Friday, March 29, 2019

Heartsease (Viola tricolor)

"No lot is perfect; but that is the nearest to it which has Heartsease to sweeten it." 
  This tiny flower is one of the first to bloom for me in the Spring and sometimes continues to flower through the Fall until the snows cover it. It is such a small, insignificant  plant, yet so worthy of its name! I even have a few plants growing in pots on the kitchen windowsill, and they are indeed a comfort for my winter-weary heart!
   Viola tricolor is a native throughout most of Europe, as well as North Africa and parts of Siberia and India. Gerard, who calls it "Hartes-ease" and "Paunsie", writes that it "groweth in fieldes in many places, and also in gardens". As Robert Buist remarks, "The simplicity and striking beauty of this lovely little flower has attracted notice from the earliest floral times". Shakespeare knew it well, as did many other early writers, and the legends associated with it are so numerous that I think a whole book could be written about this flower alone!
  It gets its botanical name from the fact that the flowers are usually, as Gerard says, "of three sundrie colours...that is to say, purple, yellow, and white or blew: by reason of the beuatie & braverie of which colours, they are very pleasing to the eie".
   But this dear little flower goes by an amazing number of names. In America, it is commonly known as Johnny-jump-up. The name Pansy comes from the French word Pensees, or thoughts. Shakespeare mentions this in Hamlet: "There's pansies, that's for thoughts"; and Ben Jonson writes:

"I pray, what flowers are these?
The pansie this;
O, that's for lovers' thoughts."

   Other names include, Love-in-Idleness (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream), Cuddle/Cull/Call-me-to-you, Meet-me-in-the-Entry, Three-Faces-Under-a-Hood, Godfathers and Godfathers, Stepmother, Bouncing Bet, Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery, Kit-run-in-the-Fields, Ladies' Delight, Battlefield Flower, None-so-pretty, Flame Flower, Pink of My John, Herb Trinitatus, and, as Phillips says, "others equally whimsical and unappropriate".
    But I think Heartsease is the sweetest name of all! Louise Beebe Wilder tells us that "The little Pansy was deemed a potent heart remedy or cordial and so received the name of Heartsease". But others say that it got this name from the fact that it was used in ancient times as a love potion. Regardless of how it came about, it certainly caught the attention of many writers and poets! Mary Botham Howitt (1799-1888) wrote these lines:

"Heart's Ease! one could look for half a day
Upon this flower, and shape in fancy out
Full twenty tales of love and sorrow,
That gave this gentle name."

   There is a delightful story about how the Heartsease or Pansy came into our gardens...
There was once a little plant who was so shy that it crept into a secluded corner and there, under the shade of some taller plants, unfolded its blossoms. But it was soon discovered by a little bird, who sang of its beauty to the whole world. One day, an angel who had come to earth on a mission of mercy, heard the bird singing and asked to be led to it. When she saw the modest flower, the angel cried, "Ah! how lovely you are! Too lovely to dwell alone in the shadows. You should be a flower in the garden of angels. But wait, I have thought of something even more beautiful for you. You shall be the angel's blossom, but you shall bloom in the land of man. Go, sweet Pansy, bloom in every land and bring to all people sweet thoughts of peace and love and faith". Then the angel kissed the flower, leaving an imprint of her face on each blossom.
   The ending to this story explains how it came to be called Herb Trinitatus, or Trinity, Flower...
The kiss of the angel gave it a perfume sweeter even than the Violet. But since the Pansy grew in fields, people were trampling on and destroying the crops whilst looking for it. So the Pansy prayed to the Holy Trinity to take away its fragrance so that it would no longer be sought. Its prayer was heard, and the name Trinity Flower was given to the self-sacrificing little blossom.
    This lovely poem also suggests that it was planted by "mercy's angel":
            The Heartsease
There is a little flower that's found
In almost every garden ground,
'Tis lowly but 'tis sweet;
And if its name express its power,
A more invaluable flower
You'll never, never meet.

I said in every garden ground;
Perhaps in Eden 'twas not found,
For there it was not wanted;
But soon as sin and sorrow came,
The flower received its gladdening name,
By mercy's angel planted.

My child! if God within our bower 
Should plant this lovely flower,
To tend it be our duty;
Then, should there be a smile or tear,
So it be mutual, it will rear,
Unfold, and show its beauty."

   And James Russel Lowell penned these lines in the beginning of his book of poetry entitled, Heartsease and Rue:

"Along the wayside where we pass bloom few
Gay plants of heartsease, more of saddening rue;
So life is mingled; so should poetry be
That speak a conscious word to you and me." 
  John Bunyan gives a beautiful tribute to Heartsease in The Pilgrim's Progress. When Christiana and her sons were passing through the Valley of Humiliation with Great-heart as their guide, they paused to listen to a boy singing as he tends his father's sheep. When the lad finished his song, Great-heart turned to them and said, "Do you hear him? I dare to say that this boy lives a merrier life, and wears more of that herb called 'hearts-ease' in his bosom, than he that is clad in silk and velvet". 
   There is a wonderful children's story about a fairy who wanted to change herself into a flower. She entered a garden, and all the flowers vied with one another to convince her that its was the best lot. The Rose called herself the queen of flowers, the lily showed all her regal beauty, and so on with the Dahlia, Morning Glory, and Iris. But still the fairy stood irresolute. Finally, a little flower growing in a crack of the garden wall cried out, "Be a Pansy!". 
"Nay", said the fairy, "you are but a weed, and you have no name." 
"Haven't I?", said the Pansy, "Go to the poor man's garden and ask him my name-he'll tell you it is Heartsease; and where will you find a better one than that? Oh, be a Pansy!"
"Well, really", said the fairy at last, "I think I will." 
   In yet another fairy tale, the fairies were gathered on Midsummer's Eve to discuss what they could do to make the world a brighter place. One of them suggested that they make a new flower, and the rest agreed. So they got out their corn cups and their brushes of dandelion down and set to work. They took blue from the sky, red from the sunset, yellow from sunbeams, and brown from earth, and mixed them together. All night they worked, and when morning came, there were the flowers beautifully painted. Some of them had drawn each others' likenesses and that is why we often see little faces on these flowers. The world has been brighter and better since that night.
   This humble member of the Violet family (Violaceae) is thought to be the ancestor of the larger-flowered Garden Pansies which began to be widely cultivated in the 19th century. (Although they were apparently still something of a novelty in Texas in 1878, when a Mrs. J. D. H. reported to Vick's Monthly Magazine that total strangers would come to her garden to see "them flowers that have faces"!) I love the large Pansy too and have a tray of Swiss Giants seedlings on my desk right as I write. But the little Heartsease will always have a place in my garden and in my heart. I edged my herb garden with them last year and they were so lovely! In his Flora Historica (1824), Henry Phillips suggests planting them in masses: "When seen individually the flower must be noticed with admiration, yet it is not calculated to make a figure in the garden unless planted in large clumps; but when a considerable plot of rising ground is covered with these flowers, the appearance cannot be equaled by the finest artificers in purple and gold". (I should also mention that the flowers have a very pretty way of bowing their heads in wet weather to protect their "faces" from the rain!)
   Heartsease is considered an edible flower and has also been used medicinally for a wide variety of complaints, including epilepsy, asthma, cough, skin problems, and heart ailments. But by Phillips' time, it was "nearly if not altogether neglected, for fashion creeps even into our pill boxes". Mrs. Grieve says, however, that "it was formerly official in the United States Pharmacopoeia" and notes that it was then "still employed in America in the form of an ointment and poultice in eczema and other skin troubles, and internally for bronchitis". I believe it is still used by some herbalists for both eczema and acne, and I am looking forward to experimenting with it myself this year!
   I would be greatly interested to know how the seeds are collected on a large scale by commercial seed growers! My method was to go out at least once a day and gather all the seed capsules as they burst open, but before they had thrown the seeds far and wide. As our neighbor said when he found me at it one day, "You have to sneak up on them"! I then brought them in and made the mistake of laying them out to dry on a table. After a while, I noticed that my supply of seeds wasn't increasing as much as it ought to. I suspected the "mousies", so I put them in a jar and covered it with cheesecloth. The next day, I found several seeds caught in the cheesecloth, and there were even a few seeds on the table around the jar. Evidently, they are thrown with quite a force as soon as they dry, no matter whether they are still on the plant or no! One of those seeds landed in the pot with my Amaryllis, which led to the happy discovery that Heartsease will grow quite happily on a windowsill even during the shortest days of winter! 
    This little flower is so beautiful, so easy to grow, and it will cheer your heart throughout the year! 

Garden Balsam (Impatiens balsamina)

  I consider the Garden Balsam to be one of the most beautiful flowers in my garden. I just love its unique, tropical appearance and its stunning flowers! Mrs. Grieve calls it "one of the showiest of summer and autumn flowers" and G. Francis, in The Favorites of the Flowers Garden (1844) says that it "may be ranked amongst the most elegant annuals that the warmest climates have afforded us".
   Impatiens balsamina is a native of India, China, and Japan. The exact date of its introduction is uncertain, but we do know that it was cultivated by John Gerard in 1596. It was first offered in America by J. Townley of Boston in 1760.
Impatiens balsamina at Monticello, Aug. 2017
   Thomas Jefferson planted "Double Balsam" at Shadwell on April 2, 1767, sent "Balsamine" from Paris to Francis Eppes in 1786, and, in 1812, received "seed of some very superior Impatience Balsamina" from the Philadelphia seedsman, Bernard McMahon.
    Although seldom seen in modern gardens, it was well-known in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The most popular were the double, or Camellia flowered varieties. Walter Elder praises it highly in his article for The Gardener's Monthly, entitled "Despise Not the Day of Small Things" (1863): "Of annuals, what can be compared to the Camellia Balsam, as double as a rose; no waxwork nor any imitation of man, can compare with it in rich and dazzling beauty".
   But my favorite is 'Peppermint Sticks', which has strikingly beautiful red and white mottled flowers. Although 'Peppermint Sticks' is a newer variety from Holland, its amazing colors are nothing new. As early as 1807, Alexander McDonald mentions a variety "with large double variegated scarlet and white flowers". Walter Elder, writing in 1863, extols "The white and scarlet spotted" balsam as "unequaled among flowers". And I quite agree! When they are in bloom, I often find myself just staring at them in awe!
   Like so many of our treasure garden flowers, it has been given many names by its admirers. Among these are Rose Balsam, Lady's Slipper, Somer-sots, Garden Jewelweed, Tree Impatiens, and Touch-me-not. The last is a reference to the way the ripe seed pods burst open when touched, scattering the seeds some distance from the plant. Impatiens is derived from this same fact, and I am told that all members of the genus have this same characteristic.
   G. Francis also relates "a curious circumstance" of the seeds. He writes that "those which are fresh, or of last year's growth only, seldom produce double flowers; but to have these, you must sow seeds from three to nine years old". Joseph Breck said much the same thing in his Book of Flowers (1851). I am definitely going to be experimenting with this in the years to come!
   So far as I know, I. balsamina has no medicinal use.  However, the Japanese used the juice of the plant prepared with alum to dye their nails red.
   G. Francis writes that "the Turks represent ardent love by this flower". With us, however, it symbolizes impatience.
   I often wonder why this beautiful plant has fallen out of favor in recent years. It is one of the easiest flowers to grow, and children will be delighted by the bursting seed pods! It truly is a must for any old-fashioned flower garden.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Use of Flowers

God might have bade the earth bring forth
  Enough for great and small,
The oak-tree and the cedar-tree,
  Without a flower at all.

We might have had enough, enough
  For every want of ours,
For luxury, medicine, and toil,
  And yet have had no flowers.

The ore within the mountain mine
Requireth none to grow;
Nor does it need the lotus-flower
To make the river flow.

The clouds might give abundant rain,
The nightly dews might fall,
And the herb that keepeth life in man
Might yet have drunk them all.

Then, wherefore, wherefore are they made,
All dyed with rainbow light,
All fashioned with supremest grace
Upspringing day and night;

Springing in valleys green and low,
And on the mountain high,
And in the silent wilderness,
Where no man passes by?

Our outward life requires them not,
Then wherefore had they birth?
To minister delight to man,
To beautify the earth,

To comfort man, to whisper hope
Whene'er his faith is dim;
For whoso careth for the flowers
Will much more care for him.
                                      ~Mary Howitt