Jill Severn's Gardening Column

A month for thinking


January is a month for thinking rather than doing. And Mirabel Osler’s book, A Gentle Plea for Chaos, has me thinking about surprising things.

For instance, who knew there is a patron saint of gardeners? His name was Saint Fiacre de Breuil. He began his life in about 600 AD. He became famous in Ireland for herbal cures of all manner of ailments, but then migrated to France, where he miraculously cleared a large area of land in a day with his staff. (A staff, in those days, was a sort of walking stick, not hired help.)  A woman who witnessed his land-clearing feat reported him for witchcraft, but his superiors were convinced of his holiness.

According to this annotated material in Wikipedia his abilities were wide-ranging:

“Saint Fiacre is the patron saint of the commune of Saint-FiacreSeine-et-MarneFrance. He is the patron of growers of vegetables and medicinal plants, and gardeners in general, including ploughboys.[11] His reputed aversion to women is believed to be the reason he is also considered the patron of victims of venereal disease.[10] He is further the patron of victims of hemorrhoids and fistulastaxi cab drivers, box makers, florists, hosiers, pewterers, tilemakers, and those suffering from infertility.[14] ”

I will wonder for the rest of my life why the patron saint of gardening was also blessed with such specialized and varied abilities. I never thought I would read the words “growers of vegetables, venereal disease, and taxi drivers” in the same paragraph.

My introduction to Joseph Rock

Osler’s book also introduced me to Joseph Rock. He had a miserable childhood in Austria and left home as an adolescent to resist his father’s pressure to become a priest. He immigrated to the United States in 1905. He was a loner and a genius, and apparently a difficult guy to get along with. Without attending college, he mastered many languages, as well as botany, anthropology, and photography. He landed in Hawaii in 1907 and spent 13 years cataloging the islands’ plants, teaching, and writing five books. This was followed by several decades of botanizing and writing about the cultures of western China and Tibet.

Rock was employed at times by the U. S. Department of Agriculture as an “agricultural explorer.” His botanizing was also funded by the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution. His collected photographs are held at Harvard; an herbarium in Hawaii is named for him, and numerous plant species bear his name. He’s even lauded in a poem by Ezra Pound.

So perhaps the varied abilities of Saint Fiacre are not as exceptional as I first thought. Now I’m wondering how many other botanical explorers there are to fire up a gardener’s imagination and to make us wonder where the plants we grow came from, and how they traveled from their native habitats to our gardens.

That’s plenty to learn, and plenty to think about as this week’s blanket of snow slowly melts off our gardens.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


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