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.


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

Beautiful Fragments: A Walk With John Muir

‘Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.’ 
John Muir


Today I went on a wilderness walk and took John Muir –– in the form of his Wilderness Essays –– with me. As I couldn’t travel in his exact footsteps of a hundred (plus) years ago, scrambling up and down the lofty peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains like a nimble mountain goat, I hoped he wouldn’t mind traveling in mine. IMG_7776

One could dream of possessing the wild and ardent heart of an explorer like Muir, but not everyone has his sturdy limbs and vigorous constitution.

Or, for that matter, his taste for epic perambulations.

Remember, this is the man who walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867; a journey that he chronicled in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf:

‘My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction, by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’

As I prefer an even simpler plan— to find the ‘leafiest’ route by slightly more trodden paths and shorter distances—this walk with John Muir is more of a meander through the curated specimens and well delineated paths of my favorite arboretum and botanical garden.

Still, those curated specimens are magnificent; the ground, though slightly more cultivated than Muir’s wild travels, is still dank and rich with the exquisite perfumes of decay.

Even as the old year passes on, the signs of renewal are everywhere.

‘Every leaf seems to speak.’

Because of the seeds, and only because of the seeds—such fascinating art forms—can we take pleasure in these broken, decaying, crumbling fragments of beauty in nature. No other season offers us this thrilling dichotomy of experience; the mix of keenest pleasure tinged with melancholy.

‘How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? …. Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts – her live-stock?’

[– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)]

Musically, I find this dichotomy is best expressed in the lush harmonies of the Russian composers. Rimsky-Korsakov is particularly exciting… His Scheherazade suite is music composed to story; it is completely, utterly dramatic in scope. The folk tales he drew from are likely well known by most, but at its heart the suite also tells the story of autumn: exotic color, drama, tireless but brilliantly cunning artistry, and finally, after the frenetic winds of sturm und drang, a long, peaceful night where beauty can at last sleep. Survival assured.

It is difficult—no, impossible—to imagine John Muir wandering his philosophical pathways attached to any sort of earbuds or mp3 players, as he would certainly want to be tuned in to the rhythms of the forest, the reverberant songs of birds in lofty branches, and the delicately nuanced rustles from the undergrowth. Therefore, I kept Rimsky at home on this trip.

“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” 

As a Pacific Northwest native, when I think of John Muir, I think of the west coast, and his efforts to conserve the natural beauty of our rugged wilderness areas. Names like the Sierra Club, John Muir Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, John Muir College, Mount Muir, Camp Muir and Muir Glacier; all suggest the story of his many successes.

But John Muir’s youth had been spent on a farm in Wisconsin, now a historic landmark. Through the visionary camera lens of Charley Makray-Rice, on her blog The Road Less Paved, I was recently reminded of this earlier, and very important, legacy of John Muir in Wisconsin. I hope you can visit her lovely blog and enjoy her photos, as well as the Sierra Club link to more information that describes Muir’s boyhood home, and the early influences that helped to shape his passionate love of nature.

John Muir could linger in the mountains for days, weeks, even months, and often packed no more food than a few chunks of bread. He knew how to survive on little, and where that little was to be found. Therefore it is interesting to note what precious articles he did pack along with him, if it was not to be food. On his ‘thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico’, Muir carried in his pack small volumes of the poems of Robert Burns, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and a blank journal for recording his own thoughts. (Oh, and a plant press.) This was certainly not traveling light in the literary sense. Muir would find that, in the resonant chambers of the deep woods, one is better able to listen for the deep soundings of thinkers through time. Later he would write of his discovery that

the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure.’

John Muir

He was also an enthusiastic reader of Emerson and Thoreau, and was keenly in heart harmony with Thoreau when the latter wrote….“Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath.”

When John Muir wrote of ‘beautiful fragments’ that he encountered in his nature wanderings he waxed particularly enthusiastic about the majestic evergreens and conifers. It was something he wrote about Pinus lambertiana that got my full attention:

‘No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with a sugar pine.’

That, my friends, struck me as a call to action. I love trees. I have been raised in the deeply wooded Pacific Northwest, yet cannot remember if I have ever ‘met’ a sugar pine. Certainly not in the way Muir did. If I had, how could I have forgotten it? Not to mention that, when it comes to seed pods, sugar pines produce the longest cones of any pine. Their native habitat is also higher, quite a bit higher, than my usual route encompasses.


Clearly, my seed pod journey must continue. I’ll just have to pack a few slices of bread, a plant press, and a little light reading.

Shadow and Substance

From Louise Beebe Wilder's rock garden, 1928

From Louise Beebe Wilder’s rock garden, 1928

 ‘…that each of us should feel free to express himself–his most extravagant, whimsical, ardent, honest self; to work out his own theories and bring his bit of earth to what seems to him its finest and fittest expression.’ Louise Beebe Wilder

It’s still June in the year 2014, but a freakish hailstorm has just flattened everything beautiful and blooming within a few miles of here.

Orbs of ice that fell by the billions from the skies...

Cute little orbs of ice that soon became epic when they fell by the billions from the skies yesterday

I think that’s what they mean by ephemeral.

So let’s ditch the current spring of shattered bloom, (although I have some lovely delphiniums to tell you about later) and travel back in time with me to 1909. It’s the month of April, and we are in a place called Bronxville. Bring along your Thoreauvian ‘sharp eyes’.

“I like to borrow Thoreau’s sharp eyes when looking at many things.” Louise Beebe Wilder

We’re going to visit one of the gardens created by Louise Beebe Wilder; a garden that no longer exists, like today only more so.

IMG_0911There is a shadow of a woman just barely visible in this garden, and the fragile poppies she tended have left their vibrant stain on the grasses now left to grow wild.

Her beloved magenta blooms have softened their harsh stridence, their after-image lingers now in the faintest wash of pink. Roses long faded still perfume the air.

via Wisconsin Historical Society

via Wisconsin Historical Society

Think of any popular gardener since the beginnings of our picture taking age, and you almost always can find their image captured somewhere. Be-hatted and be-smocked, wielding trug and trowel, dappled in shadows or squinting in bright sunlight….gardeners most like to be photographed in their gardens.

Elizabeth Lawrence

Elizabeth Lawrence

Not so Louise.

Either her physiognomy was a carefully guarded secret, or she was as shy of publicity as she was eloquent about her poppies.

My library contains many an old gardening book that I have squirreled away, and I dearly love the vintage magazines with their catchy covers and newsy articles on gardens of olden days. Though most of my garden reading is of the actual paper kind (laced with toxic mildew effluvium ensuring that they can only be read in a well-ventilated room) the digital type has definitely come into its own in my house, as well.

Thus I was delighted to realize that the cover of the April, 1909 issue of American Homes and Gardens, pictures the home of Louise Beebe Wilder.

Featured home in this 1909 issue--The Wilders of Bronxville, NY

Featured home in this 1909 issue–The Wilders of Bronxville, NY

Better than that, the magazine takes you on an inside tour of the home, and better than that? They take you outside to tour the gardens…and that is where we find Louise.

The Wilder home

A bit of pre-history to our time travel…(“no worries…a slight disorientation is common for readers of these posts”)…When Louise Beebe Wilder married in 1902, it was to Walter Robb Wilder, Esq., an up-and-coming young architect.

Initially, the growing family had two homes—one at Balderbrae in the country, and the other, a ‘suburban’ home in Bronxville, near New York city.

When the magazine American Homes and Gardens did a feature article in 1909 on the Wilder’s second home in Bronxville, NY, the feature was to be, not just the house, but the talented architect who designed it—Walter Robb Wilder.

But this is 1909, and Walter is married to a very special woman who isn’t famous…yet. Louise’s first book is being lived, but not written. She is still gardening, raising children, and jotting down copious notes. The article ‘The Artistic Expression of the Small Country House’ makes no mention of the wife of the architect. Instead, he lauds the designer of the home, and states:

‘[The house is] ‘a unique expression of the architect’s character and taste. It shows…marked individuality, and is essentially the creation of a cultured and artistic mind requiring congenial surroundings.’

Louise certainly knew a thing or two about ‘congenial surroundings’, and one gets the feeling that it is Louise who is giving the interview and tour. She certainly didn’t write the article…

‘The ceiling is stuccoed…in a very effective manner.

The fireplace is the feature of the room.

The furniture is very black-brown.

The color scheme is most delightful.’

The pictures of the interior show very charming, cottage style rooms, but the lackluster description hardly seems worthy of the house of a woman who would later inspire gardeners nationwide with her vivid and articulate Colour In My Garden; the woman who wrote:

“We are haunted by visions of exquisite colors in perfect harmony…the prettiest blue border I ever saw was one wherein a few Nasturtium seeds had been accidentally dropped, and between the elegantly aspiring stalks of Larkspur and Anchusa one got little sparkles of flame and saffron and buff that endowed the blue flowers with a shimmering spirit that would certainly not have been theirs without those unbidden companions.” (Louise)

Although her name is never mentioned, Louise’s charismatic presence–as it would later be described–is everywhere felt. As the magazine writer labors on to extol the design of the concrete balustrade, our attention is irresistibly drawn to…

‘…a pergola with stucco piers. Over this was trained a large grape vine, forming a dark green background for the beds of bright colored annuals and perennials, the sides being [en]closed with lattice and covered with vines for the same purpose.’


There is our first glimpse of Louise… sitting on the concrete balustrade.

The caption reads:

‘Rough stone steps covered with masses of growing vines lead from the middle garden to the entrance to the house.’

All this about ‘masses of growing vines’ on the rough stone steps, and a pergola ‘covered with vines’ reminds us that Louise would later devote an entire chapter in a future book to ‘Green Draperies’. She would write about the need for luxuriance when it came to the softening aspect of vines:

‘Many a crude and unsightly object is brought into harmony with its surroundings through the kindly tact of some gracious climbing plant. No need to emphasize the charm of vine clad arbors and porches, of green-draped walls and gateways, which do so much toward giving to our gardens the appearance of permanence and livableness so much desired. But perhaps it is a little needful to speak of the fact that the chief factor in this charm is luxuriance.…’ (Louise Beebe Wilder, from My Garden, 1916)

Continuing with the ‘house’ tour, we are now led along to the workshop (noting the elegant use of space) and have it pointed out to us that ‘rugosa roses frame the entrance, a mass of shrubs at the further corner of the house, and a border of peonies, nasturtiums and perennials along the top of the drive wall.’

Again, we are reminded from our reading of Louise that she particularly loved the rugosa rose:

“Honeysuckle and loose white rugosa rose make a delicious combination and possess a delicate poetic beauty.” (Fragrance in the Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder)

Leave it to Louise—Even something as utilitarian as the workshop will be draped in poetic beauty.

The writer of the article makes a further, focused attempt to direct our attention back to the house, and how the drive complements the approach, but soon enough we are back at ‘the rose garden, a line of lilacs…dwarf crabs and other flowering trees. At each corner are large triangular beds filled with perennials.’

Oh, and remember the vine-draped pergola? There we see her; gazing out upon the woods beyond, where the hand of man has not been visible. We are reminded of Louise’s words, where she decries the unnatural, tortured use of evergreens in the suburban landscape:

“There seems little evergreen wisdom abroad in the land.” (Adventures in my Garden and Rock Garden)

Louise Beebe Wilder enjoying her pergola, and the unspoiled woods beyond

Louise Beebe Wilder enjoying her pergola, and the unspoiled woods beyond

So there you are, Louise. We heard you, now we see you. At least a glimpse.

And we are assured that gardens will outlive the ravages of time (or even of ice projectiles) by fixing their sweetness upon our memories.


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

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.”


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

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.”

Last I checked there was a copy available at the link here and it goes without saying that I desperately want this set;

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