Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

Mile after mile we drive on winding narrow roads cut deep like ditches through virgin woods. Wild dogwood and southern redbud bloom among tall pines. We pass battlefields prominent in both wars, the War for American Independence and the War Between the States.

This is Albermarle County, in the Virginia Piedmont region where Thomas Jefferson established Monticello. We have eschewed major highways for backcountry travel because, after all, this is a tour of early American history in situ rather than from books or films. These now paved ditch-like roads follow the old Indian trails, cut deep to avoid detection by enemy armies in the old wars.

On our winding road this spring day, we pass many old mansions and farmhouses, several obviously antebellum or possibly even pre-Revolutionary era, most early 19th century. I see, in the far distance across acres of meadow, what appears to be Montpelier, James Madison’s estate. My romantic notions convince me it could be.

Shortly before we reach Monticello, we stop in a woodland area for lunch at Michie Tavern (c. 1784) where black-eyed peas and fresh cornbread are served on original pewter dishes.

The word “Monticello” means “Little Mountain” in Italian. This was Thomas Jefferson’s private world where he retreated with his family, his farm, his books and scientific experiments. The landscape itself was his agricultural workhouse; the gardens were his experimental laboratory for the study of natural history – horticulture and how natural elements of weather and even insects affected plant life in the Piedmont. He kept meticulous, “maddeningly” methodical records in a Weather Memorandum Book and his personal garden journal, dated 1767-1824. Published in 1944 as Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, these records became a singular source for researchers in early horticulture; it is available for purchase at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants or online from

Beds of spring tulips are prominent the day we visit the estate. Each variety of tulip is showcased in its own ten-foot bed within borders along winding walks. Unlike Williamsburg’s enclosed cottage gardens, all the beds are open to the Piedmont landscape and, thus, to the vagaries of a Virginia weather system.

I am most impressed by the two acres of working gardens carefully laid out according to Jefferson’s original design, including rows of both herbs and vegetables. Rather than sculptured squares of private gardens as at Colonial Williamsburg, Jefferson terraced a thousand-foot-long rectangle on the southeastern slope, a ferme ornée amalgam of a working farm with its pictorial and bucolic scenes, including a brick “folly” or garden pavilion.

Within the ferme ornée, Jefferson positioned the north-south arrangement of rows so that each plant receives an equal amount of sunlight hours daily. There he experimented with more than 300 varieties of vegetables cultivated from seed from around the world in order to select only the best variety of vegetable. Interspersed among rows of vegetables he planted nearly two dozen different culinary and medicinal herbs ranging from basil and borage to valerian and winter savory.

At the west end of the long walk, arbors of rough-hewn posts and crossbeams, made from forked limbs of black locust trees, support pole beans in white, scarlet, crimson, purple. He included 46 bean varieties and 25 types of English peas! In fact, Jefferson encouraged friendly competition among his neighbors as to who could harvest the first English pea of the season. The winner hosted a community dinner where each guest could sample one teaspoon of peas contributed from each gardener. I don’t think we have to guess who won!

Summer brings other native plants such as Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemose) and Virginia bluebells among cultivated perennials, historic roses, and iris.

Monticello is open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Christmas Day. The gardens and grounds are available for walking tours from April to October. Be sure to stop in at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants where you may purchase packets of heirloom seeds. Or order online at

For further reading:

Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 1944

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 2002 (113-157)

Dining at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, c. 2005 (55-63)

Virginia Wildflowers: A Natural History Gallery of Wildflowers and Mushrooms, at



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The quintessential example of Early American gardens is the historic district of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia’s Tidewater region. A benign climate and rich fertile contribute to a prodigious assortment of herbs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, even small orchards. My first visit ten years ago gave me the impression I had walked right into the pages of The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg – the proverbial dream come true for me.

I peered over picket fences, entered black iron gates, strolled narrow paths set in brick patterns of running bond or herringbone among meticulously restored gardens behind individual garden gates. I watched costumed children play inside one fenced back garden of one of the “middling class” houses. One little girl flew up into the air on an old-fashioned swing hung from a large tree branch.

Twenty-years after the first British settlement in North America at Jamestown in 1607, English colonists founded Williamsburg on high ground between the James and York rivers. By the 1700s, merchants and tradespeople had established villages and towns and thriving commerce serving outlying farms and plantations. Each “middling class” householder cultivated his own self-sustaining food supply in utilitarian potages – back-door kitchen gardens.

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The colonial woman provided plants not only for foods but also flavorings, medicines, and chemicals. Madder and woad were used to dye fabrics, and basil and sage flavored meats. Yarrow, angelica, feverfew and valerian are old English herbs used in treating common physical ailments or aiding in childbirth. Southernwood and pennyroyal were insect repellents; tansy planted outside the back door repelled ants from crawling inside.

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Only later as personal leisure increased among the upper classes did the colonists begin to incorporate “pleasure gardens” into the landscape, purely for the delight in formal landscapes they, or their ancestors, had left behind in England. To them, a garden was nature tamed, trimmed, and enclosed by human intervention with the natural landscape. They brought seeds and bulbs with them in order to establish a version of their old gardens back home


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A balanced geometric symmetry within enclosed spaces characterizes the parterre, as in John Blair’s garden, show above. This Dutch design comes from the era of William of Orange and Queen Mary during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In colonial gardens, the design comprises what’s termed a “quincunx” – that is, an arrangement of four squares or rectangles with a fifth area in the center where all the crosswalks connect. It is meant to be viewed from upstairs windows or balconies, or by geese flying overhead on their way south for winter.

Narrow paths of bricks or crushed shells of clams and oysters from Chesapeake Bay separate the parterres by an axis with crosswalks, rather like the British Union Jack. The usual brick pattern used was running bond, sometimes a herringbone configuration. Broken brick edge shell paths to keep the pieces from washing into the garden beds.


Colonial Williamsburg

Along with geometry, choice of plant material and enclosure comprise the other design elements. Spring tulips and summer flowers and roses fill each section. In fact, “tulipomania” – a craze for Dutch tulips – reached its apex in the 1630s and then spread to England with William and Mary. From there, the Virginia colonists brought bulbs and introduced a mania for tulips in Williamsburg.

Herbs may or may not have been incorporated into pleasure gardens; if not, they were planted in a separate quincunx. John Blair did combine them in his.

Shrubbery accents the corners. Boxwood hedges, sometimes wood picket fences, enclosed each garden. Brick walls, on the other hand, with their distinctively curved roof-shaped top edging protecting the mortar from seeping moisture during the rainy seasons, enclose the grounds of the Governor’s Palace and Bruton Parish Church (established 1674) in Williamsburg.

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The Governor’s Palace

When Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood arrived in Williamsburg, he thought gardens should be grand, especially surrounding the Governor’s Palace. He wanted it to look like a palatial European estate. He enclosed formal gardens with boxwood hedges, as King William, himself, favored clipped boxwood, the sempervirens Suffrusticosa. Likewise, he ordered shrubbery clipped and sheared into gumdrop or ball shapes, and yaupon holly in thick columns.

Governor's Palace

Today, in spring, the palace gardens feature stately rows of red and yellow, sometimes pink and burgundy, tulips. Blue and white Delph porcelain tulipierres and finger vases, handcrafted to showcase short stems of tulips, decorate mantels and tabletops

John Blair House

The John Blair House features a prominent fragrance garden not just to look pretty but also to be used to create scents for perfumes, sachets (“sweet bags’), incense, potpourri, insect repellants, lavender for keeping linens fresh, et cetera. Mr. Blair laid his brick paths in running bond between diamond-shaped beds of flowers and herbs. He enclosed the whole in boxwood hedges. I thought this one of the prettiest of the small private gardens as I viewed it from over a white board fence, just outside one of the hedges.

Blair Garden

Behind the house stands a small orchard of peaches, apples, and sour cherries. Clipped American beeches surround the orchard. An assortment of fragrant herbs grows in a small kitchen dooryard garden.

John Custis Tenement

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John Custis, a prominent citizen and landowner, owned The Custis Tenement. This is the John Custis, by the way, whose daughter-in-law Martha Dandridge Custis, as a widow, married George Washington.

In 1725, Mr. Custis wrote of “a pretty little garden in which I take more satisfaction than in anything [else] in this world.” Personally, I echo his sentiment as I enjoy my own version of a colonial pleasure garden from my arbor bench, or if I climb onto the bathroom counter and look down from the little window, especially in April and May and June.


Colonial Williamsburg's Benjamin Powell House

Colonial Williamsburg today is an interactive, living-history museum with costumed docents and interpreters on site. Located on 300 acres  From hands-on activities to guided tours of original 18th-century buildings to an unmatched folk-art collection, there’s something for everyone at Colonial Williamsburg. Open for public tours daily from 8:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.



Herb Garden: Part One

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Usually by now, I have cleared out my herb garden of winter leaf mulch and readied the soil for adding annual herbs to the returning perennials such as sage and thyme, but not this year. The calendar says it’s mid-April, but the trees flap their hands and insist it’s still March as icy winds sweep down from the Cascade Mountains.

Nonetheless, saucer magnolias bloom all over town and tulips bob their red heads. My grape hyacinths have laid a blue carpet before the front gate. Violets spring up among heart-shaped leaves edging the front porch and the brick paths of the herb garden.

Herb gardens began some five thousand years ago among Chinese physicians. Over the centuries, herb cultivation spread to Egypt, Greece, and Italy. For medicinal purposes, Hippocrates cultivated herbaceous plants found in the Mediterranean area. Roman matriarchs designed and established kitchen gardens; Cicero’s wife comes to mind. In Medieval times, European monks and nuns concocted herbal remedies from plants in their walled gardens. In fact, these monastery gardens may have been the precursor of what the French later laid out in parterres — symmetrical beds within large rectangles, with paths running between the beds for easy access to the herbs. (More about these ancient gardens in a future post.

My own little herb garden began as a potager,  a kitchen garden similar to the photo shown at the top. It was laid out in a 20 ft. x 12 ft. rectangle extending from the patio on the east side of our house. After my husband rented a rototiller to dig up the ground, we both were astonished to find numerous chunks of construction debris that had been buried rather than hauled away when the neighborhood was developed back in the ’60s. The clay-like dirt had to be amended with loads of top soil mixed with peat moss and vermiculite. Only then could we purchase a variety of vegetables, both plants and seeds, and get them into the ground.

Many were the spring nights we rushed outside, after listening to late news dew frost reports, to cover tender plants with white paper “hot caps” we bought from hardware stores. Those nightly scrambles were worth the trouble. There was nothing sweeter than dining alfresco, right beside the little garden, eating fresh turnip greens growing at our feet! Brussels sprouts didn’t do so well, however; they turned moldy. Bibb lettuce was lovely, but carrots ended up short and stubby. Common green beans and tomatoes, on the other hand, thrived abundantly. I invited two little girls from next door to help me pick surplus beans and gave them half of the harvest to take home. In turn, their mother gave me a recipe for beans and tomatoes slow-cooked with a ham hock — another delightful supper outside by the garden.

After wearing out all my paper hot caps, I gave up growing vegetables and, instead, dedicated the plot to herbs. I designed a simple parterre and bordered it with a low hedge of English boxwood on three sides. Another neighbor told me about old bricks from demolished buildings downtown, so I collected a couple of dozen for a crosswalk to intersect the quadrants.

In the center, I placed a large clay pot planted first with a small nondescript rose bush (it didn’t survive the winter), then a bushy rosemary (it didn’t survive winter, either), finally a little bay tree (which did survive, three winters, before succumbing). I “settled” for a pedestal with a sundial, and it still marks the hours of thyme planted at its base.

To accent each quadrant, I added Old Roses. Two reverted to root stock but the other two, grown on their own roots, continue to thrive and bloom in May and June after nearly four decades.

Since herb gardens should feature a place to sit, we bought a simple concrete bench from one of the local garden centers, and placed it against the bare east wall of the house, overlooking the herb garden to the lawns and perennial beds beyond. How lovely to lean back against sun-warmed wood with my prayer book and a mug of tea before beginning my day!

A few years later, we moved the bench to another garden area and installed a white wood bench arbor in its place. Honeysuckle tangled with a climbing New Dawn (c. 1930) clamors over the top. Finches build their nests up there. English ivy covers the once bare walls.

Italian parsley, French sorrel, French thyme, blue sage, chives, and marjoram return every April or May. Rosemary in a pot comes out after a winter on the kitchen windowsill. I add annuals such as chervil, dill, and summer savory. Basil goes into the ground later, May or June, depending upon late frost warnings.  Even so, if a late chill doesn’t blacken the leaves, earwigs will chew them down to the stems.

By mid-summer, my herb garden resembles a rambling Cotswold cottage plot rather than a more formal French parterre, but I don’t mind. I enjoy the exuberance. Bushy lemon balm borders the brick walks after taking over the early spring violets. They emit a delightful lemony scent when my legs brush against their soft leaves. I love to snip a sprig and add, along with a thin slice of lemon or lime, to summer drinks from ginger ale to lemonade, white wine to even cold water on warm summer days and nights.

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Watch for future posts featuring Colonial American Herb Gardens, Medieval Herb Gardens, Persian Garden Design.




Another April Story

“Iowa City: Early April” ~ a poem by Robert Hass

This morning a cat—bright orange—pawing at the one patch of new grass in the sand-and tanbark-colored leaves.
And last night the sapphire of the raccoon’s eyes in the beam of the flashlight.
He was climbing a tree beside the house, trying to get onto the porch, I think, for a wad of oatmeal
Simmered in cider from the bottom of the pan we’d left out for the birds.
And earlier a burnished, somewhat dazed woodchuck, his coat gleaming with spring,
Loping toward his burrow in the roots of a tree among the drying winter’s litter
Of old leaves on the floor of the woods, when I went out to get the New York Times.
And male cardinals whistling back and forth—sireeep, sreeep, sreeep—
Sets of three sweet full notes, weaving into and out of each other like the triplet rhymes in medieval poetry,
And the higher, purer notes of the tufted titmice among them,
High in the trees where they were catching what they could of the early sun.
And a doe and two yearlings, picking their way along the worrying path they’d made through the gully, their coats the color of the forest floor,
Stopped just at the roots of the great chestnut where the woodchuck’s burrow was,
Froze, and the doe looked back over her shoulder at me for a long moment, and leapt forward,
Her young following, and bounded with that almost mincing precision in the landing of each hoof
Up the gully, over it, and out of sight. So that I remembered
Dreaming last night that a deer walked into the house while I was writing at the kitchen table,
Came in the glass door from the garden, looked at me with a stilled defiant terror, like a thing with no choices,
And, neck bobbing in that fragile-seeming, almost mechanical mix of arrest and liquid motion, came to the table
And snatched a slice of apple, and stood, and then quietened, and to my surprise did not leave again.
And those little captains, the chickadees, swift to the feeder and swift away.
And the squirrels with their smoke-plume tails trailing digging in the leaves to bury or find buried—
I’m told they don’t remember where they put things, that it’s an activity of incessant discovery—
Nuts, tree-fall proteins, whatever they forage from around the house of our leavings,
And the flameheaded woodpecker at the suet with his black-and-white ladderback elegant fierceness—
They take sunflower seeds and stash them in the rough ridges of the tree’s bark
Where the beaks of the smoke-and-steel blue nuthatches can’t quite get at them—
Though the nuthatches sometimes seem to get them as they con the trees methodically for spiders’ eggs or some other overwintering insect’s intricately packaged lump of futurity
Got from its body before the cold came on.
And the little bat in the kitchen lightwell—
When I climbed on a chair to remove the sheet of wimpled plastic and let it loose,
It flew straight into my face and I toppled to the floor, chair under me,
And it flared down the hall and did what seemed a frantic reconnoiter of the windowed, high-walled living room.
And lit on a brass firelog where it looked like a brown and ash
grey teenaged suede glove with Mephistophelean dreams,
And then, spurt of black sperm, up, out the window, and into the twilight woods.
All this life going on about my life, or living a life about all this life going on,
Being a creature, whatever my drama of the moment, at the edge of the raccoon’s world—
He froze in my flashlight beam and looked down, no affect, just looked,
The ringtail curled and flared to make him look bigger and not to be messed with—
I was thinking he couldn’t know how charming his comic-book robber’s mask was to me,
That his experience of his being and mine of his and his of mine were things entirely apart,
Though there were between us, probably, energies of shrewd and respectful tact, based on curiosity and fear—
I knew about his talons whatever he knew about me—
And as for my experience of myself, it comes and goes, I’m not sure it’s any one thing, as my experience of these creatures is not,
And I know I am often too far from it or too near, glad to be rid of it which is why it was such a happiness,
The bright orange of the cat, and the first pool of green grass-leaves in early April, and the birdsong—that orange and that green not colors you’d set next to one another in the human scheme.
And the crows’ calls, even before you open your eyes, at sunup.
“Iowa City: Early April” from Sun Under Wood: New Poems by Robert Hass, Copyright (c) 1996 by Robert Hass. Used by Permission of HarperCollins Publishers
Source: Sun Under Wood ( HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1996 )

Insouciant Soulangeana

April is a story waiting to be told — a baby robin pecking the inside of its delicate shell, a pea sprout uncurling its tendril to poke a finger through damp soil, or an insouciant magnolia soulangeana opening its saucer blossoms with no regard for the consequences of an Easter chill. A cold snap could turn those mauve and cream waxy petals overnight into brown velvet.

Saucer Magnolia (m. soulangeana)

In the 1820s, Etienne Soulange-Bodin cross bred Magnolia liliflora and Magnolia denudata to create the beautiful tree we now know today as the saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulageana).

Today, my hybrid saucer magnolia (m. soulangeana) is in its third week of peak bloom. Mauve and purple petals ending in creamy tips cover wide-spread bare branches. For once, this early blooming variety susceptible to sudden chills refused to turn brown during a recent cold snap. How much longer these lemon-scented blossoms will remain open like saucers before carpeting the lawn with shedding petals depends on how soon leaves begin to push their way out.

Back in late March, furry green buds cracked to reveal hints of magenta peeping out. In a matter of days, magenta/mauve/cream flowers emerged, looking for the world like tulips — hence, the sobriquet “tulip tree” — yet having nothing to do with the herbaceous bulbiferous geophyte genus. Once the blossoms opened wide like saucers, the tree had earned its non-de-plume “saucer magnolia” or, as sometimes known, “cup and saucer magnolia.”

One year, my young granddaughters visiting from Virginia held tea parties for their dollies under this tree as it dropped spent petals on their heads. This year is too chilly for sitting out there, so I must admire my magnolia from my library windows.

On the east side of my childhood home in northwestern Florida, we had a smaller version of m. soulangeana. I called it the “purple magnolia,” eschewing the Latin that Daddy insisted upon but I couldn’t pronounce. M. grandiflora and the well-behaved m. fuscata, on the other hand, rolled off my tongue without any effort, as well as m. virginiana which I called “the magnolia that came from Virginia.” It didn’t, of course, but from the swampy area in the woods behind our place, where a clear creek ran through the holler.

Sweetbay Magnolia (m. virginiana)

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The white blossoms of the Sweetbay (m. virginiana) are similar to but smaller than those of the Southern Magnolia (m. grandiflora). The first magnolia to be scientifically described under modern botanical rules, it’s known also as laurel, swamp magnolia, and white bay (because of the white underside of its leaves. I recall how its delicate scent arose and drifted through the pines, especially sweet after a rain spell. Breezes flipped up the leaves to reveal fluttering white undersides, lovely viewed from our west windows on summer afternoons.

Red bay, also, grew down in the holler. Its not a magnolia but a lovely evergreen bay tree in the Lauraceae family, growing in swampy areas of the coastal South.

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Southern Magnolia (m. grandiflora)

magnolias existed before the bees

This the one most people associate with the word “magnolia.” The classic Southern Magnolia (m. grandiflora) with large glossy leaves is so called because of its 12-inch waxy ivory petals. Originally from east and southeast Asia, the Southern Magnolia is native in American from coastal North Carolina down to Central Florida and as far west as East Texas; and it’s the state flower of both Louisiana and Mississippi. Maximum height reaches over a hundred feet! Dark green leaves are stiff and leathery and a bit scaly underneath. Its fragrance is an intoxicating lemon citronella. One ivory blossom floating in a glass bowl of water would scent the whole house — as it did the one time Daddy allowed it to be cut and brought into the inside. Years later, on one of my visits to Apalachicola, I found a magnolia blossom on a table in the narthex of old Trinity Episcopal Church. The ushers had to leave the front doors open during the Eucharist because the fragrance was so heady.

Daddy always insisted that garden flowers, as well as wild flowers in the woods, should remain in their natural habitat. He had a point, I’m sure, but I rather agree with the late Elizabeth Lawrence, a Southern writer and columnist from Raleigh, North Carolina. She wrote that “learning to know the native plants, and bringing them into cultivation, is a more practical way of conservation than making laws to leave them untouched” (A Southern Garden, 70). That’s how we came to have a  Sweet Bay magnolia on our place. Daddy carefully dug up a tender sapling with as much of its rich swampy soil as could be retained in a burlap sack, transplanted it to the edge of our own pine copse, and nurtured it for decades alongside the grand Southern Magnolia. Today that would incur a hefty fine from the Forestry Service folks, I’m sure.

Fuscata (m. fuscata, m. fig)

green magnolia

As if these specimens were not enough, Daddy also cultivated a m. fuscata or “banana shrub” so-called because of its ripe banana-like fragrance and compact form. My sister Alice and I used to gather the creamy yellow buds and pretend they were the dolls’ bananas. Once I stuffed the pockets of my summer shorts with them and forgot all about them. Days later, Mother discovered the rotten mess when she did the laundry. Boy, did I get a licking.

Because the fuscata magnolia grows best in filtered light, Daddy planted our one bush near the antebellum live oaks where masses of azaleas bloomed in late March and into April. Its leaves are flossy and dark on top, fuzzy and brownish underneath.

Star Magnolia (m. stellata)

significance of magnolia in china

In the Pacific Northwest where I now live, the white-blossomed Star Magnolia (m. stellata), is a common sight in early spring gardens. Native to China, they are the earliest to bloom, weeks ahead of other spring flowering shrubbery and trees.

Ancient Genus Magnolias

These are only five of over hundreds of flowering plant species in the subfamily Mangolioideae. In 1703, French botanist Charles Plumier described a certain flowering tree from Martinique and gave it the genus name of Magnolia in honor of Pierre Magnol, a fellow botanist. Later, Swedish botanist Carol Linnaeus applied the name magnolia grandiflora

Long before the 1600s,  however, the Chinese began naming this ancient genus. They considered the magnolia to be the perfect symbol of womanly beauty and gentleness.

Magnolias are considered to be one of the first flowering plants to evolve on Earth before bees and, thus, pollinated by beetles. Ancient magnolias are recognizable still today as magnolias. Consequently, magnolia means stability and grace, insouciant or not.


Elizabeth Lawrence, A Southern Garden, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1942

Dan Cooper, “Anything but Magnolia,” The Frustrated Gardener, Blog at, April 8, 2018




Consider the Lilies

When my sister and I were children, we used to tramp across the lawns of our country estate, bellowing the old Sunday School adage about Easter coming on the “first Sunday after the first full moon after the Ides of March.” My grandmother’s Easter lilies, however, bloomed either early or late but always around Easter, never mind the actual calendar date.

She cultivated them under her front window box, along with Ginger lilies just around the northeast corner of her little cottage across the courtyard from the main house. Both cultivars grew taller than I, especially when I was a toddler. I would tip my head under the “trumpets” and look for their faces hidden in the depths, but they had none. Only pansies had faces, and those tilted up to the sun, not bend their necks like a swan. I’d sniff each lily’s pungent perfume, then back away and sneeze as yellow dust ticked the tip of my nose.

Today, it’s the middle of March when Easter lilies grown commercially in pots appear in local garden centers. The stalks are much shorter, only 12 to 18 inches tall, just right for house plants as well as for decorating churches and cathedrals. I love to see them banked in front of the altar at Easter, and a stalk bending with lilies fastened onto processional crosses leading the choir and clergy into the sanctuary. The trumpet blooms seem to shout “Alleluia!” along with peals of organ pipes and hymns of triumph sung by all the people.

Several ancient garden legends arose to explain the lily’s origin as a religious symbol. One is that lilies sprang from the ground where Eve’s tears of remorse fell as she was expelled from the Garden of Eden. The flowers, however, were yellow until Mary, the “New Eve,” picked them for a bouquet. That story is similar to the Snowdrop legend I wrote about previously, where they sprouted from handfuls of snowflakes that the Avenging Angel scattered on the ground.

The Ancients admired the white lily as a flower of purity, as well as virtue and innocence. Venerable Bede (an English monk in Nor’thumbria, c. 670-730) compared the Blessed Virgin Mary to a white lily. White petals symbolized her pure virginal body, he wrote, and the golden anthers extending from the lily’s throat represented the radiance of her soul.

Thus, the Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum, represents the Annunciation, the announcement of Archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). Both Medieval and, especially, Renaissance art depict a flower pot or urn planted with this lily, placed between the two principals, Gabriel standing before Mary kneeling at prayer. In some versions, Gabriel himself holds a lily stalk. Lilium candidum is native to the Balkans and Middle East but naturalized in other parts of Europe, including France, Italy, and Ukraine, and in North Africa, the Canary Islands, and Mexico.

According to another legend, white lilies were discovered in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, having sprouted where drops of His blood dropped onto the ground where He had been praying the night before He died.

Not until the early 1900s, however, was the white lily associated with the Paschal season (fr. Pesach/Passover, the corresponding time of Christ’s passion and resurrection). First churches, then homes, were decorated with pungent Easter lilies and incorporated into religious art. The plant itself is an appropriate symbol of Resurrection:

  1. The seemingly lifeless bulb buried in cold earth represents the tomb of Jesus’s dead body.
  2. New life springing from earth is released, representing Christ rising from the dead.
  3. Glorious trumpet flower with golden throat symbolizes the risen Christ in all His glory.
  4. White, of course, is purity of Christ conceived without sin, and gold is His kingship.
  5. And the trumpet shape signifies Gabriel’s trumpet call to rebirth.

No wonder we fill our worship spaces at Easter with this lovely lily. Sometimes, in years that lilies are scarce, they are combined with other early spring florals such as azaleas and perhaps a few branches of dogwood in bloom in the Deep South, or tulips and daffodils and saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana) farther north, where I live now.

What we Americans know as the Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum, is a plant native to the islands of southern Japan. English traders in the Far East brought back bulbs first to England in 1777, then to Bermuda where a later virus wiped out what had become a large-scale production. Following World War I, an American soldier packed a suitcase full of lily bulbs in Japan and carried it home to Oregon. I rather doubt he could get away with “smuggling” plant material past the scrutiny of today’s border guards!

At any rate, he gave the bulbs to buddies of his who were engaged in horticulture. They developed a thriving commercial bulb industry along the Oregon-California border, earning the area the title of “Easter Capital of the World.” Think about that the next time you purchase a pot or two of Easter lilies from your local Safeway or Publix. Depending upon where you live, those lilies have traveled a long way to get to your house.

When the petals of your lily wither and fall off, don’t toss out the pot! Lilies are bulbs and, therefore, are perennial. Instead, move the pot outside and wait until the stalk turns brown, then replant the bulb and any bulblets into a sunny area of your garden. New stalks will come up sometime in the early fall. Usually, mine will rebloom the following September after a year of dormancy. In the South, of course, they come up faithfully every spring, about the time of Easter, just as my darling grandmother’s did.


Woodland Violets

Holy Thursday

Think purple

Think wild violets

When we first moved to central Washington state, I was blessed one day to discover a now defunct garden center with a Japanese name, Pagoda. How I grew to love that place! It was laid out like an old-fashioned country garden with paths leading from the front gate — yes, it had an actual front gate made of unpainted wood turned grey with the years — past sheds to tall ornamental trees in the “back forty.” Each shed housed its own specialty, whether annuals or perennials. One day I found flats of violets! Whether gathered from woodlands in the Cascade foothills, hybridized, or sown from seed, I didn’t know and I didn’t ask. I simply bought a flat and took it home.


I tucked my violet plants into a front dooryard bed. Through the decades they’ve multiplied to the point that I’ve been able to transplant them to various other beds, including the herb garden, and shared with neighbors and friends. I even sent bedding plants to my daughter in the Midwest and my son on the Pacific coast. That’s what old-fashioned gardeners have always done.

Our native American woodland violets are indigenous to temperate regions of the country, dying back in late summer heat only to surprise and delight us when they return the following spring, even after harsh winters in the Midwest. First to appear are their heart-shaped leaves in thick bunches spread through underground rhizomes. Purple blue flowers begin to uncurl on slender stems in late winter or early spring. They require little care once established in garden beds rich in organic matter, other than watering when the green leaves wilt in summer heat.

Once the leaves have dried out and turned pale brown, it’s time to cut them back to the ground. Violets do have a tendency toward invasiveness in lawns as well as garden beds. So much the better! Simply dig and divide some rhizomes if you want to propagate or share with your neighbors. I leave the ones that pop up in my lawn because, come early spring, they’re quite charming, scattered about for passerby to enjoy. The yard man will mow them down soon enough.

Violets sometimes perform well in clay pots or urns on the patio, or in wood window boxes. I have a clay planter on my back step, filled with rhizomes that sprout every spring, without fail. All I do is keep the planter watered. Violets are not, however, viable as houseplants other than, say, in an Easter bowl of mixed early spring bulbs such as little jonquils, narcissus, grape hyacinth, with perhaps a bit of trailing ivy for added leaf texture similar to the violet’s heart-shaped leaves.

True violets have been cultivated at least since 500 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) for flavoring and medicinal purposes. The flowers were only incidental, the same as with herbs. Bedding violets are hybrids of Viola cornuta. Our wild violets descend from the wild “sweet violets” of Europe (Viola ordorata). 

Kissing cousins to violets and pansies are the dainty Johnny-jump-ups. They pop up seemingly everywhere, even in garden nursery pots, especially pansies. I think they’re cute and would look charming in a miniature vase on a dolls house table. The plant is a cross between Viola luea and Viola tricolor –purple/lavender/yellow — but much more proliferate and more heat tolerant. 


All these various cousins with their Latin names are fascinating to study. However, since I am not a botanist, I’d rather just enjoy them in my garden. Did you know that they are among the rare edible flowers, along with squash blossoms. Add them to salads, decorate a frosted birthday cake, freeze in ice cubes for summer lemonade. 

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Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns! One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns! If you have no daughters, give them to your sons, One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

~ Old English Nursery Rhyme

Every year, my maternal grandmother used to bake hot cross buns to break the all-day fast on Good Friday. Her yeast buns were studded with raisins, sometimes bits of candied fruit left over from Christmas cakes, and marked on top with a cross cut into the dough before baking.

Late on Good Friday afternoon, Mama would set her tea table with white linen cutwork and a small vase filled with early purple violets from her garden, a pot of hot tea, and a green Depression-era glass platter of the still warm buns. They’re as much a part of my Southern childhood as dyed eggs hidden in the garden on Easter morning. Only recently, however, did I learn the history behind the traditional hot cross bun.


Like most Southern food traditions, the crossed bun as we know it originated in 14th century England. A certain Benedictine monk at Saint Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire developed a recipe for what came to be called Alban Buns, baked with a cross cut into the top, and distributed hot to the neighboring poor on Good Friday. He told them that the bread dough symbolized the bread of Holy Communion, the cross mark symbolized Jesus’s crucifixion on Calvary, and the cinnamon and nutmeg in the dough represented Jesus’s embalming oils and spices for burial.

Image may contain: foodCourtesy Zabouca Breads

Baking bread marked with a cross actually stems from pagan practice. Ancient Greeks and Romans baked festive wheat cakes with some sort of cross mark on the top to represent the rebirth of the world after winter. A cross cut into the top simply divided the bun into four quarters, representing the four phases of the moon in its monthly cycle, as well as the four seasons of the year. Besides, I suspect, the loaves were much easier to break into serving sections when already partially cut.

Roman conquerors of Britain obviously brought with them this custom of crossed cakes for their spring festivals, and the Saxons adopted it as part of their own pagan practices. Christians later adapted the crossed bun as a symbol of the Cross of Christ. Not until the reign of Elizabeth I of England in the late 16th century, however, was the cross bun linked specifically to Christian cultural celebrations with religious connotations on Good Friday and at burials.

By the 18th century, what we know as the traditional Good Friday Hot Cross Bun was available throughout England—but only on Good Friday—and all day long by street sellers crying, “One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross buns!” In the Life Of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (published 1791), in fact, Boswell writes:

“On the 9th of April [1773], being Good Friday, I breakfast’d with him on tea and cross-buns … On April 18 [1783], (being Good-Friday) I found him at breakfast, in his usual manner upon that day, drinking tea without milk, and eating a cross bun to prevent faintness.”

Were they hot or cold, these buns? Boswell doesn’t say.

Presumably, English colonists brought along this Good Friday custom to the Virginia and New England settlements. Yet, I found no references in my research beyond the fact that American colonists had no wheat from which to make the breads they were accustomed to in Britain. Before the 18th century, at least, they had to content themselves with corn meal breads and muffins, still popular today.

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Modern American grocery stores and commercial bakeries turn out a mass-produced version of hot cross buns with artificial flavoring, shaped with a rounded top crust shiny with brushed egg white, decorated with a cross of white icing—not at all appropriate to the solemnity of Good Friday, in my mind. And they taste rather dry after sitting on the shelves from February through Easter. I much prefer to bake my own, following my grandmother’s example


Traditional Hot Cross Buns

Makes 30 buns

2 cups scalded milk

1 cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

2 cakes or envelopes of yeast dissolved in 1/3 cup warm water

2 large eggs

8 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups currents or golden raisins

1/2 cup candied fruits, chopped and dusted lighted with flour

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or nutmeg


Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter cookie sheets.

Pour the scalded milk over the butter and sugar. Stir to dissolve the butter and sugar. Let cool.

Add the dissolved yeast and the eggs. Blend well.

Add the flour and salt gradually and blend.

Add the floured fruits and the spice(s) to the dough and knead in thoroughly.

Place in a buttered bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in a warm place.

Shape dough into 30 balls and place on buttered cookie sheets.

Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.

Carefully press a knife into each ball to shape a cross.

Let rest for a bit.

Bake in a preheated 375F oven for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350F and continue baking about 10-15 minutes longer, until buns are lightly browned and done. (Balls will flatten into buns with baking.) Let cool on wire racks.


Irish Soda Buns

Makes 10 buns

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cups whole wheat flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/4 baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted softened butter cut into small pieces

1/2 cup golden raisins

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons buttermilk


Preheat oven to 375 F.

In a large bowl, whisk flours, sugar, baking soda, salt.

Cut in butter pieces until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Stir in raisins and caraway seeds.

Pour buttermilk over the top and stir with a fork until mixture holds together, adding more buttermilk as necessary.

Transfer dough to floured surface and knead about 20 times until smooth.

Shape into 10 balls and place into baking pan.

Cut a cross into top of each ball.

Bake 25 minutes until golden brown. Let cool on wire rack.


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Why Is Palm Sunday Called Palm Sunday?

 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter Zion! Shout, O Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 

~ Zechariah 9:9

The next day the great crowd that had come for the [Passover] heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” 

~ John 12:13

In ancient times, the Jews waved palm branches to welcome their king in victory and peace while reciting Psalm 118, especially the cry “Hosanna!” followed by verses 26-26, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”


Palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationalism, an expression of the people’s desire for political freedom. Thus, the palm, or lulavim, became a symbol of freedom placed on Jewish coins from the time of King David until the Babylonian Exile. When the Temple was rebuilt, artisans carved palms and open-faced flowers with cherubim, and over-laid the carvings with gold.

Five hundred years later when Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, people expected an earthly king  in an impending military victory over the Romans. They demonstrated their surrender to His authority by taking off their cloaks and laying them on the ground before Him.  Their cry of “Hosanna” meant, “Please save us! Give us freedom!” It became a slogan of the ultra-nationalistic Zealots, but they completely misinterpreted Jesus’s true heavenly kingship.

The ancients regarded this particular palm as particularly characteristic of Palestine because of its abundance. According to my Google searches, ancient Greeks and Romans called the whole land of Palestine “ the land of palms,” or Phoenicia. The finest specimens grew at Jericho (Deuteronomy 34:3) and along the banks of the Jordan. Sadly, today palm trees have become quite rare in the Levant.

The palm tree itself includes many botanical species, but only the date palm — Phoenix dactylifer of Linnaeus — is pertinent to the biblical Palm Sunday event. It is a slender tree reaching forty to fifty feet, sometimes more. Its branches sprout near the top and appear almost feathery, made of equally-spaced green fronds along opposite sides of an axis extending six to twelve feet bending and swaying in the breeze.


Date palms today grow in the Middle East as well as Morocco, Pakistan, and India — as well as in California to where Spanish missionaries brought them in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These varieties reach upward of seventy-five feet! Dates are the dark, sweet fruit that many use in desserts from holiday fruitcakes to tea breads, often with nuts and raisins. Sephardic recipes for the Passover charoset, for example, is based on dates chopped with pine nuts, combined with a sweet wine into a paste, to symbolize the mortar that Hebrew slaves in Egypt prepared for building the pyramids.


This coming Sunday, the 26th of March, is Palm Sunday. It opens Holy Week, the most solemn liturgical season of the church year. Christians worldwide will process into their churches and cathedrals while waving long green and white palm fronds and singing “Hosanna!” They will recall the first such procession in honor of the Messiah soon to suffer His death, only to rise again on the third day in glorious triumph. And I, too, will be one among them.


 The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree . . . 

They will still bear fruit in their old age; they will stay fresh and green. 

~ Psalm 92:12, 14
















Grape Hyacinths

Yesterday I spotted my first tiny muscari, the common purple grape hyacinth I had planted decades ago as an edging along my front entrance garden bed. It’s a bit early, but I don’t mind, especially as the crocuses begin to fade and the yellow tulips have yet to send up stalks from their nests of still curled leaves.

The grape hyacinth resembles clusters of tiny grapes, usually in shades of blue or purple, sometimes white, depending upon their particular variety. Its genus name Muscari derives from the Greek word for musk, a perfume fixative used for its persistently heavy scent.


As I play with this Greek derivative, I discover Muscadine (c. 1785), a Southern grape with small clusters that smell like musk. Muscadet (c. 1899) is a dry white wine from France’s Loire Valley. Muscat (c. 1548) is any of several cultivated grapes used for making wines and raisins. Muscat Canelli, in fact, is one of my favorite white wines that’s become scarce in grocery stores.  And Muscatel, from Old French muscadel and Middle English muskadell, is both a sweet fortified wine and a variety of raisin. 

Enough word play and on to the little grape-like bulb of early spring. Although there are countless varieties of the grape hyacinth, I believe mine is the Muscari armeniacum, among the more common found in home gardens. They tend to spread and, if allowed free reign, will naturalize in the lawn. I usually dig up those and transplant back along the edging. Once the tulips brighten the garden bed, the yellows and blues create a stunning vista from the street view. Walkers often stop to admire the scene. 

But the most stunning scene I once viewed was a river of purple grape hyacinths weaving between masses of red tulips in a spring woodland. Goes to show that Mother Nature mixes her hues despite my mother’s advice never to wear red with purple!

As with most spring blooming bulbs, plant grape hyacinths in autumn, four inches apart and three inches deep where the soil drains well.
After blooming has finished for the season leave the foliage in place. Late in the spring the leaves will yellow and die back as the plant slips into dormancy. The foliage may be removed at this point. Water as needed during active growth periods.
If the planting area becomes overcrowded, it’s easy to propagate simply by digging them up and replanting in late summer when the plants are dormant.















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