Thursday, March 24, 2011

Garden History 101

There may not be a Class 101 in garden history. Should you be interested in going back that far, the classes would be called by other names ending in “ology”.

For a look back one or two-hundred years, there are still old garden books, reproductions of old garden books and new books talking about old gardens. Count me in on the fun I can have with them all.

Old garden books detail how people lived by showing what they needed from natural resources. They show emerging discoveries in medicine/chemistry, nutrition, machinery, family and society’s constraints and advances.

Gardening is a specific category in history that explains a broader picture.

One of my favorite old books is “Gerard’s Herbal – Historie of Plants” written by John Gerard. Born in 1545, Gerard was an herbalist – barber – physician. Today he would be known as a pharmacist.

His description of wildflowers and garden plants and their uses is a trip back into that era. To understand why so many plants’ virtues are featured in the treatment of lung problems is to realize pneumonia, tuberculosis, and whooping cough (and others) were rampant and killed.

A look at my “Instructions for Victory Gardens” is a window upon the hard times suffered during the Depression and war.

The botanical garden sketches in “The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” (first published in 1906) is a showcase of the “refined” pastimes of a woman of that era.

“A Guide to the Wild Flowers East of the Mississippi and North of Virginia” published in 1928 by Norman Taylor, shows a base knowledge that continues to be used in today’s plant breeding.

My “Cherokee Cooklore” book (from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian) helps to understand the use of native plants and the realization how so much of their knowledge was introduced into the early settlers’ food and gardens.

There are new books such as “Old Time Gardens” by Alice Morse Earle. A chat rather than instruction, it has history and beautiful old black and white photos to demonstrate both lavish and simple gardens. It’s a reminder: What’s new is actually old and what’s old is new again.

I’ve been fortunate my family includes garden-themed books, cookbooks & historical art books for Christmas or birthdays. Yes, I can simply look at a Monet and think spring.

I can spend hours scouting used and new book stores. Did you realize most second hand stores sell their books for almost nothing? If you don’t need a book for the long term, the local library is an excellent place for all things garden. Kindle owners may be a bit disappointed reading garden books on line since photos may not transmit well.

My version of an old song goes, “Read new garden books but keep the old – one is silver and the other gold.”

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