All through history, women have been earth mothers


January 18, 1992|By Mike Klingaman

Cleopatra fell for Marc Anthony, but her real passion was roses: She covered the floor of her banquet hall with roses to a depth of nearly 2 feet.

Tropical plants intrigued the late Margaret Mee, a botanist who spent much of her life in the Amazon, painting endangered flora and living on packets of dried soup boiled in swamp water.

Dahlias won the heart of the Empress Josephine, who spent 3,000 francs for a single tuber for her famous French garden.

"Josephine collected plants like her husband Napoleon conquered countries," says Jennifer Bennett in her book, "Lilies of the Hearth," a study of the historical relationship between women and plants.

Theirs is a turbulent rapport spanning more than 6,000 years, says Ms. Bennett, garden editor of Harrowsmith magazine. Women and plants have shared good times and bad. Horticulture opened scientific doors for women early on. More than half of the botanists in 19th-century New England were women. Scant centuries before, however, they would have suffered terribly for dabbling with "magic" plants. Nine out of 10 of those executed for witchcraft were women.

Such was the fate of Dorothea, the female patron saint of gardening, who was beheaded for practicing witchcraft around 300 A.D.

In truth, says Ms. Bennett, these women herbalists "had a lot more on the ball than the physicians of the day. Yet their story is the darkest one in the history of women and plants.

"All through my research I saw all this wasted talent," she says. "Women's history [in horticulture] is sad, in a way."

Generally, until modern times, well-bred women who sought to study plants and flowers were more likely to end up making paper chrysanthemums or embroidered camellias. Very few genteel women, even those named Iris, Myrtle, Violet or Flora, could do more than smell the roses.

The irony, says the author, is that "Mother Nature and Mother Earth are decidedly and forever female."

A 19th-century German countess wrote:

"I wish with all my heart that I were a man, for of course the first thing I should do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doing everything for my flowers with my own hands."

It wasn't always so. Agriculture was mainly women's work until 4000 B.C., and even during the Middle Ages, vegetable and herb gardens were often theirs to cultivate. But the Renaissance ended all that. Now, flowers were in and females were out of the garden.

By the 15th century, says the author, "the decorative garden, like the decorative woman, was put on display."

There were exceptions. Botany flourished quietly in convent gardens, where nuns raised plants to cure the sick, and in the New World, where pioneer women helped tame the wilderness with hoe and seeds. Their efforts did not go unnoticed by the menfolk. "The path of a good woman is indeed strewn with flowers," wrote one, "but [the flowers] rise behind her steps, not before them."

Alas, little is known of these women, or of countless others who

labored in their gardens for thousands of years before them. Yet there are horticultural heroines here, surely enough to begin a Women's Gardening Hall of Fame.

There is Hildegarde, a 12th-century abbess who published Germany's first natural history text, and Jane Colden, America's first female botanist whose 18th-century notebooks are filled with wondrous descriptions of plants in her native New York.

There is Gertrude Jekyll, the 19th-century Englishwoman who designed more than 350 gardens, and Vita Sackville-West, who took a rundown garden littered with sardine tins and weeds and made it one of Britain's finest. Sixty years later, that garden remains at Sissinghurst Castle.

Of all these women, who would the author most like to meet?

"One of the witches," says Ms. Bennett. "I'd love to know how they mixed up their stuff, and what it was used for."

"Lilies of the Hearth" is available in paperback in bookstores, or from Camden House Books; (800) 344-3350 ($14.95).

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