NOTE: I recently posted an all-points bulletin asking people to send me pictures of their favorite gardens — theirs or someone else’s. I get tired of my own voice, so will periodically feature these garden or gardenish images (with a bit of descriptive narrative) as they are sent to me.
Clary Sage (Salvia Sclarea) has reached epic proportions in my garden this year. It’s always inclined to grow large, but this season, with all the rain, the plants are gigantic. The size only adds to their elegance.
The clary is blooming now. Sclarea, meaning clear, describes how the plant has been used for centuries as an eye wash. The decoction of the seeds is mucilanginous, so the old herbals recommend it to cleanse foreign matter from the eyes, improve vision and relieve irritation. If you haven’t got time to wait for a decoction, the herbalists recommended you simply put a seed into your eye to remove whatever debris was there. (Don’t try this at home.)
In 16th-century Germany, wine merchants infused clary with elder flowers and added the liquid to Rhine wine, then called it after another common name for clary, muscatel sage. It made the wine more potent and substituted for hops in beer.
Fresh or dried leaves from Clary Sage can be used instead of garden sage in cooking or dried and drunk as a tea. It has a balsam-like fragrance that some say goes well with lavender.
Add an infusion of clary to the bath or use it as an astringent to freshen the skin.
Maybe best of all, the clary sage is encouraging the bees and there are more now in the garden and more, I hope, to come.
Salvia verbenaca, aka Wild Clary or Wild Sage, is not as pretty, rougher, and is said to be found in Europe along ancient Roman roads, where soldiers dropped the seeds as they marched.
My dear friend Nan and I were recently discussing wristwatches, the demise of butterflies and, of course, time. Salvador Dali’s painting of melting clocks, The Persistence of Memory, came to mind and I thought how some of the clocks resemble butterflies and all the obvious implications of that.
I don’t care much for Dali — unlike most of the surrealists, he does not seem to have been much of a thinker — and that painting is so dulled by cliche, then later strangled by commercial kitsch, I’ve never found it compelling, so I was completely surprised it even popped into my head. I haven’t suddenly grown fond of it, but its appearance, associated with endangered butterflies — and our perilous environment — made it a little more solid, more grounded, and strangely, more interesting. (Uh oh…I may just have piled another layer of banality onto it…)
Meanwhile, I’ve seen only three butterflies in my garden and veryveryVERY few bees.
NOTE: I recently posted an all-points bulletin, asking people to send me pictures of their favorite gardens — theirs or someone else’s. I get tired of my own voice, so will periodically feature these garden or gardenish images (with a bit of descriptive narrative) as are they are sent to me.
“Above is an overhead-view photo of a little piece of my vegetable garden with young broccoli/cauliflower plants.
“We are at 8,000 feet. So I can grow lettuces and kale, peas and carrots, potatoes, zucchini, beets.
“I start varieties of brassica inside in April, transfer them gently, and sometime in the growing season they may get eaten by some variety of rodent. This year gophers have found their way in. A few years ago I dug up each of the beds and put doubled chicken wire underneath at about 2 feet to prevent the moles from eating the plants from the bottom.
“This year the first round of plants were immediately consumed from the top. So it’s been warfare, and I am afraid I have been unkind to my fellow sentient beings. When their holes are far enough away from the garden, I pee in them, which takes some skill and aim. Inside the garden I made a small fortress, incorporating layers of chicken wire, large pan lids and anything else that was lying around and seemed like it might act as a deterent to rodents. So, turns out, in the place meant to inspire peacefulness and cultivation, I have become determined to push things away and if those things were dead, fine.
“Here’s a photo of the whole garden, which [in late June] I am sure will look very young to you. Bit by bit, it will grow and yield, eventually. It will.”
My friend Andrew sent me a packet of seeds he’d picked up at the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show in London. It was a “woodland” mix (for “dappled shade” – just what I’m after to plant in a new bed in fall). I recognized most of the plants in the packet – buttercup, columbine, two sorts of foxglove, pasque flower, betony and prunella (known also as “self-heal” and renowned for its abilities to, among other things, clear up herpes).
The one I’d never heard of is Creeping Crosswort (Phuopsis Crucianella stylosa).
Apparently, Creeping Crosswort is not often encountered in gardens because it smells like skunk (not to be mistaken for marijuana, which is sometimes called skunkweed and can have a similar fragrance). But it also loves hot dry areas with lousy soil and is useful as a groundcover on slopes. Aside from that, I can find no references to it as a healing herb or any history of its use. This is odd, since the suffix wort (pronounced wert) – from the Old English wyrt or root — seems to be most common in the names used as food or medicine (for example, butterwort and woundwort).
I asked my husband what creeping crosswort might have been used for. My husband is not a botanist, so this is the answer he gave me:
The Summer Solstice is always overshadowed for me by my mother’s death.
The night before she died, I attended a performance by Liz Lerman at the Colorado Dance Festival. Lerman was working with old people and I fancied I saw my grandmother — who’d passed many years before– on stage, looking perplexed as always.
Midway through the performance, I began to feel dizzy. At intermission, I tried standing and could not. There was a party afterward, but I could only go home. I fell right to sleep. In the morning, my son, who was in school near my mother’s home, called to say she had died. In a fire. My dizzy spells were taking place as she was dying, breathing the smoke that made her faint and finally filled her lungs and choked her life away.
This is a day for festivities, when most of the Northern Hemisphere celebrates the Solstice with great revelry. Fitting, maybe, that my mother would perish in fire, on this day, while bonfires are lit to mark the onset of summer, the longest day of the year. The word bonfire, comes from bonefire, when it was bones that were burned.
Tonight I’ll take a thoroughly tattered set of Tibetan prayer flags down from my porch and finish off the prayers — amen them, so to speak — by burning the rags in a cauldron in the garden (near the pond, just in case…).
The chrysanthemum is the Japanese flower of death. In China, carnations. For the ancient Greeks, the death flower was most often poppies, just as the Flanders poppy is a memorial for the war dead. As I surveyed the wreckage all around my mother’s house, the piles of ash and debris shoved out the doors and windows by the firefighters, I came across large scraps of a Japanese silk screen she’d treasured. On it were painted bright orange poppies, vivid as flames, dulled by a coating of wet ash. I framed the scrap and it hangs where I can greet it every morning.
When they dined, ancient Romans draped their guests with rose garlands, washed in rosewater, ate rose puddings and drank rose wine. When privacy was desired, Romans hung a rose to indicate confidentiality or bribed one another into silence with a bouquet of roses, thus leading to the “sub rosa,””under the rose.” Romans showered rose petals on important people and religious statues, notably those of the Kybele, Phyrigian mother of the gods whose statue was honored with a “snow of roses.” Her orgiastic cult dominated the central and north-western districts of Asia Minor, and was introduced into Greece via the island of Samothrake and the Boiotian town of Thebes.
Typically — and not unlike our own faddish immoderations — the Romans overdosed on a good thing. The rose, worn by priestsses of Venus, came to symbolize degeneracy and debauchery to the early Christians, who disdained it until the Middle Ages when it underwent another transformation as a symbol of the purity of the Virgin Mary. (The rose is an emblem of goodness and virtue as seen for example in the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, when Beauty’s hapless father picks a rose for her from a stranger’s garden, but must then exchange his daughter for the flower in order to save his own life. The characters of rose and maiden are alike.
The rose wheel is a kind of Christian mandala, as the rosary is the rose wheel of Mary. The role of roses in the West parallels that of the lotus in the East as an emblem of nascent life. Roses are said to have been made red with the blood of Christ, just as numerous other heroes gave theirs to generate flowers: Adonis of the anemone, Enymion of the bluebell, Attis of the violets, Hyacinthus.
In the Dark Ages, as Christianity gained speed, flowers in a church were considered by zealous laymen to be a pagan custom. Monks, however, decorated altars with bouquets and on Holy Days priests wore chaplets and wreaths, particulary of roses.
King Midas was said to have grown a sixty-petaled rugosa, doubtless befcore the curse of his touch turned everything, even his daughter, to gold. Rugosas might well be gold. They are salwart and came first to England two hundred years ago from Japan, where they had been cultivated for 1,000 years. They are named for their crinkled leaves “rugose,” from the Latin ruga, meaning wrinkled.
At last I’ve spied the first butterfly in my garden. They are late in coming this year, maybe because of the rain and chill. Nevertheless, each year, despite my enticements – with asters, monarda, cosmos, rabbit brush, verbena, thistles, lilacs, sunflowers, sweet peas, zinnia, and more — there are fewer and fewer. Like bees, butterflies are in serious danger from pesticides, herbicides, agribusiness, concrete, and so much else that modern civilization has to offer.
This one was a swallowtail, likely feeding on the Jupiter’s beard. I caught a quick glance as it sped over the woodbine fence. Swallowtails (Papilionoidea) – particularly the Western Tiger (papilo rutulus), the Short-tail (papilo indra) and the Two-tailed (papilo multicaudat) – seem to be the most common, at least in my yard. Monarchs, which once visited in modest abundance, now seem to be gone…but I continue to keep my eye out and plant dill especially for them.
Worldwide, butterflies were believed to be a manifestation of the human soul. Early Greeks portrayed the soul as a tiny person with butterfly wings, but later as an actual butterfly. The goddess Psyche — wife of Eros, who had the wings of a bird — was the deification of the human soul and her name, the ancient Greek for “butterfly,” means “soul,” “spirit,” “breath,” or “life.” The animating force, similar to the Chinese ch’I or qi.
Some believe the butterfly is the soul returned to Earth after death. The Finno-Ugric people believe the soul leaves the body during sleep in the form of a butterfly and this accounts for dreams. Angels in medieval paintings often have butterfly rather than bird wings.
Butterflies were (and still are here and there) worshipped as gods and Creators or symbols of fertility. Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, protector of mothers, childbirth and crafts such as weaving and embroidery, was occasionally depicted as a butterfly.
In Samoa, anyone who caught a butterfly would be struck dead. To Magyars, capturing the first butterfly of the season meant good luck. In Germany, fortune came if a butterfly flew up your coat sleeve. In Devon the first butterfly was to be killed, while in Essex, its head was to be bitten off. However, in other parts of England, it was considered profoundly ill-fated to kill them (maybe because they were fairies in disguise, and even if they did steal the butter and milk, they were only to be driven away, not murdered).
There are those who say that if the first sighting is of a yellow butterfly – like the swallowtail in my garden – it is an omen of sunny weather and a birth.