Saturday, July 8, 2023


 about some of our favorite plants?

It was a temptation for American gardeners to make the New World an image of the Old.  There were gardens here long before Europeans arrived, and some of our loveliest garden flowers are native to America.  Oregon Grape holly, Mahonia, was brought from the far west by Lewis and Clark and named by Thomas Nuttall after Bernard M'Mahon, a refugee from political persecution in Ireland.  M'Mahon found American gardening "in its infancy" and set to work to introduce a love of flowers and fruit.  M'Mahon developed a catalog while his wife presided over the busy shop.  In 1811, Thomas Jefferson wrote M'Mahon "I have an extensive flower border in which I am fond of placing handsome plants or fragrant.  Those of mere curiosity I do not aim at, having too many other cares to bestow more than a moderate attention to them."  The fragrant flowers of the mahonia look like yellow lily-of-the valley, the shiny holly-like leaves turn brilliant colors in autumn, and the blue-black fruit is edible and can make jelly or wine. Mahonia repens is creeping holly that is useful as a groundcover.  

The English called European asters both "asters" and "starworts".  Aster, Latin for "star", referred to the flower's star-like shape.  "Wort" originally meant "root" and then applied to plants that had healing properties.  Herbalist John Parkinson, said asters were good for "the biting of a mad dogge, the greene herbe being beaten with old hogs grease, and applyed."  Asters did not seem to have been noticed much until they were hybridized with European starworts.  They were later renamed "Michaelmas daisies" in Britain, because when the British finally adopted Gregorys XIII's revised calendar, the feast of Saint Michael coincided with their flowering. 

Considering that there is a Larkspur Neighborhood Association, a park, and soon to be developed, a Larkspur housing development, we should delve into the story behind the flower.  The American Larkspur, Delphinium nuttallianum  was found and named after Thomas Nuttall, (Oregon Grape guy) who explored and botanized in Oregon and northern California.  It was used by West Coast Indians to make a blue dye and by European settlers to make ink.  Nuttall was known as "Lefou" by contemporaries.  He canoed down rivers even though he could not swim and on one occasion his party was threatened with an Indian raid.  As they were getting ready to defend themselves, they found the barrel of Nuttall's gun was packed with dirt--he had been using it to dig up plants.

Lavender comes from the Latin lavare (to wash).  We are more likely to associate lavender with Lady Macbeth and the ladies of her court.  The old writers said that it would "comforte the bryne very well" and that you can "imbibe good humour" from it.  The herbalist John Gerard warned against its overuse by 'unlearned Physitians and---foolish women," but said that it would "helpe the panting and passion of the heart."  Whether this is true or not, a bed of lavender, or a handful of it in a drawer, is a comfort to the nose, the brain and the heart.  Lavender grows well in Central Oregon.  We have several large lavender farms, look for their products at your local farmers markets.

The annual OSU Garden Tour is just around the corner.  As you tour the gardens in Bend and Tumalo, take a good second look at the flowers and perhaps it may make you wonder but their history is.

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