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Gardens - Tussy-Mussies

( Originally Published 1901 )



" There be some flowers make a delicious Tusie-Mussie or Nosegay both for Sight and Smell." -JOHN PARKINSON, A Garden of all Sorts of Pleasant Flowers, 1629.

NO following can be more productive of a study and love of word derivations and allied word meanings than gardening. An interest in flowers and in our English tongue go hand in hand. The old medieval word at the head of this chapter has a full explanation by Nares as "A nosegay, a tuzzie-muzzie, a sweet posie." The old English form, tussymose was allied with tosty, a bouquet, tuss and tusk; a wisp, as of hay, tussock, and tutty, a nosegay. Thomas Campion wrote : —

" Joan can call by name her cows,
And deck her windows with green boughs ;
She can wreathes and tuttyes make,
And trim with plums a bridal cake."

Tussy-mussy was not a colloquial word ; it was found in serious, even in religious, text. A tussymussy was the most beloved of nosegays, and was often made of flowers mingled with sweet-scented leaves.

My favorite tussy-mussy, if made of flowers, would be of Wood Violet, Cabbage Rose, and Clove Pink. These are all beautiful flowers, but many of our most delightful fragrances do not come from flowers of gay dress ; even these three are not showy flowers ; flowers of bold color and growth are not apt to be sweet-scented ; and all flower per-fumes of great distinction, all that are unique, are from blossoms of modest color and bearing. The Calycanthus, called Virginia Allspice, Sweet Shrub, or Strawberry bush, has what I term a perfume of distinction, and its flowers are neither fine in shape, color, nor quality.

I have often tried to define to myself the scent of the Calycanthus blooms ; they have an aromatic fragrance somewhat like the ripest Pineapples of the tropics, but still richer ; how I love to carry them in my hand, crushed and warm, occasionally holding them tight over my mouth and nose to fill myself with their perfume. The leaves have a similar, but somewhat varied and sharper, scent, and the woody stems another; the latter I like to nibble. This flower has an element of mystery in it — that indescribable quality felt by children, and remembered by prosaic grown folk. Perhaps its curious dark red-dish brown tint may have added part of the queerness, since the " Mourning Bride," similar in color, has a like mysterious association. 1 cannot explain these qualities to any one not a garden-bred child; and as given in the chapter entitled The Mystery of Flowers, they will appear to many, fanciful and unreal—but I have a fraternity who wall understand, and who will know that it was this same undefinable quality that made a branch of Strawberry bush, or a handful of its stemless blooms, a gift significant of interest and intimacy ; we would not willingly give Calycanthus blossoms to a child we did not like, or to a stranger.

A rare perfume floats from the modest yellow Flowering Currant. I do not see this sweet and sightly shrub in many modern gardens, and it is our loss. The crowding bees are goodly and cheerful, and the flowers are pleasant, but the perfume is of the sort you can truly say you love it ; its aroma is like some of the liqueurs of the old monks.

The greatest pleasure in flower perfumes comes to us through the first flowers of spring. How we breathe in their sweetness ! Our native wild flowers give us the most delicate odors. The May-flower is, I believe, the only wild flower for which all country folk of New England have a sincere affection ; it is not only a beautiful, an enchanting flower, but it is so fresh, so balmy of bloom. It has the delicacy of texture and form characteristic of many of our native spring blooms, Hepatica, Anemone, Spring Beauty, Polygala.

The Arethusa was one of the special favorites of my father and mother, who delighted in its exquisite fragrance. Hawthorne said of it : One of the delicatest, gracefullest, and in every manner sweetest of the whole race of flowers. For a fortnight past I have found it in the swampy meadows, growing up to its chin in heaps of wet moss. Its hue is a delicate pink, of various depths of shade, and somewhat in the form of a Grecian helmet."

It pleases me to fancy that Hawthorne was like the Arethusa, that it was a fit symbol of the nature of our greatest New England genius. Perfect in grace and beauty, full of sentiment, classic and elegant of shape, it has a shrinking heart ; the sepals and petals rise over it and shield it, and the whole flower is shy and retiring, hiding in marshes and quaking bogs.

It is one of our flowers which we ever regard singly, as an individual, a rare and fine spirit ; we never think of it as growing in an expanse or even in groups. This lovely flower has, as Landor said of the flower of the vine, "a scent so delicate that it requires a sigh to inhale it."

The faintest flower scents are the best. You find yourself longing for just a little more, and you bury your face in the flowers and try to draw out a stronger breath of balm. Apple blossoms, certain Violets, and Pansies have this pale perfume.

In the front yard of my childhood's home grew a Larch, an exquisitely graceful tree, one now little planted in Northern climates. I recall with special delight the faint fragrance of its early shoots. The next tree was a splendid pink Hawthorn. What a day of mourning it was when it had to be cut down, for trees had been planted so closely that many must be sacrificed as years went on and all grew in stature.

There are some smells that are strangely pleasing, to the country lover which are neither from fragrant flower nor leaf; one is the scent of the upturned earth, most heartily appreciated in early spring. The smell of a ploughed field is perhaps the best of all earthy scents, though what Bliss Carman calls the racy smell of the forest loam " is always good. Another is the burning of weeds of garden rakings,

" The spicy smoke
Of withered weeds that burn where gardens be."

A garden " weed-smother " always makes me think of my home garden, and my father, who used to stand by this burning weed-heap, raking in the withered leaves. Many such scents are pleasing chiefly through the power of association.

The sense of smell in its psychological relations is most subtle : —

" The subtle power in perfume found,
Nor priest nor sibyl vainly learned ;
On Grecian shrine or Aztec mound
No censer idly burned.

" And Nature holds in wood and field
Her thousand sunlit censers still ;
To spells of flower and shrub we yield
Against or with our will."

Dr. Holmes notes that memory, imagination, sentiment, are most readily touched through the sense of smell. He tells of the associations borne to him by the scent of Marigold, of Life-everlasting, of an herb closet.

Notwithstanding all these tributes to sweet scents and to the sense of smell, it is not deemed, save in poetry, wholly meet to dwell much on smells, even pleasant ones. To all who here sniff a little disdainfully at a whole chapter given to flower scents, let me repeat the Oriental proverb : —

" To raise Flowers is a Common Thing,
God alone gives them Fragrance."

Balmier far, and more stimulating and satisfying than the perfumes of most blossoms, is the scent of aromatic or balsamic leaves, of herbs, of green growing things. Sweetbrier, says Thoreau, is thus " thrice crowned : in fragrant leaf, tinted flower, and glossy fruit." Every spring we long, as Whittier wrote

"To come to Bayberry scented slopes,
And fragrant Fern and Groundmat vine,
Breathe airs blown o'er holt and copse,
Sweet with black Birch and Pine."

All these scents of bolt and copse are dear to New Englanders.

I have tried to explain the reason for the charm to me of growing Thyme. It is not its beautiful perfume, its clear vivid green, its tiny fresh flowers, or the element of historic interest. Alphonse Karr gives another reason, a sentiment of gratitude. He says : —

"Thyme takes upon itself to embellish the parts of the earth which other plants disdain. If there is an arid, stony, dry soil, burnt up by the sun, it is there Thyme spreads its charming green beds, perfumed, close, thick, elastic, scattered over with little balls of blossom, pink in color, and of a delightful freshness."

Thyme was, in older days, spelt Thime and Time. This made the poet call it " pun-provoking Thyme." I have an ancient recipe from an old herbal for " Water of Time to ease the Passions of the Heart." This remedy is efficacious to-day, whether you spell it time or thyme.

There are shown on page 301 some lonely graves in the old Moravian burying-ground in Bethlehem, overgrown with the pleasant perfumed Thyme. And as we stand by their side we think with a half smile — a tender one— of the never-failing pun of the old herbalists.

Spenser called Thyme " bee-alluring," " honey-laden." It was the symbol of sweetness ; and the Thyme that grew on the sunny slopes of Mt. Hymettus gave to the bees the sweetest and most famed of all honey. The plant furnished physic as well as perfume and puns and honey. Pliny named eighteen sovereign remedies made from Thyme. These cured everything from the " bite of poysonful spidars " to "the Apoplex." There were so many recipes in the English Compleat Chirurgeon, and similar medical books, that you would fancy venomous spiders were as thick as gnats in England. These spider cure-alls are however simply a proof that the recipes were taken from dose-books of Pliny and various Roman physicians, with whom spider bites were more common and more painful than in England.

The Haven of Health, written in 1366, with a special view to the curing of " Students," says that Wild Thyme has a great power to drive away heaviness of mind, " to purge melancholly and splenetick humours." And the author recommends to " sup the leaves with eggs." The leaves were used every-where " to be put in puddings and such like meates, so that in divers places Thime was called Pudding-grass." Pudding in early days was the stuffing of meat and poultry, while concoctions of eggs, milk, flour, sugar, etc., like our modern puddings, were called whitpot.

Many traditions hang around Thyme. It was used widely in incantations and charms. It was even one of the herbs through whose magic power you could see fairies. Here is a " Choice Proven Secret made Known" from the Ashmolean Mss.

How to see Fayri่s

" A pint of Sallet-Oyle and put it into a vial-glasse but first wash it with Rose-water and Marygolde-water the Flowers to be gathered toward the East. Wash it until teh Oyle come white. Then put it in the glasse, ut supra : Then put thereto the budds of Holyhocke, the flowers of Marygolde, the flowers or toppers of Wild Thyme, the budds of young Hazle : and the time must be gathered neare the side of a Hill where Fayries used to be : and take the grasse off a Fayrie throne. Then all these put into the Oyle into the Glasse, and sette it to dissolve three dayes in the Sunne and then keep for thy use ut supra."

"I know a bank whereon the Wild Thyme blows "— it is not in old England, but on Long Island ; the dense clusters of tiny aromatic flowers form a thick cushioned carpet under our feet. Lord Bacon says in his essay on Gardens : —

"Those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed are three : that is, Burnet, Wild Thyme, and Water-Mints. Therefore you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread."

Here we have an alley of Thyme, set by nature, for us to tread upon and enjoy, though Thyme always seems to me so classic a plant, that it is far too fine to walk upon ; one ought rather to sleep and dream upon it.

Great bushes of Elder, another flower of witch-craft, grow and blossom near my Thyme bank. Old Thomas Browne, as long ago as 1685 called the Elder bloom " white umbrellas " — which has puzzled me much, since we. are told to assign the use and knowledge of umbrellas in England to a much later date ; perhaps he really wrote umbellas. Now it is a well-known fact — sworn to in scores of old herbals, that any one who stands on Wild Thyme, by the side of an Elder bush, on Midsummer Eve, will " see great experiences " ; his eyes will be opened, his wits quickened, his vision clarified ; and some have even seen fairies, pixies — Shakespeare's elves — sporting over the Thyme at their feet.

I shall not tell whom I saw walking on my Wild Thyme bank last Midsummer Eve. I did not need the Elder bush to open my eyes. I watched the twain strolling back and forth in the half-light, and I heard snatches of talk as they walked toward me, and I lost the responses as they turned from me. At last, in a louder voice : —

HE. " What is this jolly smell all around here ? Just like a mint julep ! Some kind of a flower ? "

SHE. " It's Thyme, Wild Thyme ; it has run into the edge of the lawn from the field, and is just ruining the grass."

HE (stooping to pick it).' " Why, so it is. I thought it came from that big white flower over there by the hedge."

SHE. " No, that is Elder."

HE (after a pause). "I had to learn a lot of old Arnold's poetry at school once, or in college, and there was some just like tonight : —

" The evening comes — the fields are still,
The tinkle of the thirsty rill,
Unheard all day, ascends again.
Deserted is the half-mown plain,
And from the Thyme upon the height,
And from the Elder-blossom white,
And pale Dog Roses in the hedge,
And from the Mint-plant in the sedge,
In puffs of balm the night air blows
The perfume which the day foregoes —
And on the pure horizon far
See pulsing with the first-born star
The liquid light above the hill.
The evening comes — the fields are still."

Then came the silence and half-stiffness which is ever apt to follow any long quotation, especially any rare recitation of verse by those who are notoriously indifferent to the charms of rhyme and rhythm, and are of another sex than the listener. It seems to indicate an unusual condition of emotion, to be a sort of barometer of sentiment, and the warning of threatening weather was not unheeded by her ; hence her response was somewhat nervous in utterance, and instinctively perverse and contradictory.

SHE. "That line, 'The liquid light above the hill,' is very lovely, but I can't see that it's any of it at all like to-night."

HE (stoutly and resentfully). " Oh, no ! not at all ! There's the field, all still, and here's Thyme, and Elder, and there are wild Roses ! — and see ! the moon is coming up — so there's your liquid light."

SHE. " Well ! Yes, perhaps it is ; at any rate it is a lovely night. You've read Lavengro ? No ? Certainly you must have heard of it. The gipsy in it says : ' Life is sweet, brother. There's day and night, brother, both sweet things ; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things ; there is likewise a wind on the heath.' "

HE (dubiously). " That's rather queer poetry, if it is poetry —and you must know I do not like to hear you call me brother."

Whereupon I discreetly betrayed my near presence on the piazza, to prove that the field, though still, was not deserted. And soon the twain said they would walk to the club house to view the golf prizes ; and they left the Wild Thyme and Elder blossoms white, and turned their backs on the moon, and fell to golf and other eminently unromantic topics, far safer for Midsummer Eve than poesy and other sweet things.



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