finding golden gems

Patones de Arriba, Spain
Patones de Arriba, Spain

Mr. Eric,

As I sit and type this, I wonder what type of spring weather you are having at the moment. From here, it seems that the East Coast of the U.S. has been buried under many snow storms this winter, something I don’t get to experience living here in Madrid, and to be honest, I do miss it.  The only snow I see is the view of the snow capped mountains from the terrace, which is a wonderful sight but is not enough for me.  So, with arrival of spring here already, a group of friends and I decided to seek wildflowers in those same mountains, near a very small village called Patones de Arriba, just a short drive outside of Madrid.

IMG_4575 IMG_4572The almond trees are the first to flower here and from afar they seemed to be the only plants in bloom, lighting up the rocky hillsides.  The olive groves we passed through were sometimes the perfect backdrop to the white blossoms, a picturesque scene of the beginning of a Mediterranean spring.

IMG_4669Trudging further up the loose and stony paths, higher up into the mountain, the flora changed from open grassy areas to a shrubby layer of Cistus and large areas of the faint blue blooms of Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis. It’s a funny sight when when you see your herbs all grown up. For a short while there was a light snowstorm which felt like I was in a dream, similar to when Dorothy was in the field of red poppies in the Wizard of Oz. It was a beautifully surreal moment.  IMG_4658 Then there was a glimpse of gold, near the base of a Rosemary shrub. I was shocked at finding Narcissus and it was in bloom!!  This is my first time I have seen Narcissus in the wild.  Since hunting for wildflowers in Israel, when I found my first wild tulip, it has always been a goal to find Narcissus but never succeeded.  Either it was too late or I only found the remaining greens swollen with seed. So this was an exciting moment for me, another wildflower off the list.  These Narcissus were Narcissus pallidulus and were usually were found in small groups here and there, never in large swathes,  only a cluster 1-3 plants in an area.  After that moment of discovering them, I saw them growing near the Rosemary seen throughout the hillside.  Now I hope to find more types of Narcissus throughout other parts of Spain. Seeing these in there natural state makes their more common showy cultivars currently growing on my terrace, seem so brash and vulgar now. IMG_4702  I look forward to more plant excursions like this in the future and will keep you updated on any new finds. Hope this finds you well and with spring at your doorstep, finally…  Speak soon my friend- James

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moving up

Eric,

In reading your last letter (Frosty Nights and Tropical Warmth), I left 2014 feeling good and with a smile on my face and I agree with you regarding Plinth et al. and how far it has come.  We have encountered a lot of interesting people and opportunities since starting this project and I hope this year will be just as good, with more interviews and projects in the works already. We seem to be off to a good start though and I am eager to hear about and see images of your trip to Taiwan, a place I have never been but always dreamed of traveling to.  The change in weather, food and people must have been a welcome change from the freezing cold temperatures of Pennsylvania.  But while you were off exploring beautiful places, I was having an adventure of my own.  Somewhere between the 25th of December and the 1st of January, I changed apartments in Madrid and  I will never think, again in my life, that this is an appropriate time of year to change houses…  My biggest concern with moving had to do with my plants and it pleases me to say that no plant was left behind and there was only one broken pot of Sansevieria cylindrica upon arrival, now safely replanted and recovering. IMG_4307IMG_4309

There was not enough space (or light) for all of my plants in the last apartment but I am ecstatic about having a larger terrace at my new place. My mind is already racing with ideas and my sketchbook has become active again.  Of course I decided it is a must to grow some of the standard Mediterranean fare, such as a fig tree, a lemon tree, rosemary and Punica granatum. In my mind the terrace is already running out of space with all the other things I will acquire at the nurseries too as the list in my notebook grows much longer each time I step outside to ponder ideas. IMG_4346IMG_4354

The terrace (with attached apartment) is on the 10th floor, the highest I’ve ever lived, and it has unobstructed views over the city towards the Sierra mountains, which are currently snow capped. Seeing this view is like having one foot in the city and one foot in the countryside, which works well for me. While there is not much to see out there on the terrace yet, except for green tips of emerging bulbs in containers, I did find a gecko living on the terrace, whom I am now trying to over winter with some of my plants in a protected spot, my first official pet. Seeing the city from this vantage point up high puts it into perspective for me how different things were when I arrived a little over a year ago.  Never did I think I would be in this situation, living among palms and working in a flower shop, and speaking spanish, but it is a treat, a real pleasure now that I have adjusted. Spain and I are an odd pair but one that works, similar to this combination of cyperus and Colorado blue spruce I recently saw in a courtyard garden.  I just might try this one out on the terrace too….  Speak soon my friend.  – JIMG_4243

Creative Intersections

Eric,

I loved reading what you had to say about Orange, your descriptions and images are always so sharp. While you were waxing poetic for the color orange, I was feeling a bit blue having finally left the Netherlands after 3 months of pleasure at DeWiersse. I’m very happy to be back in Madrid, but the change of scenery is always a shock. To compensate missing DeWiersse, I brought a packed suitcase home full of plants for my two tiny terraces. You’d be pleased to know that among my new treasured plants is a Salvia confertiflora, which I fell hard for since my time at Gravetye. I cannot get enough of the deep orange blooms and the brick red calyxes that it possesses, responsible for why it is my favorite Salvia of all time.IMG_6724

Now, I have some free time while I find and nail down some horticulture work here in Madrid. Lucky for me, my open schedule coincides with fashion season, which has happened in NY, London, and Milan and is currently happening in Paris, where it then wraps up until another 6 months from now. Fashion fascinates me, not for reasons expected, as I do not believe in the dictation of trends, the high cost that is associated with the purchase of such creative pieces (though completely justifiable with some), or the exclusivity people feel it expels, but it is the creativity that gets me going. The process fascinates me to no end, from the beginning ideas to the final presentation. These days it’s easy to see the shows online, not only in photos, but in video, which I take great joy in watching. (A secret guilty pleasure…) Clothes aside, the show altogether can be a brief, sometimes intense, form of theater, lasting only a few minutes after many months of preparation.   Together with the hair, makeup, set design, the soundtrack and clothes, the shows create such mood and emotion that they provide an instant boost of creativity in me. It invigorates me to see fresh and new color combinations, hear some good new music or even learn of artists who have created installations for a specific show. There are even instances when I learned of other gardens due to the location of a show such as the Chanel Collection 2011-2012 at Cap D’Antibes, Côte d’Azur, France (here). (A beautiful setting and killer music.). It excites me to see so many creative forces come together for the vision of one person or team to get a message across.IMG_9426

It goes deeper still, having to do with the single vision being sparked from something else, an image, a feeling, a mood, or something concrete to which the collection is usually built around, as a point of departure for the inspiration. It could be a work of art, flowers, or dancers from a certain time period, as well as many other subjects chosen from other tangible fields. Hearing designers speak of what sparked the collection is intriguing, with recent examples being Matisse’s stained glass windows in the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence in the French Riviera (Aquilano Rimondi), or Dries Van Noten designing a collection based on the fluidity of male ballet dancers. Many other creative fields crossover into each for stimulus and motivation but horticulture, specifically gardening, does not do this so much. IMG_6726

My thought is this, if we wish for gardening to be understood and enjoyed by more, should we be interpreting the ways we create gardens by sometimes using these other fields as reference points and inspiration too? Would this give people something more tangible to grab on to so they might feel like they are along for the ride rather than just a voyeur? It does happen in horticulture to a degree, I know of the Toronto Music Garden created by Julie Moir Messervy in collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma with by inspiration by a music score from Bach (here), or the garden based on the Georges Seurat painting, Sunday in the Park, in Columbus, Ohio (here). Florists dip into these pools more often than gardeners, often arranging along the same colors that are in fashion. Roberto Burle Marx the great plants man, was a master at crossing things over from sculpture to music to textiles, as well as garden design. There was a course I once took with landscape architect Darrel Morrison and he had us design garden outlines quickly while listening to different jazz songs, an exercise in design that he swore by.   Ceramicists, musicians, dancers et al. often reference other creative fields for motivation and it’s puzzling to see why it doesn’t happen more often in gardening. Do we desperately want to stand on our own so much that we fear any reference will take away some of the spotlight?

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creative intersections are everywhere, just look for them

If horticulture ideas were more fluid and leaned into other creative fields more often, would more people understand and enjoy horticulture? This is not to say to borrow direct ideas from fashion, or other fields but the more things link to other artistic genres the easier it is to gain and keep a captive audience, keep it fresh.

Inspiration, a word that’s thrown around so much these days, but no matter who you are, where you are, or what you do, it undeniably finds its way into your life. If we let more of it shape our creativity, horticulture could go in some very interesting directions. It’s fascinating to see creative links with history and know it’s helping to shape the present. I leave you with this, another blend with a beautiful take on clothes, flowers, and music. (Christian Dior- Paris 2012/2013- Haute Couture) That set leaves me without words, and I wonder what you think ….

– James

An affair to remember..

Dear Eric,

There was a wonderful wedding here in Holland, she was a beautiful bride with a radiant smile and he an equally handsome groom with a sharp sense of humor,  there was happiness and laughter all around. The ceremony was in Dutch and English, with delicious food and drink at the reception, and everyone got in some serious dance time with the amazing band that performed. It was a joyous time for all, for good reason.

It was my first time doing floral arrangements for a wedding and found the whole experience to be challenging but a wholly satisfying creative process.  Most of the foliage and flowers were grown on and harvested from the estate, from which there was plenty to choose from.  Church interiorThe church looked small from the outside, but upon entering, it was as if we had stepped into a jewel-box, with such colors and ornate details inside, we thought it best to keep the color schemes of the arrangements simple, to enhance rather than compete with the exquisite surroundings.  We thought some large green and white arrangements would suit the church interior best, and took notice of some of the details on the walls too, which could come into play later.

Church interior detail

 Some of these details that stood out were the leaves and acorn ornamentation painted onto the columns.

Church arrangements

Once back at the estate, we harvested young oak saplings (that needed to be thinned anyway) of Quercus robur, which surprisingly lasts well in water for a few days. We used these to connect with the oak leaves painted within the interior of the church. The edge of the woods were lit up with foxglove blooms so we harvested all the white ones, Digitalis alba, to add some major height to the arrangements. Mixed with the oak, they were simple, large, and very effective.  To some of the other arrangements red dahlias were added to highlight the red used throughout the frames of the religious icons and triptychs in the church, again keeping within the simple color scheme chosen.

Dining areaFor the reception dinner,  the arrangements were kept simple too, using glass vases of sweet peas running down the center of the table.

Untitled-1Table space was limited, partly due to large plates that were to be kept on the table as ‘dishes to pass’, as well as all the glasses and cutlery, so we found we were restricted and could not make many large arrangements. A solution to decorating the table was pressing some ferns, specifically Blechnum spicant, which was done a few weeks prior to the wedding, and running the dried fronds down the center of the tables.  Blechnum spicant, which was harvested from the ‘Wild Garden’ on the estate pressed really well, holding its shape and color while adding that other dimension needed to the beautifully set tables.

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The area where dinner was held is actually a large garage that was converted into a more welcoming space by hanging swags of fabric and ribbon while using a some large arrangements to help soften the space.  In these tall but thin cylindrical vases, I squeezed as much as I could fit, not wanting to make too heavy of an arrangement, so I focused on height while keeping them light, airy and somewhat open. All materials were foraged from the garden and the estate which included Cornus alba ‘Aurea’, Astrantia major ‘Ruby Wedding’, Prunus branches from the kitchen garden (it was either us or the birds that harvested the cherries) and for height a variegated Miscanthus and reeds that grow alongside the moats.

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 Elsewhere, I used pear branches, heavy with young fruit, mixed with the scented Philadelphus coronarius, which were surrounded by pots of wild strawberry plants.

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Some last minute arrangements thrown together, using more oak and peonies, a combination that I would like to try more of. IMG_0044It was an honor to be part of such a wedding and to do flowers for wonderful friends, and pleasurable to have acres of greens and flowers at your fingertips to choose from. It was so much fun thinking of ideas, trialling cut branches for longevity (Salix did not last at all, surprisingly, while Castanea sativa lasted really long, can you believe it?), and seeing everything come together as one hoped for. I only wish time slowed down during this day, so the joy and pleasure of the day could’ve been savored longer by all who attended..  Hope this finds you well my friend…….        – James

DeWiersse

DeWiersse, West Lawn
West Lawn vista

 

Eric,

Since speaking last, I have traded “¡Olé!” for allées and taken some time away from Spain to visit friends in the Netherlands, in a garden that has had so much influence on me. A few years ago, I spent some time here as a student and found the garden to have a large impact on my way of thinking about, experiencing, and approaching garden design. (This is where I read Sylvia Crowe’s book on garden design, which I was able to experience her ideas while walking around here.) DeWiersse has been in the same family and managed since 1678, so over the course of time, the gardens have been tweaked to a point of exquisite beauty while still remaining very much alive and loved.   DeWiersse is in the eastern most part of Holland and is both a garden of 38 acres with a landscape park of 74 acres and has a moated manor house that lies at it’s heart. The garden is made up of many different areas including meadows, wild gardens, topiary, a formal rose garden, a large kitchen garden, allées and a sunken garden.

Typical of a Dutch style, parts of the more formal garden close to the house are enclosed within hedges of clipped Yew and while heading further away from the house, the style becomes more loose and fluid as it turns to wild garden and woodland, eventually blurring the lines between private garden and the existing farmland that lies beyond its boundaries. No detail is overlooked, which is what helps make DeWiersse a treasured experience but I will explain more as time goes on, giving attention to what makes these details so special.

I will leave you now with images, in the order of a stroll through the garden , of what is happening now, a visual teaser of sorts, a horticultural hors d’oeuvre to appease the appetite.  The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the cutting garden is calling my name….. Wishing you well….. -James


 

DeWiersse

DeWiersse meadow
clipped yew set among the meadow
DeWiersse
Rhododendrons help make the bones of the garden
DeWiersse
vista across the outer moat towards the formal Rose garden

DeWiersse

DeWiersse

DeWiersse
transitioning into the wild garden which was inspired by William Robinson

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DeWiersse

DeWiersse
a clipped serpentine Beech tunnel and the Beech allee vista towards the discus thrower

Fagus sylvatica, and all 95 meters of its serpentine tunnel. A smile is always necessary while walking through here, amazed at the incredible horticultural skills displayed, not only inviting you to look, but to engage in the marvel that it is. It is a feast not just for the eyes, but an exercise for all the senses.

DeWiersse
Sunk garden

DeWiersse

DeWiersse
each day finishes with a spectacular ending, West Lawn at DeWiersse

via Segovia

IMG_8274Hello Eric,

When you wrote about the importance of spring yellows, the descriptions put a warm smile on my face, and when you interviewed Wonsoon Park, I was blown away, in awe of his practices and his views of horticulture. I have already added South Korea to my list of future travel destinations. Maybe if we plan in advance, we can meet and explore the landscape together. A trip from Spain sometime soon might be nice…..

Even though I have  been living in Madrid 7 months already, it still feels like I just landed, still feels new. I guess we don’t acclimate to our surroundings as quickly as plants can.  Plants-1 and Humans-0, right? It was terrible to see all of the horrid, cold and rainy weather that has been going on back home, especially when I have dahlias in bloom already on my terrace. Doesn’t seem quite right to me yet, but these are things that I can get used to. My terraces are filling up with anything I can get my hands on these days….. geraniums, mint, sedums that I find on the ground that have fallen off of other terraces, tomatoes, strawberries and bacopa too. My nasturtiums are coming up from seed too as I write this, and I am sure the hoarding won’t stop there either.

I have also started collecting dahlias for cut flowers, Dahlia ‘My Love’ (white cactus flower) and Dahlia ‘Forrestal’ (bright reddish semi- cactus bloom), and two unnamed plants I picked up, which were already in bloom. Now that the sun’s strength is increasing, I am finding myself out there watering more often and am in the process of upgrading to larger pots, which in turn just means more plants….

With the warmer weather here now, I am finding more and more opportunities to get out of the city and explore.   One recent trip is to Segovia which is not very far outside of Madrid, easily reached by train, my favorite form of travel. Most impressive to me was the Roman aqueduct, thought to be standing since 1st century AD, just stone laid on top of stone in the most intricate process and responsible for the transporting water from the mountains nearby. The castles, the rolling mountains in the distance and the surrounding landscape were as enchanting as you would think.

It was a lively city, heavily mixed between old and new ways of life. There were little areas of gardens but what impressed me most was the agricultural plots at the city’s base, nestled in a little valley where the river used to run, obviously taking perfect advantage of the great soil left behind. I will leave you with the images and when you come to visit, it is a must on our itinerary… Until then my friend….

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a tête-à-tête

Narcissus at Madrid Botanical Garden
Narcissus at Madrid Botanical Garden

 Mr. Eric,

As I sit at my desk and write this to you, the Narcissus ‘Tete-a-tete’ that I have planted on my terrace are now fiercely glowing silhouettes, brightly backlit by the sun that is also shining warmly on my face.  The smiling sun is a nice change from the cooler temperatures and gray days and from this late winter flu I have been entertaining these days.  Spring is almost here, I can almost smell it hence this cold, but the last day of winter is officially March 19th, so we are just about out of the woods.  From the windows, I can see the leaf buds of Platanus x hispanica swelling up and pulling away from the branches, just about ready to open.

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I haven’t been outside much the past few days but besides getting enough rest and drinking plenty of teas I have surrounded myself with multiple vases of these little striking yellow blooms to make myself feel better, a little extra sunshine inside. Who wouldn’t smile because of that?! Most everybody loves the Narcissus, for their own reasons, but for many it heralds the triumphant return of spring and an end to the long, cold months of winter.  But why else do we love it and what is it about them? Is it the piercing yellow color that demands the attention of our eyes in an otherwise still drab landscape? The color alone,  reminiscent of the sun,  invokes an uplifting feeling of happiness  and cheerfulness. Is it maybe because the rest of bloom parade is not far behind in the marching procession of blossoms known as spring? So while admiring them from my reclined position, the stories and symbolism of Narcissus started playing out in my medicated head….

Narcissus 'Fortune'

 

The Narcissus has been a subject for writers and artists for more than 20 centuries, often-symbolizing rebirth, new beginnings and  representing luck and prosperity. Could that be the reference in the cultivar Narcissus ‘Fortune’ as seen above? Giving daffodils as a bouquet  is said to ensure happiness to the receiver but remember to  always present them in a bunch  because though the cheerful flower is associated with good fortune it might forebode misfortune if given as a single boom.  Could this be why they are sold in florist shops in bunches rather than single blooms as other flowers?

Naturalized Narcissus at Great Dixter
Naturalized Narcissus at Great Dixter

There is one story about Narcissus and Echo that I love. I owe my introduction and love for Greek Mythology to  Edith Hamilton, when I purchased her book, Mythology, while doing research for a school report as a young kid.  I still have that same book packed away in New York, and escaped through all of the images those stories painted in my mind. But, yes, the story back to the story….

 Narcissus was a young man of immense beauty who broke the hearts of many lovers along the way, lastly in his mortal life was the wood nymph Echo. Narcissus not paying attention to anyone else and constantly looking at his own reflection in a pool of water, falls in love with himself, thinking of no one else. This is how he spends his time, leaning continuously over the pool and gazing, until he discovered he could not embrace his reflection and soon enough he fell into the water and drowned, with the gods immortalizing him as the narcissus. The story of Narcissus in Greek mythology, is a sad one where the flower symbolizes self-esteem and vanity.

Naturalized Narcissus in the garden of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor
Naturalized Narcissus in the garden of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor

There is a wonderful poem to read of this story, written by the American poet Fred Chappell

Narcissus and Echo, a poem

by Fred Chappell

Shall the water not remember  Ember
my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above  of
its mirror my half-imaginary  airy
portrait? My only belonging  longing;
is my beauty, which I take  ache
away and then return, as love  of
teasing playfully the one being  unbeing.
whose gratitude I treasure  Is your
moves me. I live apart  heart
from myself, yet cannot  not
live apart. In the water’s tone,  stone?
that brilliant silence, a flower  Hour,
whispers my name with such slight  light:
moment, it seems filament of air,  fare
the world becomes cloudswell.  well.

bouquet sketcbouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile,bouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile, both by J.McGrath
bouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile, both by J.McGrath

The meaning and symbolism behind this flower has inspired many writers to artists and will continue to do so for a long time to come.  In Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers –  it is listed twice, once by the common name daffodil where it means regard and in its latin form Narcissus we see it listed as egotism. You choose.   Salvador Dali, Caravaggio, John William Waterhouse, and Poussin, among countless others have been inspired when putting brush to canvas,  using the the subject and the stories behind it as their muse.

display beds at Madrid Botanical Gardens
display beds at Madrid Botanical Gardens

The blooms are out in full force here in Madrid, and hope they are not too far behind for you in Pennsylvania, spring will be banging on your front door    soon enough.   By the way, did you know that ‘tete-a-tete’ means a face-to-face meeting, or a private conversation between two people?  It’s been nice chatting with you and I hope  these images and stories find you well and smiling……      -James