to us came to light. Ellen Willmott was a true original, a brilliant and obsessed woman who managed to live her life doing what she loved. We have more to thank her for than we do (much as we love them) the kindly Miss Mints and Miss Wheelers of history.

In my search for the real Miss Willmott, I found that she was inordinately fond of having the last word. Thus, her own words finish this account, for far from hinting poignantly at loss, they sum up how she was pleased to live, and how she was determined to die.

“I am quite alone with nothing to think about but plants and gardening.”

honeyplant

Melianthus major; aka Honey Brush…A favorite plant from my garden in years past–the leaves smell like honey toffee

Addendum:
I didn’t mention ‘The Genus Rosa’ for a reason—I can’t write about it briefly. It is a great work, and possibly Ellen Willmott’s finest legacy to the world. Beyond that, it is a work of tender and devoted love, and this from the woman who has become more identified with a ghostly thistle.

What is it?
Called “the first great color-printed flower book of the 20th century… It stands unrivaled, both as an account of the species and as a source of illustrations of wild roses” (Rix, The Art of the Botanist, 215).

“The Genus Rosa was the masterpiece of Ellen Willmott and the culmination of a lifetimes’ study of the species. It ranks with Redoute’s Les Roses as one of the definitive and most beautiful works on roses and remains an important reference for rosarians today.” http://www.darvillsrareprints.com/ellen%20Willmott%20The%20Genus%20Rosa%201910.htm

Last I checked there was a copy available at the link here and it goes without saying that I desperately want this set;
http://www.baumanrarebooks.com/rare-books/ellen-willmott-alfred-parsons/genus-rosa/75187.aspx


Beyond the very expensive and rare original editions, with the color illustrations, there has been a facsimile edition made available in the early 1990’s. If you are interested in just reading the text (and do not find rough black and white photocopies of fine botanical art an abomination) then you may be able to track down a copy. I did. :o)

*most of my information about Ellen Willmott, and any direct quotes, are from this book