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Still Winter

It rained heavily all Monday night and continued lightly through the morning. Then the temperatures plummeted to 24 degrees. When I went out to my car at 11 am it was covered with ice, and all the locks and doors were frozen tight. I wasn’t going anywhere.

At 3 pm the sun began to shine brilliantly. It turned the trees and shrubs into crystal sculptures. Happily, even though the temperatures were still in the low 20s, the ice melted off the car and released the doors.

Autumnal Scenery by Orra White Hitchcock

Fortunately I can enjoy other scenes in my mind’s eye. Recently I traipsed down to the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College to see the Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863) An Amherst Woman of Art and Science exhibit. I expected to see  delicate botanical drawings, and I did, but I also enjoyed her landscapes, landscapes that are very familiar to me, and most unexpectedly, the large classroom charts that she made to help her husband, Edward Hitchcock, teach the natural sciences at Amherst College.  You will be hearing more about  Orra here soon.  Don’t forget today is International  Women’s Day, and  it is Women’s History Month when we make a particular effort to explore the lives of intelligent, skilled and talented women we may have lost sight of.  Last March I wrote about landscape architect Beatrix Farrand and you can read about her here.

Beatrix Farrand


Edith Wharton's Home - The Mount in Lenox, MA

Probably the first thing I knew about Beatrix Farrand is that she was the niece of Edith Wharton, and designed the approach to Wharton’s home, The Mount,  in the Berkshires.  Although she did not have anything to do with  the rest of the gardens, I cannot believe that Aunt and Niece did not sit together and talk about what might be done during the years she lived there, 1902-1911. When you have talent in the family, surely it would be used. Visitors to The Mount today will enjoy the beautiful house, and the gardens that have been undergoing restoration for several years now.  If you are in the Berkshires you should not miss the opportunity to visit.

Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) was one of the earliest women to work professionally as landscape designers. Most of her work has disappeared, as gardens can do so quickly. Still, Dunbarton Oaks and the old campus at Princeton, as well as a few others bear her stamp to this day. A new book, Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes by Judith B. Tankard, gives a full view of her life and work.

Relatively close to me (I could go there and back in a day) is the Bellefield Garden in Hyde Park. This garden is now under the supervision of the Beatrix Farrand Garden Association, Inc. The garden is open every day from dawn to dusk.

It is not surprising that many of the private estate gardens Farrand worked on are in Maine. Her family had a summer estate in Bar Harbor and she lived at Reef Point. After a fire she took many plants from Reef Point and moved to Garland Farm on Mount Desert Island. She lived there until her death.

Garland Farm is now the home of the Beatrix Farrand Society.  Work continues to restore the gardens. This summer a number of events will be held including programs by Dr. Douglas Tallamy the author of Bringing Nature Home and Barbara Damrosch, author of A Garden Primer and a Maine neighbor.

One of the important influences on Farrand’s work was the famed Bristish gardener, Gertrude Jekyll. They did meet and  Beatrix visited several of Gertrude’s gardens, but it was mostly the books that she read and studied that taught her about Gertrude’s work and principles. Wood and Garden, Lilies for English Gardens, Wall and Water Gardens, and Color in the Garden were all on Beatrix’s library shelves.

In 1948 when Beatrix was 76 she bought Jekyll’s papers including garden plans, working drawings and correspondence, which gave her great pleasure in her later years.

The April issue of Garden Design magazine just arrived with an emphasis on California gardens including the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden which was founded in 1926. Beatrix joined the Board in 1938 and worked on the Master Plan with Lockwood deForest, Jr. Her approach was more formal than deForest’s but their collaboration was easy, perhaps because they were both devoted to the use of native plants.

Constance Spry

David Austin's Constance Spry

The name Constance Spry doesn’t mean much to most Americans. Gardeners may know the Constance Spry rose, one of the first of David Austin’s English roses, but not know the woman behind the rose.

Constance Spry was born in 1886. She had varied careers in health, joined the civil service during World War I and was headmistress of a school teaching young teen aged girls who worked in factories. It was not until the 1920s that she began arranging flowers and 1929 before she opened her first shop in London.

Shock  greeted Constance Spry”s outrageous arrangements in the Britain of the 20s and 30s. She was possibly the first to break down the barriers that existed between the flower garden and the kitchen garden. I think we can credit Constance Spry with many of the ways we use and decorate with flowers today.

Spry explained herself, “If to use a kale leaf for its fine modeling, a bunch of grapes for its exotic bloom, a spherical leek flower for its decisive shape, a bare branch for its delicate strength, is to like strange materials, then I am guilty, but not guilty of liking them for any perverse reason.”

Among her many admirers was Beverley Nichols, the British gardener, writer and wit. He talked about “doing a Constance Spry” which is to say  “standing before a bed of hydrangeas, when summer has fled, and seeing beauty in their pallid parchment blossoms.  It means suddenly stopping in a country lane and noting for the first time a scarlet cadenza of berries, and fitting it, in one’s mind’s eye, into a pewter vase against a white wall.  It means bouts with brambles, flirtations with ferns and carnival with cabbages.”

Constance Spry came to the United States in 1937  invited by a group of New York women  to open an establishment on East 64th Street between Park and Madison Avenues.  She also published Constance Spry’s Garden Notebook while she was here. I found that book in the stacks of the Umass Du Bois Library. This was my first visit to the stacks since my graduation in 1974. Now that I have found the garden riches in the SB section, you can bet I’ll be back.

The War put an end to her shop in the US, but she went on for years arranging flowers for many notables, including the flowers for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  In 1960 Constance Spry, teacher, gardener, and flower arranger, died after a fall down the stairs. It is said that her last words, were “Someone else can arrange this.”

Ellen Willmott

Ellen Ann Willmott of Warley Place

Ellen Ann Willmott is no longer as famous as Gertrude Jekyll, yet . . .

“Ellen Willmott soon made a name for herself in horticulture, and helped to finance expeditions to acquire new plants. Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria visited her, and her garden became famous throughout Britain and beyond. She was one of two women awarded the RHS Medal of Honour in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, 1897. The other was Gertrude Jekyll.”   This from the Warleyplace.org.uk website which has brief information about EAW and the ongoing work at the estate which was sold after her death in 1934.

Ellen Willmott gave her name to several plants, including Miss Willmott’s Ghost, a sea holly more properly known as Eryngium giagantium. She was much given to secretly dropping the seeds of this silvery, thistle-like plant in her friend’s gardens when she came to visit.

Not all her friends were happy to find this ghostly reminder of her previous visit when they bloomed in their carefully planned borders the following summer.  Was she generous or mischievous?   Hmmmmmmm.

By the time she died in 1934 she was penniless. “Her descent into bankruptcy never interfered with her purchase of any rare plant she coveted. Once, detainted for shoplifting, Willmott called upon her friend the Queen to intercede. The department store, after a yearlong hullabaloo, had to apologize for it’s “error.” As her fortune faded, Willmott became increasingly paranoid, toting a revolver in her handag, booby trapping her home against intruders, and having her daffodil display trip-wired so that air guns would blast anyone attempting to filch a few.

(Taken from Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Eccentric Ethusiast, Plants & Garden News, Val 17, Number 3, Fall 2002, by Ilene Sternberg)”

I have no Miss Willmott’s Ghost in my garden, but last year, when my friend Jerry Sternstein was giving me a tour of his 60 lilacs, he pulled up a root of the single white Miss Willmott. She is now thriving in my garden, surrounded by daffodils. I don’t expect her to bloom this year, but I am cultivating patience.