Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985)
Gardener, author, correspondent, newspaper columnist
Miss Lawrence, a famed gardener and writer who spent her career in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina, was born this date in 1904. Her memory- and Charlotte home- is preserved in the Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary.
Even thirty years after he death, those who know Miss Lawrence’s books- I keep A Southern Garden- at the ready, year ‘round- or remember her Charlotte Observer columns, think of her as a friend, a delightful correspondent, and a companion in the yard. Here’s an appreciation of Elizabeth Lawrence I wrote in the series, “A Gardener’s Diary,” at the blog Waldo at Home, April 12, 2015, during a fit of hay fever:
I was in a right funk, honking into a handkerchief on the front steps, when my neighbor, Mildred, ambled over.
"Did you plant that azalea?" she asked.
I had no idea what she was talking about, and not just because my ears were started to plug up from the storm surge of mucilage rising past my eyeballs.
"There," she said, and pointed. I could see it across the street this morning. I don't remember there being one there."
Mildred would know. She has been watching out the front windows for thirty-four years. If it's knowable about this neighborhood, she knows it.
I turned to where she was pointing. Overnight, a spindly overshadowed azalea I'd freed from adjoining boxwoods and more or less forgotten, so unpromising were its spavined limbs and shaded location, had turned into a beauty:
Well, that was cheering. I remembered I needed to tell Mildred I'd heard from one of this blog's readers, the self-styled "Old Jane in NC", about the yellow-flowered bush in Mildred's yard. I noted the other day that neither of us could remember what it is:
Jill commented, "I think the yellow blooming shrub is Kerria. Here in the mountains just north of Asheville, we are probably about 10 days behind you on dogwood, creeping phlox, etc. Again, thanks for the pretty pictures and pleasant conversation."
I looked up the suggestion. Jill is correct! What's more, the kerria japonica, or Japanese rose, is famed in music:
Besides "Japanese Rose," other common names for kerria japonica pick up on the fact that it is a member of the rose family. The common name, "Easter Rose" alludes to its early blooming period (during Easter, in some regions). The flowers' color accounts for the common name, "Yellow Rose of Texas" (with an assist from the song by the same name). Meanwhile, others commonly refer to it simply as "Kerria rose" or "Japanese kerria."
Others call it the Chinese rose; it is found there as well as in Japan and Korea. The name may also be an association with William Kerr, a Scots gardener discovered worked at Kew by Sir Joseph Banks early in the 19th century. Banks plucked Kerr up and sent him to China in 1804, Kerr became the western world's first plant collector, shipping home 238 varieties of plants over eight years, including the nandina, euonymus, begonia, and the rosa banksiae, wisely named for his patron's wife. The kerria japonica cultivar bears Kerr's.
All of which, after I retreated indoors in search of more handkerchiefs, prompted me to pull down Elizabeth Lawrence's last book, Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins (Allen, Lacy, ed, Duke University Press, 1987). Lawrence (1904-85) edited The Charlotte Observer's weekly gardening column from 1957 to 1971, and wrote a number of books beloved of gardeners, especially in the Carolinas.
I read Miss Lawrence's columns as a boy; her style was always entertaining and- as I read more of her over the years- it was easy to see how she was almost equally famous in gardening circles as a letter-writer (her collected correspondence with Katherine White, The New Yorker's gardening correspondent,and wife of E.B., is fascinating; they got on much better by mail than in person). Eudora Welty put her on the mailing list for The Mississippi Market Bulletin, one of a number of state publications in which farm people traded plants. Her correspondence with people throughout the South through those publications, was the inspiration for Gardening for Love, which documents the now-largely-lost world of plant trading:
Reading the market bulletins is like walking through a country garden with sun on the flowers, in their very names: princess feather, four-o-clock, love-in-a-mist, bachelor's buttons, Joseph's coat, touch-me-not, kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate, ladyfingers, redbird bush, rainbow fairy, pink sunburst. Sometimes the names have a darker tone: devil's shoestring; devil's-nip, devil's-walking-stick, graveyard moss, graveyard vine, and a good many others with demonic or funereal names.
Charlotte, North Carolina's Touch-Me-Not Lane, part of the heritage of gardening.
Many of these ring bells for me, from half a century ago: visits to family and friends often meant coming home with cuttings, or sprigs offered to hosts, and transplants from old home to new were part of moving- they were from the family old homestead, or some important connection (for years as a teen, I grew strawberries from starters my maternal grandmother gave me). And, as Miss Lawrence notes, the names were an infinite source of delight- and some confusion:
Love-entangled is an old name for nigella or love-in-a-mist, but as often happens when old names linger, the farm women have transferred it to another plant. Love-tangle vine is their name for Kenilworth ivy, an old favorite for hanging baskets. Kenilworth ivy, incidentally, I have also seen advertised as Kettleworth ivy. It often happens that as plants pass from the hands of one gardener to another, their names change in odd ways, through oral transmission. Some of these alterations in spelling when they are written down are: Eli Agnes for Eleagnus; the Festive Maxine peony for Festiva Maxima; Ellen Bouquet amaryllis for the rose-colored crinum, Ellen Bosanquet; Virginia's Philadelphia for Philadelphus x virginalis; red star arise for red star-anise; rose-of-Charon; and watery spirea for the spirea named Anthony Waterer. I am reminded of the gardener who asked me to come see her "wiggly rose," which turned out to be Weigela florida, and of another who called the rose Etoile de Hollande, Miss Estelle of Holland.
One of Miss Lawrence's many correspondents was Mr. Kimery, who had an acre nursery at the Tennessee-Mississippi border; she describes the challenges of identifying many of his colloquially-named plants. One,
"The rose of Texas," Mr. Kimery wrote, "is double yellow. I sent you all I have. They will live. Hope so." I hope so, too, for the one I got earlier died before I had a chance to tell anything about it except that its thorns were sharp and numerous, which made me think it was the old brier, Harrison's Yellow (1830), common in gardens and of American origin. The yellow rose of Texas appears often in the market bulletins, but sometimes it is not a rose at all, but double kerria (Kerria japonica).
I like to think my neighbors and I- and correspondents in the market bulletins of the Internet- are keeping these old folkways alive a little longer. Mildred has made me promise to take some cuttings of her Chinese rose; my neighbor Cindy has offered me some of the hostas that have sprung up from recently cleared and restored beds at her front door:
I came to love hostas living in Seattle, where their colors fit the cool, often muted light of the Pacific Northwest, but where they are also an endless buffet for the endless supply of slugs. It will be nice to have some new ones to put out before long.
After I get the dandelion rebellion suppressed, of course. And the allergies under control. And, after that, perhaps a visit to Miss Lawrence's house and garden, a National Register of Historic Places site here in Charlotte, now part of the Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary.