where have all the flowers gone?

Category : Art, Nature, Plants
Date : September 11, 2017
Comments : (7)

Incredible floral arrangements graced the Westbeth Art Gallery at the opening of Strange Flowers last Saturday night. Flowers and their strange beauty unite the artists assembled by the show’s organizer Elisabeth Condon, but their approaches vary widely. From backyard weeds and blooms gone awry; hyper-realized blossoms gleaned out of the corner of one’s eye; roses stained on ancient cloth literally marking the passing of a dear friend; perfectly rendered arrangements drawn in colored ink; ancient botanical images on wallpaper newly arranged to form an architectural temple pattern; plants gathered and dipped in wax laid against a perfect blue sky; larger than life-sized blooms and blossoms that one can escape into; butterflies and birds residing amongst leaves and streams of paint in an urban landscape; to a set of vintage wildflower identification cards placed on a shelf set against plant-dyed paper on the wall.

On the night of the opening, some visitors presumed that the wildflower cards were there for the taking. Was there a sign posted that said, “Please take a card, courtesy of the artist”? Absolutely not! Slowly the deck of 49 cards became 19. Unlike the stacks of candy found in the participatory work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for example, these cards are irreplaceable parts of the artist’s work, not meant to be taken from the piece.

What led some viewers to literally pick these flowers without seeking permission? What did they think would happen when the 49 wildflower cards were gone? Did they think that they would just be replaced? Is this any different from one visiting a museum and simply taking a painting off the wall to put in one’s home?

If you take all the goldenrod from a particular spot, what will the foraging fall pollinators have to fuel them for the long cold winter?  If the forest is cleared to make way for a pipeline, where do all the insects, birds, and animals go when their habitat is removed?

Are art & nature for the taking?

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Strange Flowers on view at  Westbeth Art Gallery until September 30, 2017.  Gallery open Wednesday to Sunday, 1-6pm. 55 Bethune Street, New York, NY


Ideas and Influences on Two Coats of Paint

Date : April 16, 2017
Comments :

Recently, Sharon Butler of award wining blog, Two Coats of Paint, asked me to compile a list of ten current “ideas and influences.”  The text of the blog is below. Please visit Two Coats for the full post with images.

page from my grandfather’s herbarium

 

“Artist and citizen naturalist Brece Honeycutt lives in Massachusetts, on a colonial farmhouse in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains. Fascinated with the history of her home and the surrounding land, she reads handwritten antique diaries at the local library, gathers old textiles, and creates natural dyes from the plants she collects on her morning walks. During her walks, she closely observes changes to the landscape, making notes that become the basis for new projects. On the occasion of her solo show at Norte Maar, Honeycutt has compiled the following list of ideas and influences that inform her work.”

1. Henry David Thoreau. “It will take half a lifetime to find out where to look for the earliest flower,” noted Henry David Thoreau in his journal. [1] For seven years (1851-1858), Thoreau walked his environs around Concord, MA and recorded his observations noting when plants sprouted, trees leafed out, and birds returned.  An inspiration for us all to be become Citizen Naturalists.

2. Citizen Naturalist. Recently I started participating in the USA National Phenology Network as a Citizen Naturalist, using Nature’s Notebook app. Phenology, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena (as in bird migration or plant flowering).” In fact, Thoreau’s findings have become the basis for comparative studies being conducted by the scientist Dr. Richard B. Primack that demonstrate climate change and how the warming of the planet is affecting the cycles of our environs.  Daily I note the returning ducks and birds, the flowering coltsfoot and the occasional spotting of a bobcat.

3. Emily Dickinson. Like Thoreau, Emily Dickinson was a keen observer of plants and a magnificent gardener. I wondered what plants were found in her area of Massachusetts in the 1800s and might we have them here?  Dickinson wrote to her friend, Mrs. A. P. Strong, in 1848, “The older I grow, the more I do love spring flowers. Is it so with you? While at home there were several pleasure parties of which I was a member, and in our rambles we found many and many beautiful children of Spring, which I will mention and see if you have found them–the trailing arbutus, adder’s tongue, yellow violets, liver leaf, bloodroot and many other small flowers.” [2]

4. Spring Ephemerals. Indeed, all but the trailing arbutus are found on the grounds of Bartholomew’s Cobble (Ashley Falls, MA). In a few weeks, the Spring Wildflower Festival will begin at the Cobble and for the second year, I will be leading tours. I am busily reviewing my notecards, guidebooks and poems that I will read to the guests. The most important “tool” is to go and walk the trail, slowly, ever so slowly. Stopping, and really looking around. As Thoreau noted, the earliest flowers are the hardest to find.  Spring ephemerals–plants that grow for a short time span due to the intense sunlight and the particular soil found at the Cobble–are fleeting and glorious.  This year I want to embark on a project, “To know you is to draw you.”

5. Herbariums. Plants & Place, Deerfield. What did that particular plant look like when it first sprouted? Gardeners, Citizen Naturalists like Dickinson and Thoreau made Herbariums to both identify and document their native flora and fauna. Each year, I vow to start my own Herbarium and to jump start this year’s process, I look forward to the upcoming symposium at Historic Deerfield–Plants and Place:  Native Flora of Western Massachusetts. We will review various herbaria, including the early collected plant pages of Stephen West Williams.

6. Susan Howe. I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at The Morgan Library with Susan Howe and Marta Werner regarding the current exhibition I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson. The exhibition catalog is a treasure trove of essays and images including a conversation between Werner and Howe, “Transcription and Transgression.”

Werner asks Howe about seeking “small, out-of the way archives.”

Howe responds:  “Yes, I also enjoy small local libraries. Usually they have local historical collections where you will find things that historicists have neglected, or you find an old book with the odd spelling from seventeenth century. I don’t know. It’s the peace found in the landscape of place.” [3]

7. Webster’s Dictionary. Howe discussed also that Dickinson used a particular dictionary, Noah Webster’s 1844 An American Dictionary of the English Language. In a post-lecture conversation, Howe said that not only were Dickinson’s words defined by this exact dictionary, but that her gaze across the pages of the dictionary influenced her writings. I procured a facsimile 1828 Webster (also found in the Dickinson home) and have been looking up words found in her poetry, Thoreau’s writings and even to see if a spring ephemeral can be found on the pages of this book, evidencing that a plant was very much in residence. What a treat to read Jennifer Schuessler’s article “A Journey into the Merriam-Webster Word Factory” in the March 22 edition of the New York Times.

8. Mending. Sewing. Georgia O’Keeffe. Alabama Chanin. The current exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum charts her life through drawings, paintings, photographs and clothing. Her friend Anita Pollitzer noted that O’Keeffe was “extremely industrious, her hands are seldom idle. She loves to sew—not fancy things, but Chinese silk blouses and loose clothes that become her.” One wall label noted her to be a “conscientious mender” of clothes.

Inspired by Alabama Chanin a few years ago, I found the determination to make some of my own clothes. Stitch by stitch.

9. Clean Air. Clean Water. Rachel Carson. Where will we be without clean air and clean water?  After watching PBS’s documentary American Experience:  Rachel Carson, I sought the pages of Silent Spring, first published in 1962.  Carson’s intensely factual, yet lyrically written, scientific book exposed the devastation occurring from the use of synthetic chemicals on all living beings.

Carson states:

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.

“I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself. Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.” [4]

10. Wendell Berry. Now. Wendell Berry asks us to remain in the present with our actions in regards to climate change and land abuse. He posits that if we are only thinking of what can be accomplished in the future, we are missing the opportunity for what we can do right now. He invites us to “save energy now for the future” by beginning with small acts today. Berry states,

“….so few as just one of us can save energy right now by self-control, careful thought, and remembering the lost virtue of frugality. Spending less, burning less, traveling less may be relief. A cooler, slower life may make us happier, more present to ourselves, and to others who need us to be present.” [5]

Footnotes:

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Geoff Wisner, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), pg. 16.
[2] Emily Dickinson, The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 1845-1886, Google Docs, page 38.
[3] Susan Howe and Marta Werner, “Transcription and Transgression,” The Networked Recluse:  The Connected World of Emily Dickinson, (Amherst: Amherst College Press, 2017), pg. 135.
[4] Rachel Carson Silent Spring, (Greenwich: Fawcett Books, 1962), pg. 22.
[5] Wendell Berry, Our Only World Ten Essays, (Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2015), pgs. 174, 175.

“bewilderNew Work by Brece Honeycutt,” Norte Maar, Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, NY. Through  April 23, 2017.


citizen naturalist

Category : Nature, Plants
Date : February 14, 2017
Comments : (2)

Do you keep a weather journal? Make notes when the hummingbirds arrive in the spring? Sketch and date the unfurling of the bloodroot along the forest trail?

For the past seven years, I flip open my “Record Book” and note the morning temperature as well as other memorable natural occurrences of the day. On February 10th, my husband noted that ten red-winged blackbirds appeared at our birdfeeder and asked if I thought this was unusual. My notes indicate that on February 22, 2016, red-winged blackbirds were at the feeder, and in 2014, on March 4th, we spotted them as well. These observations give us context for our slice of land.

the tips of skunk cabbage poking up on January 13, 2017

 

It seems of utmost importance now more than ever to participate in the natural world around us. Perhaps it is time to become part of Nature’s Notebook, sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN). Webster’s Dictionary defines phenology as “the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant life.” The USA-NPN notes:

“Phenology is a key component of life on earth.  Many birds time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings.  In turn, insect emergence is often synchronized with leafing out in their host plants. For many people, allergy season starts when particular flowers bloom—earlier flowering means earlier allergies.  Farmers and gardeners need to know when to plant to avoid frosts, and they need to know the schedule of plant and insect development to decide when to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Many interactions in nature depend on timing.  In fact, phenology affects nearly all aspects of the environment, including the abundance, distribution, and diversity of organisms, ecosystem services, food webs, and the global cycles of water and carbon.”

One might wonder how notes scribbled down in one era might have any impact or advice for later generations. Look no further than the early citizen naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) residing in Concord, MA. From his daily walks, he kept detailed records of his observations of wildflowers, leaf-out for trees and spring bird sightings during the years 1851-1858. After making his observations, he charted the findings in tables. Fast forward to spring 2003, when the scientist Dr. Richard. Primack and his team begin walking the environs of Concord, following in Thoreau’s footsteps and taking their own observations. Primack’s findings and ongoing conclusions have been published in his book, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreaus’s Woods. By using Thoreau’s and other proximate naturalists’ records, Primack demonstrates that climate change and the warming of the planet is affecting the cycles of plants and wildlife.

Primack notes:

“One thing that made Thoreau so effective as a thinker and writer was his ability to gain insights from observation in the natural world. If our goal is to protect the environment and deal with the problem of climate change, then part of our strategy should be for each of us to immerse himself or herself in nature in order to understand what we are trying to protect. At the most basic level, this means walking through natural landscapes and observing what is there; we should learn the names and characteristics of birds, mammals, plants and other species. We should observe their behavior, their migrations, and their seasonal changes, to better understand their and our place in nature. As we develop this understanding, we will become better advocates for their protection.”

The time is now. Start making notes about your natural world. Chose a method of keeping track. Perhaps, your approach will be similar to the poet Mary Oliver, and you’ll have a notebook always in your back pocket for jotting down fleeting thoughts and observations. If you are more comfortable in the digital realm, then download Nature’s Notebook app and log in. Birds are returning. Skunk cabbage will soon be showing its fronds. Don’t leave any natural arrival unnoticed.

Phenology as described by the USANPN website: https://usanpn.org/about/why-phenology. Accessed on 2/13/2017.

Richard B. Primack, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreaus’s Woods, (The University of Chicago Press, 2014), pgs. 54-55, 226

Two Thoreau Notes:

New biography of Thoreau by Kevin Dann, Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau (Tarcher and Perigree, 2017).

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal exhibition will be on view at The Morgan Library (6/2-9/10/2017) and Concord Museum (9/29/2017-1/21/2018).

 


naturalists

Category : Books, Nature, Plants
Date : August 22, 2016
Comments :

What is a naturalist? Must a naturalist be a scientist? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of a naturalist is “…a person who studies plants and animals as they live in nature.” By this definition, then, anyone of us could be a naturalist if we paid close attention to the world outside. And by extension, if one took notes, made charts and kept detailed accounts of these observations over space and time, might this person be termed a “Naturalist extraordinaire”?

At the moment, I am reading two books by Naturalist extraordinaires: Thoreau’s Wildflowers (masterfully edited and introduced by Geoff Wisner) and Natural Color. Each author, Henry David Thoreau and Sasha Duerr, respectively, defines their location by the surrounding indigenous plants. Duerr’s environs are the hills of Berkeley, CA, whilst Thoreau lived across the continent in Concord, MA. Separated by land and centuries, they are anchored together in their respect for the natural world and the desire to caretake.

We accompany each author on a year-long journey, progressing from Spring to Winter. Duerr forages plants from Oakland sidewalks and farmer’s markets to make splendid colors, guiding us through the year with seasonal ”palettes”. Thoreau’s observations of wildflowers – through scent, leaf and flowers – provide clear images of his peregrinitions in and around Concord throughout the four seasons.  Both books are graced with sumptuous visuals (photographs by Aya Brackett in Natural Color, and detailed drawings by Barry Moser in Thoreau’s Wildflowers), better allowing us to ‘participate’ with the authors in their explorations, but more importantly helping us to refine our natural vision and to prepare us for our own observations.

Sasha Duerr, The Seasonal Color Wheel

Sasha Duerr, The Seasonal Color Wheel

As both a dyer and wildflower guide, these books are wonderful practical tools for me. Duerr, an expert natural dyer, provides not only the nuts and bolts – from gathering to extraction to finished project – but also writes a manifesto to counteract and contend with the today’s fast-paced fashion and food world.  Thoreau’s minute observations – when a plant’s leaves first emerge from the earth, how long it blooms, and when it puts out seeds – is instructive and invaluable to the naturalist in each of us.

Thoreau states:

“If a man is rich and strong anywhere it must be in his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them.”

Duerr posits:

“Mapping and getting to know your own neighborhood and botanical region is another way of cultivating your natural dye practice, caring for the landscape, and working in harmony with ecological systems. Working with natural color can inspire you to make an authentic stewardship of the land itself.”

It would be among my greatest pleasures to accompany Duerr and Thoreau on a nature walk, listening to their conversation as they delight in the depth and breadth of Nature’s flora.

Note: Natural Color is released on August 23, 2016. For full information on where to purchase the book and a listing of Sasha’s upcoming book signings, http://www.sashaduerr.com

www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/naturalist

Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Goeff Wisner and illustrated by Barry Moser (Yale University Press, 2016), pg. 256.

Sasha Duerr, Natural Color, (Watson-Guptill Publications, 2016), pgs. 125, 203.

 


only what you need

Category : Nature, Plants
Date : July 20, 2016
Comments :

The time draws nigh for collecting herbs for drying and dyeing. Whilst reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s thought-provoking book, Braiding Sweet Grass, I came across these guidelines for the Honorable Harvest.

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may
      take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Share.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

So this morning, prior to gathering St John’s Wort, I sat with the plant and thanked it for cropping up in our yard and explained that I required just a few more flowers for my oil infusion. I spoke with Calendula, introducing myself as the one who planted the seeds and congratulating the plant for blooming under the hot summer sky. I took only what I needed for future remedies, thanked them both and went on my way.

The fields are about to burst forth in a bounty of golden rod. One can bet that the bumblebees and honeybees will find the ochre-topped plants before I do. Often, there are others—insects and birds—that depend on the nectar, pollen and seeds found in some of the plants that I forage for, such as the lovely white and red clover dotting our lawn. Whilst I do not use the white clover, I do harvest some of the red clover to dry and use later in the winter. We leave as much white clover as possible for the honeybees, and we suggest that others do the same. If you doubt that honeybees utilize the clover, go outside, find a clump and just stand there. Guaranteed a bee or two will buzz by you.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweet Grass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants, (Milkweed Editions, 2013), pg. 183.


page turner

Category : Plants
Date : September 12, 2014
Comments :

In my current reading, I am deep into an engaging mystery, but there is another book that has me glued to it: Nelson Coon’s Using Plants for Healing. In my continuing search for finding value in and uses for ‘weeds’ that we tread upon, yank out, openly discard and cannot even identify, I stumbled upon his book and feel lucky for it.

Methodically, he takes us on “a detour into history” tracking the use of herbs in medicine from the Pharaohs of Egypt; Hellenic Greece, where Theophrastus wrote An Enquiry into Plants in 370 B.C; Renaissance Venice where De Agricultura was printed in 1471; then the new world where the medicine of the Aztecs was “discovered”; and finally, to ‘New Netherlands’, where “…a reporter found some thirty plants which he said were valuable to the Indians, including polypody, sweetflag, sasafrass, mallow, violet, wild indigo, Solomon’s-seal, milfoil, ferns, agrimony, wild leek, snakeroot and prickly pear.” The colonists, indeed, relied upon their European knowledge, folk-remedies and Indian practices well into the nineteenth century by gathering plant material and making medicines from them. As cities and towns began to expand, access to the woods and fields for gathering became more difficult. The Shakers of New Lebanon, NY, however, planted a ‘physic garden” and “…in one season 75 tons of medicinal plants were grown, dried, pressed, and packed, and shipped to every state.”

Coon devotes a page to each medicinal herb, with an illustration, its botanical name, family name and common names, and then a lengthy description of the plant, its history and uses, and some basic recipes.

mugwort

mugwort

Charged with my new knowledge, I took a walk outdoors and discovered a huge crop of mugwort (Artemisis Absinthium) and gazed again upon bountiful spreads of plantain, mint, yarrow, nettle, sorrel, burdock and golden rod. Other plants, I noticed, were past their prime and would have to be gathered next year. Maybe it is time for me to make a ‘gathering calendar’, so as not miss out on any of the beneficial plants. Fortunately, though, I am member of an herbal CSA, Wild Wind Herbal. Marybeth and Ashley seasonally gather and dry herbs and so-called ‘weeds’ and make tinctures, salves, teas and balms, and then distribute to their shareholders for four months (July-October).

Nelson Coon, Using Plants for Healing:Featuring a Guide to over 250 Medicinal Plants, (Rodale Press, 1979), pgs. 11-23 for history.

Note for further reading: Dina Falconi, Earthly Bodies & Heavenly Hair: Natural and Healthy Personal Care for Every Body, (Ceres Press, 1998); many recipes for the mugwort I am harvesting today to make both a tincture and a vinegar for future uses).


dooryard weed

Category : Plants
Date : May 27, 2014
Comments : (2)

“dooryard weed, great plantain, Englishman’s foot, devil’s shoestring, hen plant, birdseed, waybread & rabbit plantain“ are a few of the names given to the ubiquitous Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major).

Our ‘lawn’ is a combo-platter, and yesterday, as I looked around, the plantain was everywhere. In the back of my mind, I recalled reading about the many benefits of this so-called weed, and turned to the herbal books on the shelf. Indeed, the omnipresent dooryard weed seems to be a miracle worker, for its leaves staunch bleeding skin, relieve the itch of stings from mosquitoes and bees, and soothe certain bronchial and intestinal conditions. One can also enjoy the young leaves in a salad or sautéed, and know that these contain calcium and vitamins A, C & K.

By all accounts, plantain was not native to the English Colonies, but brought here, and quickly became known as Englishman’s food by the Native Americans. Midwife Martha Ballard (1735-1812) knew the worthy uses of plantain and other herbs:

“Herbs, wild as well as cultivated, were the true foundation of her practice. She wilted fresh burdock leaves in alcohol to apply to sore muscles, crushed comfrey for a poultice, added melilot (a kind of sweet clover) to hog’s grease for an ointment, boiled agrimony, plantain, and Solomon’s-seal into a syrup, perhaps following an old method that called for reducing the liquid by half, straining this decoction through a woolen cloth, then adding sugar to simmer to the thickness of new honey.”

IMG_1246

By dusk, I gathered a jar full of plantain and filled it with apple cider vinegar, and in three weeks time, the liquid will be a perfect antidote to the mighty mosquito.

Isn’t it time we rejoiced in what is in our backyards, used the ‘weeds’ for their advantageous aspects for humans and insects, and stopped putting tons of chemicals on the grass?

Note:  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich will give the Keynote Address at the upcoming MassHumanities 2014 Conference, ‘Never Done:  Interpreting the History of Women and Work in Massachusetts’ on Monday, June 2, 2014.  For information, go to http://www.masshumanities.org/history_conference_2014. Registration closes on May 30th  at high noon.

 

Firefox 2, Eliot Wigginton, editor, (Anchor Books, 1973), pg. 85.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich , A Midwife’s Tale The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, (Vintage Books, 1990), 52, 354.

For more history and uses of plantain, consult:

http://raising6kids.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/pickin-plantain-medicinal-weed/

http://www.herballegacy.com/Ahlborn_History.html


a plea for dandelions from the honeybee

Category : Plants
Date : May 2, 2014
Comments :

On a bright spring day, we can see our bees out foraging for needed food. And one wonders what they can find now, for the fruit trees have not yet budded out and most flowering plants do not show their beauty until summer. The humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is the Spring flower of choice for honey bees, bumble bees and carpenter bees.

Dandelions provide one of the first sources of pollen (protein) and nectar (future honey) for honeybees in early Spring. We adore seeing the brilliant yellow dots on the greening-up lawn. But we are in the minority, for most homeowners want their lawn to be not only a flat plane of green, but also demand that it be weed free, and the dandelion stands at the top of their hit list.

IMG_1144

We ask you to please refrain from pulling up (or worse, using herbicides on) the dandelions, and instead offer them up to foraging honeybees. And by the way, once the yellow dandelion flowers start to wither away, there remain delectable and nutritious dandelion greens that make for a great salad.

PS—If you need more evidence, browse the world wide web in a search for bees + dandelions, and be prepared for a good long read.


herbals & florals

Category : Plants
Date : June 21, 2013
Comments : (1)

Gardening by the book–Celebrating 100 years of The Garden Club of America is currently on view at The Grolier Club in NYC.  The exhibition cases are filled to the brim with incredibly beautiful and meticulously detailed botanical illustrations.

Hidden amongst the books one can find two copies of Elizabeth Blackwell‘s A Curious Herbal.  Elizabeth (1707-1758) received drawing and painting courses as a young girl prior to her marriage to physician-turned-printer Alexander Blackwell.

Research describes Alexander as a ‘shady’ character and his avoidance of fines landed him in debtor’s prison. The necessity of paying her husband’s fines caused Elizabeth to embark on her book project, listing and illustrating 500 medicinal plants. She sought the approval of the Society of Apothecaries and once received, took up residence very near the Chelsea Physic Garden to be in close proximity to her primary sources–the plants residing in this teaching garden. She draw, engraved and hand colored all of the illustrations, a task normally done by three people (draftsperson, engraver and painter). From her meticulous drawings, Alexander provided the proper names for each plant, resulting in her engraving of all of the text. The illustrations were released weekly in groups of four for 125 weeks between 1737 and 1739.

Elizabeth Blackwell's beautiful figs

Elizabeth Blackwell’s beautiful figs

I would love to have a copy of Ms. Blackwell’s work in my library, for the moment I am enjoying the selected pages in the online gallery from the British Museum.


weeds, seeds & volunteers

Category : Plants
Date : June 16, 2013
Comments :

Last week our gardens were deluged with yet more rain, so this morning I turned my attention to the bounty of weeds rising amongst the plants.  This morning’s read of One Colonial Woman’s World The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit showed me that colonial women shared some of the same concerns.  Weeds seem to be the talk of the town for centuries.

Mehetabel’s  letter to her daughter Martha (dated July 4, 1726) chronicles her trip to Woodstock during the month of May.  Her entry for Wednesday, May 31:

‘we got home about 10 o’clock, not very weary, found all well except the gardin, and that was overRun with weeds……’

morning glories--2012 crop

morning glories–2012 crop

While I was out weeding, I noticed a fine crop of ‘volunteers’ from last year’s bountiful morning glories, and with these I am extra careful to protect and nurture.  The blue flowers provided an incredible source for dyeing paper and cloth last summer.  I am very much hoping that I can count on using them again this year.  However, one must really never rely on what will arrive in the garden.  We patiently await the sprouting of the seeds—vegetables and herbs, as well as a new batch of plants to dye with:  dyer’s broom, dyer’s coreopsis and purple orach—-planted before the six plus inches of rain last week.  The talk of the town this week is the rotting of seeds planted just weeks ago.  Time will tell.

Michelle Marchetti Coughlin, One Colonial Woman’s World The Life and Writings of MehetabelChandler Coit (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), p. 133


Asparagus officinalis / Rheum rhabarbarum

Category : Plants
Date : May 23, 2013
Comments :

Springing up in the garden over the past week are two early favorites—rhubarb and asparagus.

In his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons recounts his foraging at the age of 12:

During the next week we ate fresh asparagus every day.  We had boiled and buttered asparagus, creamed asparagus, asparagus on toast and asparagus soup.  I doubt that young people today can realize how good the first green vegetables of spring tasted in those days before quick freezing and fast transportation began furnishing us with fresh green vegetables all winter.

Gibbons references the process of quick freezing invented by Clarence Birdseye and the associated 18-item product line –“meats, spinach & peas, fruits & berries” launched in 1930 in Springfield, MA.  Women set aside as much food as possible to get through the cold winters, and must have been on the lookout for the first shoots of green and red in the garden. While the women of this colonial home would not have used Gibbon’s book as a guide to foraging, they might have referenced the 1829 The American Frugal Housewife for recipes and household advice.  Here, the author Child discusses:

Rhubarb Stalks, or Persian Apple

Rhubarb stalks, or the Persian apple, is the earliest in gradient for pies, which the spring offers.  The skin should be carefully stripped, and the stalks cut into small bits, and stewed very tender. These are dear pies, for they take an enormous quantity of sugar. Seasoned like apple pies Gooseberries, currants &c.,are stewed, sweetened and seasoned like apple pies, in proportions suited to the sweetness of the fruit; there is no way to judge but your own taste.  Always remember it is more easy to add seasoning than to diminish it.

Sugar did not come in plentiful, affordable 5lb bags, but rather on a cone, and it cost a pretty penny and was thus used with care.

“Conical molded cakes of granulated sugar, wrapped in blue paper & tied, as customary for maybe centuries in Europe, & in US in 18th – early 19th C. This one is from Belgium, but form is the same. About 10″H x 4 3/4″ diam…The blue paper wrapped around sugar loafs was re-used to dye small linens a medium indigo blue…Sugar nippers were necessary because sugar came in hard molded cones, with a heavy string or cord up through the long axis like a wick, but there so that the sugar should be conveniently hung up, always wrapped in blue paper…Conical sugar molds of pottery or wood were used by pouring hot sugar syrup into them and cooling them until solid. They range from about 8′ high to 16” high. These molds are very rare, especially those with some intaglio decoration inside to make a pattern on the cone…Loaf or broken sugar-A bill of sale form Daniel E. Baily, a grocer of Lynchberg, VA, dated 1839, lists two types of sugar sold to John G. Merme (?). “Loaf sugar” and “Broken sugar,” the latter cost half as much…Loaf was 20 cents a pound, and broken it was only eleven cents a pound. For cooking, the broken would have been more convenient by far.”

Child also discusses using the blue paper as a dye in her book*.  Nothing was wasted, forgotten or taken for granted in the frontier kitchens.

*The purple paper, which comes on loaf sugar, boiled in cider, or vinegar, with a small bit of alum, makes a fine purple slate color. Done in iron.

[Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (David McKay Company, 1962) p.28-31] [Lydia Maria Francis Child, The American Frugal Housewife (A Public Domain Book, Project Gutenberg)] [Linda Campbell Franklin300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles, 5th edition (Krause Publications, Wisconsin 2003), p. 100-101]

kitchen garden

Category : Plants
Date : April 22, 2013
Comments :

In last’s week mail, our order of potatoes and leeks arrived from Fedco Seeds, as well as onions from Dixondale Farms.  We are very lucky to have others grow, harvest and store the seeds and starts needed for our garden. The women of this farm needed to be more resourceful, for they either had to gather from the land and woods and/or store from the previous year’s crops.

In her book, Good Wives, the esteemed historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich outlines the chores of Magdalen Wear, of York, Maine:

Long before her small garden began to produce, she would have searched out a wild “sallett” in the nearby woods, in summer turning to streams and barrens for other delicacies congenial to English taste—eels, salmon, berries and plums.

Michael Tortorello went in search of older plants that were commonly used by colonial women, but are now rare or out of favor, but not flavour.  Some of the plants are grown at Plimoth Plantation and tended by the Colonial Foodways Culinarian Kathleen Wall. She recounts:

It doesn’t help matters that many Colonial-era “herbs,” like dandelions or patience dock (Rumex patientia), would now be tarred as weeds. Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), one of Ms. Wall’s favorites, can be found growing by the side of the road. The plant has a tireless quality. The flowers, typically maroon, will bloom all summer if you keep picking them, she said. And the little leaves of salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) can be harvested almost all year.

Dandelions are starting to crop up, not only in the passages I am reading about older gardens, but also in our yard. More on those tomorrow.

[Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Goodwives, (Vintage Books, 1982), pgs 31-31] [Michael Tortorello, Ye Olde Kitchen Garden, New York Times, July 7, 2011]

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