Sabbatical blog: week two

Here is my new best friend-Dryopteris felix-mas, or male fern.  Recently I saw this beautiful cluster of ferns in the mansion garden at King’s Gap.  While the master gardeners who maintain this garden have recently provided wonderful signs identifying both the Latin and common name of the plants, there were a few ferns that escaped their attention.  I’ve become a bit obsessed by ferns and spent some time classifying it.  I’d not seen a male fern growing anywhere and apparently they are fairly uncommon in the wild around here.  I had to know what it was.  One of the gifts of my sabbatical is having the time to learn how to use taxonomic keys for plants…or at least I’m better at it than I used to be.  It is still a great challenge.

One of the first things to realize about classifying plants with a key is that you have to know the proper names of the plant parts.  The taxonomic people don’t use terms like “the hangy down-ey part”, or even something as specific as “the long fringed  thingy growing out of the whatchamallit.” I wish they did, but they stubbornly insist on words like rachis, and stipe, and pinnule.  And yes, I have taken to carrying a hand lens with me because sometimes that’s the only way to see a small difference in plants.  It is however oddly satisfying, and it increases my interest to know the names of things.  Adam named the animals, but botanists named the plants!

And speaking of botanists, I am humbled by what it took to do their work in an age before Peterson field guides with color photo plates, internet access to botanical data, or even the Linnaean system of classification.  How did the great plant explorers do it?  More importantly why did they do it?  Recently I heard a music critic say that a great musician is characterized by three things:  talent, interest and perseverence.  The talent you are born with, but if you don’t have the interest it doesn’t matter.  Many a child learns to play the piano well, but takes it no further because they simply don’t have the interest.   And although talent and interest are essential, without perseverence to practice one’s craft over and over…even when it is boring…we don’t make it to the level of greatness.  Substitute the word “ability” for talent, and one could say that anyone can gain the ability to name a plant.  But without the interest in the pursuit and the willingness  to take the time…one can’t be a great plant explorer.  I guess they could persevere because they had longer attention spans than do we, fewer distractions and ways to entertain themselves.  They were single-minded in their devotion. Linnaeus once said, “When I observe the fate of botanists, upon my word I doubt whether to call them sane or mad in their devotion to plants.”

I finished the book The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf. Sane or mad, it is a fabulous account of the golden age of plant exploration, and although my two heroes are John and William Bartram, it goes beyond their plant-hunting exploits to include Carl Linnaeus and his amazing gift to the world.  He gave us a way of organizing all living things into definable categories.  For the first time there was a standard language for naming plants and a way of sharing knowledge.  Think about English being the standard language for air traffic control around the world.  Without it there would be chaos. He brought order to  a world that was exploding with new plant species from the New World, from Africa and India and the Far East, and many common names for the same plant.  Then there were men like William Collinson who used their wealth, influence and passion for plants and gardening to encourage the plant explorations and make it lucrative for the explorers.  Joseph Banks was the naturalist on the first 3 year Cook expedition around world.  (I was fascinated to read that the actual purpose of the first expedition of the Endeavor, captained by James Cook, was to witness and record the transit of Venus across the sun…a rare occurence and one that just happened last week!)He and his friend Daniel Solander (a botanist also on the voyage) collected, categorized, and made available  the rare and exotic plants never seen before. As the first ship to sail to Australia, the place of the ship’s landfall is called Botany Bay because of the plant collectors.   I loved this book and it gave me an appreciation for the nation of gardeners that England is.  However, they needed the North American plants like the tulip tree, the magnolia, the rudbeckia and sunflower, the sumac and the rhododendron, the laurel and the bee balm that came from our home;  to create what we now call the classic English garden.

The Brother Gardeners includes a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Consider this excerpt from a posting on “The Apple in America” from Cornell University (Albert Mann Library), about the backbone of our local economy…the apple tree.

The story of apples in America begins on the other side of the globe in the mountainous region of Kazakhstan. Here, in their ancestral home, apple trees grow sixty feet tall and in some places are the dominant species of the forest. Each fall they bear fruit ranging in size from marbles to softballs in shades of red, green, yellow and purple. Trade routes such as the Silk Road passed through some of these forests and it is likely that travelers picked the largest and tastiest fruit to take with them on their journeys. Along the way, seeds were discarded; sprouting into trees, they hybridized freely with native crabapples, eventually producing millions of different apple trees in Europe and Asia.

When early European settlers came to this country, they brought apple seeds and grafted trees from the Old World. (Grafting is a form of cloning used to propagate a desirable variety.) In general, the grafted trees did poorly, succumbing to our harsher climate. The seedling trees, however, were a different story.

With their thousands of years of inadvertent hybridizing, apple seeds contain a wealth of genetic variability. This trait enables them to thrive in locations as disparate as New England and New Zealand, Belgium and California. Wherever apple seeds are planted in quantity, some are bound to have whatever qualities are needed to flourish in their new home. Thanks to this genetic variability and the careful selection and grafting of promising varieties, within a century of settlement, America had its own apple varieties, adapted to the soil and climate of North America and as distinct from European stock as Americans themselves.

From the trade routes of the Silk Road, to the countryside of England, to the prairie farms of America…the apple made its way into our culture, commerce, and landscape.  It is a very useful plant.  The plants that came from North America to Europe were no less useful.   The only native evergreens in England were the Scots Pine, the box, the yew, and the holly.  How it transformed their winter landscape to now have the white pine, the balsam fir and the yellow pine.  Imagine the dreary fall landscape in the English countryside before England had the sweet gum, the tupelo, the sugar maple, and the red oaks. Just think about driving through the Michaux right now with the stands of blooming mountain laurel.  When this was introduced to England it caused a sensation and become one of the most coveted plants.  And then think about what we have gained with plants like foxglove, an English native, for our gardens.  And all this says nothing of the plants on which industries were built– like cotton–they all came from somewhere else.

I could go and on but will wrap up with a few other notes from my week.  I attended worship at St. John’s Episcopal Church, on the square in Carlisle.  This beautiful and historic church is one of the larger Episcopal congregations in the U.S., and part of the world-wide Anglican Communion.  The stained glass and wood work, are, to put it mildly, amazing.  And what a contrast of the Anglican  liturgy, paraments, and high church interior to the simplicity of the Quaker meeting I attended last week! Both were inspiring, but certainly my comfort level is with a structured liturgy. It keeps you busy to juggle the Book of Common Prayer, hymnal, and bulletin though! There was a double baptism of cousins, as we recently had at Zion.  The babies were carried by the rector throughout the sanctuary while he preached a homily!  It made me breathless to think about it! I get winded just carrying one around the sancturay while we sing “Borning Cry.” It was very fresh and engaging, though, and the baptism itself was very joyful.  Communion was at the rail, either by common cup or intinction, and we of course knelt on needle-point covered kneelers.  I liked it a lot.  It gives me a lot to discuss with the worship committee when I get back!

I’ve come across a visit by Andre and Francois Michaux, to William Bartram in 1791…the year his book Travels came out.  I need to see if there is a record of any sort of that meeting.  Did they discuss the area we now call Michaux Forest?  What sorts of things did they talk about and did they ever make plans to do any traveling together?  I also have found out that Jane Colden, America’s first woman botanist, knew the Bartrams and visited them; along with her father Cadwallader Colden ( a famous scientist and Lt. Governor of NY.)  More stuff to follow up on, and now I am starting Wulf’s second book, Founding Gardeners, about the next generation of gardeners like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams; who took this new botanical knowledge and ran with it as passionate gardeners and horticulturalists in their own right.

Adiantum pedantum or Maidenhair fern.  This fern, native to our area, but increasingly uncommon, was introduced to England by Bartram, I believe.  This lovely stand is in the mansion garden at King’s Gap.