Gardens - A Moonlight Garden
( Originally Published 1901 )
" How sweetly smells the Honeysuckle
-WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR.
GARDENS fanciful of name, a Saint's Garden, a Friendship Garden, have been planted and cherished. I plant a garden like none other; not an everyday garden, nor indeed a garden of any day, but a garden for " brave moonshine," a garden of twilight opening and midnight bloom, a garden of nocturnal blossoms, a garden of white blossoms, and the sweetest garden in the world. It is a garden of my dreams, but I know where it lies, and it now is smiling back at this very harvest moon.
The old house of Hon. Ben. Perley Poore—Indian Hill — at Newburyport, Massachusetts, has been for many years one of the loveliest of New England's homes. During his lifetime it had extraordinary charms, for on the noble hillside, where grew scattered in sunny fields and pastures every variety of native tree that would winter New England's snow and ice, there were vast herds of snowwhite cows, and flocks of white sheep, and the splendid oxen were white. White pigeons circled in the air around ample dove-cotes, and the farm-yard poultry were all white ; an enthusiastic chronicler recounts also white peacocks on the wall, but these are also denied.
On every side were old terraced walls covered with Roses and flowering vines, banked with shrubs, and standing in beds of old-time flowers running over with bloom ; but behind the house, stretching up the lovely hillside, was The Garden, and when we entered it, lo ! it was a White Garden with edgings of pure and seemly white Candytuft from the forcing beds, and flowers of Spring Snowflake and Star of Bethlehem and Jonquils; and there were white-flowered shrubs of spring, the earliest Spiraeas and Deutzias ; the doubled-flowered Cherries and Almonds and old favorites, such as Peter's Wreath, all white and wonderfully expressive of a simplicity, a purity, a closeness to nature.
I saw this lovely farmstead and radiant White Garden first in glowing sunlight, but far rarer must have been its charm in moonlight ; though the white beasts (as English hinds call cattle) were sleeping in careful shelter ; and the white dog, assured of their safety, was silent ; and the white fowl were in coop and cote ; and
" Only the white sheep were sometimes seen To cross the strips of moon-blanch'd green."
But the White Garden, ah ! then the garden truly lived; it was like lightest snow wreaths bathed in silvery moonshine, with every radiant flower adoring the moon with wide-open eyes, and pouring forth incense at her altar. And it was peopled with shadowy forms shaped of pearly mists and dews ; and white night moths bore messages for them from flower to flower—this garden then was the garden of my dreams.
Thoreau complained to himself that he had not put duskiness enough into his words in his description of his evening walks. He longed to have the peculiar and classic severity of his sentences, the color of his style, tell his readers that his scene was laid at night without saying so in exact words. I, too, have not written as I wished, by moonlight; I can tell of moonlight in the garden, but I desire more ; I want you to see and feel this moonlight garden, as did Emily Dickinson her garden by moonlight: —
"And still within the summer's night
But perhaps I can no more gather it into words than I can bottle up the moonlight itself.
This lovely garden, varied in shape, and extending in many and diverse directions and corners, bears as its crown a magnificent double flower border over seven hundred feet long; with a broad straight path trimly edged with Box adown through its centre, and with a flower border twelve feet wide on either side. This was laid out and planted in 1833 by the parents of Major Poore, after extended travel in England, and doubtless under the influences of the beautiful English flower gardens they had seen. Its length was originally broken halfway up the hill and crowned at the top of the hill by some formal parterres of careful design, but these now are removed. There are graceful arches across the path, one of Honeysuckle on the crown of the hill, from which you look out perhaps into Paradise—for Indian Hill in June is a very close neighbor to Paradise ; it is difficult to define the boundaries between the two, and to me it would be hard to choose between them.
Standing in this arch on this fair hill, you can look down the long flower borders of color and perfume to the old house, lying in the heart of the trees and vines and flowers. To your left is the hill-sweep, bearing the splendid grove, an arboretum of great native trees, planted by Major Poore, and for which he received the prize awarded by his native state to the finest plantation of trees within its bounds. Turn from the house and garden, and look through this frame of vines formed by the arch upon this scene,—the loveliest to me of any on earth, — a fair New England summer landscape. Fields of rich corn and grain, broken at times with the gray granite boulders which show what centuries of grand and sturdy toil were given to make these fertile fields ; ample orchards full of promise of fruit ; placid lakes and mill-dams and narrow silvery rivers, with low-lying red brick mills embowered in trees ; dark forests of sombre Pine and Cedar and Oak; narrow lanes and broad highways shaded with the livelier green of Elm and Maple and Birch ; gray farm-houses with vast barns ; little towns of thrifty white houses clustered around slender church-spires which, set thickly over this sunny land, point every-where to heaven, and tell, as if speaking, the story of New England's past, of her foundation on love of God, just as the fields and orchards and highways speak of thrift and honesty and hard labor ; and the houses, such as this of Indian Hill, of kindly neighborliness and substantial comfort ; and as this old garden speaks of a love of the beautiful, a refinement, an æsthetic and tender side of New England character which we know, but into which — as Mr. Underwood says in Quabbin, that fine study of New England life — " strangers and Kiplings cannot enter."
Seven hundred feet of double flower border, four-teen hundred feet of flower bed, twelve feet wide! " It do swallow no end of plants," says the gardener."
In spite of the banishing dictum of many artists in regard to white flowers in a garden, the presence of ample variety of white flowers is to me the greatest factor in producing harmony and beauty both by night and day. White seems to be as important a foil in some cases as green. It may sometimes be given to the garden in other ways than through flower blossoms, by white marble statues, vases, pedestals, seats.
We all like the approval of our own thoughts by men of genius ; with my love of white flowers I had infinite gratification in these words of Walter Savage Landor's, written from Florence in regard to a friend's garden : —
" I like white flowers better than any others ; they resemble fair women. Lily, Tuberose, Orange, and the truly English Syringa are my heart's delight. I do not mean to say that they supplant the Rose and Violet in my affections, for these are our first loves, before we grew too fond of considering; and too fond of displaying our acquaintance with others of sounding titles."
In Japan, where flowers have rank, white flowers are the aristocrats. I deem them the aristocrats in the gardens of the Occident also.
Having been informed of Tennyson's dislike of white flowers, I have amused myself by trying to discover in his poems evidence of such aversion. I think one possibly might note an indifference to white blossoms; but strong color sense, his love of ample and rich color, would naturally make him name white infrequently. A pretty line in Walking to the Mail tells of a girl with " a skin as clean and white as Privet when it flowers"; and there were White Lilies and Roses and milk-white Acacias in Maud's garden.
In The Last Tournament the street-ways are depicted as hung with white samite, and " children sat in white," and the dames and damsels were all "white-robed in honor of the stainless child." A "swarthy one " cried out at last : —
" The snowdrop only, flowering thro' the year,
In the garden borders is a commonplace little plant, gray of foliage, with small, drooping, closed flowers of an indifferently dull tint, you would almost wonder at its presence among its gay garden fellows. Let us glance at it in the twilight, for it seems like the twilight, a soft, shaded gray ; but the flowers have already lifted their heads and opened their petals, and they now seem like the twilight clouds of palest pink and lilac. It is the Night-scented Stock, and lavishly through the still night it pours forth its ineffable fragrance. A single plant, thirty feet from an open window, will waft its perfume into the room. This white Stock was a favorite flower of Marie Antoinette, under its French name the Julienne. " Night Violets," is its appropriate German name. Hesperis ! the name shows its habit. Dame's Rocket is our title for this cheerful old favorite of May, which shines in such snowy beauty at night, and throws forth such a compelling fragrance. It is rarely found in our gardens, but I have seen it growing wild by the roadside in secluded spots ; not in ample sheets of growth like Bouncing Bet, which we at first glance thought it was ; it is a shyer stray, blossoming earlier than comely Betsey.
The old-fashioned single, or slightly double, country Pink, known as Snow Pink or Star Pink, was often used as an edging for small borders, and its bluish green, almost gray, foliage was quaint in effect and beautiful in the moonlight. When seen, at night, the reason for the folk-name is evident. Last summer, on a heavily clouded night in June, in a cottage garden at West Hampton, borders of this Snow Pink shone out of the darkness with a phosphorescent light, like hoar-frost, on every grassy leaf; while the hundreds of pale pink blossoms seemed softly shining stars. It was a curious effect, almost wintry, even in midsummer. The scent was wafted down the garden path, and along the country road, like a concentrated essence, rather than a fleeting breath of flowers, One of these cottage borders is shown on page 292, and I have named it from these lines from The Garden that I Love : —
" A running ribbon of perfumed snow
At sundown the beautiful white Day Lily opens and gives forth all night an overwhelming sweetness; I have never seen night moths visiting it, though I know they must, since a few seed capsules always form. In the border stand
Clumps of sunny Phlox
These, with white Petunias, are almost unbearably cloying in their heavy odor. It is a curious fact that some of these night-scented flowers are positively offensive in the daytime ; try your Nicotiana affinis next midday -it outpours honeyed sweetness at night, but you will be glad it withholds its perfume by day. The plants of Nicotiana were first introduced to England for their beauty, sweet scent, and medicinal qualities, not to furnish smoke. Parkin-son in 1629 writes of Tobacco, " With us it is cherished for medicinal qualities as for the beauty of its flowers," and Gerarde, in 1633, after telling of the beauty, etc., says that the dried leaves are " taken in a pipe, set on fire, the smoke suckt into the stomach, and thrust forth at the noshtrils."
Snake-root, sometimes called Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), is one of the most stately wild flowers, and a noble addition to the garden. A picture of a single plant gives little impression of its dignity of habit, its wonderfully decorative growth ; but the succession of pure white spires, standing up several feet high at the edge of a swampy field, or in a garden, partake of that compelling charm which comes from tall trees of slender growth, from repetition and association, such as pine trees, rows of bayonets, the gathered masts of a harbor, from stalks of corn in a field, from rows of Foxglove — from all serried ranks." I must not conceal the fact of its horrible odor, which might exile it from a small garden.
Among my beloved white flowers, a favorite among those who are all favorites, is the white Columbine. Some are double, but the common single white Columbines picture far better the derivation of their name ; they are like white doves, they seem almost an emblematic flower. William Morris says : —
" Be very shy of double flowers ; choose the old Columbine where the clustering doves are unmistakable and distinct, not the double one, where they run into mere tatters. Don't be swindled out of that wonder of beauty, a single Snowdrop ; there is no gain and plenty of loss in the double one."
There are some extremists, such as Dr. Forbes Watson, who condemn all double flowers. One thing in the favor of double blooms is that their perfume is increased with their petals. Double Violets, Roses, and Pinks seem as natural now as single flowers of their kinds. I confess a distinct aversion to the thought of a double Lilac. I have never seen one, though the Ranoncule, said to be very fine, costs but forty cents a plant, and hence must be much grown.
There is a curious influence of flower-color which I can only explain by giving an example. We think of Iris, Gladiolus, Lupine, and even Foxglove and Poppy as flowers of a warm and vivid color ; so where we see them a pure white, they have a distinct and compelling effect on us, pleasing, but a little eerie ; not a surprise, for we have always known the white varieties, yet not exactly what we are wonted to. This has nothing of the grotesque, as is produced by the albino element in the animal world; it is simply a trifle mysterious. White Pansies and White Violets possess this quality to a marked degree. I always look and look again at growing White Violets. A friend says: " Do you think they will speak to you ? " for I turn to them with such an expectancy of something.
The " everlasting" white Pea is a most satisfactory plant by day or night. Hedges covered with it are a pure delight. Do not fear to plant it with liberal hand. Be very liberal, too, in your garden of white Foxgloves. Even if the garden be small, there is room for many graceful spires of the lovely bells to shine out everywhere, piercing up through green foliage and colored blooms of other plants. They are not only beautiful, but they are flowers of sentiment and association, endeared to childhood, visited of bees, among the best beloved of old-time favorites. They consort well with nearly every other flower, and certainly with every other color, and they seem to clarify many a crudely or dingily tinted flower ; they are as admirable foils as they are principals in the garden scheme. In England, where they readily grow wild, they are often planted at the edge of a wood, or to form vistas in a copse. I doubt whether they would thrive here thus planted, but they are admirable when set in occasional groups to show in pure whiteness against a hedge. I say in occasional groups, for the Foxglove should never be planted in exact rows. The White Iris, the Iris of the Florentine Orris-root, is one of the noblest plants of the whole world ; its pure petals are truly hyaline like snow-ice, like translucent white glass; and the indescribably beautiful drooping lines of the flowers are such a contrast with the defiant erectness of the fresh green leaves. Small wonder that it was a sacred flower of the Greeks. It was called by the French la flambe blanche, a beautiful poetic title — the White Torch of the Garden.
A flower of mystery, of wonderment to children, was the Evening Primrose ; I knew the garden variety only with intimacy. Possibly the wild flower had similar charms and was equally weird in the gloaming, but it grew by country roadsides, and I was never outside our garden limits after nightfall, so I know not its evening habits. We had in our garden a variety known as the California Evening Primrose — a giant flower as tall as our heads. My mother saw its pale yellow stars shining in the early evening in a cottage garden on Cape Ann, and was there given, out of the darkness, by a fellow flower lover, the seeds which have afforded to us every year since so much sentiment and pleasure. The most exquisite description of the Evening Primrose is given by Margaret Deland in her Old Garden : —
There the primrose stands, that as the night
The wild Primrose opens slowly, hesitatingly, it trembles open, but the garden Primrose flares open.
The Evening Primrose is usually classed with sweet-scented flowers, but that exact observer, E. V. B., tells of its "repulsive smell. At night if the stem be shaken, or if the flower-cup trembles at the touch of a moth as it alights, out pours the dreadful odor." I do not know that any other garden flower opens with a distinct sound. Owen Meredith's poem, The Aloe, tells that the Aloe opened with such a loud explosive report that the rooks shrieked and folks ran out of the house to learn whence came the sound.
The tall columns of the Yucca or Adam's Needle stood like shafts of marble against the hedge trees of the Indian Hill garden. Their beautiful blooms are a miniature of those of the great Century Plant. In the daytime the Yucca's blossoms hang in scentless, greenish white bells, but at night these bells lift up their heads and expand with great stars of light and odor — a glorious plant. Around their spire of luminous bells circle pale night moths, lured by the rich fragrance. Even by moonlight we can see the little white detached fibres at the edge of the leaves, which we are told the Mexican women used as thread to sew with. And we children used to pull off the strong fibres and put them in a needle and sew with them too.
When I see those Yuccas in bloom I fully believe that they are the grandest flowers of our gardens ; but happily, I have a short garden memory, so I mourn not the Yucca when I see the Anemone japonica or any other noble white garden child.
Here at the end of the garden walk is an arbor dark with the shadow of great leaves, such as Gerarde calls "leaves round and big like to a buckler."
But out of that shadowed background of leaf on leaf shine hundreds of pure, pale stars of sweetness and light,— a true flower of the night in fragrance, beauty, and name, — the Moon-vine. It is a flower of sentiment, full of suggestion.
Did you ever see a ghost in a garden ? I do so wish I could. If I had the placing of ghosts, I would not make them mope round in stuffy old bedrooms and garrets ; but would place one here in this arbor in my Moonlight Garden. But if I did, I have no doubt she would take up a hoe or a watering pot, and proceed to do some very unghostlike deed perhaps, grub up weeds. Longfellow had a ghost in his garden (page 142). He must have mourned when he found it was only a clothes-line and a long night-gown.
It was the favorite tale of a Swedish old lady who lived to be ninety-six years old, of a discovery of her youth, in the year 1762, of strange flashes of light which sparkled out of the flowers of the Nasturtium one sultry night. I suppose the average young woman of the average education of the day and her country might not have heeded or told of this, but she was the daughter of Linnæus, the great botanist, and had not the everyday education.
Then great Goethe saw and wrote of similar flashes of light around Oriental Poppies ; and soon other folk saw them also - naturalists and everyday folk. Usually yellow flowers were found to display this light— Marigolds, orange Lilies, and Sunflowers. Then the daughter of Linnæus reported another curious discovery ; she certainly turned her nocturnal rambles in her garden to good account. She averred she had set fire to a certain gas which formed and hung around the Fraxinella, and that the ignition did not injure the plant. This assertion was met with open scoffing and disbelief, which has never wholly ceased ; yet the popular name of Gas Plant indicates a widespread confidence in this quality of the Fraxinella and it is easily proved true.
Another New England name for the Fraxinella, given me from the owner of the herb-garden at Elmhurst, is " Spitfire Plant," because the seed-pods sizzle so when a lighted match is applied to them.
The Fraxinella is a sturdy, hardy flower. There are some aged plants in old New England gardens ; I know one which has outlived the man who planted it, his son, grandson, and great-grandson. The Fraxinella bears a tall stem with Larkspur-like flowers of white or a curious dark pink, and shining Ash like leaves, whence its name, the little Ash. It is one of the finest plants of the old-fashioned garden ; fine in bloom, fine in habit of growth, and it even has decorative seed vessels. It is as ready of scent as anything in the garden ; if you but brush against leaf, stem, flower, or seed, as you walk down the garden path, it gives forth a penetrating perfume, that you think at first is like Lemon, then like Anise, then like Lavender; until you finally decide it is like nothing save Fraxinella. As with the blossoms of the Calycanthus shrub, you can never mistake the perfume, when once you know it, for anything else. It is a scent of distinction. Through this individuality it is, therefore, full of associations, and correspondingly beloved.