The Cloisters, New York

I have been stockpiling garden travel stories from this summer, waiting for the shorter, gray days of autumn to revisit some of my favorite garden treks.  Before I take you on this short trip I ask that you take a deep breath, hold it, slowly exhale and relax. If you had a crazy day repeat as needed. Are you in your Zen space? Good. Then let’s begin.

At the northern edge of Manhattan Island, far removed from the shops, lights and pulse of the city, is a place as near to tranquility as I have found when not on a woodland hike or tending a garden. Resting atop a four acre overlook of the Hudson River in Fort Tyron Park, sits the Cloisters, a museum dedicated to medieval art and gardens.  The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, features three distinct medieval gardens planted within the reconstructed Romanesque and Gothic cloisters.

The museum is a collection of ruins and architectural elements collected across Europe by George Grey Barnard and later brought to its present location by John D. Rockefeller Jr. For many, it is as close to a medieval monastery as we will experience. More than attractive, reflective gardens, the cloister gardens are the center of in-depth research conducted by dedicated horticulturalists. Studying the plants within the three cloister gardens opens the door to medieval gardening and history.
Trie Cloister Garden

A cloister is an open-air courtyard surrounded by covered passageways. The word cloister comes from the Latin word claustrum, a closed, barred or bolted place. The yard enclosed within the arcade is known as a garth. Cloister garths in medieval religious establishments were sunny, sheltered spaces where the monks or nuns could enjoy the day, meditate and tend to their gardens without leaving the confines of their dwelling.

The subway ride to the museum was uneventful. After an impromptu tour of the local neighborhood and a trek up the drive in the heat, the cool and quiet of the museum was welcoming. After touring a few rooms I settled in for lunch at a small café of sorts surrounding the Trie Cloister garden.
Trie Cloister Garden

The Trie Cloister garden is one continuous bed of plants. Surrounding an ornate fountain are 80 species of plants that create a thick stand of foliage and flowers. The garden is representative of millefluers (thousand flowers) of medieval tapestries.  It is a peaceful place to enjoy lunch, coffee or quiet reflection.
The Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden (above) is the main teaching garden with around 250 plants known to have been grown during medieval times. Nineteen beds house plants arranged by their uses; medicinal, seasoning, dyeing, magic potions and decorative. In the center of the garden you will find a fifteenth century Venetian wellhead.

The Bonnefont Cloister

The Bonnefont Cloister
Cuxa Cloister
The Cuxa Cloister was created by remnants of an eleventh century Romanesque Benedictine Monastery and is modeled after a garth. The garden includes plants such as columbine, sage and hellebore as well as alyssum and coreopsis. Crabapples anchor each of the four beds. The fruit from the trees would have been used to make cider and verjuice during medieval times.

Cuxa Cloister


A Dangerous Beauty

My Pick for the Ohio Native Landscape #3 Aralia spinosa

I wanted to learn about a few shrubs and small tress that I have not grown and Devil’s-walkingstick leapt to the front of the list. This plant is wicked! Its flowers, incredibly large leaves and attractive berries draw you in and then its vicious thorns wreak havoc on unsuspecting bare arms, legs and loose fitting clothing.

A pioneer plant, Devil’s-walkingstick will spread readily, if not vigorously, in an open site, such as a field or lawn. In a natural setting, the shrub would eventually be overtaken by the next succession of trees. Therefore, in a woodland or edge of woods setting it will not crowd out other vegetation.

The 3-5’ long leaves alone are worth noting. However, it is the greenish-white blooms that catch the eye in mid-summer. Not to be outdone, purple, pea-size berries that strain the branches with their weight in the fall and winter will also make you stop and take note.

Attracts bees, insects and butterflies. If planted around the home, would most definitely keep out intruders and nosey neighbors with its thorns.

Interesting facts: The Devil’s walkingstick was used in Victorian gardens as a grotesque ornamental. Its spicy roots and fruit were used by early settlers and native Americans as a remedy for tooth ache. Another source reports a Frenchman, writing his history of Louisiana in the late 1700's, mentioning the inner bark being used to soothe aching teeth. The leaves are poisonous to cattle. Its wood is useless even as firewood.

Just the Facts
Aralia spinosa
Devil’s-walkingstick or Hercule's-club

AKA: Angelica Tree, Angelica-tree, Devil's Walking Stick, Devil's Walkingstick, Devil's walking stick, False Prickly Ash, Hercule's Club, Hercules Club, Hercules' Club, Prickly Ash, Prickly Elder, Toothache Tree
Leaves: Alternate, bi- to tri-pinnately compound, 32-64’ long with prickles. Dark green to blue-green with a tropical effect.
Fall: May have some fall color but not reliable.
Size: 10-20’ However it can grow to 30-40’. ** Dirr shares that he saw a large planting in Mt Airy Arboretum, Ohio and the effect was quite handsome.
Fruit: Purple- black, .25’ long and wide with 3-5 seed-like stones in August to October.
Planting: Easy to transplant. Well drained, moist fertile soils, but will also make itself at home in dry, rocky or heavy soils.
Full sun to part shade.
Thrives with neglect and does well under city conditions.
No known pests or diseases
Habitat: Southern Pennsylvania and southern Indiana, east to Florida and Texas. Introduced 1688.
Photos from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower web site.


My Pick for the Ohio Native Landscape #2

Virgina Sweetspire
Itea virginica
‘Henry’s Garnet’

Here is another wonderfully, worry free native shrub for the Ohio landscape. Sun or shade, wet or drier soils, this shrub is happy. Clay soil? It says, no worries!

In the early summer sweetspire adds wands of fragrant, white flowers to the garden. In the fall, this little gem lives up to its name displaying rich, red fall color. According to McKeown, when Ohio winters are mild, the shrub will hold its leaves throughout the season, adding a nice splash of color to the landscape.  It is also a favorite of honey bees and butterflies.

Just the Facts
Virginia Sweetspire
Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’
AKA Virginia Willow
Zone: 5-9
Shape: Erect, cluster branches with more branching at the top than the bottom
Texture: Medium
Foliage: Glossy green in the summer, rich red in the fall and through mild winters in Ohio. Elliptic to oblong 1.5- 4” long and .75 – 1.25” wide
Bloom: White, June
Fruit: very small
Size: Henry’s Garnet
H 4-6’ w 6-10’
Little Henry: 3-4’ W &H
Soil: sand, clay, loam

Light: Sun to Shade
Pests: No known pests or disease
Easily transplanted from container and can be divided.
Native Habitat: Swamps, woodlands and streams, but adapts wells to drier soil requiring just a little watering during very dry periods. New Jersey to Florida, west to Missouri and east Texas. Introduced 1744.

Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet'
Henry's Garnet Virginia Sweetspire
zones 5-9

Itea virginica 'Little Henry'TM ('Sprich')
Little Henry Virginia Sweetspire
zones 5
Dirr, McKeown
Pictures: Will Cook for Duke University
#2- Unlimited Use
#3  Dayton Nursery


My Pick for Native Ohio Shrubs for the Landscape #1

Of all the shrubs to choose from, you may ask why would I pick Myrica pensylvanica. A couple of reasons. For one, it surrounded the patio of my first home when I moved back to Cincinnati. A new house and major life-changing events meant I had not a lot of time for yard work. Also, there was a drought. Add to that, I discovered the joy (not) of our soil. My Master Gardener instructor says we are not to call it clay, but when you are trying to plant a simple rose bush and it takes an hour, clay is the nicest word I can use. Despite my neglect early on, lack of rain and clayish soils, the bayberry was flawless.

This was my first experience with this plant. Its semi-evergreen foliage provided a nice screen around the patio and provided the only hint of green for much of the yard, which was quite plain when I moved in. Bayberry grows in sun or shade, can tolerate any soil and is disease and pest resistant. It is a pretty care-free, worry-free shrub.

If you love it you will prune it. Is your bayberry getting a bit out of control? No worries. It responds beautifully to rejuvenation cutting. Cut back to 12” and you will have a new, lush shrub in no time.

Just the Facts

Myrica pensylvanica, Bayberry
AKA: Candleberry, northern bayberry
Zone 3
Upright rounded dense shrub.
Medium fine texture.
Foliage: Semi evergreen. Obovate to oblong. 1.5”- 4” long and .5-1.5” wide. Aromatic when brushed- like the candle scent. Deep green
Bloom: n/a
Fruit: Waxy gray berries, persists throughout the winter
Size: 6-9’ X 6-9’
Soil: Dry to moist (no standing water). Sandy to rich to clay. (more organic soil results in taller shrubs- small trees)
Sun: Hot sun to cool shade
Pests: No known pests- diseases
Growth Habit: Clumps, good for erosion control.
Rejuvenate: Yes- go for it!
Salt- tolerates salt- grows near the ocean.
Cultivator: Myda- fruits well when there is a male, Myriman.
Native habitat: Newfoundland to western NY, Maryland an North Carolina. Introduced 1725.

References: Dirr, Strenbeg and McKeown
Picture credits:
Moon Shine Design Nursery
The Plantsman Nursery


Hortulus (The Little Garden)

Though a life of retreat offers various joys,
None, I think, will compare with the time one employs
In the study of herbs, or in striving to gain
Some practical knowledge of nature's domain.
Get a garden! What kind you may get matters not.

From Hortulus by Abbot Walafrid Strabo of Reichenau Abbey. The gardener's popular poem from the Middle Ages shows that gardening and writing about gardening is timeless. As Teresa McLean, the author of Medieval English Gardens explains, this ninth century poem, written in Germany, shows that monastic gardening was alive and well in Europe during this time. If English monks were as apt at gardening during this time as the poem's author, it is hard to say.


Wordless Wednesday takes us to Chicago!

With so many wonderful garden trips this summer, I am still going through all my photographs. Here are a few from a recent trip to Chicago and my stop at the Garfield Park Conservatory and Gardens.