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Literary Scholarship




Nancy Mayer Wetzel
Landscape Gardener, Sarah Orne Jewett Garden
South Berwick, Maine



July 14, 2007

Digitalis ferruginea, rusty foxglove.


That tall spire at the west end of the flower border at the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden is Digitalis ferruginea, commonly known as rusty foxglove or iron-colored foxglove.  It is native to southeastern Europe, Turkey and Lebanon and is documented to the 17th century in England by the herbals of John Gerard and John Parkinson.  Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon originally offered the plant in this country in 1810 and by 1835 it appeared in at least four Massachusetts nursery catalogs. New England gardeners had discovered rusty foxglove! 

Its slender 5' stems make a dramatic vertical accent in the June border and catch your eye from a distance, but do come closer for a look at the flowers, small rounds that mature to a warm yellow and unfurl a furry lip to reveal a cavern delicately veined and striped in ferrous red. 

Digitalis ferruginea is hardy in zone 5, so it should endure the winters here in South Berwick, Maine.  I planted three rusty foxgloves last year from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants at Monticello. Two survive to achieve their first bloom this season. They are a fitting addition to a flower border planted in heirlooms that were either mentioned in Jewett's writing, available in her day or, better yet, in her grandmother's day, given Jewett's love of the old-fashioned. 

Digitalis ferruginea, rusty foxglove,
in the heirloom flower border of the 
Sarah Orne Jewett Garden.


July 22, 2007

Ptelea trifoliata, hoptree

A recent visitor to the Sara Orne Jewett House and Garden asked about the "beautiful tree" in the shrubbery under the sugar maple, overhanging the sidewalk on Main Street.  It is Ptelea (tee' lee uh) trifoliata, commonly called hoptree because in the past it was used as a substitute for hops in making yeast and in brewing.  Hoptree is a native plant covering much of the eastern United States. It thrives in Jewett Garden in the shade of the understory and well-drained soil, but elsewhere it does well in sun and particularly likes moist soils. The variable ptelea has a tree form at Jewett Garden with multiple slender stems of about 14' and foliage at the top, but at some sites it is shorter and at others it is a shrub.

Ptelea can be lost in the general greenscape of the Jewett shrubbery, but in greenness lies its charm.  The dark foliage, slow to appear in the spring, is "unvexed", Jewett's word to describe healthy green leaves.  The leaves are aromatic and attractively formed in three parts as the species name, trifoliata, indicates.  Green-tinged flowers--easy to miss--bear seeds in apple-green clusters that ornament the tree now, in summer. There is an autumn surprise--the leaves turn yellow.

Hoptree had its fans by the early 1700s when it was dug up in the wild and planted in cultivated in landscapes. Ptelea could have been introduced in the first period of the house and grounds that dates to 1774, before Grandfather Jewett was the owner. It may have been planted when Sarah and her sister Mary renovated the garden in the style of the colonial revival in the 19th century, or in the subsequent downsizing to the current form in the 20th century. Whatever the date, a gesture of symmetry was made by placing another hoptree under the sugar maple nearer to the barn..

Three-part leaves and seed clusters of Ptelea trifoliata, hoptree, in the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden.


Ptelea trifoliata, an understory plant in the shrubbery, leans over the fence on Main Street, South Berwick, Maine.


June 13, 2008

Paeonia lactiflora 'Festiva Maxima'

Before me on my desk is an amazing blossom of Paeonia lactiflora 'Festiva Maxima' from the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden. Its diameter is seven inches. It has a full double burst of white petals marked with crimson, refreshing as a candy cane in appearance, but the red is spare and randomly splashed on each blossom. While individual flowers are thus unique in appearance, they all suffuse a glorious scent.

The existence of the peony genus is documented to the 15th century and peonies were cited in America in 1737. The antique 'Festiva Maxima' was introduced to the western world by 1851 and in 1852 it appeared in a Boston nursery catalogue, that of Hovey & Co. I planted a pair from a grower in New Hampshire in 2006.  At June bloom time, the two plants pop out of the green backdrop of lawn and arbor vitae walls from their location in the aisle beds.

Peony plants are long-lived and often referred to as century plants. They are signature plants of old American gardens and they appear often in Jewett's writing. In fact, it is possible that she grew 'Festiva Maxima' because in the story "Martha's Lady," 1897, there is a fitting description of the peony in a garden like her own in detail after detail: "The front door might be shut, but the garden door at the other end of the broad hall was wide open upon the large sunshiny garden, where the last of the red and white peonies and the golden lilies, and the first of the tall blue larkspurs lent their colors in generous fashion."

The common name, peony, is not the only variation on the Latin Paeonia. In New England we often hear pioney, with a long "o" stressed in the second syllable, and there is also piney. This reminds me of one of Sarah's nicknames, Pinny.  Does Pinny have to do with a pin, as biographer Paula Blanchard explains it, or does it have to do with a peony? 

Paeonia lactiflora 'Festiva Maxima' in the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden after a morning shower.


A pair of 'Festiva Maxima' peonies pop out of the green backdrop from their location along the broad aisle of the garden.


July 31, 2008

Belamcanda chinensis, blackberry lily

It's small.  Don't miss it.  Belamcanda chinensis is in the middle of the flower border in the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden, toward the front, with small blossoms on three-foot stems that rise above the sword-like foliage of the iris.  It is indeed part of the iris family as its leaf form indicates, but it is not a true lily of the genus Lilium as its common name, blackberry lily, would lead us to believe.  This is another example of lily being used for the common name of beautiful flowers regardless of their genera, for example, daylily, water lily, checkered lily, spider lily, calla lily, lily-of-the-valley, fragrant plantain-lily.  In this sense the blackberry lily deserves its name.  The beautiful flower glows orange mottled with red in July and August; its spent petals form a twist tassel at the tip of the seed capsule; and, in a final fall flourish, the plant displays ornamental fruit that looks like blackberries. 

This perennial was known as Chinese Ixia to Thomas Jefferson who planted it at Monticello in 1807.  Belamcanda chinensis has naturalized there and, according to the experts at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, today's blackberry lilies could be from a planting made by Jefferson himself.  I added three blackberry lily plants to Jewett Garden in 2007 and this spring, while no new plants grew from self-sown seed as they do at Monticello, the original three came again.  Late last fall when the border was dormant, I put a dried stem of the shiny black belamcanda berries in a pottery vase to enjoy through the winter.

Two-inch flowers of Belamcanda chinensis, blackberry lily, in the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden.


Belamcanda's blackberrylike fruit dried for winter display.


August 9, 2009

Dahlia 'Little Beeswings'

Dahlia 'Little Beeswings' was introduced to the market in 1909 and was planted in the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden this 2009 season to mark the centennial of Jewett's death.  I planted the dahlia tuber in June and it started to bloom by the end of July.  There were heavy rains in the early summer, but the well-drained soil in the garden saved the plant from the snails, slugs and rot that run rampant in wet conditions.  You will find 'Little Beeswings' flourishing to the right of center in the flower border, three feet tall with tiny flower balls of one to two inches across.  The petals are yellow tipped with scarlet and form a honeycomb pattern. 

While you are there, think of Jewett "walking up the garden" and finding a swarm of bees, the "great buzz-buzzing" and "the whole air brown". She wrote about it to a friend.  The bees fastened part of a new honeycomb to the bough of a tree and some bees stayed with it while the big swarm went away.  Jewett, with the experienced help of her maid Minnie, got the remaining bees and the comb into a hive.  She said, "It was such a pretty, lucky thing to go out and find them."

Dahlias are a good choice for Jewett Garden because they were a favorite in her century, the 19th, and because they like the cool nights we have here in Maine. So, even as many flowers fade in the coming weeks, remember to walk up the garden and enjoy 'Little Beeswings' into the autumn.


Scarlet and yellow honeycomb pattern of Dahlia 'Little Beeswings' in the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden.



September 28, 2009

Favrettis Visit Jewett House and Garden.

Rudy J. Favretti was the keynote speaker at a historic landscape symposium that I attended on September 26, 2009, presented by Tate House in Portland, Maine.  Favretti spoke about the history of the rectilinear garden and all of a sudden, to my delight, he mentioned a visit he made the day before to the Sarah Orne Jewett House and Garden.  He said that the rectilinear symmetry of Georgian houses has been expressed in their landscapes, as is evident at Jewett House and Garden.  Surely Jewett herself appreciated the relationship when she referred to the "broad hall" of the house and the "broad aisle" of the garden.  It is an ancient design, continued Favretti, depicted as early as the fifteenth century B. C. in an Egyptian wall painting. 

Favretti is considered to be the dean of American landscape history. He developed the first academic program in historic landscapes and guided the restoration of Monticello and other major sites.  He co-authored with Joy Putman Favretti, his wife, the classic book, Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings, 1978.  They signed my dog-eared, water-stained 1978 paperback edition and remarked on its durability.

According to Joy Favretti, a pleasant half hour was spent in Jewett Garden relaxing on the stone bench before their tour.  The Favrettis' time there should not pass unremarked because so much of the heirloom plant selection for the garden has been informed by their research. The catalog of plants in their book, grouped by type and period of common use, is invaluable to those of us who garden with regard for landscape history. 



June 15, 2010

Lychnis chalcedonica, London pride

It was clearly one of Sarah Orne Jewett's favorite plants, but what was it? London pride is named in six of her publications, including the autobiographical sketch "The Confession of a House-Breaker", 1883. By recording the common name and evoking its June aspect in her Maine garden, Jewett made it possible to identify and reintroduce London pride to the museum grounds:
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.
London pride is Lychnis chalcedonica, today known as Maltese cross.  It is a native of Russia and Siberia and its genus, Lychnis, is from a Greek word for lamp, a reference to the bright--we would say electric--colors of the plant group. Other common names, Jerusalem cross and flower of Candy, indicate even more international and historical associations. London pride has been in American gardens since the 1600s, appearing three feet tall and boldly inflorescent around summer solstice. Surely, the plant's synchronicity with Midsummer and its old-time quality sparked Jewett's imagination.

There is early visual documentation of London pride in Maine, a painting of vivid color and veracity titled in a bold hand above the flower image "London Pride. J. Fisher, 1820." Reverend Fisher of Blue Hill included London Pride in a notebook of watercolor sketches, now in the collection at his house, the Jonathan Fisher Memorial. Alice Morse Earle, Jewett's contemporary, wrote about London pride in her book, Old Time Gardens, 1901. In her characteristically anecdotal style, Earle documented the use of London pride in a New England garden prior to 1801. For over a hundred years, all the brides of the family in whose garden it grew took a piece of the old plant to their new homes. Earle used photographs in her books and included a black and white image of London pride.

Jewett knew the old plants and kept them alive in her writing and in her garden. Now, London pride is a signature plant of the early summer flower border at Jewett House, along with the more familiar iris, peonies and roses. The gardener offers one word of advice on growing the plant. The stems of London pride can be floppy in the spring when they emerge. Put a few twigs or bamboo stakes around the plant and run some twine to support those short stems. They will soon be sturdy and upright, topped with flower clusters in a color so vibrant that it inspired yet another common name, scarlet lightning.

Scarlet Lychnis chalcedonica, London pride, a "great splendor of bloom" in the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden.



August 7, 2010

Phlox drummondii, crimson phlox

After the mysterious death of Scotsman Thomas Drummond in 1835, a last shipment of his belongings arrived at the Botanical Garden in Glasgow. Drummond was a naturalist and plant hunter in North America and among his belongings were the seeds of a Texas wildflower and other specimens that Drummond suffered fevers and infections, floods and starvation in order to collect. The annual phlox from Texas was a prize. Its free flowering show of vivid colors earned it the common name Texas pride, but, once abroad, it was classified as Phlox drummondii, in memory of Drummond. European growers returned the Texas native to America with the name Drummond's phlox.
By the 1860s, Drummond's phlox was popular in the northeast where Sarah Orne Jewett and her fellow writer and gardener, Celia Thaxter, lived. Both of them were familiar with crimson phlox, a red variety of Drummond's phlox selected for market from the array of available colors. Thaxter published An Island Garden, 1894, and, following the advice of Jewett, included a map of her garden. The map indicated a bed planted in the pulsing hues of rose campion surrounded by crimson phlox. Jewett used it in a fiery combination of scarlet, orange and crimson flowers in the novel A Country Doctor, 1884, "Her grandmother's flower-garden had been constantly encroached upon by the turf which surrounded it, until ... the London pride, the tiger-lilies, and the crimson phlox were like a besieged garrison."
For weeks now, crimson phlox has been blazing in the front of the Jewett flower border. It is listed in the Select Seeds catalog as Phlox drummondii var. coccinea, Phlox 'Crimson' and identified as a Victorian favorite. A shearing of the plant is recommended to promote new growth and keep the plant blooming into fall. Indeed, Thaxter wrote that the phlox was aglow in her garden on September 23 but mentioned no interventions to lengthen bloom time. The gardener at Jewett House is taking conservative measures and merely removing the spent blooms to prevent the plant from going to seed when it could still be producing flowers. The hope is that crimson phlox will warm the border until frost.

Crimson phlox in the flower border at the Sarah Orne Jewett Garden 
showing clusters with pointed buds and flat, five-petalled flowers.

Crimson phlox in the Jewett flower border with another annual, 
Nigella damascena 'Miss Jekyll Blue', love-in-a-mist.


Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.

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