IMG_0559May Day, May Day!

By Mary Jo

A recent Wench blog by Christina had us describing our personal Easter customs and memories, which I much enjoyed, though I didn't have much to contribute. (I forgot to mention that we dye Easter eggs.  And then devil and eat them. <G>)

But it got me to thinking about a little custom that I hadn't thought about in literally decades: my older sister and I making little paper cones, putting in a few flowers, generally daffodils since not much else was blooming then in Upstate New York, and taking them around to the neighbors.  We lived on a rural road with not many houses within walking distance, but it was a pleasant little custom.

I remember one year when my sister had outgrown the custom so I went around on my own.  There were a lot of Polish immigrants in our area of Western New York because there was plenty of good farm land.  I didn't notice much difference in the kids at my school except that the Polish kids tended to be blonder. But many had Polish grandmothers at home. 

On this particular year, I went to a small house on the corner of the state highway where we lived and a nearby dirt road. The little house had been a schoolhouse once, and my own father once was a student there.  (When I think back, this is all pretty remarkable but at the time it was perfectly natural.)


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Memory & Flowers

Anne here, taking a wander through the garden and considering the way so many flowers and fragrances evoke other times, other people. Many of the plants in my garden have come from cuttings or plant divisions or gifts from other people's gardens, and as well as bringing their own beauty and scent to my garden, they evoke memories of those people, some of whom are long gone. Daphne

My daphne is a little bit sick at the moment, and I'm very anxious about it. It grew from a cutting descended from a cutting taken from the daphne that grew in my grandmother's garden many years ago. My mum saved the plant and took cuttings and gave them to friends and family. I adore the scent of daphne, and now every time I smell that divine smell, I think of Nan and Mum. Let's hope I can cure my plant of whatever ails it.

My gardenia came from a cutting from the mother of one of my oldest school friends. She had a wonderful gardenia bush that flowered prolifically every year.


I must have mentioned at some stage how much I loved the scent of gardenias because she never forgot it. Her husband was a very important man, but each year when the gardenia came into flower, she'd make up a beautiful little packet of them, sealed in cellophane, and make him detour on his way to work to drop it off at my place — even when I was living in a shabby student share-house. My gardenia is from a cutting from her plant, and each year when it flowers, I think of Winnie.

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In Praise of Porches Revisited

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

Being crazy busy, I thought I'd invoke Wench Privilege to run a classic blog, and I came across this, one of the earliest blogs I ever wrote way back in 2006.   I decided to update it with new pictures, mentioning what has changed, and what has not.  

One of the signature features of newish American homes is the deck—a broad sweep of wood on which one can slap mosquitoes, dodge wasps, burn slabs of animal flesh over a grill, and wreck one’s skin.  From which description you may correctly deduce that I’m not a big fan of decks.  <g>

Deck flowersWhen I moved into this house 13 (now 22!) years ago, it was in possession of a small deck that was a very nice staging area for my pots and pots of flowers.  I am by no means the gardener that Jo and Pat are, but I grew up on a farm and I take deep, rather mindless pleasure in watering my flowers and pinching off the dead blossoms and generally maintaining at least a minimal connection with nature.

But I never, ever, actually sat on that deck.  Being right by trees, it had way too many bugs, and since I’m a pasty Anglo-Saxon who hates sitting in the sun, it was too hot for most of the summer.  (I have now reached the age where all that youthful sun-avoidance is paying off.  Who knew that not playing the “my tan is darker than your tan” game would have such benefits? <g>)

Since the original deck was in the process of slowly falling to pieces, I spent years trying to decide what to do about it.  A screened porch would be lovely—I adored sitting on a friend’s screened porch and admiring the squirrels and relaxing without bugs or sunburns.  But a screened porch would eliminate my summer flowers and winter bird feeders.

Deck 2Last summer, I finally figured out how to improve and upgrade my connection to the great outdoors: make it bigger.  Through pure luck, I found a fabulous remodeler who was looking for a smallish project to fill in some time, and he built me a small but beautiful screened porch with a narrow open deck extension just big enough for my flowers and birdfeeder.  Plus, he installed a window in the dining room so I could see my birds and flowers.   (What’s the point of flowers if you can’t see them???)

I adore my screened porch.  I bought some ultra comfortable chairs and added good lighting and whenever feasible, I like to sit out there and read and enjoy the breeze and trees.  Or maybe read research books after finishing the newspaper.  

The ideal is what the Mayhem Consultant calls “Goldilocks weather”—not too hot, not too cold, but juuuuuust right.  Naturally the weather doesn’t always cooperate, but with fleece throws stored in a porch cabinet and a ceiling fan, I can expand the acceptable temperature range quite a bit.

Reggie on the RailBut my lovely porch is by no means free of distractions.  My favorite are the rare hummingbirds who buzz by like hyperkinetic little green helicopters.  Very fond they are of my red and purple flowers.  Once I heard a slight sound and looked up to see a tiny goldfinch perched sideways on the screen about 18” above my head, its feathers lemon bright.  Most of the other birds are what they call “common birds”—robins, sparrows, maybe a cardinal or nuthatch—but that’s okay, I’m pretty common, too, and I love watching them darting and chattering in the white pines that almost touch the porch.

UPDATE:  Sadly, I no longer have bird feeders because after prolonged battle, the squirrels won.  The furry little marauders would attack the bird feeders and scatter all the seeds within hours, leaving none for the birds.  I don't mind so much the squirrels having some, but I hated the way they despoiled everything.  To avoid a nervous breakdown, I surrendered.  No more bird feeders, so now there are fewer birds.

The sliding door to the living room has to be kept open six inches no matter what the heat so the cats can come and go.  Grady likes to sprawl on the table top, master of all he surveys.  Lacey slinks out like a furry serpent, her green eyes darting in all directions as she looks for threats.  They both go into a kind of holy trance when they see chipmunks, which the cats probably define as “lunch.”  <g>  They aren’t as interested in the squirrels, who must look too much like a fair fight.

Smokey on the RailingUPDATE: The cats have changed. Sweet Grady is gone and Lacey, who is quite the old girl now, seldom comes outside anymore.  But Grady was replaced by three other rescue tomcats, and they all love it out here!

ly, since I acquired my screened porch, I find that many, many people really love screened porches, but most of the time, they don’t have one.  They have decks. <g>  A friend said she’d love a screened porch, but screening in part of her deck wouldn’t look good, so she’ll stick with her deck, which she never uses.  Me, I'll go for comfort and convenience every time.

The writing life has its downsides, as all jobs do.  Cash flow can be grim, one works in a Panda on the Ottomanbusiness that defines the term “thin ice,” and one spends most of one’s time either writing, thinking about writing, or feeling guilty about not writing.  <g>  But there are some really major pluses, too.  And one of them is being able to work on one’s porch.  

Mary Jo, who actually wrote this inside on her desktop because it’s HOT out there.

MJP UPDATE 2015:  Today is Goldilocks weather!  The Mayhem consultant and I enjoyed coffee, ice cream, and a nice bit of reading after supper in the company of the three tomcats.  And when I was watering the deck flowers, a hummingbird buzzed by.<G>

Are you a lover of porches?  Particularly screened NotAlwaysASaint--finished coverporches?  Or do you prefer decks, or perhaps nothing at all?  Let me know your preferences, and I'll give an ARC (advance reading copy) of my September book, Not Always a Saint, to one person who comments between now and Saturday midnight.

Mary Jo

Seed Catalogs

Burpee seed catalog

a season of catalogs

Joanna here, being topical.

My seed catalogs have arrived. This is the first sign of spring for me — not a sighting of the first robin — the sighting of the first seed catalogs. Now the truth of the matter is I don’t so much buy seeds and plant them. I live on stony, steep ground here and grow my plants in a few miserable little pots. But I dream with these catalogs. I meditate upon all the wondrous flowers and vegetables I’m growing in my mind rather than in reality.

Anyhow, this got me thinking about woman gardeners in 1800 or so. The eons’ old association of women and healing

Wenches ‘Catastrophe in the Conservatory’ by Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1816

our lady gardener is ANGRY

plants, edible garden herbs, and flowery borders made them natural gardeners. About at this time botany got an intellectual boots with the Linnaean system of plant classification. Thank heavens this was one ‘science’ considered suitable for genteel women. They began collecting plants and writing about them. We have pictures of these women carrying their watering cans — dressed in a way we’d consider problematic for gardening work — headed out to botanize.

I delight to imagine the glasshouses filled with interesting specimens and women tending and caring for them. Studying them. Learning how to grow the most troublesome of their charges. Describing the exotics. Writing, y’know, monographs and papers.

Not that it was easy for them to be taken seriously. I’m just going to mention here that the British Zoological Society and the British Entomological Society (—bugs, yipee —) admitted women in 1829 and 1833, respectively, the Linnaean Society didn't until 1904, which seems rather latish, doesn’t it?

The actual tilling of soil and sowing of seed, digging holes for the odd tree or bush, and pruning of ornamental shrubbery on an estate would fall to a band of hearty young men. The lady of the house would be in the enviable position of strolling through the aspen-studded woodland, past the ha-ha, and along the herbaceous border pointing out to Old Mr. Wenches fair florest Grim the Head Gardener where to put 250 yellow tulips. She wouldn’t so much do the work herself. It would be three or four generations past 1800 before kneeling down and weeding the bed of mangelwurzels would be considered a proper hobby for the well-to-do.

(Mangelwurzel, from German mangel ‘beet’ and wurzel ‘root’, moves into English along with the beets in about 1770. Now you know.) 

Now me, I like to get my hands in the soil and somewhat pity those distant forebearers who never had this pleasure. It's part of what I anticipate in the early days of spring. Like today.

What are you looking forward to with your plants this spring? Anything new and fun?

One lucky commenter will win a copy of one of my books — your choice    

Books, Blooms and Blossoms

 SumBouquet.WC Too-Tempting-To-Resist-Final Cara/Andrea here, There’s an old saying—‘April showers bring May flowers’ . . . which in my mind is a very Good Thing because I have a new book about to bloom in which flowers play a prominent role. In TOO TEMPTING TO RESIST, which officially releases May 1, (though many of the online stores have it available April 24th) both the Yellow-flowerhero and heroine have an interest in gardens. Eliza is a superb botanical illustrator and Gryffin—Gryff to his friends—has a secret passion for landscape design. They can speak knowledgeably on ha-ha walls, decorative follies, and ornamental planting  . . . and they are also conversant in the secret language of flowers.

Flowers speak, you might ask? They do—and quite eloquently, I might add!

GDaRifPinkFlwrsGridThe concept of a language of flowers has been around from the days of antiquity. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered hawthorne blossoms a symbol hope and marriage, and it was common at wedding ceremonies. China and the Ottoman Empire had its own complex symbolism and myths, some of which were brought back to medieval Europe by the Crusaders.

MaryWortleyMontaguBut it was Lady Mary Wortley Montague who is credited with bringing the concept of a ‘language” of flowers to England in 1718. The wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, Lady Montagu, (A fascinating woman in her own right who is credited with being the first woman to write about the Orient) penned a series of letters to friends at home describing the Turkish custom of sending messages through Petuniasobjects, including flowers. These letters were published as a book in 1763, shortly after her death, and explained the nuances of selam, which was a complex system by which the flower or object sent didn’t actually symbolize a concept, but rather it was a more of a word play—for example a pear would rhyme with despair, so that was the message. (Sound awfully complicated to me, but apparently the harems were hotbeds of intrigue and innuendo so it I suppose it provided a more secretive way of communicating.)

RoseInRainIn Europe, the notion that lovers could communicate with each other through a “secret” language seemed to strike a romantic chord, and through the late 1700s and early 1800s. the concept developed into one where each individual type of bloom took on a specific meaning. One of the first books on this “floriography,” is credited Charlotte de Latour, a Frenchwoman who published a little handbook on the subject in 1819.

HydrangeaBut the real heyday for communicating with flowers was the Victorian era. Most people were familiar with concept—and woe be to the fellow who sent his sweetheart the wrong blooms! Women often carried tiny bouquets called “tussie-mussies” on their daily outings, with which to compose little messages to the friends they would be seeing. Handbooks sprouted up in every bookshop, presenting extensive lists on the meaning of a vast array of individual flowers. (It should be pointed out that there is actually no definitive list—they all vary somewhat, though most of the standard blooms, like roses and lilies, gave come to have a universal  symbolism.)

Red-roseNow, we all know that a red rose means true love. But did you know that 15 red roses signifies an apology? Or that 108 red roses is a proposal of marriage. How about that a pink rose means ‘perfect happiness’ and also ‘friendship, or a rhododendron bloom symbolizes ‘beware’ or ‘danger, or a hydrangea says ‘thank you for understanding’?

Here’s a short excerpt from the beginning of  TOO TEMPTING TO RESIST in which Gyff, my hero, gives a little primer on flowers to his friend Sara Hawkins, who happens to own one of London’s most notorious gaming hell and brothel.

   “Oh, I’m so glad ye stopped by for a visit, sir. The Wolfhound has always said ye have a discerning eye fer art, so I’m anxious to get yer opinion on this.” Sara Hawkins stripped the last of the wrappings from around a gilt-framed watercolor painting and let out an admiring whistle. “Don’t ye think it will look lovely hanging in the Eros Bedchamber?”
   BreakfastRoseGryffin Owain Dwight, the Marquess of Haddan, shrugged out of his overcoat and came over to take a look. “You intend to hang that in there?” A dark brow shot up. “I wouldn’t advise it.”
   “Why not?” Sara sounded a little crestfallen. “Roses are my favorite flower and this one is awfully pretty.”
   “Indeed it is. But in the secret language of flowers, red roses symbolize love—a sentiment that would likely make a number of your patrons rather nervous,” said Gryff dryly. Patrons was putting it politely, seeing as Sara’s establishment was one of the most notorious gambling hells and brothels in London. “If you must pick a rose for a decorative touch, make it an orange one.”
   “And what does that mean?”
   Rhodo“Fascination.” He curled a wicked smile. “Better yet, find a print of a yellow iris, which means ‘passion.’ Or sweetpea, which means ‘blissful pleasure.’”
    She let out a snort of laughter.
    “Or a peach blossom, which means ‘I am your captive.’”
    “Fancy that.” Setting aside the painting, Sara perched a shapely hip on the sideboard and gave the marquess her full attention. “Now who would have ever guessed that flowers could talk.”
    Gryff nodded gravely. “And then there is the grapevine . . .”
    “Which means?” Sara leaned forward, her eyes widening in anticipation.
    “Which means, ‘I am very thirsty so do you have any more of that expensive Scottish malt stashed away in your private cupboard?’”
    A crumpled kidskin glove hit him square in the chest. “Oh, ye horrid man! Here I thought I was learning some fancy bit of knowledge. But ye was just pulling my corset strings.”

Regency-lady-with-flowers QuALace1My heroine Eliza, who is dealing with her selfish spendthrift younger brother, is not in quite as playful a mood as the story opens:
    Unsure whether to laugh or weep, Eliza set her elbows on the table and took her head in her hands. Otherwise she might have been tempted to hurl the earthenware jug of flowers at his head. Was there a bloom that symbolized ‘bumbleheaded idiot?’
    “Harry,” she said slowly. “Let me try to phrase this simply, so that even your fuzzed wits might understand. Our coffers are nigh on empty. The farmlands are in a state of shambles from neglect. The butcher is threatening to cut off credit, and . . .” She paused to pick up a stack of bills “And your tailor and bootmaker are asking for a sum that would likely launch a four-deck ship of the line for His Majesty’s Navy.”
    Her brother’s lower lip jutted out in a petulant pout. “A fellow has to cut a fine dash in Town.”
    “Yes, well, your ‘dash’ is going to run us straight to the sponging house.”
    “Can’t you do something?” he whined. “What about your paintings? I thought you made some blunt illustrating those silly little flower books.”
    Poppies3WCEliza looked away. The silly little flower books were, in fact, an impressive set of beautiful quarto-sized books on English wildflowers, written by a noted authority from Merton College.
    And yes, she had been paid—quite nicely in fact. But she would be damned if a penny more of her hard-earned savings went to fund Harry’s debaucheries. She was getting close—oh-so close—to saving enough to buy a snug little cottage of her own in the Lake District. A place where she could live independently at last, free from the grasping demands of the men in her life.
   Red-rose-2Another commission was pending, and if her work was chosen, the dream might actually be within her grasp . . .

So what’s you favorite flower? (If you are interested in what it “says”, you can explore the full bouquet of meanings here.) Do you care what it symbolizes? Or are you just as happy to appreciate it for its physical beauty?

Please chime in! I’ll be giving away a copy of TOO TEMPTING TO RESIST to one lucky person chosen at random from those who leaves a comment below between now and Saturday evening.