Archives for December 2017

Newport Mansions Feature Christmas Poinsettias

Newport mansions feature Christmas poinsettias.

Everyone knows that Newport, Rhode Island is home to the grand mansions of America’s Gilded Age.

Right now three of the mansions have taken on a festive holiday look.

Until January 1 you can visit these three Newport mansions, The Breakers, Elms, and Marble House, decked out in lights and the holiday colors of red, green, and gold. The Preservation Society of Newport County, the group that oversees eleven historical properties in Newport, has made this holiday display at the mansions available to visitors for more than twenty-five years.

Decorated Christmas trees dot the rooms of the mansions. The trees sometimes surprise you when you turn a corner and see a tall evergreen decked in gold and red as in the Gothic Room of Marble House.

The dining room tables are set with period silver and china, and individual white candles illuminate the windows. Christmas wreaths and evergreens decorate walls.

Three thousand poinsettias add color to the rooms of the three houses. The plants, grown in the Preservation Society’s own greenhouse,

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

are removed and replaced several times during the six-week holiday season to ensure the displays remain fresh.

The poinsettias at The Breakers really stole the show for me.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, built in 1895, for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad.

Its interior includes rich marbles and gilded rooms, mosaic tile floors and ceilings, and open-air terraces with magnificent ocean views.

In the Grand Hall of The Breakers stands a 15-foot tree made of red poinsettias. The room with its walls of yellow stone and a 50-foot high ceiling that seems to go up forever shines with the red color of the poinsettia.

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas Tree to the left

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas tree, made of poinsettias, to the left

When The Breakers was built, the poinsettia, originally from Mexico, had become popular throughout the country.

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist, who introduced the poinsettia to the garden industry, once said that it was “truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen.”

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876.

Meehan said that this plant “has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

And that is truly what you find at The Breakers. The blossoms of the poinsettias brighten up the mansion in a holiday spirit.

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Early Monasteries Encouraged Flowers

Early monasteries encouraged flowers.

The early monasteries of Europe like that of St. Benedict, founded in the sixth century, included walled gardens.

Benedict is recognized as the founder of Christian monasticism. Today the Benedictine order is one of the largest in the Catholic Church.

Monastery hallway [Thanks to Pexels]

The early monasteries of that period also cultivated flowers for religious decoration.

Jack Goody says in his book The Culture of Flowers, “It was mainly the monastic branch of the church that came to advance horticulture and eventually nourished their production and use.

“Monastic gardens harbored not only fruit, vegetable and shade trees, but plants later to be destined for the decoration of altars on holy days. Many of the early monastic gardens concentrated on flowers for their medicinal properties and the related culinary ones.

“That was a slow process that covered some thousand years.”

Eventually it would become second nature for churches to use flower decorations and displays with other plants like cuttings of evergreens.

The practice of decorating the altar and the sanctuary along with the outside of the church is now an accepted custom.

Now it’s that time of year when churches decorate for Christmas. 

A reader wrote to New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) in 1879 and said,  “We have for years trimmed our church for Christmas, using about twelve hundred feet of Hemlock wreathing.”

During this Christmas season we think nothing of using poinsettias to brighten the church sanctuary.

The poinsettia, introduced in the mid-ninetenth century to the nursery trade, is now a staple of Christmas church decoration.

The Benedictine nun St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) encouraged the well-being of soul, body, and mind with the flowers and herbs she grew in her monastery garden.

When you think about it, the accepted practice of cultivating flowers in the garden owes a bit of thanks to these early monasteries of Europe.  

They encouraged flower gardening at a time when many cultures shunned it.

Goody says, “Gradually, through the course of the Middle Ages, Europe experienced a revival of the garden and the garland, as well as of botany and of gardening.”

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Pompeii Treasured Flowers

Pompeii Treasured Flowers

Among the ruins of the city of Pompeii, near Naples, I was impressed with evidence of how people cultivated trees, shrubs, and flowers.

Here is a photo from my visit to Pompeii. [below]

The streets of Pompeii today

What amazed me was that Pompeii, a colony of Rome by the time of its destruction in A. D. 79,  knew and appreciated horticulture quite early.

It was a time when many other cultures avoided even depicting something as simple as a flower because that was what pagans did, they claimed, especially in their rites of idolatry.  Muslims, Christians, and Jews avoided any link to pagan practices.

That seems strange because eventually Christianity adapted pagan rituals and holidays, reinterpreting them for the spread of the faith.  The celebration of Christmas is a good example.

Jack Goody writes in his book The Culture of Flowers: “In antiquity flowers were grown in Pompeii for two main reasons: for garlands (coronae) and for perfume (odor).”

The streets of Pompeii are still there, as well as images of plants in frescoes that I saw in some of the homes.

Plants, including flowers, were important to the various classes of the people of Pompeii

Goody writes, “Cultivated flowers are essentially products of advanced agriculture, of gardening, so we rarely find them under simple hoe agriculture…The growth of the culture of flowers represents a growth of the standard of living of the rich.”

Flowers in Pompeii provided the color in garlands worn on the head, and the scent of perfume for the body.

Cultures over the centuries have used flowers according to the tenets of their moral principles. The Roman use of flowers, as at Pompeii, differed from other contemporary cultures both in the East and the West.

 

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Walled Garden Origin Spands Centuries

Walled garden origin spands centuries.

Recently I have been reading about the connection between culture and flowers.

What I have discovered is that flowers have played a different role in cultures around the world over the centuries.

Some countires, like Africa, once had little little interest in flowers, probably because their main concern about plants centered on agriculture for such a long time.

In the process I also discovered a history of the walled garden, which developed over centuries and contact with various cultures.

My source has been Jack Goody’s book simply called The Culture of Flowers.

 

Goody writes, “The enclosed garden or hortus conclusus of twelfth-century Europe looked back to Biblical sources but was modeled in part upon Eastern, and ultimately Persian, examples revealed to the West during the Crusades as well as travelers in Sicily, North Africa, and Spain.”

When I visited the historic gardens of England, like Rousham from the 18th century, I saw an enclosed garden. [below]

 

Rousham’s Walled Garden

When I was in the walled garden, I felt like I was in another age and time.  The enclosed feeling meant relief and escape, as well as privacy.

Goody writes, “While the walled garden of Europe had other roots, Islamic models in southern Spain, Sicily and the Mediterranean were important for the revival of the culture of flowers in its form, its contents and in its attitudes towards their use.”

Many classical English gardens built such a walled garden, often to grow vegetables and herbs.  Flowers were eventually added to this garden as well.

Even George Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, included a walled garden.

Washington admired the modern English garden, often featuring a walled garden, long a tradition by then.

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