Thursday, December 20, 2012

Garden History online

I wish I could say that I have many posts ready for your reading pleasure. The truth is that for the last while it has been difficult to get the ideas and information down on paper. Do not count me out - the blog continues and the posts will resume.

In the meantime, I stumbled upon an online course on the history of the ornamental garden. It is taught by  England's garden historian and author Toby Musgrave. This online course starts in January and runs for 4 weeks. Part of the course is taught with video tutorials and the other part consists of downloadable notes.  A course this short will not be able to cover a lot but it will undoubtedly teach me many interesting things and will be a great refresher for my memory and who knows, maybe offer some inspiration.

It appears the garden history course is taught every month. However that is not all. There are many courses offered online at this site My Garden School from basic how to's to more advanced techniques of gardening. If you want to know how to grow plants on the vertical they offer that too.

Here's the link if you want a look: My Garden School.

So do keep in touch. You will not be disappointed.
Happy Holidays to all.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Jeanne Baret (1740-1807)

“Without casting any aspersions on the naturalist for having retained her for such an arduous voyage, I want to give her all the credit for her bravery, a far cry from the gentle pastimes afforded her sex. She dared confront the stress, the dangers, and everything that happened one could realistically expect on such a voyage. Her adventure should, I think, be included in a history of famous women.”


How does a young woman of about 24 years of age end up as a botanist’s aide on a French naval ship in 1766? During the voyage Jeanne sees a world that no peasant girl would ever think to imagine filled with wondrous lands, fascinating marine animals and unknown plants that she collects on behalf of the king. She faces great humiliations, physical labour bordering on slavery and rape. Hers is an amazing and yet difficult story to hear, but unfortunately we never hear from Jeanne directly about her adventure and must rely on the journals of others.

Jeanne was born to peasant parents in Autun, France in the Loire Valley. They were illiterate laborers who took any field work available such as sowing, tending and harvesting crops and other plants. Jeanne grew up in this small farming society where the furthest anyone travelled was only the next town. Somehow she learned to read and write and began the age old profession as an herb woman. Herb women supplied male operated businesses in towns with the roots, seeds, leaves and plants that held curative properties. They supplied druggists, physicians, dentists and male midwives (an eighteenth century development where upper class women chose men to help with the birthing process). Sir Joseph Banks, today one of the most renowned botanists, was not averse to paying herb women for their knowledge of the plant kingdom. Using herb women as teachers endowed Banks with more knowledge than his contemporaries and brought him eventual fame and wealth.

This is how Jeanne met the older and well–to- do Philibert Commerson, a botanist, who like Banks, wished to learn more about plant properties especially after being bitten in the leg by a dog that was believed to have rabies. That they met and became lovers is only the first of many details I must gloss over. Commerson was married. When his wife died shortly after childbirth he gave his son to his brother in law to care for and then installed Jeanne in his house as housekeeper. After moving to the great city of Paris Jeanne became pregnant with his child. Upon realizing that Commerson had no plan to marry her, Jeanne left the baby with an orphanage in Paris. It was in Paris that Commerson received plants via the Jardin du Roi (Garden of the King). Here they both dissected exotic and unusual plants into seeds, leaves and flowers to study. While Jeanne used her herbal knowledge to see similarities between these exotics and her native plants she also picked up some working knowledge of the Linnaean classification system which would help her while out at sea.

In 1765 Commerson’s friends at the Jardin du Roi told him of a three year expedition that the French government was looking at undertaking. The French had just lost their Canadian colony to the English and wished to improve their situation by attempting to find the elusive continent of Australia. This voyage would require circumnavigating the globe. This voyage would also require a renowned botanist to collect flora and fauna with the hope of finding plants that would be commercially viable and prosperous to France. Commerson desired to be part of this expedition as it could bring lasting fame and financial rewards, and it would be his for the asking. But there was a problem – what to do with Jeanne? Women were strictly prohibited from being on board French naval ships. However, he was allowed to bring as assistant to help with collecting and preserving the plant specimens they found. And so a plan was formed: Jeanne Baret would become Jean Baret or BarĂ©. 

Why Jeanne agreed to this idea is not known. Was it even her idea? Was she so in love with Commerson that she was willing to risk so much? Already we may question her motives remembering her lost child, no marriage, no status, still a peasant girl after all. Perhaps the lure of new worlds and plants to discover was all she desired.  Now she was cutting her hair short, dressing in loose drawstring trousers and roomy tunic and binding her breasts to her chest with long bandages. The bandages on their own would make her situation at sea uncomfortable as they restricted her breathing especially when she needed all her breath to climb hills and carry equipment. They also caused dermatitis which must have been very unpleasant during a three year voyage.

Two ships made up the expedition lead by Captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville on the larger ship La Boudeuse and a smaller ship the Etoile captained by Francois Chenard de La Giraudais. ‘Jean’ and Commerson were offered the captain’s quarters upon the Etoile which proved to be a godsend for Jeanne although the intention was to provide enough room for their supplies and future plant specimens. It was not long however into the voyage that there were suspicions about Jeanne’s sex. The other sailor’s on board never saw him using the head to relieve himself, he never undressed in view of the rest of the crew and he carried a loaded pistol. Jeanne faced many difficulties early on including one night when she was forced to sleep with the rest of the crew below deck and needed the pistol to protect herself from assault. Later when crossing the equator all new initiates in the crew were required to undergo a baptism of sorts, usually done in fun. Jeanne, being an assistant to the botanist would be part of this baptism which in her case turned out to be closer to a hazing. Commerson began to realize that he needed to better protect his assistant.

When on land Jeanne had a somewhat easier time away from prying eyes and felt more secure. Her work with Commerson was extremely labour intensive. She became known as ‘the beast of burden’ carrying  the days provisions, the pistols, and a field bag in which were optical instruments, papers for pressing specimens, magnifying glass, telescope, compass, and a mesh net to capture insects. Commerson’s bad leg, similar to the oozing ulcers that King Henry VIII endured, would erupt from time to time and the possibility of gangrene was great. This left most of the collecting to Jeanne, who was directed to plants and locations by Commerson as he sat quietly while she climbed along cliffs to procure specimens. It was on one of these stops that something caught her eye. An evergreen plant in the tropics (they were now in Brazil) with colourful bracts in hues of reds that grows long bean-like seed pods, she found what would be named Bougainvillea after the captain of La Boudeuse. However it would be Commerson to give the plant this name in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the captain of the naval ship. It is thought that Jeanne noticed this plant not for its colourful bracts but rather for the seed pods that resemble beans. As an herb woman she would find a similarity with these beans and beans back in France. The red hues of the flowers would signify a plant that could draw out poisons in the blood while the green and black seed pods represented the necrosis accompanied with gangrene. It is likely she was hoping for a cure for her lover’s leg.


Commerson’s attempt to ingratiate himself with the captain backfired. Bougainville had Commerson arrested for bringing a woman on board. Jeanne was brought in for questioning and managed to placate Bougainville with a story of being a eunuch. While Bougainville did not believe her he allowed the story to spread, partly perhaps to ease her life on the ship but mainly because he would have to keep her on board with a false story to protect himself from being penalized. Jeanne was necessary to the recovery of commercial plant specimens; Commerson was not well enough to do the work alone and finding a capable new assistant was impossible. If the expedition failed Bougainville would have failed in the navy and government eyes.

As they circumnavigated the globe Jeanne worked in heat and humidity and cold almost freezing temperatures collecting plants. The ships encountered bad weather and had much difficulty finding places to dock where they could restock with water and food. The latter part of the trip they were all on starvation rations and not in the best of mood. They found Tahiti in April of 1768. 

Here there are discrepancies between the various journals of Bougainville, Vives (the doctor on the ship) and two others. Bougainville claims that the discovery of Jeanne’s true sex was made in Tahiti while the three other journals point to the island of New Ireland. It is clear that something bad happened to Jeanne on New Ireland and while not specifically mentioned in the journals rape is the most likely event. It is known that Commerson treated Jeanne with opiates on that fateful day and that she remained in the cabin for one month thereafter. Seven months later Jeanne and Commerson were released from the Etoile to stay on the island of Mauritius, a French colony. Jeanne was seven months pregnant.

Jeanne did give birth to a boy who was once again given away –not a surprise there, considering the traumatic event the precipitated it. Despite his failed attempt at procuring commercially viable plants for France, Commerson was able to find his way into high society in Maurtius. He and Jeanne continued to work together on new plant findings.  One such trip took them to Madagascar where Commerson was intrigued by a shrub, ten feet tall with glossy leaves and profuse white blossoms, and gave it the name Baretia. He believed he had found three distinct species and named them B. bonafida, B. oppotisiva and B. heterophylla. It turns out that the genus has more than 50 species, which have since been renamed and are now placed in the genus Turraea of the family Meliaceae. It is believed he chose this plant to name after Jeanne because it resists easy identification with leaves of different shapes on the same plant.

Jeanne relied on Commerson for her livelihood as without him she was penniless and had no way to return to France. They lived together in Mauritius with Jeanne tending the house, and the collections which totalled almost 6,000 specimens and her sick lover until his death in 1773 from dysentery as well as a broken ulcer in his chest. Jeanne eventually married a French soldier passing through Mauritius and within a year they moved to France. Nothing more is known of her until her death in 1807.

Solanum baretiae
In 2010, a newly described plant species was christened Solanum baretiae in her honor. Biologist Eric Tepe, with the University of Utah and the University of Cincinnati, named the newfound species after hearing about Baret's unsung work. He thinks it’s what Commerson would have wanted since he had already intended on naming a similar plant after her. ”I have always admired explorers, especially botanical explorers,” he said. “We know many of their names, and they all have endured hardships in pursuit of interesting plants, but few have sacrificed so much and endured so much as Baret,”

If you wish to know more about Jeanne Baret I recommend reading "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret" by Glynis Ridley. It is where I found the majority of the research for this post.

“But how was it possible to discover the woman in the indefatigable Baret, who was already an expert botanist, had followed his master in all his botanical walks, amidst the snows and frozen mountains of the Strait of Magellan, and even on such troublesome excursions carried provisions, arms, and herbals, with so much courage and strength, that the naturalist had called him his beast of burden?”  


Friday, February 3, 2012

A Much Appreciated Versatility Award

I am truly pleased and honoured to have received "The Versatile Blogger" award  from T.S. at Casa Mariposa.  It could not have come at a better time with the February blahs at my heels.

It seems that there is a ritual involved with this award which is to bestow it on fifteen other bloggers whose blogs I enjoy. Also I am to tell you 7 things about myself. 

So let's start with me:

1.  I never realized I liked 'history' so much until I began this blog.

2. I read quite a lot, and not just biographies on ladies of our past. I am a huge A.S. Byatt fan, love the Lord of the Rings and some science fiction.

3. I have a certificate in horticulture and do my best to use it well in my garden of just under one acre.

4. I have mostly had cats as pets, some goldfish and turtles when a kid.

5. My husband and I used to enjoy camping but now a comfy hotel room has its lure.

6. I am a real art and craft admirer and have a knack for knowing which piece is of the highest quality.

7. Macaroni and cheese is still one of my favorite things to eat.

   I happily bestow the Versatile Blogger  award to the following wonderful bloggers:

Jennifer @ Three dogs in a Garden for her wonderful cottage garden. She manages what I aspire to.    

Bom @PlantChaser who shares an interest in history and his magnificent plant macros

Carolyn @ Shade Gardens for her native plant suggestions and inspiration

Charley @  365 Things I love about France for helping me live in France from afar.

ts @casamariposa for her fun and humorous posts - Thanks again!

Denise in Japan for her wonderful bird photos

Donna @gardenwalkgardentalk whose 'magazines' are truly amazing

Diana @elephantseyegarden for showing me parts of South Africa I may never see

Julie @ TrulyUseful for her myriad of ways of helping one understand social media and for being a great librarian

Helen @ Masteringhorticulture who knows way more than I do and has a knack for making the science of plants easily understandable

Rob @ ourfrenchgarden who has a beautiful spot in the French countryside and who is presently tackling building stone walls

Helen @patientgardener in Malvern Hills whose trials and tribulations I can sympathize with as my own

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pomona, a goddess

Pomona by Nicholas Fouche C.1700

Pomona is a Roman goddess of fruiting trees and orchards. She did not care for forests, she loved her cultivated countryside. She wields a pruning knife in her right hand for she is an expert in pruning and grafting. Despite the fact that she preferred to be alone to care and nurture her trees, this amazon-like beauty was besieged by suitors, in particular a god called Vertumnus. Vertumnus had the ability to take different human guises and made numerous attempts to woo Pomona but she turned him away each time. It wasn't until Vertumnus appeared before her in his proper person (apparently quite a good looking fellow) that Pomona gave in to his charms. Vertumnus is a god of gardens and orchards and so it appears they were a match made in heaven.

The name Pomona comes from the Latin word pomum, "fruit," specifically orchard fruit. ("Pomme" is the French word for apple.) She was said to be a wood nymph and a part of the Numia, guardian spirits who watch over people, places, or homes. While Pomona watches over and protects fruit trees and cares for their cultivation she is not actually associated with the harvest of fruit itself, but with the flourishing of the fruit trees. This is why the pruning knife was her sacred tool. In artistic depictions she is generally shown with a platter of fruit or a cornucopia.

 William Morris, (whose tapestry of Pomona is shown above) left us this lovely poem:

I am the Ancient Apple Queen,
As once I was so am I now.
For ever more a hope unseen,
Betwix the blossom and the bow.

Ah, where’s the river’s hidden Gold!
And where’s the windy grave of Troy!
Yet come I as I came of old,
From out the heart of summer’s joy.

Pomona and Vertumnus in the guise of an old woman, by Francesco Melzi 1570-20

If you are interested in reading a lovely interpretation of the Pomona myth check out Thalia's site. Her story is quite charming and fun to read.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715–1785)

Margaret Bentinck became known to me through my readings of Mrs. Mary Delany, the first to make flower mosaics out of cut paper. Here's a link to my post on Delany. The two were lifelong friends, Margaret having met Mary Delany when she was a child of eight and Mary a young woman of 22 years. Mary Delany was introduced as a friend of Margaret’s mother, Henrietta, and yet as time went by Mary became one of Margaret’s closest friends. Perhaps it was because of Mary’s older age that Margaret sought her out as a sister but the two had other interests in common, namely plants and animals. This shared interest would last their lifetimes, and perhaps from this Margaret would become an avid collector of shells, but also plants, fossils, birds, fungus, beetles, butterflies, porcelain and pottery. Margaret Bentinck Duchess of Portland amassed the largest collections of fine art and natural history in Britain.

Born Margaret Cavendish Harley, Margaret was the only surviving child of Edward Harley, who would become the 2nd Earl of Oxford, and the strait-laced Henrietta Holles, daughter of the 3rd Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne. Her father Edward was a great collector of manuscripts, books, and pottery, a landscape gardener and patron of the arts and unsurprisingly he encouraged Margaret’s collecting as a child. Their lifestyle was one of great wealth and the house was always visited by aristocrats, politicians, and writers. Margaret knew Jonathon Swift and Alexander Pope and the poet Matthew Prior who had dedicated the poem “A Letter to Lady Margaret Cavendish Holles–Harley, when a Child” to Margaret when she was five.
At the age of nineteen Margaret married William Bentinck (1709-1766) Duke of Portland and she bore him six children. The marriage brought her a town house in Whitehall and a country house in Buckinghamshire called Bulstrode. She lived most of her life at Bulstrode, the last twenty three of her years in widowhood. Margaret was not the shy or reclusive type. She followed in her parents footsteps and made Bulstrode a place of great scientific and artistic activity. In time it began to be known and referred to as the hive. Here she raised her children, entertained and worked with people of now great renown, developed the house, designed the gardens, and collected.

A glimpse is all we get of the gardens at Bulstrode as they no longer exist as they were in the Duchess’s time. A large estate of many acres, the park was renowned for its formal landscaped gardens. According to Repton, there were a botanic garden, flower garden, kitchen garden, ancient garden, American garden, shrubbery and parterre. In some unknown place there was an allee of lime fruit trees. While there is no listing of the plants in Bulstrode we can be sure that Margaret had one specimen of every plant available. Margaret built greenhouses, an aviary and a zoo to house the innumerable animals. There was also a pond and a shell grotto that Margaret and Mary Delany built with the shells they collected.

 Margaret’s greatest interest was botany. This was not unusual for the time as women were encouraged to find interest in natural history in the eighteenth century. What was unusual was the Duchess’s depth of knowledge and involvement in botanical research. Margaret had cultivated an impressive, and from today’s perspective, a very distinctive number of friends in the field of science. Margaret employed the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander to catalogue her botanical collections using Linnaeus’s classification. Solander was a student of Carolus Linnaeus and was part of the entourage of Joseph Banks’ trip with James Cook’s first Endeavour voyage.  Joseph Banks was known to have brought back new plant specimens from North America for the Duchess. Others included John Lightfoot her personal chaplain and conchologist, Philip Miller the chief gardener of the Chelsea Physick Garden, and Georg Dionysus Ehret a German botanical illustrator who Margaret hired to engrave the native plants in her flower gardens, as well as, teach drawing to her daughters.

In 1766 Margaret was introduced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, through Mary Delany’s brother, Bernard Granville. Rousseau was a philosopher and his interest in botany helped to popularize natural history in eighteenth century Europe, America and Great Britain. Rousseau did not hold women high in his esteem. He believed that they were incapable of abstract thought in the sciences and should instead concentrate on matters of practical reason. Despite his beliefs, Rousseau appointed himself as the Duchess’s ‘herborist’ collecting and preserving plants for her. He seems to have held the Duchess in high esteem as he refers to her as his botany teacher and testifies that her botanical knowledge is far superior to his own. 

Margaret lived a full and busy life. She must have loved life as she delved into its mysteries one shell, flower, and art piece at a time. Family was important to her, as well as, all the scientific friends and acquaintances she cultivated in order to pursue and fulfill her life’s objective “to have had every unknown species described and published to the World”, according to John Lightfoot. While she never published any of her findings (she left that to others) Margaret did leave behind notebooks and letters documenting her vast knowledge. The Portland name was given to a moth, a rose and an ancient glass vase, in her honour. It is her vast collections of natural history that she is best remembered and the gardens of Bulstrode that housed them.