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by Nancy Mayer Wetzel, Landscape Gardener, Jewett House
Copyright (c) 2003 by Nancy Mayer Wetzel
The plant London Pride is mentioned frequently in Sarah Orne Jewett's writing. If Jewett may be taken at her word in "The Confession of a House-Breaker," London Pride grew in her home garden in South Berwick, Maine, as well as in her literary gardens. References to London Pride in Jewett's writing include: "From a Mournful Villager" (1881), "The Confession of a House-Breaker" (1883), "An Only Son" (1883), "Three Friends" (1886), "A Second Spring" (1893), and Chapter 2 of The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).
Today in New England, Jewett's London Pride is known as Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). The red London Pride in this photograph blooms in a South Berwick garden with the golden-yellow Sunflower Heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides 'Summer Sun'). (Photograph by Gary Wetzel, copyright 2003)
The study of plant names is a fascinating pursuit. Over the years, the common name London Pride passed out of general use and the red flower disappeared from the Jewett garden. How is it known, then, that London Pride is Maltese Cross? A great help in tracing London Pride is Jewett's description of her plant in "The Confession of a House-Breaker:"The ranks of flowers in my garden took on a great splendor of bloom, as the light grew clearer. …It seemed as if the quiet June morning ushered in some great festival day, there were such preparations being made. After the roses, the London pride was most gorgeous to behold, with its brilliant red and its tall, straight stalks. It had a soldierly appearance, as if the flowers were out early to keep guard.Steven M. Still in Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants (1994) agrees with the term Jewett used for her plant. He says London Pride—and the commonly named Maltese Cross, Jerusalem Cross, and Scarlet Lightning—are Lychnis chalcedonica, an erect plant of two or three feet with scarlet blooms in summer. Lychnis, from a Greek word meaning lamp, is a genus of bright flowers, certainly a fitting genus for Jewett’s tall stalks of brilliant red bloom.
What Jewett called London Pride, Still identifies as Lychnis chalcedonica, but Jewett’s contemporary Gertrude Jekyll and Still's contemporary Donald Wyman say London Pride is something quite different: Saxifraga umbrosa. Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia (1986) states the plant is a tumbling mound of six inches with small pink or white flowers in spring that is much grown in England. This information is born out by the English Jekyll in Wood and Garden (1899):Next comes the common London Pride, which I think quite the most beautiful of the Saxifrages of this section. If it was a rare thing, what a fuss we should make about it! The place is a little dry for it, but all the same, it makes a handsome spreading tuft hanging over the face of the wall. When its pink cloud of bloom is at its best, I always think it the prettiest thing in the garden.Lychnis chalcedonica was used in American gardens in the 1600s and has remained popular in perennial borders. New pink and carmine-red varieties have been developed. Saxifraga umbrosa was in general use in this country later, some time between 1776 and 1850, and is still suggested for rock gardens and ground covers. Rudy J. Favretti and Joy Putman Favretti documented these dates from period sources and published their findings in Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings (1978).
The plants called London Pride have many other common names. While this distances one from plant identification, it does provide an inviting narrative spin for the search. On June 30, 1801, Martha Ballard, a midwife and healer from Hallowell, Maine, relieved her grandson's pain with "a decoction of ye flowers of London pride." The journal in which Ballard recorded this incident was published in 1992, The Diary of Martha Ballard, 1785-1812, edited by Robert and Cynthia McCausland. The glossary states that the flowers of London Pride are St. Patrick's cabbage. Here is yet another common name for a London Pride plant. The Color Dictionary of Flowers and Plants for Home and Garden (1969) by Roy Hay and Patrick M. Synge says St. Patrick's cabbage is Saxifraga umbrosa. However, considering the late June occurrence of this event, the possibility that Ballard used the fresh-blooming flowers of Lychnis chalcedonica should be considered.
There is also variation on the name London Pride, indicating a third genus where it crops up: Lychnis, Saxifraga, and Lobelia.A name close to London Pride has persisted in Hancock County, Maine to the present, according to Jan Morse Whalen of Steuben. Pride of London is what the recently deceased Virginia Gilson Whalen, descendant of an old Machias merchant family, called the scarlet Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Jewett admired the Cardinal Flower growing on the banks of the Salmon Falls River near her home. Although she distinguished between the red Cardinal Flower and the red London Pride, Jewett acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, their metaphorical similarity when she wrote of the Cardinal Flower's "pride." From "River Driftwood" (1881):They (Cardinal Flowers) wear a color that is the sign of high ecclesiastical rank, and the temper of their minds would make them furies if they fought for church and state. They are no radicals; they are tories and aristocrats; they belong to the old nobility among flowers. It would be a pity if the rank marsh grass overran them, or if the pickerel weed should wade ashore to invade them and humble their pride.Alice Morse Earle's Old Time Gardens (1901), includes a section on London Pride with a regional slant. Earle valued London Pride, as did Jewett, for associations of yore and included an anecdote about its importance in one garden before 1801. A welcome black and white photograph, labeled London Pride, shows the plant presently recognized as Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica):A great favorite in the old garden was the splendid scarlet Lychnis, to which in New England is given the name of London Pride. There are two old varieties: one has four petals with squared ends, and is called, from the shape of the expanded flower, the Maltese Cross; the other, called Scarlet Lightning, is shown on a succeeding page; it has five deeply-nicked petals. It is a flower of midsummer eve and magic power, and I think it must have some connection with the Crusaders, being called Gerarde Floure of Jerusalem, and Flower of Candy. The five-petalled form is rarely seen; in one old family I know it is so cherished, and deemed so magic a homemaker, that every bride who has gone from that home for over a hundred years has borne away a plant of the London Pride; it has really become a Family Pride.There is even earlier visual documentation for London Pride: a painting of vivid color and veracity, titled in a bold hand above the flower image, "London Pride. J. Fisher, 1820." Reverend Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine included London Pride in an untitled notebook of watercolor sketches, now in the collection at his house, the Jonathan Fisher Memorial, Inc. Alice Winchester, in Versatile Yankee, The Art of Jonathan Fisher, 1768-1847 (1973), describes the watercolors as charming depictions of the particular in nature. Fisher's five-petalled London Pride is clearly today's Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). Commentary for the London Pride plate in the book states:Another plant that might be found in a Maine garden, realistically rendered down to the meticulous detailing of touches of blue on the stamens and the highlights on the hairy stems.Via the intriguing folkways and science of nomenclature, one arrives at the conclusion that, in New England today, London Pride is Maltese Cross. The plant commonly seen has five petals, but the name that Earle ascribed to that form, Scarlet Lightning, has been replaced by Maltese Cross. Fisher, Earle, and Jewett, all New Englanders, have shown in word, watercolor, and photograph that their London Pride is Lychnis chalcedonica, the Maltese Cross currently propagated in nurseries.
London Pride is being reintroduced to the Jewett garden, which is open to the public along with her house. Van Berkum Nursery in Deerfield, New Hampshire--less than an hour's drive from the Jewett garden--often has Maltese Cross available. Their catalog entry for Lychnis chalcedonica makes no mention of London Pride, but it does give this accurate annotation:
This is an old fashioned flower that grew in most of our grandmothers' gardens. Maltese Cross is easy to grow and has bright scarlet clusters of cross-like flowers that look elegant with its dark green foliage.
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