Alice MorseThe American historian Alice Morse at 22, in 1873, a year before she married Henry Earle and settled in Brooklyn. (New York Times)

Jimmy R’s preceding guest post has made me feel guilty for not having made one myself for many months so I’ve polished up one, Old-Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth, on the American writer Alice Morse Earle that I had previously compiled and post it here. I came across it while plundering the web for out-of-copyright books to fill my Kobo Mini e-reader and was very impressed with the writing. Most of her writing is historical (such as Curious Punishments of Bygone Days) and, for gardeners, it’s a pity that this seems to be her only gardening book. There is some biographical information available on her at Wikipedia as well as an article at the above link to the photo at the New York Times.

The book (as well as others of a historical bent) can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg ( and this book is well formatted and edited and a joy to read. I highly recommend it to gardeners as further proof that some of the best garden writing was done hundreds of years in the past. Our excerpt is chapter 10, The Charm Of Color, to add to past posts on this, the most bewitching, of gardening qualities.


Chapter X

The Charm Of Color

Alice Morse Earle

“How strange are the freaks of memory, The lessons of life we forget. While a trifle, a trick of color, In the wonderful web is set.”

—James Russell Lowell.


The quality of charm in color is most subtle; it is like the human attribute known as fascination, “whereof,” says old Cotton Mather, “men have more Experience than Comprehension.” Certainly some alliance of color with a form suited or wonted to it is necessary to produce a gratification of the senses. Thus in the leaves of plants every shade of green is pleasing; then why is there no charm in a green flower? The green of Mignonette bloom would scarcely be deemed beautiful were it not for our association of it with the delicious fragrance. White is the absence of color. In flowers a pure chalk-white, and a snow-white (which is bluish) is often found; but more frequently the white flower blushes a little, or is warmed with yellow, or has green veins.

Where green runs into the petals of a white flower, its beauty hangs by a slender thread. If the[Pg 234] green lines have any significance, as have the faint green checkerings of the Fritillary, which I have described elsewhere in this book, they add to its interest; but ordinarily they make the petals seem undeveloped. The Snowdrop bears the mark of one of the few tints of green which we like in white flowers; its “heart-shaped seal of green,” sung by Rossetti, has been noted by many other poets. Tennyson wrote:—

“Pure as lines of green that streak the white

Of the first Snowdrop’s inner leaves.”

Spring Snowflake  i101_largeSpring Snowflake

A cousin of the Snowdrop, is the “Spring Snowflake” or Leucojum, called also by New England country folk “High Snowdrop.” It bears at the end of each snowy petal a tiny exact spot of green; and[Pg 235] I think it must have been the flower sung by Leigh Hunt:—

“The nice-leaved lesser Lilies,

Shading like detected light

Their little green-tipt lamps of white.”

The illustration on page 234 shows the graceful growth of the flower and its exquisitely precise little green-dotted petals, but it has not caught its luminous whiteness, which seems almost of phosphorescent brightness in each little flower.

The Star of Bethlehem is a plant in which the white and green of the leaf is curiously repeated in the flower. Gardeners seldom admit this flower now to their gardens, it so quickly crowds out everything else; it has become on Long Island nothing but a weed. The high-growing Star of Bethlehem is a pretty thing. A bed of it in my sister’s garden is shown on page 237.

It is curious that when all agree that green flowers have no beauty and scant charm, that a green flower should have been one of the best-loved flowers of my home garden. But this love does not come from any thought of the color or beauty of the flower, but from association. It was my mother’s favorite, hence it is mine. It was her favorite because she loved its clear, pure, spicy fragrance. This ever present and ever welcome scent which pervades the entire garden if leaf or flower of the loved Ambrosia be crushed, is curious and characteristic, a true “ambrosiack odor,” to use Ben Jonson’s words.

A vivid description of Ambrosia is that of Gerarde in his delightful Herball.

“Oke of Jerusalem, or Botrys, hath sundry small stems a foote and a halfe high dividing themselves into many small branches. The leafe very much resembling the leafe of an Oke, which hath caused our English women to call it Oke of Jerusalem. The upper side of the leafe is a deepe greene and somewhat rough and hairy, but underneath it is of a darke reddish or purple colour. The seedie floures grow clustering about the branches like the yong clusters or blowings of the Vine. The roote is small and thriddy. The whole herbe is of a pleasant smell and savour, and the whole plant dieth when the seed is ripe. Oke of Jerusalem is of divers called Ambrosia.”

Ambrosia has been loved for many centuries by Englishwomen; it is in the first English list of names of plants, which was made in 1548 by one Dr. Turner; and in this list it is called “Ambrose.” He says of it:—

“Botrys is called in englishe, Oke of Hierusalem, in duche, trauben kraute, in french pijmen. It groweth in gardines muche in England.”

Ambrosia has now died out “in gardines muche in England.” I have had many letters from English flower lovers telling me they know it not; and I have had the pleasure of sending the seeds to several old English and Scotch gardens, where I hope it will once more grow and flourish, for I am sure it must feel at home.

Star of Bethlehem i102_largeStar of Bethlehem

The seeds of this beloved Ambrosia, which filled my mother’s garden in every spot in which it could spring, and which overflowed with cheerful welcome into the gardens of our neighbors, was given her from the garden of a great-aunt in Walpole, New Hampshire. This Walpole garden was a famous gathering of old-time favorites, and it had the delightful companionship of a wild garden. On a series of terraces with shelving banks, which reached down to a stream, the boys of the family planted, seventy years ago, a myriad of wild flowers, shrubs, and trees, from the neighboring woods. By the side of the garden great Elm trees sheltered scores of beautiful gray squirrels; and behind the house and garden[Pg 238] an orchard led to the wheat fields, which stretched down to the broad Connecticut River. All flowers thrived there, both in the Box-bordered beds and in the wild garden, perhaps because the morning mists from the river helped out the heavy buckets of water from the well during the hot summer weeks. Even in winter the wild garden was beautiful from the brilliant Bittersweet which hung from every tree.

The Pearl i103_large“The Pearl”

Here Ambrosia was plentiful, but is plentiful no longer; and Walpole garden lovers seek seeds of it from the Worcester garden. I think it dies out generally when all the weeding and garden care is done by gardeners; they assume that the little plants[Pg 239] of such modest bearing are weeds, and pull them up, with many other precious seedlings of the old garden, in their desire to have ample expanse of naked dirt. One of the charms which was permitted to the old garden was its fulness. Nature there certainly abhorred a vacant space. The garden soil was full of resources; it had a seed for every square inch; it seemed to have a reserve store ready to crowd into any space offered by the removal or dying down of a plant at any time.

Let me tell of a curious thing I found in an old book, anent our subject—green flowers. It shows that we must not accuse our modern sensation lovers, either in botany or any other science, of being the only ones to add artifice to nature. The green Carnation has been chosen to typify the decadence and monstrosity of the end of the nineteenth century; but nearly two hundred years ago a London fruit and flower grower, named Richard Bradley, wrote a treatise upon field husbandry and garden culture, and in it he tells of a green Carnation which “a certayn fryar” produced by grafting a Carnation upon a Fennel stalk. The flowers were green for several years, then nature overcame decadent art.

There be those who are so enamoured of the color green and of foliage, that they care little for flowers of varied tint; even in a garden, like the old poet Marvell, they deem,—

“No white nor red was ever seen

So amorous as this lovely green.”

Such folk could scarce find content in an American garden; for our American gardeners must confess, with Shakespeare’s clown: “I am no great Nebuchadnezzar, sir, I have not much skill in grass.” Our lawns are not old enough.

A charming greenery of old English gardens was the bowling-green. We once had them in our colonies, as the name of a street in our greatest city now proves; and I deem them a garden fashion well-to-be-revived.

The laws of color preference differ with the size of expanses. Our broad fields often have pleasing expanses of leafage other than green, and flowers that are as all-pervading as foliage. Many flowers of the field have their day, when each seems to be queen, a short day, but its rights none dispute. Snow of Daisies, yellow of Dandelions, gold of Buttercups, purple pinkness of Clover, Innocence, Blue-eyed Grass, Milkweed, none reign more absolutely in every inch of the fields than that poverty stricken creature, the Sorrel. William Morris warns us that “flowers in masses are mighty strong color,” and must be used with much caution in a garden. But there need be no fear of massed color in a field, as being ever gaudy or cloying. An approach to the beauty and satisfaction of nature’s plentiful field may be artificially obtained as an adjunct to the garden in a flower-close sown or set with a solid expanse of bloom of some native or widely adopted plant. I have seen a flower-close of Daisies, another of Buttercups, one of Larkspur, one of Coreopsis. A new field tint, and a splendid one, has been given to us[Pg 241] within a few years, by the introduction of the vivid red of Italian clover. It is eagerly welcomed to our fields, so scant of scarlet. This clover was brought to America in the years 1824 et seq., and is described in contemporary publications in alluring sentences. I have noted the introduction of several vegetables, grains, fruits, berries, shrubs, and flowers in those years, and attribute this to the influence of the visit of Lafayette in 1824. Adored by all, his lightest word was heeded; and he was a devoted agriculturist and horticulturist, ever exchanging ideas, seeds, and plants with his American fellow-patriots and fellow-farmers. I doubt if Italian clover then became widely known; but our modern farmers now think well of it, and the flower lover revels in it.

The exigencies of rhyme and rhythm force us to endure some very curious notions of color in the poets. I think no saying of poet ever gave greater check to her lovers than these lines of Emily Dickinson:—

“Nature rarer uses yellow

Than another hue;

Saves she all of that for sunsets,

Prodigal of blue.

Spending scarlet like a woman,

Yellow she affords

Only scantly and selectly,

Like a lover’s words.”

I read them first with a sense of misapprehension that I had not seen aright; but there the words stood out, “Nature rarer uses yellow than another hue.” The writer was such a jester, such a tricky elf[Pg 242] that I fancy she wrote them in pure “contrariness,” just to see what folks would say, how they would dispute over her words. For I never can doubt that, with all her recluse life, she knew intuitively that some time her lines would be read by folks who would love them.

Pyrethrum i104_largePyrethrum

The scarcity of red wild flowers is either a cause or[Pg 243] an effect; at any rate it is said to be connected with the small number of humming-birds, who play an important part in the fertilization of many of the red flowers. There are no humming-birds in Europe; and the Aquilegia, red and yellow here, is blue there, and is then fertilized by the assistance of the bumblebee. Without humming-birds the English successfully accomplish one glorious sweep of red in the Poppies of the field; Parkinson called them “a beautiful and gallant red”—a very happy phrase. Ruskin, that master of color and of its description, and above all master of the description of Poppies, says:—

“The Poppy is the most transparent and delicate of all the blossoms of the field. The rest, nearly all of them, depend on the texture of their surface for color. But the Poppy is painted glass; it never glows so brightly as when the sun shines through it. Whenever it is seen, against the light or with the light, it is a flame, and warms the wind like a blown ruby.”

There is one quality of the Oriental Poppies which is very palpable to me. They have often been called insolent—Browning writes of the “Poppy’s red affrontery”; to me the Poppy has an angry look. It is wonderfully haughty too, and its seed-pod seems like an emblem of its rank. This great green seed-pod stands one inch high in the centre of the silken scarlet robe, and has an antique crown of purple bands with filling of lilac, just like the crown in some ancient kingly portraits, when the bands of gold and gems radiating from a great[Pg 244] jewel in the centre are filled with crimson or purple velvet. Around this splendid crowned seed-vessel are rows of stamens and purple anthers of richest hue.

We must not let any scarlet flower be dropped from the garden, certainly not the Geranium, which just at present does not shine so bravely as a few years ago. The general revulsion of feeling against “bedding out” has extended to the poor plants thus misused, which is unjust. I find I have spoken somewhat despitefully of the Coleus, Lobelia, and Calceolaria, so I hasten to say that I do not include the Geranium with them. I love its clean color, in leaf and blossom; its clean fragrance; its clean beauty, its healthy growth; it is a plant I like to have near me.

It has been the custom of late to sneer at crimson in the garden, especially if its vivid color gets a dash of purple and becomes what Miss Jekyll calls “malignant magenta.” It is really more vulgar than malignant, and has come to be in textile products a stamp and symbol of vulgarity, through the forceful brilliancy of our modern aniline dyes. But this purple crimson, this amarant, this magenta, especially in the lighter shades, is a favorite color in nature. The garden is never weary of wearing it. See how it stands out in midsummer! It is rank in Ragged Robin, tall Phlox, and Petunias; you find it in the bed of Drummond Phlox, among the Zinnias; the Portulacas, Balsams, and China Asters prolong it. Earlier in the summer the Rhododendrons fill the garden with color that on some of the bushes[Pg 245] is termed sultana and crimson, but it is in fact plain magenta. One of the good points of the Peony is that you never saw a magenta one.

This color shows that time as well as place affects our color notions, for magenta is believed to be the honored royal purple of the ancients. Fifty years ago no one complained of magenta. It was deemed a cheerful color, and was set out boldly and complacently by the side of pink or scarlet, or wall flower colors. Now I dislike it so that really the printed word, seen often as I glance back through this page, makes the black and white look cheap. If I could turn all magenta flowers pink or purple, I should never think further about garden harmony, all other colors would adjust themselves.

It has been the fortune of some communities to be the home of men in nature like Thoreau of Concord and Gilbert White of Selborne, men who live solely in love of out-door things, birds, flowers, rocks, and trees. To all these nature lovers is not given the power of writing down readily what they see and know, usually the gift of composition is denied them; but often they are just as close and accurate observers as the men whose names are known to the world by their writings. Sometimes these naturalists boldly turn to nature, their loved mother, and earn their living in the woods and fields. Sometimes they have a touch of the hermit in them, they prefer nature to man; others are genial, kindly men, albeit possessed of a certain reserve. I deem the community blest that has such a citizen, for his influence in promoting a love and study of nature is ever great. I have known[Pg 246] one such ardent naturalist, Arba Peirce, ever since my childhood. He lives the greater part of his waking hours in the woods and fields, and these waking hours are from sunrise. From the earliest bloom[Pg 247] of spring to the gay berry of autumn, he knows all beautiful things that grow, and where they grow, for hundreds of miles around his home.

Terraced Garden of Misses Nichols i105_largeTerraced Garden of Misses Nichols, Salem, Massachusetts

I speak of him in this connection because he has acquired through his woodland life a wonderful power of distinguishing flowers at great distance with absolute accuracy. Especially do his eyes have the power of detecting those rose-lilac tints which are characteristic of our rarest, our most delicate wild flowers, and which I always designate to myself as Arethusa color. He brought me this June a royal gift—a great bunch of wild fringed Orchids, another of Calopogon, and one of Arethusa. What a color study these three made! At the time their lilac-rose tints seemed to me far lovelier than any pure rose colors. In those wild princesses were found every tone of that lilac-rose from the faint blush like the clouds of a warm sunset, to a glow on the lip of the Arethusa, like the crimson glow of Mullein Pink.

My friend of the meadow and wildwood had gathered that morning a glorious harvest, over two thousand stems of Pogonia, from his own hidden spot, which he has known for forty years and from whence no other hand ever gathers. For a little handful of these flower heads he easily obtains a dollar. He has acquired gradually a regular round of customers, for whom he gathers a successive harvest of wild flowers from Pussy Willows and Hepatica to winter berries. It is not easily earned money to stand in heavy rubber boots in marsh mud and water reaching nearly to the waist, but after all it[Pg 248] is happy work. Jeered at in his early life by fools for his wood-roving tastes, he has now the pleasure and honor of supplying wild flowers to our public schools, and being the authority to whom scholars and teachers refer in vexed questions of botany.

I think the various tints allied to purple are the most difficult to define and describe of any in the garden. To begin with, all these pinky-purple, these arethusa tints are nameless; perhaps orchid color is as good a name as any. Many deem purple and violet precisely the same. Lavender has much gray in its tint. Miss Jekyll deems mauve and lilac the same; to me lilac is much pinker, much more delicate. Is heliotrope a pale bluish purple? Some call it a blue faintly tinged with red. Then there are the orchid tints, which have more pink than blue. It is a curious fact that, with all these allied tints which come from the union of blue with red, the color name comes from a flower name. Violet, lavender, lilac, heliotrope, orchid, are examples; each is an exact tint. Rose and pink are color names from flowers, and flowers of much variety of colors, but the tint name is unvarying.

Edward de Goncourt, of all writers on flowers and gardens, seems to have been most frankly pleased with the artificial side of the gardener’s art. He viewed the garden with the eye of a colorist, setting a palette of varied greens from the deep tones of the evergreens, the Junipers and Cryptomerias through the variegated Hollies, Privets and Spindle trees; and[Pg 249] he said that an “elegantly branched coquettishly variegated bush” seemed to him like a piece of bric-a-brac which should be hunted out and praised like some curio hidden on the shelf of a collector.

A lack of color perception seems to have been prevalent of ancient days, as it is now in some Oriental countries. The Bible offers evidence of this, and it has also been observed that the fragrance of flowers is nowhere noted until we reach the Song of Solomon. It is believed that in earliest time archaic men had no sense of color; that they knew only light and darkness. Mr. Gladstone wrote a most interesting paper on the lack of color sense in Homer, whose perception of brilliant light was good, especially in the glowing reflections of metals, but who never names blue or green even in speaking of the sky, or trees, while his reds and purples are hopelessly mixed. Some German scientists have maintained that as recently as Homer’s day, our ancestors were (to use Sir John Lubbock’s word) blue-blind, which fills me, as it must all blue lovers, with profound pity.

Arbor in a Salem Garden i106_largeArbor in a Salem Garden

The influence of color has ever been felt by other senses than that of sight. In the Cotton Manuscripts, written six hundred years ago, the relations and effects of color on music and coat-armor were laboriously explained: and many later writers have striven to show the effect of color on the health, imagination, or fortune. I see no reason for sneering at these notions of sense-relation; I am grateful for borrowed terms of definition for these beautiful things which are[Pg 250] so hard to define. When an artist says to me, “There is a color that sings,” I know what he means; as I do when my friend says of the funeral music in Tristan that “it always hurts her eyes.” Musicians compose symphonies in color, and artists paint pictures in symphonies. Musicians and authors acknowledge the domination of color and color terms; a glance at a modern book catalogue will prove it. Stephen Crane and other modern extremists depend upon color to define and describe sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, ideas, vices, virtues, traits, as well as sights. Sulphur-yellow is deemed an[Pg 251] inspiring color, and light green a clean color; every one knows the influence of bright red upon many animals and birds; it is said all barnyard fowl are affected by it. If any one can see a sunny bed of blue Larkspur in full bloom without being moved thereby, he must be color blind and sound deaf as well, for that indeed is a sight full of music and noble inspiration, a realization of Keats’ beautiful thought:—

“Delicious symphonies, like airy flowers

Budded, and swell’d, and full-blown, shed full showers

Of light, soft unseen leaves of sound divine.”