Friday, May 28, 2010

Spring Scenes (I): Flora, Fortuna, History

I'm really tired of talking about the divestment idiocy and campus politics and would much rather turn my attention to other, more properly historical issues.  As a transition and diversion, a few images of and thoughts about spring and nature in our western Massachusetts region.

high water almost reaches the canal bridge, Turners Falls

Turners Falls:  old mill buildings on the Connecticut River

The winter was a mild one with little snow, but the early onset of warm weather, along with ample rain, struck many as atypical.  One saw the effects throughout the landscape and in the garden. This all brings up further questions of what we take to be usual or unusual.

Most people are at least vaguely aware that the arrival of European settlers transformed that landscape and its ecology, in large ways and small.  Certainly, we think of the big effects of the "Columbian Exchange":  tomatoes, potatoes, maize, tobacco, chocolate (and much more) from the Americas, and horses, pigs, cows, and sheep (and much more, including devastating communicable diseases) from the Old World (there has been a lot of back-and-forth about syphilis, but current scholarship seems to support the view that the virulent sexually transmitted form of the disease was essentially of American origin).  It doesn't end there.  The Europeans also brought with them the honey bee and earthworm (the former, deliberately; the latter, apparently not [1, 2])

Seen in this light, the phrase, "as American as apple pie," takes on new significance, for the common apple (Malus domestica) was a European fruit, with deep origins in Central Asia.  Why else did the John Chapman (a.k.a.  the legendary "Johnny Appleseed"), born in Leominster, not far east of here, have to make such great efforts to promote its cultivation on the American frontier?  (the fact that his varieties were suited for cider—alcoholic beverage— production rather than use as edible fruit is another complication, but we dare not digress further).  Historically speaking, apple pie is as much—or little—"American" as tomato sauce is "Italian" and the prevalence of paprika in a cuisine is "Hungarian": in each case, the key ingredient in the national dish originally came from the other hemisphere.

The exchange includes much that we likewise take for granted in the domestic garden.  Europeans coming to the Americas brought with them the familiar and the valued and sent back eagerly awaited specimens of new plants. The rose (found in Europe as well as Asia) and the lilac (originally native to the Balkans) are but two of the best-known examples of the former. In The Young Gardener's Assistant (11th ed., 1844), Thomas Bridgeman  said "Syringa vulgaris, or common Lilac, blooming in May, is well known to all, and needs no comment," though he went into more detail regarding less familiar varieties.

 "Common" or "Dutch" crocuses (Crocus vernus), 
just after the vernal equinox

We here regard the crocus as one of the "traditional" harbingers of spring, but the plant is in fact native to regions stretching form the Mediterranean to China.

As Bridgeman put it, describing "the beauties of April and May," "Before the trees have ventured to unfold their leaves, and while the icicles are pendant on our houses, the Snow-drop breaks her way through the frozen soil, fearless of danger.  Next peeps out the Crocus, but cautiously and with an air of timidity.  She shuns the howling blasts, and cleaves closely to her humble situation."

In Flora's Interpreter (first ed., 1848) Sarah Josepha Hale—she who gave us Thanksgiving—accurately described the crocus as "One of the earliest spring flowers" and identified it with "youthful gladness," citing a poem that aptly reflects our meteorological conditions this year:
Glad as the spring, when the first Crocus comes
To laugh amid the shower.—
Soon afterward, England, having bested the Netherlands in the competition for industry and empire, could turn its attention to the horticultural field, as well.  In the words of George Glenny (1851), "Our tulip-growers have beaten the Dutch in the quality of their best novelties, and we see no reason why we should not beat them in crocuses."

The nineteenth-century American garden was likewise an unprecedented site of cultural and ecological  interchange, featuring traditional European plants, newly domesticated native ones, and, increasingly, exotics from other parts of the world.

the Romantic American garden as cultural meeting place

The most familiar plant here is the common daffodil (narcissus).  At left, the turtlehead (Chelone glabra), represented by some half a dozen species, is a relative of the foxglove and native to North America.  To the right, new leaves of the hosta pop up.  Now one of the most diverse and popular garden plants, hostas (originally classified as Funkia), came from Asia, reached England in the eighteeenth century, and began to become popular in the United States in the second third of the nineteenth. In the background, a carpet of a traditional herb, sweet woodruff (Asperula odorata), which prospers even in the shade under trees.

Common "Bleeding Heart" (traditionally classified as Dicentra spectabilis, but now Lamprocapnos spectabilis). This native of northeast Asia is now so common that we take it for granted. (Indeed, according to the standard reference work, there are more specimens in our gardens than in the wild.) It was  cultivated briefly in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century but not established in England untii 1846, after which it made its way across the Atlantic. In fact, the leaflet on the recreated eighteenth-century gardens at the Strong House (Amherst History Museum) apologetically describes it as a Victorian interloper:  once planted there, it was too popular with the public, and allowed to remain.

Barrenwort (genus Epimedium), whose species mainly come from Asia, was introduced to the west in the past century and a half.  Fun facts to know and tell: Turns out that Epimedium, long regarded as an aphrodisiac in Asia, contains a compound similar to the active ingredient in Viagra (who knew?).

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