Summer Garden

Summer Garden

23 July 2013

Any idiot can have a spring garden (I've been told). Summer, on the other hand, seems intent on showing you she can do a better job - including the mountain laurels that grow wild on the hiking trail across the road from our house. Meanwhile, over here it's all weeding. Deadheading. Staking. Mosquitoes. Pottering. Even the symphony of roses, foxgloves, pinks, Sweet William, hollyhocks and snapdragons in our cottage bed stubbornly insists on conducting itself - without, of course, providing a clue about what happened to the cleome, verbena bonariensis, and garden balsam that threatened to take over the bed last year.

The species Dianthus has a lovely assortment of names bestowed on it by everyone from Shakespeare to Gerard, botanist to Queen Elizabeth I. The name dianthus comes from two words, dios and anthos, meaning "Jove's flower." However, they are also called pinks, and their scalloped edges are said to have given pinking shears their name, although the archaic verb "to pink," which dates back to the fourth century, also meant to "pierce, stab, or make holes in." Gerard also calls pinks Wild Gillyflowers - in order to distinguish them from their relative, the carnation, or Clove Gilloflowers. One of the first mentions of those was among the Crusaders, who boiled them with wine against raging fevers - perhaps because of the connection of the flower's name (car-nation) with the Latin word for flesh. According to the language of flowers, pinks convey ardent emotion - and sometimes rejection.

No-one knows who Sweet William is named for. Candidates include William the Conqueror, William Shakespeare, and William, the Duke of Cumberland, who triumphed at the bloody battle of Culloden - causing the Scots to reciprocate by naming the pernicious ragwort "Stinking Billy." Still, the most colorful legend that explains the flower's name is that of St. William of Rochester. The patron of adopted children, he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his adopted son David, only to be murdered by David near Rochester, England. When a mentally deranged woman discovered his body and honored it by girding her brow with the plants growing near it, she was miraculously cured of her mental problems.

Hollyhocks are one of my favorite garden plants, ever since my great aunt Minnie showed me how to make hollyhock dolls from the bud (head), and two blooms (shawl and skirt). This flower, too, has a connection to the Crusades, for the 'holly' in the name derives from the word 'holy,' and refers to their proliferation in Middle Eastern climes. The cultivar we grow, "Dinner Plate," owes its delightful showiness to the fact it was customarily grown around outhouses to discreetly signal their location.

Any child who's played with them can tell you why Snapdragons are so named, and it comes as little surprise that, in England, dragonslayers' graves are traditionally decorated with these flowers. They also have a connection with magic that stretches far before dragons, however. The snapdragon is considered a protective plant, probably in light of its snapping jaws, and it is often planted in front of cottages and along grain beds as a ward against witchcraft (as well as insects in the case of the grain, for the flower's shape suggested that it could trap insects as well). The plant's associations with Mars also make it a powerful ward against fire, and it was often planted on cottage roofs for this purpose as well.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird