Monday, October 28, 2013

Catharine Parr Traill – (1802 –1899)

I have had quite the difficulty getting started on Catharine. She and I have been dancing around for at least one year. She is important to Canadian history as is her sister Susanna Moodie for authoring a number of books, some which offer the reader a view of early Canadian history. She is not like most women in garden history who tend to be royalty or wealthy with funds at their disposal for grand gardens or greenhouse collections. She is not a plant hunter or a botanist who identifies species and then sends them overseas to be catalogued and named by men. How then does she fit into a garden history?

Catharine is unique and she belongs in garden history because she has seen a world few of us ever will. She immigrated to Canada in 1832 a time when colonies were small and the land almost untouched by man. She has seen it with eyes of a visitor and eventually a settler who despite great struggles learns to love her new homeland. She was a woman who looked at the details, watched the fringes, enjoyed the tiny pleasures of life whether flora or fauna and recorded her sightings in wonder. 

Catharine Parr Traill was one of 6 girls and 2 boys to Thomas Strickland and Elizabeth Homer. The family lived in Suffolk in rural England but were not of the same class as their wealthier neighbours. Thomas educated his children himself and taught them history, geography, maths, theology and the morality of the Church of England.  Catharine was the favourite child of her father. Known to the family as Katie, she had a sunny and cheerful disposition that kept her spirits high even during the struggles and great hardships she was to face in Canada. Catharine and her father would go fishing and take long walks together. He pointed out plants and animals during these times and imparted what information he could to her.
Books were of great importance to the Strickland family. As young children Catharine and her sisters read novels, poetry, wrote stories and put on plays in the house using the family’s old silks and old court dresses from Queen Anne’s reign. By the 1820’s four of the sisters, including Catharine and Susanna, were published writers of poetry, romantic fiction and children’s stories. 

Through her sister Susanna and husband John Moodie, Catharine met Thomas Traill, a friend of Moodie’s for many years. In 1832 Catharine and Thomas married. Both couples had decided to emigrate to Upper Canada (Ontario) with the hope of a better life. Neither husband was well off and unfortunately neither was properly prepared mentally and physically for the backwoods life that awaited them. The Traills left England by cargo ship with Catharine sick on the voyage. Then while in Quebec City she contracted cholera. Thomas went ashore and on his return brought her a bouquet of flowers. The roses, sweet pea and pulmonaria she recognized but not some others. Perhaps it was this moment that inspired Catharine to identify the Canadian species of plants she was to see once on shore in this New World.

They left Quebec City by stagecoach, then boat to Cobourg, and then by wagon to Rice Lake. They took a steamboat from Rice Lake and an oared scow to the town of Peterborough. The last leg of the trip was made by horse- pulled- wagon through the bush where there was no road only a blaze trail “encumbered by fallen trees, and interrupted by cedar swamps, into which one might sink up to one’s knees”. The trip took four months. 

Thomas and Catharine’s first home was in the backwoods near Lake Kitchiwannoe. The backwoods is filled with bush, and forests of pine, oak, maple and beech. Trees needed to be cleared to set up a home, and the land would be covered with stumps for years to come. It was not a picturesque setting. It took more money and hard work than realized. Like women before her Catharine may have despaired over her new life, after all she left behind family, some financial security and most importantly her growing career as an author. Catharine looked to the land and took her refuge in flowers – columbine, goldenrod, and hepaticas to name a few.

Since her arrival in Upper Canada Catharine collected and studied flowers, grasses, mosses, lichens and ferns. She became a serious student and studied all aspects of a plant; its appearance, its life cycle, its relation to other plants, and even the medicinal and food value. Some of this she learned from the Indian women who lived nearby and some she learned from her only reference book, Frederick Pursh’s Flora Americae septentrionalis (North American Flora), published in 1814. When her own knowledge or Pursh’ s book failed her Catherine named the plants herself ,  “I consider myself free to become their floral godmother and give them names of my own choosing,” she wrote. 
Catharine kept a journal full of notes on plants she found and was trying to identify.  “I am never weary with strolling about, climbing the hills in every direction, to catch some new prospect, or gather some new flowers, which, though getting late in the summer, are still abundant. Among the plants with whose names I am acquainted are a variety of shrubby asters, of every tint of blue, purple, and pearly white; a lilac monarda, most delightfully aromatic, even to the dry stalks and seed-vessels; the white gnaphalium or everlasting flower; roses of several kinds, a few late buds of which I found in a valley, near the church.”

Catharine began a hortus siccus (dry garden) for her sister Eliza living back home in England. In it she described plants, their growth and any “striking particulars”. She learned to dry the plants and collect the seed. Much was sent to Eliza for her interest. Later in time she received a screw press with which she could press her ferns more effectively. 

From her book, Canadian Wild Flowers

Catharine was ever watchful of the changes around her.  On the forest she noted  “The forest-trees grow so thickly together that they have no room for expanding and putting forth lateral branches; on the contrary, they run up to an amazing height of stem, resembling seedlings on a hot-bed that have not duly been thinned out.”
She noticed new generations of trees and the change of the forest. She noticed that different plants grow on cleared land compared to what was there originally. Fireweed, the first plant to appear after a fire which “shows you a smothering crop of this vile weed” then the sumac, raspberry and wild gooseberry and thousands of strawberry plants eventually carpet the earth. 

She describes twinflower and imparts her vast botanical knowledge, “On gathering a branch of this plant, you cannot but be struck with the elegant arrangement of the flowers along the under part of the stalks. The two blossoms are connected at the nectary of each in a singular manner. The Americans call this honeysuckle “twinflower” (….)But know it to be a species of honeysuckle, from the class and order, the shape and colour of the leaves, the stalks, the trumpet-shaped blossom and the fruit; all bearing a resemblance to our honeysuckles in some degree”.

Catharine Parr Traill’s writings are invaluable for some insight into pioneer life and the more modern life of the 1880’s. After living seven years in the bush she wrote, “There is a change in the country; many of the plants and birds and wild creatures, common once, have disappeared entirely before the march of civilization. As the woods which shelter them are cleared away, they retire to the lonely forest haunts still left, where they may remain unmolested and unseen till again driven back by the advance of man upon the scene.”    
Some fifty years later she writes “What changes the years have brought! Where now are the pine woods? Where the log house, the primeval settlement house; the disfiguring stump in the newly-cleared fallows; the ugly snake-like rail fences, the rude enclosures of the first efforts of the immigrant; the jangling sound of the cattle bells, the lumber sleighs? All are gone- things that were, not things that are."
" Fair dwellings, tasteful gardens, fruitful orchards, the village schoolhouse, the church spire, the busy factory, the iron-girdered bridge, the steamboat, the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone-these have taken the place of the lonely forest settlements.”  

Catharine never stopped writing professionally upon arriving in Ontario. Her family faced poverty daily, once, bankruptcy. Catharine wrote short stories and sketches for magazines in England and America. While living in the backwoods she wrote The Backwoods of Canada; Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, a book about pioneer life and intended to give advice to those thinking of immigrating. Her books on flowers and plant life were written later in life and include Canadian Wild Flowers and Studies of Plant Life in Canada

She found a form of the fern Aspidium marginale and it was named after her as “Mrs. Traill’s Shield Fern”, A. marginale (Swz.) var:Traillae. How I would love to find this plant for my own garden.

Catharine Parr Traill was a naturalist and a voyeur and student of life. Her interest in plants and animals was not a cursory glance but a serious examination. Had she been born to a wealthier family or a later time she would have been a botanist. We benefit from her pioneer life in Canada; we gain a better understanding of the type of life lived in 1832; we gain the knowledge of plant and animal life and the changes that can happen in a fifty year period; we benefit from her books and journals about the flowers and plants she loved and the garden that was her world all those years ago. Catharine Parr Traill lived to the age of 97 in a home surrounded by members of her family.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Magdalena Poulle 1632-1699, Netherlands

Magdalena Poulle was born in Calais in northern France in 1632 and was christened in Amsterdam in 1644. She grew up with five brothers and one sister in a wealthy merchant family. Magdalena married twice and both times widowed, with no children. 
In 1680 she bought the ruin of a manor house called Gunterstein near the village of Breukelen in the province of Utrecht in the Dutch Republic, which had been devastated by the French invasion in 1672. The purchase of this house allowed Magdalena the title “Lady of the manor of Gunterstein and Tienhoven” a privilege she perhaps sought out since no new titles for nobility were being created at that time. By 1681 Gunterstein was rebuilt and the gardens were being planned which included an orangery. She seemed to have a great pride in owning this manor and a desire to stamp her name on her new home as many family relics can still be found around the house today; her family shield – a chicken being chased by a dog-still rests above the windows outside, the brass door knocker is of a chicken (Poulle translates to chicken from French) and is inscribed with her initials, a portrait of Magdalena and her nephew Pieter at the age of three still hangs above the mantelpiece where it was originally installed in 1683. Magdalena also left the house to Pieter her nephew as it was important to her to keep Gunterstein in the family. It remains in the family today.

The house is center, orangery with red roof on left, labyrinth to the right
Another view of the property

Palaces and grand manor houses are traditionally placed in the center of the gardens, however Gunterstein’s location on the Vecht River meant following the norm was not possible. Gunterstein was planned on a triangular piece of land off the Vecht River. The house actually takes up a small amount of real estate with the various gardens surrounding it. Compartmentalised gardens were a Dutch fashion and as such were generally separated by canals. An ornamental garden, orchards and an orangery were established close to the house. There were bosquets (formal plantation of trees), fish ponds, and a labyrinth on the grounds as well. Behind this formality were natural grasslands that blended into the neighboring agricultural landscape.

Magdalena came up with the ideas for her gardens and based them on the prevailing French style. She used her knowledge of French culture in the creation of two fountains. La Fontaine du Dragon alludes to the story of the garden of Hesperides, while the second, La Fontaine de la Poulle refers to a fable of La Fontaine where she replaces a crow with a chicken and a fox for a dog. La Fontaine de la Poulle is a chicken spurting water on a high grotto pedestal, being chased by a dog. La Fontaine de la Poulle is interesting for its technology; a gutter or trough near the attic window of the house was used as a reservoir for the fountain. When Magdalena wanted to impress her guests she had a servant pull the cap off the reservoir which sent water rushing through a pipe and shot out of the beak of the chicken. The fountain would spurt water until the reservoir was empty.

La Fontaine de la Poulle
Poulle’s gardens were very influential. They attracted the attention and visitations by prominent gardeners, botanists and collectors. She used prints of the latest French gardens to create her own garden designs, as well as, garden furniture, statues and features. Features such as small mounded green islands topped by viewing pavilions, arbours made of fine trellis work, and a statue adorning a cornfield, were all considered fashionable and popular.
“In 1685 the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, sent his head gardener, George London, on a trip to the Dutch Republic to view and report back on gardening innovations there. One of the gardens he visited was Magdalena Poulle's where he compiled an inventory of the rarest and most remarkable plants he saw there, headed: 'These elegants which stand together in the garden of the Lady of Gunterstein at Breukelen in the province of Utrecht'. They included a coconut palm, Sesbania grandiflora (a shrub from Kerala with edible leaves and flowers), a coral tree from Brazil, sugar cane, carob, a clematis from Argentina or Paraguay, Fritillaria crassa (one of the fritillary family much featured in Dutch flower still-lifes), Leonurus Capitis Bonae Spei (from the Cape of Good Hope), hibiscus, delphinium, Thlaspi sempervirnens et florens (from Persia), papaya and tamarind. All or most of these needed special conditions for successful raising, and indeed the hothouses at Gunterstein set a standard for those at the Physic Garden in Chelsea.”
 In 1686 John Evelyn (famous English writer and gardener) made a list of the most famous gardens in the Dutch Republic, and Magdalena’s garden was on the list along with the Leiden Hortus Botanicus.  

Orangery with two hothouses on either end of the building. Pots of exotics on the ground and the Fontaine du Dragon.

Magdalena was deeply involved in the creation of all her gardens and she held a passion for being amongst the first to bring in exotic plants. Most especially, she had built the orangery (greenhouse) and its state- of -the- art hothouses in order to do this.
Magdalena had developed a number of contacts through which she was able to learn about the latest explorations. She sent out her own search parties across the world for unknown exotics only die-hard collectors needed to have. In order to raise her new exotic plants she needed a hothouse. Fortunately for her the Dutch were already looking into improving the hothouses that existed. Magdalena’s hothouses were a breakthrough in a new technical science which allowed for great strides in the cultivation of exotics. Early hothouses were too dry for the tropical exotics, but a system of brick ducts under the floor provided horizontal heating or through ducts in the wall by vertical heating, changed the future of heating greenhouses or orangeries. The improved hothouse became a status symbol and was soon to be found in the gardens of other botanical collectors in the Republic. Magdalena lovingly raised her exotics in the hothouses over the winter and then displayed them in urns, with great extravagance, on the terraces through the summer.
In keeping with her desire to be remembered Magdalena commissioned a book of fifteen etchings called Veues de Gunterstein (c. 1690) and dedicated it to Madame de Gunterstein et de Thienhoven. The works were made by artist Willem Swidde and contains etchings of Gunterstein and its gardens. Similar series of house and garden views had been made for members of the court and for the gardens of the Stadtholder at the palace of Het Loo in Apeldoorn (built between 1684 and 1686).

Gunterstein today
After Magdalena’s death in 1699 her brother put up her orangery collection for auction. “The plants are superficially described as Orange, Lemon, Myrtus, Jasmin, Camphor, Arbutus and double Oleander trees, and the text mentions besides these many strange foreign tree fruits, plants, roots an bulbs, in many years collected from many far-off parts of the world.”
What a shame that her family had no interest in her collection, especially when considering that all she had built and assembled was for the long term benefit of the family. A long line of descendants have lived in Gunterstein and the home and gardens are open to the public on specific days. Today Gunterstein’s gardens are much reduced and the original 17th century ornamental gardens along with the Fontaine de la Poulle are gone.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Queen Hatshepsut

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on the ancient Egyptian garden, which you can find here. Since writing it I have found out a few more things about gardening at that time but more specifically, the discovery that Queen Hatshepsut had made a name for herself in early plant exploration. So this post is about Queen Hatshepsut but is also an update on ancient Egyptian gardens.

Hatshepsut, the fifth ruler of the 18th Dynasty, daughter of Thuthmosis I and Queen Ahmose, married her brother Thuthmosis II. They had one daughter, Neferure. With the death of her husband, a son by a secondary wife became king and Hatshepsut his regent. According to Egyptian ways a woman cannot become a pharaoh; however a man cannot rule alone and needs a woman as his counterpart. Hatshepsut was a motivated woman with a desire to rule and soon enough she found a way. She created the story of her divine birth from the god Amun and to support her claim she dressed herself in traditional male garments of the pharaoh along with a king’s iconography. Her name means “united with Amun in front of the nobles”. Hatshepsut's reign lasted twenty years and was peaceful.  It was also prosperous as she developed Egyptian resources in mining, agriculture and building.

One of her greatest accomplishments was to re-establish trading with a society called the Punt. No one today knows exactly where this people lived but it is thought that they were in the region in southern Africa near Somalia. The expedition was formed in order to bring back trees of frankincense and myrrh. The ancient Egyptians followed many deities and theses deities were honoured with the incense created from the resin of these trees. Large quantities of incense were burnt each year as aromatics were used prominently in their religion, medicine and magic. Thus this trade relationship was important to Egypt. 

This first voyage to the land of Punt was recorded and preserved at the temple of Deir el- Bahari in Thebes, c.1500 BC. The temple was erected by Hatshepsut in honour of her god Amun and as a memorial to herself. On its limestone walls are the pictorials of the plant expedition to Punt. It shows the gathering of the fragrant gum of the frankincense tree being carried in baskets slung on poles, as well as cut ebony logs, living plants and trees, and a variety of animals.

Deir el Bahari

The temple and its gardens were built on high ground primarily to escape the flooding waters of the Nile but its intention was to create an impression of greatness and power. Three terraces, built one above the other, are set against the mountainside, lined with pillared corridors and the shrine at the topmost terrace. The queen brought back thirty two incense trees and these were planted in the gardens on each terrace. The trees had been dug up with plenty of earth in the spring before leaf bud and were placed in pots. Then in Egypt they were unpacked and planted in walled pits. Other trees such as sycomore figs and tamarisks were also planted at this site in rows: “Excavations in front of this gate have exposed the square walled pits, which were filled with earth taken from the Nile with a view to giving the best possible nourishment to the trees. They were watered by an arrangement of pipes from the sides. In these holes there have been discovered traces of Persea trunks.” (evergreen trees belonging to the laurel family, Lauraceae.) Today, no other plant life exists apart from the remaining mummified tree roots at the temple of Deir el- Bahari.

The Egyptians were a society that could be called a Cult of the Dead exemplified by their temples and pyramidal resting places. The resins of frankincense and myrrh collected from the land of Punt were used in religious ceremonies and in the mummification process. Life on earth was lived with the intent to live a better afterlife. Their gardens were part of this process and were made to imitate what they believed gardens in paradise would look like – although better. What we have left today of these gardens are found on tomb paintings, papyri and some archeological evidence. We do know that a number of plants were used symbolically in gardens to represent their gods. The most common of these plants were the date palm, doum palm, tamarisk, papyrus, grape vine, blue water lily and lotus. The lotus and blue water lily were the most valued water plants. The blue water lily is known to contain opiate- like alkaloids and were used frequently in religious ceremony and as floral motif in buildings. 

This relief depicts incense and myrrh trees obtained by Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt

Hatshepsut's expedition to the land of Punt provided a trade relationship that later pharaohs would also enjoy. It is known that plant material from this land was used at other temples and palaces.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Nur Jahan, Moghul Queen Part 2

“ …she erects very expensive buildings in all directions - sarais, or halting-places for travellers and merchants, and pleasure gardens and palaces such as no one has ever made before.” - Pelsaert

The Mughal period in India was one where culture and the arts were of great importance to the royal family and the ruling classes below them. Nur Jahan was fortunate indeed to have lived in this time and to have been born to a wealthy and powerful family. She was skilled in two languages, was considered an accomplished poet, designed and created clothing and jewellery, an art lover and collector, and she is famously known for her prowess as a huntress, her horsemanship and long black hair. It is quite understandable then of her great interest in architecture and garden making. Nur Jahan was quite fortunate indeed that her husband and emperor Jahanjir held many of the same interests. Together and apart they built palaces, mausoleums, and gardens.

The Mughal garden style was taken from the ancient Persian garden. A walled garden was built with two water channels that intersected dividing the garden into four quadrants. This pattern is called the chahar bagh or char bagh.( see Magic Carpet Ride)  Early Mughal gardens were set outside the palace or citadel walls, and in the case of the city of Agra, gardens lined the banks of the river Jamna. Gardens inside the palace were paved surfaces of stone with perhaps an ornamental pool and water channel. Unfortunately the earliest gardens no longer exist nor do any records with description.

Nur Jahan is known to have rebuilt the gardens of the Ram Bagh (Garden of Repose) situated on the Yamuna River in Agra. She was given the garden by Jahanjir who had inherited it from his garden -loving ancestor Babur. The design of the Ram Bagh differs from earlier gardens in that the main building is located on terraces that line the riverbank rather than being centered in the garden in the classical char bagh style. The char bagh is a garden divided into four quadrants by two channels of water that intersect in the middle forming a pool or a fountain. Water channels also follow the perimeter of the garden and link up with the two main channels. At the Ram Bagh the four gardens were set at a depth lower than the water channels for a few of reasons. The main reason was ease of watering the plants; water could be allowed to overflow into the gardens. Mughal gardens were often arranged in terraces with the main building or palace closest to the top. This is intentional, as the gardens were meant to be looked down upon, like a living carpet. And of course the third reason is that the garden was a place of refuge; a cool, shady green place to hide from the heat.

Ram Bagh

 Nur Jahan most likely maintained the beautiful gardens of the Ram Bagh. In its time it was known for its fruit trees of mangoes, tamarind and pineapple and vines of grapes and melons. Today, after centuries of war and a desire for more modern gardens, the Ram Bagh’s original character has been lost. ‘Gone are the glowing parterres, carpets of colour – “the roses and  narcissus planted regularly in beds corresponding to one another” – such as were spread to delight the eyes of Babar or Nur-Mahal. Winding drives and meaningless paths now replace the charming old formality, while the baradis on the riverside terrace are disfigured and modernised. There remain only the terraces, fountains, and narrow watercourses, with their tiny, carved water-chutes, and the old well from which the garden was supplied with water from the Jumna.’ 

A minor garden built by Nur Jahan is the Moti Bagh (or Moti Mahal) that also lies on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River. It was typical architecturally for the time with parterres filled with fruit trees and flowers.

Her most famous gardens in Agra, again on the Yamuna River, were the tombs of I’timaduddaula for her deceased father and that for her husband Jahanjir at Shadara, both which still exist. It is not known how much direct influence Nur Jahan had in the construction of Jahanjir’s tomb as she was exiled almost immediately on his death. However, the design of the mausoleum was taken from the I’timaduddaula.  The I’timaduddaula garden was walled with false gateways on three sides. From the main gatehouse is a straight drive with orchards planted on either side. The garden was in the typical char bagh style with the mausoleum on a raised platform in the centre of the four water channels.  Four tanks (large pools that acted as reservoirs) “were on each side of the central platform, each of which contains a small fountain, and there are angular channels that carry water to all four corners of the small enclosure.” At one time its avenues were lined with cypress trees and the walks spilling over with scented roses. The four parterres would have been filled with brilliant flowers considered worthy of worship. Each one of the four parterres would be represented by a single flower in great abundance like the tulip, violet or rose. Other flowers they may have used were poppies, lilies, anemones and red cyclamen. Imagine standing from higher ground looking down on such a colourful display.

I'timaduddaula with waterless channel

The couple spent thirteen summers in their beloved Kashmir. They travelled on elephant over the Himalayas, along with their large entourage. Here the land was not flat as in Agra but mountainous, with verdant valleys dotted with lakes. In Kashmir they looked to use the natural beauty of the place and took advantage of its views by creating terraced gardens. Lakes, waterfalls and streams were made part of the design.

One of the smaller mountain gardens is that of Darogha Bagh (Lalla Rookh’s garden). Darogha bagh “juts out into the lake with its burden of terraced walls and slender poplar trees, like some great high-decked galleon floating on the clear calm water.”

The most famous and secluded garden on Dal Lake is that of Shalamar Bagh which was originally built by Pravarsena ll who reigned in Kashmir from A.D. 79 to 139 (or so the legend claims). I will desist with the glowing flowery quotes here to point out what is of most interest to us. Shalamar is divided into three areas, an outer public garden, the emperor’s garden and the zenana garden for the women of the harem. The zenana garden was the climax of Shalamar with many fountains and watery arcades that were lit up at night. Here the hand of Nur Jahan is seen. Each of these gardens was its own terrace, from lowest level to the topmost level. Nur Jahan was allowing the public into a usually very private place for royalty only. The royal gardens were no longer for pleasure alone; the new Mughal garden had imperial duties as well and the intention was to make a statement to all about the emperor’s power and place in the Mughal world. The outer public garden allowed Jahanjir to receive the public and other high officials even at times when he was at leisure.  The zenana gardens at Shalamar stood as a symbol of women’s transformation. Here, women were not required to wear the veil and no longer represented a morality. This was Nur Jahan’s doing.

Another garden and our last is the royal garden of Achabal in Kashmir. This garden predates the arrival of the Mughals and was an orchard garden for the Sultans of Kashmir in the fifteenth century. The site of Achabal was built around a powerful mountain spring at the base of a forested mountain. Nur Jahan laid out new gardens in 1620 which consisted of four ascending terraces in the char bagh manner. The main feature is the spring whose water is collected in various canals with platforms and pavilions built over top. Pools with fountains are prominent in the design found on the terraces. The garden was laid out with many walks and shaded by fruit trees of apple, pear, plum, apricot and cherry. Fish ponds existed during this time too. Today the gardens of Achabal are much reduced in size and have undergone some renovation due to decay. However its location and site is still unparalleled in beauty.


Nur Jahan was a rare woman of her time. She was immensely talented and had a mind that could rule an empire. Along with Jahanjir they celebrated the arts and were deeply involved in creating  beauty. Nur Jahan was involved in the creation of eleven gardens to my knowledge. These were not small gardens but royal gardens built on terraces, surrounded by running water, a home for palaces, pavillions for shade and rest, orchards of fruiting trees and brightly coloured flowers to thrill the eye.