Flowers and Herbs of Early America

flowers and herbs

Gardener Larry Griffith and Photographer Barbara Lombardi summon botanic phantoms and capture their essence on film.


Harmony Hunter: Welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter, filling in this week for Lloyd Dobyns. We have two guests with us today, Curator of Plants Larry Griffith - welcome Larry - and Colonial Williamsburg photographer Barbara Lombardi, and they’re here today to talk about a book, a new book, “Flowers and Herbs of Early America,” which I’m holding with me here.

How would you describe this book? I almost want to call it an encyclopedia with brilliant photography.

Larry Griffith: It’s not quite encyclopedic, because we’ve only featured 56 plants of early America. We chose those plants because they photographed well. They’re all relevant to early America, but the plants were chosen because they photographed well. They made a beautiful book.

Barbara Lombardi: I discovered the garden and I couldn’t help but start shooting it and bringing the photos in and blowing them up and then I had the idea that it would make a good book, so we went from there.

Harmony: What gave you the idea? How did it start?

Larry: The Mars Foundation, which are the family who produces Mars candy, gave me a grant in 2001 to pursue research into early American plants. That involved a trial garden in the Historic Area and research into primary and secondary sources. The idea was to identify new plants and authenticate old plants, and also to establish a planting method, which is direct seeding of the seed in the soil, rather than a greenhouse, which I succeeded in doing. All the plants in the book were raised from seed, in the ground, in situ.

Harmony: So let’s talk about that, your method. Tell me about the way that you approached growing these plants, and how it might be different than the way that a gardener today might grow a garden.

Larry: I put a lot of work into my soil. I spade the soil 12 inches deep first, and then I break up those clods either manually or with a mantis two-cycle tiller. Most times I’ll do it manually and add 50 to 75 percent new compost. I’m adding a lot of organic matter. I’m adding a lot of chicken manure and raising my beds up six inches tall. It’s so the tilth, which is the density of the soil, is so light that it becomes like flour. So I get great germination because of that.

It’s a little different from the way modern people garden. They go to the garden centers and buy cell packs, and usually put them in moderately good or poor soil and ... The drawback is that this method involves a lot of daily watering, thinning, weeding. It’s very tedious. But the upside is that you can spend $200 on seed and get thousands of dollars in plants if you were to buy them as perennials.

Harmony: So Barbara, when you came into the garden ...

Barbara: I first came in 2002, because I didn’t, I think I just came to work here in ’99, so, I was just out shooting stock, and I noticed, I just like gardens. But I did happen upon Larry’s, and I thought, “Well.” I went into it and a lot of the flowers on the earlier varieties of flowers and herbs that he had in the garden, the flowers are very tiny.

So you have to really get down in there and see the complexity of it. Once I started shooting it, I got a macro lens and got even closer, and that’s like falling down the rabbit hole. It’s just a whole different world. You come up dizzy and wondering. It’s just such a good experience and I love the detail in all the flowers.

Harmony: I love the way that you capture sort of the underside of a leaf, or the stages of a four-o-clock as it opens as it progresses through the day. Did you find certain plants were more cooperative and others you had to struggle to find that interest?

Barbara: Well, I like green, too. The foliage is a big part of it. Some of it was very tiny. You go out really, really early in the morning. You wait for that sweet sun to come up, the best part. It’s usually still, and you usually have the natural dew. If it’s rained the night before, you have a nice glisten on them. It’s not real hard.

Larry planted the garden so that it was easy for me to get around in it. There’s nice wide paths, and um, so it was really a nice garden to shoot in. As we went along in the years, we were even more mindful. We’d put certain plants that didn’t catch the sun quite right, we’d put them in a better spot.

Larry: I think in terms of the way the flowers were photographed, I use the word in the book “the architecture of the flowers.” Flowers have a three-dimensional quality to them.

Barbara: Yeah, and so just capturing the angles and shooting in different ways in the sun, catching it either on the front side or the back side, I like backlit things. Any time you have special weather like fog or snow, or in spring, everything’s fresh and green and really anxious for the season. So it’s, you just go out and capture those moments. So to capture the way it was, I think, it’s patience, a lot of patience.

Larry: And we like bugs in the pictures.

Barbara: Yes, they’re an important part of the garden.

Harmony: Tell me more about bugs. What are you doing, are you trying to follow 18th-century practices as far as pest control, or did you go ahead and allow yourself to ...

Larry: I never had the need for pest control. I was growing 70 species of plants at a time, which meant that I was probably attracting beneficial insects. I wasn’t growing a monoculture of anything, which leads to pathology, which leads to disease.

Harmony: So when you say monoculture, you mean I’ve planted a whole field of one type of ...

Larry: Right. And that leads to one pathogen can wipe that out. And I was growing 70 species. I had a problem here or there and I pulled the plant. Because out of 70 species, pulling one species didn’t result in a tragedy. So I never used any pesticides, never had to.

Harmony: Tell me more about that test garden, what were you trying to find out?

Larry: Trying to find out how these plants, how well these plants germinated from seed, what they actually looked like, because a lot of these plants are on these old plant lists, and we’ve seen them 20, 30, 40 years ago but we haven’t seen them recently. How they performed, how well we can now grow them in greenhouses, put them cell packs and get them into gardens, and how long they flower.

These flowers are not modern hybrids. They don’t flower for six months. So we need to know how long they do flower, and whether we’ll need two or three crops of the same thing a season, rather than one crop of a modern hybrid marigold, which you can’t use anyway. So the purpose of the book was to find plants that we can use in the gardens.

Harmony: How did you know what plants would be authentic to the time period?

Larry: There are about 11 historic plant lists that are relatively well-known, which gives me a very limited palette. Then I found two or three-four original sources of plants. Also, I would just google plant names, I was sort of working at it from both ends. From kind of a randomized end, and this 18th-century plant list end.

A lot of times I’d find European herbs, European flowers, and try to find an American reference for it. A lot of times I did, a lot of times I didn’t. A lot of times we know plants were growing in 18th-century England, and we’re just not growing over here, which is disappointing for me.

Harmony: I want to hear from both of you on this: what surprised you in this process?

Barbara: I think it was, got me up early, you know. Just to see what was going on in the garden. It’s exciting. I love photography, and I liked finding the little mysteries in the garden, and um, call up Larry and say, “What was that that I shot?” So I’ve learned a lot about gardens and flowers and herbs, more than I ever thought I would. I look forward to that every day.

Larry: The biggest deal for me was finding out what a lot of people already know, that the birth of botany goes back to the third century B.C. A lot of colonial plants are in that Greek herbal of 300 B.C. Iris is a Greek name, and Daphne’s a Greek name, Asphodel is a Greek name.

I just became really enamored of this tradition of colonial plants having Greek origins. Vitex, our blue-flowered shrubs, our blue-flowered summer shrub is an ancient Greek shrub. There’s sort of a poetry in those names. So I see this botanic link going from the colonials, back to the Renaissance, back to the ancient times, very explicitly.

Harmony: Did you have anything that emerged as a puzzle throughout the process? Was there something you thought you should be able to find, something you thought would thrive, but didn’t?

Larry: The greatest hurdle here in Virginia here is heat. I found some plants that thrive in the heat, which were really cool.

Harmony: Like what?

Larry: Pentapetes, or scarlet mallow. Jefferson uses it in 1811.

Harmony: Has this changed the way that you garden, the way that you look at your flowerbeds at home?

Barbara: Oh yeah. I’ve got some of the same flowers in my garden, too, where I can stick them in where they catch a little bit more sun than the other areas. Oh yeah, and I go into the gardening nurseries and I go, “No, I don’t think that one.” And I, so I can discern which ones I want in the garden and which ones I don’t a little better. So I’m better educated now because of this book and all of Larry’s great information.

Harmony: Larry, how about you? If somebody looks at this book, what do you hope that they’ll get out of it?

Larry: I think I have three hopes. One is that they can do what I did. They can come away with what I did. There’s a list of seed sources in the back of the book, and I give pretty explicit directions about how to do it.

Second of all, I think they’ll learn that every plant has a story.

Thirdly, this is another reference book. We made a great attempt to footnote it. Every citation is accurate, because I wanted people behind me to be able to look at the sources and be able to do what I did and be able to replicate what I did. It’s not a secret. My work at the foundation is for the public good.

Harmony: Are you still growing and testing?

Larry: Yes. I have 36 plants seeded in the ground right now.

Harmony: Where can people see your test garden if they’re going to come visit?

Larry: If you walk out of the front entrance of the Williamsburg Inn and cross the street there on Colonial Street, you pass the Lewis house, which is a guest house, on the right. In that backyard are my test plots.

Harmony: And we’ll see you in there, weeding?

Larry: Weeding, watering, thinning, seeding, mowing the grass.

Barbara: And if you get up early enough, you might see me laying in the dirt, or in the grass areas, shooting into the flowers. Yeah, we’ll be there.

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