My first experience with native plants was with my parents’ poorly informed experience with a “wildflower seed mix” that they bought on clearance at the local farm store. We’d just moved to the country. My father shooed the cows out, borrowed a local friend’s tiller (didn’t remove the grass first), and tilled up a 15 foot x 50 foot bed. My mother bought a can of “wildflower seed blend” on sale from the local farm store (most likely branded and sourced from Michigan and/or California) and waited for the magic to happen.
Looking back on that perennial mix, I remember the listing saying that two of the primary species were Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea - which needs a cool period of dormancy before seeds germinate) and California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica - not really adapted to summer sowing in southeast Missouri). This canister full of seeds and dust was just setting my parents up for failure.
Nothing ever bloomed from that canister of seeds. But things bloomed in the woods. When my parents purchased our farm, ⅔ of the 72 acres was virgin forest. Never cut. So many wildflowers! The remaining ⅓ was grazed pasture which still had a fantastic native seed bank - if they’d left that alone and not mown it for a few years, it would have yielded exciting plants, too.
I went back and visited my parents last weekend. Easter weekend 2017. Guess what? There were amazing plants in flower throughout the roughly 48 acres of woodland that we’ve been managing lightly for the past 17 years.
First off, the woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata). I had some grief on social media about this, after posting it under the title of “wild sweet william”. That’s the name you see in the catalogues. Apparently some settlers called it this, comparing it to the the sweet william (Dianthus barbatus) that they knew from European gardens. Nobody must call it that any more. It seems to be a disturbance species, growing best in light shade at the edge of thin woodlands - that’s where you see it on my parents’ property, at least. I transplanted a few clumps into our woodland garden ten years ago or so - now it’s seeded itself around and is blooming phenomenally in the gaps between oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) and lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus). This seems to be a boom year for the phlox - it’s exceptionally abundant in the garden and throughout the woods. That color and fragrance bowl me over every time.
Besides woodland phlox, one of the most classic southeast Missouri woodland flowers is the prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum). I’d haul up its old fashioned name (all props to the internet on this one) “bloody butcher”, but I’m sure I’ll get grief for that as well. We had a major storm come through a decade or so ago, thinning out the oldest trees in the wood, opening up the canopy to light - since, I’ve noticed a dramatic reduction in the number of trillium. Apparently they like a more solid shade. In the denser parts of the forest, they’re still standing happy with their strange blood-colored petals and beautiful mottled foliage.
Another species having a boom bloom this year is the wild larkspur (Delphinium tricorne). Texas has their bluebonnets, New England has their lupines - we in Missouri have this glorious violet-blue treasure. It likes shady-cool-damp positions (don’t we all?), especially along temporary streambanks. It’s a transient species, lasting only for a week or two in full bloom, but completely worth integrating into a curated wildflower planting. It's having an especially heavy flowering this year, picking up where the drifts of phlox fade out.
These three woodland treasures weren’t the only wildflowers in bloom in my parents’ wood last week. We also had American dogwoods (Cornus florida), Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis - it's the feature plant in the photo above), and innumerable smaller and less showy species. I saw emerging buds of Shooting Star (Dodecathon meadia), Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), and Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) getting ready to speckle the woodland with astonishing beautiful flower. That doesn’t even cover the shrubs and grasses that are slowly springing to life throughout the Missouri woodland.
It’s easy to get carried away with the shiny photographs that show up on your Facebook feed. Or the lurid photos in mail-order catalogs. Or the glossy photo on the outside of a can of wildflower seed mix. Before you get carried away with trying to add new plants to your garden, have a look around. Take that year (advised by thoughtful garden design professionals) to get to understand what’s actually growing in your plot of earth. No doubt it will turn up treasures that you’d overlook if you get going gung-ho on the garden plot. What a shame it would be to miss out on the treasures that you’d already inherited as your garden legacy - look out!
Beyond going to New York as a general expedition, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to a specific exhibit: An Island Garden, the Impressionist exhibit at New York Botanical Garden inspired by Celia Thaxter’s book of the same title.
Who’s Celia Thaxter? Celia Thaxter (1835 – 1894) was a poet and hotelier who ran a resort-type hotel on Appledore Island, off the coast of Maine, popular with American artists and other creative types. “ A lonely child, living on the lighthouse island ten miles away from the mainland, every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight, and I began a little garden when not more than five years old,” she wrote in the introduction to An Island Garden.
As she grew older and took over the running and maintenance of the inn (originally run by her parents), Celia’s interest in gardening continued to grow. Frigid winters off the Maine coast made it impossible to live on Appledore in winter. Celia would start growing out her summer annuals in early spring on the mainland, then transport them out to the island by boat when the weather warmed in the spring. Out on the island, she’d plant the sturdy seedlings into the ground - where they flourished, to the delight of the many painters, musicians, and poets who visited her hotel in the summer. Childe Hassam, one of the few American impressionists painters to still be celebrated today, was a frequent visitor to Celia’s hotel and garden on Appledore Island. I first became acquainted with Hassam’s work through his incredibly vibrant image of the Street of the Great Captain in Cordoba that’s on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum. His paintings that illustrate An Island Garden (see image to left) display the vibrant summer light and saturated colors of Thaxter’s plantings.
The horticulturists at New York Botanical Garden didn’t have to transport their plants by ferry across the ocean, but the effect was still entrancing. Few gardens in our modern culture are primarily composed of large and showy annual flowers. Drifts of larkspur, nigella, iceland poppy, snapdragons, and queen anne’s lace filled the exhibit hall with sensational soft and rich shades of blue and orange.
The exhibits picked up on the romantic, flickering style displayed in Hassam’s paintings. Just look at the diffuse textured foliage and starry blue blooms of the nigella, clouds of pale blue scabiosa and pillars of ice blue larkspur. For someone who gardens in the south, where these annuals won’t tolerate the summer heat, it’s unusual to see these plants in the shimmering summer light rather than the softer light of spring.
I often don’t like garden exhibitions, typically finding them precious and contrived. But with the diffuse habit of so many of the plants in this display, like the Nicotiana mutabilis above, helped the garden feel real. This exhibit reminded me of why An Island Garden convinced me to fall in love with annuals. These elegant varieties, with rich colors and graceful habits, live up to Thaxter’s incredible descriptions of flowers. Here’s Celia writing about a poppy: “There is a kind of angry brilliance about it, a sombre and startling magnificence. Its large petals are splashed near the base with broad, irregular spots of black-purple, as if they had been struck with a brush full of color. The seed-pod, rising fully an inch high in the centre, is of a luminous, indescribable shade of green, and folded over its top, a third of its height, is a cap of rich lavender, laid down in points evenly about the crown” (Thaxter, An Island Garden, g 85).
Directly outside the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory where the Island Garden exhibition was displayed, there’s a giant perennial border designed by Piet Oudolf. Unlike the plantings in the exhibition, this bed is made up almost entirely of perennial species. However, this bed has a similar flickering impressionist quality - that incredible use of light and color which has made Oudolf projects famous around the world. The plants used may be different, but the aesthetic affects carry on a proud tradition of bringing an artist’s eye to the garden. It might be a crinkly scarlet poppy or a flickering screen of salvias, but those intense moments of color and light will glow in visitors’ memories long after the gardens themselves have faded away.
“What’s the difference between gardening and landscaping?” My colleague looked up expecting a clear technical answer. “Gardening’s when you kill your own plants, landscaping is when you pay someone else minimum wage to kill them for you.” Yep, I thought I was funny there.
For me, gardening is about more than just cultivation - it’s about presence, spending time in a place, knowing it inside and out. “Beauty is the harvest of presence,” David Whyte writes in Consolations, “Beauty especially occurs in the meeting of time with the timeless; the passing moment framed by what has happened and what is about to occur,” When you actively garden your own garden, you’re present those for individual passing moments of surprising beauty. The sudden flush of a dogwood splayed out amongst pines. Countless anemones and trout lilies spangling a woodland floor. A plump peony bud crystal-coated with dew. Or, as Leo Babauta writes about plum blossoms in the spring: “The height of their beauty is a transient, impermanent, evanescent moment, fading as soon as it peaks.” (Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change, 2016)
As someone who makes gardens for other people for a living, I’m constantly aiming to set up conditions for beautiful and memorable moments. But setting up these experiences is like designing a game. If conditions are right and the visitor’s attention is in the right place, maybe they’ll get it. Or maybe they won't. In A Gentle Plea for Chaos Mirabel Osler writes about the vicissitudes of garden timing, “In Japan there are times of day, or times of year when deliberate viewing of cherry blossom or the melting snow takes place. I wonder how this would work in our gardens? For though we know that there will come a certain day when something is at its best, contemplation of it has to be an almost solitary affair, because you can never tell beforehand what the weather will be like, what damage will be done or even how eccentric the seasons may be that year.”
But the likelihood of someone who’s not actively involved with the garden noticing such surprising and transient moments is less likely than for someone who actually gardens. These special moments are the gardener's reward. Mirabel Osler says it best - “Who hasn’t stood in their garden at some unexpected moment of the day, when perhaps the tension in the petals of a tree peony is almost a breath away from dissolving, or when the immaculate clarity of a tender arum lily seems becalmed for a moment before the petal curls too emphatically? Or when in a certain light there is an almost smoky aura given off by the mauve and white Japanese anemones, when black thunder clouds pass behind a laburnum tree in full flower, or when frost outlines a head of winter yarrow - how often then have we wanted to share it? But try to organize a midsummer flower party when scents and blooms are filling the garden and you can be sure it won’t come off.” (A Gentle Plea for Chaos, 1989)