Gardens - Joan Silver-Pin
( Originally Published 1901 )
"Being of many variable colours, and of great beautie, although of evil smell, our gentlewomen doe call them Jone Silver-pin."
-JOHN GERARDE, Herball, 1596.
GARDEN Poppies were the Joan Silver-pin of Gerarde, stigmatized also by Parkinson as " Jone Silver-pinne, subauditur; faire without and foule within." In Elizabeth's day Poppies met universal distrust and aversion, as being the source of the dreaded opium. Spenser called the flower "deadsleeping" Poppy; Morris "the black heart, amorous Poppy "— which might refer to the black spots in the flower's heart.
Clare, in his Shepherd's Calendar also asperses them : —
Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell, Called Headaches from their sickly smell."
Forby adds this testimony : " Any one by smelling of it for a very short time may convince himself of the propriety of the name." Some fancied that the dazzle of color caused headaches —that vivid scarlet, so fine a word as well as color that it is annoying to hear the poets change it to crimson.
This regard of and aversion to the Poppy lingered among elderly folks till our own day ; and I well recall the horror of a visitor of antique years in our mother's garden during our childhood, when we were found cheerfully eating Poppy seeds. She viewed us with openly expressed apprehension that we would fall into a stupor; and quite terrified us and our relatives, in spite of our assertions that we " always ate them," which indeed we always did and do to this day ; and very pleasant of taste they are, and of absolutely no effect, and not at all of evil smell to our present fancy, either in blossom or seed, though distinctly medicinal in odor.
Returned missionaries were frequent and honored visitors in our town and our house in those days; and one of these good men reassured us and reinstated in favor our uncanny feast by telling us that in the East, Poppy seeds were eaten everywhere, and were frequently baked with wheaten flour into cakes. A dislike of the scent of Field Poppies is often found among English folk. The author of A World in a Garden speaks in disgust of " the pun-gent and sickly odor of the flaring Poppies — they positively nauseate me " ; but then he disliked their color too.
There is something very fine about a Poppy, in the extraordinary combination of boldness of color and great size with its slender delicacy of stem, the grace of the set of the beautiful buds, the fine turn of the flower as it opens, and the wonderful airiness of poise of so heavy a flower. The silkiness of tissue of the petals, and their semi-transparency in some colors, and the delicate fringes of some varieties, are great charms.
Each crumpled crępe-like leaf is soft as silk ;
And when the flowers have shed, oh, so lightly ! their silken petals, there is still another beauty, a seed vessel of such classic shape that it wears a crown.
I have always rejoiced in the tributes paid to the Poppy by Ruskin and Mrs. Thaxter. She deemed them the most satisfactory flower among the annuals " for wondrous variety, certain picturesque qualities, for color and form, and a subtle air of mystery."
There is a line of Poppy colors which is most entrancing ; the gray, smoke color, lavender, mauve, and lilac Poppies, edged often and freaked with tints of red, are rarely beautiful things. There are fine white Poppies, some fringed, some single, some double—the Bride is the appropriate name of the fairest. And the pinks of Poppies, that wonderful red-pink, and a shell-pink that is almost salmon, and the sunset pinks of our modern Shirley Poppies, with quality like finest silken gauze ! The story of the Shirley Poppies is one of magic, that a flower-loving clergyman who in 1882 sowed the seed of one specially beautiful Poppy which had no black in it, and then sowed those of its fine successors, produced thus a variety which has supplied the world with beauty. Rev. Mr. Wilks, their raiser, gives these simply worded rules anent his Shirley Pop-pies : —
"1, They are single ; 2, always have a white base; 3, with yellow or white stamens, anthers, or pollen ; 4, and never have the smallest particle of black about them.”
The thought of these successful and beautiful Poppies is very stimulating to flower raisers of moderate means, with no profound knowledge of flowers ; it shows what can be done by enthusiasm and application and patience. It gives something of the same comfort found in Keats's fine lines to the singing thrush ; —
" Oh ! fret not after knowledge.
Notwithstanding all this distinction and beauty, these fine things of the garden were dubbed Joan Silver-pin. I wonder who Joan Silver-pin was ! I have searched faithfully for her, but have not been able to get on the right scent. Was she of real life, or fiction I have looked through the lists of characters of contemporary plays, and read a few old jest books and some short tales of that desperately color-less sort, wherein you read page after page of the printed words with as little absorption of signification as if they were Choctaw. But never have I seen Joan Silver-pin's name ; it was a bit of Elizabethan slang, I suspect, — a cant term once well known by every one, now existing solely through this chance reference of the old herbalists.
No garden can aspire to be named An Old-fashioned Garden unless it contains that beautiful plant the Garden Valerian, known throughout New England to-day as Garden Heliotrope; as Setwall it grew in every old garden, as it was in every pharmacopoeia. It was termed "drink-quickening Setuale" by Spenser, from the universal use of its flowers to flavor various enticing drinks. Its lovely blossoms are pinkish in bud and open to pure white ; its curiously penetrating vanilla-like fragrance is disliked by many who are not cats. I find it rather pleasing of scent when growing in the garden, and not at all like the extremely nasty-smelling medicine which is made from it, and which has been used for centuries for " histerrick fits," and is still constantly prescribed today for that unsympathized-with malady. Dr. Holmes calls it, " Valerian, calmer of hysteric squirms." It is a stately plant when in tall flower in June; my sister had great clumps of bloom like the ones shown above, but alas! the cats caught them before the photographer did. The cats did not have to watch the wind and sun and rain, to pick out plates and pack plate-holders, and gather ray-fillers and cloth and lens, and adjust the tripod, and fix the camera and focus, and think, and focus, and think, and then wait—till the wind ceased blowing. So when they found it, they broke down every slender stalk and rolled in it till the ground was tamped down as hard as if one of our lazy road-menders had been at it. Valerian has in England as an appropriate folk name, " Cats'-fancy." The pretty little annual, Nemophila, makes also a favorite rolling-place for our cat ; while all who love cats have given them Catnip and seen the singular intoxication it brings. The sight of a cat in this strange ecstasy over a bunch of Catnip always gives me a half-sense of fear ; she becomes such a truly wild creature, such a miniature tiger.
In The Art of Gardening, by J. W., Gent., 1683, the author says of Marigolds : " There are divers sorts besides the common as the African Marigold, a Fair bigge Yellow Flower, but of a very Naughty Smell." I cannot refrain, ere I tell more of the Marigold's naughtiness, to copy a note written in this book by a Massachusetts bride whose new husband owned and studied the book two hundred years ago ; for it gives a little glimpse of old-time life. In her exact little handwriting are these words :
" Planted in Potts, 1720: An Almond Stone, an English Wallnut, Cittron Seeds, Pistachica nutts, Red Damsons, Leamon seeds, Oring seeds and Daits."
Poor Anne! she died before she had time to be-come any one's grandmother. I hope her successor in matrimony, our forbear, cherished her little seedlings and rejoiced in the Lemon and Almond trees, though Anne herself was so speedily forgotten. She is, however, avenged by Time; for she is remembered better than the wife who took her place, through her simple flower-loving words.
I am surprised at this aspersion on the Marigold as to its smell, for all the traditions of this flower show it to have been a great favorite in kitchen gar-dens ; and I have found that elderly folk are very apt to like its scent. My father loved the flower and the fragrance, and liked to have a bowl of Mari-golds stand beside him on his library table. It was constantly carried to church as a " Sabbath-day posy," and its petals used as flavoring in soups and stews. Charles Lamb said it poisoned them. Canon Ella-combe writes that it has been banished in England to the gardens of cottages and old farm-houses ; it had a waning popularity in America, but was never wholly despised.
How Edward Fitzgerald loved the African Marigold! "Its grand color is so comfortable to us Spanish-like Paddies," he writes to Fanny Kemble in letters punctuated with little references to his garden flowers : letters so cheerful, too, with capitals; " I love the old way of Capitals for Names," he says—and so do I ; letters bearing two surprises, namely, the infrequent references to Omar Khayyam ; and the fact that Nasturtiums, not Roses, were his favorite flower.
The question of the agreeableness of a flower scent is a matter of public opinion as well as personal choice. Environment and education influence us. In olden times every one liked certain scents deemed odious to-day. Parkinson's praise of Sweet Sultans was, " They are of so exceeding sweet a scent as it surpasses the best civet that is." Have you ever smelt civet ? You will need no words to tell you that the civet is a little cousin of the skunk. Cowper could not talk with civet in the room ; most of us could not even breathe. The old herbalists call Privet sweet-scented. I don't know that it is strange to find a generation who loved civet and musk thinking Privet pleasant-scented. Nearly all our modern botanists have copied the words of their predecessors; but I scarcely know what to say or to think when I find so exact an observer as John Burroughs calling Privet " faintly sweet-scented." I find it rankly ill-scented.
The men of Elizabethan days were much more learned in perfumes and fonder of them than are most folk to-day. Authors and poets dwelt frankly upon them without seeming at all vulgar. Of course herbalists, from their choice of subject, were free to write of them at length, and they did so with evident delight. Nowadays the French realists are the only writers who boldly reckon with the sense of smell. It isn't deemed exactly respectable to dwell too much on smells, even pleasant ones ; so this chapter certainly must be brief.
I suppose nine-tenths of all who love flower scents would give Violets as their favorite fragrance ; yet how quickly, in the hothouse Violets, can the scent become nauseous. I recall one formal lunch-eon whereat the many tables were mightily massed with violets ; and though all looked as fresh as day-break to the sight, some must have been gathered for a day or more, and the stale odor throughout the room was unbearable. But it is scarcely fair to decry a flower because of its scent in decay. Shakespeare wrote : —
"Lilies festered smell far worse than weeds."
Many of our Compositć are vile after standing in water in vases ; Ox-eye Daisies, Rudbeckia, Zinnia, Sunflower, and even the wholesome Marigold. Delicate as is the scent of the Pansy, the smell of a bed of ancient Pansy plants is bad beyond words. The scent of the flowers of fruit-bearing trees is usually delightful ; but I cannot like the scent of Pear blossoms.
I dislike much the rank smell of common yellow Daffodils and of many of that family. I can scarcely tolerate them even when freshly picked, upon a dinner table. Some of the Jonquils are as sickening within doors as the Tuberose, though in both cases it is only because the scent is confined that it is cloying. In the open air, at a slight distance, they smell as well as many Lilies, and the Poet's Narcissus is deemed by many delightful.
I have ever found the scent of Lilacs somewhat imperfect, not well rounded, not wholly satisfying ; but one of my friends can never find in a bunch of our spring Lilacs any odor save that of illuminating gas. I do wish he had not told me this ! Now when I stand beside my Lilac bush I feel like looking around anxiously to see where the gas is escaping. Linnćus thought the perfume of Mignonette the purest ambrosia. Another thinks that Mignonette has . a doggy smell, as have several flowers; this is not wholly to their disparagement. Our cocker spaniel is sweeter than some flowers, but he is not a Mignonette. There be those who love most of all the scent of Heliotrope, which is to me a close, almost musty scent.
I have even known of one or two who disliked the scent of Roses, and the Rose itself has been abhorred. Marie de' Medici would not even look at a painting or carving of a Rose. The Chevalier de Guise, had a loathing for Roses. Lady Heneage, one of the maids of honor to Queen Elizabeth, was made very ill by the presence or scent of Roses. This illness was not akin to " Rose cold," which is the baneful companion of so many Americans, and which can conquer its victims in the most sudden and complete manner.
Even my affection for Roses, and my intense love of their fragrance, shown in its most ineffable sweetness in the old pink Cabbage Rose, will not cause me to be silent as to the scent of some of the Rose sisters. Some of the Tea Roses, so lovely of texture, so delicate of hue, are sickening ; one has a suggestion of ether which is most offensive. "A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet," but not if its name (and its being) was the Persian Yellow. This beautiful double Rose of rich yellow was introduced to our gardens about 1830. It is infrequent now, though I find it in florists' lists ; and I suspect I know why. Of late years I have not seen it, but I have a remembrance of its uprootal from our garden. Mrs. Wright confirms my memory by calling it " a horrible thing — the Skunk Cabbage of the garden." It smells as if foul insects were hidden within it, a disgusting smell. I wonder whether poor Marie de' Medici hadn't had a whiff of it. A Persian Rose ! it cannot be possible that Omar Khayyam ever smelt it, or any of the Rose singers of Persia, else their praises would have turned to loathing as they fled from its presence. There are two or three yellow Roses which are not pleasing, but are not abhorrent as is the Persian Yellow.
One evening last May I walked down the garden path, then by the shadowy fence-side toward the barn. I was not wandering in the garden for sweet moonlight, for there was none; nor for love of flowers, nor in admiration of any of nature's works, for it was very cold ; we even spoke of frost, as we ever do apprehensively on a chilly night in spring. The kitten was lost. She was in the shrubbery at the garden end, for I could hear her plaintive yowling ; and I thus traced her. I gathered her up, purring and clawing, when I heard by my side a cross rustling of leaves and another complaining voice. It was the Crown-imperial, unmindful or unwitting of my presence, and muttering peevishly : " Here I am, out of fashion, and therefore out of the world ! torn away from the honored border by the front door path, and even set away from the broad garden beds, and thrust with sunflowers and other plants of no social position whatever down here behind the barn, where, she dares to say, we ` can all smell to heaven together.'
"What airs, forsooth ! these twentieth century children put on ! Smell to heaven, indeed ! I wish her grandfather could have heard her ! He didn't make such a fuss about smells when I was young, nor did any one else ; no one's nose was so over-nice. Every spring when I came up, glorious in my dress of scarlet and green, and hung with my jewels of pearls, they were all glad to see me and to smell me, too ; and well they might be, for there was a rottenappley, old-potatoey smell in the cellar which pervaded the whole house when doors were closed. And when the frost came up from the ground the old sink drain at the kitchen door rendered up to the spring sunshine all the combined vapors of all the dish-water of all the winter. The barn and hen-house and cow-house reeked in the sunlight, but the pigpen easily conquered them all. There was an ancient cesspool far too near the kitchen door, under-ground and not to be seen, but present, nevertheless. A hogshead of rain-water stood at the cellar door, and one at the end of the barn—to water the flowers with — they fancied rotten rain-water made flowers grow! A foul dye-tub was ever reeking in every kitchen chimney corner, a culminating horror in stenches; and vessels of ancient soap grease festered in the outer shed, the grease collected through the winter and waiting for the spring soap-making. The vapor of sour milk, ever present, was of little moment —when there was so much else so much worse. There wasn't a bath-tub in the grandfather's house, nor in any other house in town, nor any too much bathing in winter, either, I am sure, in icy well-water in icier sleeping rooms. The windows were care-fully closed all winter long, but the open fireplaces managed to save the life of the inmates, though the walls and rafters were hung with millions of germs which every one knows are all the wickeder when they don't smell, because you take no care, fancying they are not there. But the grandfather knew naught of germs — and was happy. The trees shaded the house so that the roof was always damp. Oh, how those germs grew and multiplied in the grateful shade of those lovely trees, and how mould and rust rejoiced. Well might people turn from all these sights and scents to me. The grandfather and his wife, when they were young, as when they were in middle age, and when they were old, walked every early spring day at set of sun, slowly down the front path, looking at every flower, every bud ; pulling a tiny weed, gathering a choice flower, breaking a withered sprig; and they ever lingered long and happily by my side. And he always said, ` Wife ! isn't this Crown-imperial a glorious plant ? so stately, so perfect in form, such an expression of life, and such a personification of spring! "Yes, father,' she would answer quickly, ` but don't pick it.' Why, I should have resented even that word had she referred to my perfume. She meant that the garden border could not spare me. The children never could pick me, even the naughtiest ones did not dare to ; but they could pull all the little upstart Ladies' Delights and Violets they wished. And yet, with all this family homage which should make me a family totem, here I am, stuck down by the barn— I, who sprung from the blood of a king, the great Gustavus Adolphus — and was sung by a poet two centuries ago in the famous Garland of Julia. The old Jesuit poet Rapin said of me, ` No flower aspires in pomp and state so high.'
" Read this page from that master-herbalist, John Gerarde, telling of the rare beauties within my golden cup.
" A very intelligent and respectable old gentleman named Parkinson, who knew far more about flowers than flighty folk do nowadays, loved me well and wrote of me, ` The Crown-imperial, for its stately beautifulnesse deserveth the first place in this our garden of delight to be here entreated of before all other Lilies.' He had good sense. It was not I who was stigmatized by him as Joan Silver-pin. He spoke very plainly and very sensibly of my per-fume ; there was no nonsense in his notions, he told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth : `The whole plant and every part thereof, as well as rootes as leaves and floures doe smell somewhat strong, as it were the savour of a foxe, so that if any doe but near it, he can but smell it, yet is not unwholesome.'
" How different all is to-day in literature, as well as in flower culture. Now there are low, coarse at-tempts at wit that fairly wilt a sensitive nature like mine. There is one miserable Man who comes to this garden, and who thinks he is a Poet ; I will not repeat his wretched rhymes. But only yesterday, when he stood looking superciliously down upon us, he said sneeringly, `Yes, spring is here, balmy spring; we know her presence without seeing her face or hearing her voice ; for the Skunk Cabbage is unfurled in the swamps, and the Crown-imperial is blooming in the garden.' Think of his presuming to set me alongside that low Skunk Cabbage—me with my `stately beautifulness.'
"Little do people nowadays know about scents anyway, when their botanists and naturalists write that the Privet bloom is ` pleasingly fragrant,' and one dame set last summer a dish of Privet on her dining table before many guests. Privet ! with its ancient and fishlike smell ! And another tells of the fragrant delight of flowering Buckwheat—may the breezes blow such fragrance far from me! But why dwell on perfumes ; flowers were made to look at, not to smell; sprays of Sweet Balm or Basil leaves outsweeten every flower, and make no pretence or thought of beauty ; render to each its own virtues, and try not to engross the charm of another.
" I was indeed the queen of the garden, and here I am exiled behind the barn. Life is not worth living. I won't come up again. She will walk through the garden next May and say, ` How dull and shabby the garden looks this year! the spring is backward, everything has run to leaves, nothing is in bloom, we must buy more fertilizer, we must get a new gardener, we must get more plants and slips and seeds and bulbs, it is fearfully discouraging, I never saw anything so gone off!' then perhaps she will remember, and regret the friend of her grandparents, the Crown-imperial—whom she thrust from her Garden of Delight."