The Gardens of Their Dreams

Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them

an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, May 17–September 7, 2014
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1914; photograph by Arnold Genthe

Wishful thinking is entwined with gardening. We plant, we dream, we fantasize about flowers, and we see behind them the people who once gave them to us or first showed us their beauty, and then others to whom we showed them and gave them lovingly all over again. Reality then intervenes, a drought, insects, or an intruding wild pig. Gardeners are great killers in pursuit of their dreams. Vita Sackville-West, the genius of Sissinghurst Castle, used to say that her gardening was rivaled only by infant mortality in the Middle Ages. Still we dream on, propelling our gardens and their art into the next season and the next transformation, with visions of our own fresh melons or white-scented flowers on a capricious Cardiocrinum from the Himalayas.

Garden designers are still taught to draw and, all too often nowadays, to plan “sustainably.” They ought to be taught to read more widely. The more we read, the more we see beyond mere “plant material” or “native wildflower areas.” Literature enriches a gardener’s fancy, as Sissinghurst’s garden itself exemplifies, growing from its creator’s romantic love of poetry, French high culture, and Iran (“Persia”) as much as from manure and careful mulching. More poetry and mythology have been spun around flowers than around anything else except women.

The books under review testify to this fantasizing, without always addressing it directly. Several of them exemplify it by being beautifully produced, as if a book on flowers and gardens has to be especially seductive in a way that a book on, say, horses or dogs does not. Carolyn Fry’s The Plant Hunters even contains page-sized envelopes that open to present us with individual prints and reproductions. Public librarians will fear for the shelf life of these eminently removable extras.

In the best of the group, Martyn Rix acutely observes that “though we have fewer botanists, we have more botanical artists than ever before.” These artists are today’s close observers of flowers and fruits, now that “plant scientists” have moved inward to study cells and genes. Most plant scientists are ignorant about gardening. Artists do more for susceptible gardeners’ fantasies. Electronic reproduction is reaching ever higher standards and before long, we will be able to gaze in the winter months on our own images of the world’s finest flower paintings without too much loss of their depth and texture. Botanical artists often aim to be exact, scientific, and even analytic, but as Rix’s book shows, they too are caught up by the beauty of what they “record.”

Poetry, above all, enhances our ideas of flowers. For its recent fine exhibitions linked to Emily Dickinson or Claude Monet, the New York Botanical Garden has been showing apt poetry on placards along the garden’s walks. Visitors could read Mallarmé or Dickinson herself while seeing the flowers that they loved.…

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