In December I headed north to visits relatives and friends in New York and Connecticut. I had only reached New York when my sister called from a hospital (never a good sign) to say that she had broken her wrist and shoulder. To make a very long story short, I spent the next ten days visiting her in the Connecticut hospital where various complications kept her. We definitely had time for good conversations, and when I wasn’t with her, I had time to read at the hotel. I had brought a couple of books with me and acquired a few along the way. This series of posts will be on some of what I read. Though none of these works are about herbaria, they all have links to them in various ways. My sister is back home and so am I. Now I have time to consider what I learned about gardens, botanical history, tropical plants, and taxonomy.
This post deals with The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, a large tome filled with photographs by Roger Foley and a relatively brief text by Linda Jane Holden (2018). I bought this the day I visited the Oak Spring Garden Foundation Library in Virginia, at the start of my trip. I have been there before, and it is the closest thing I know to botanical heaven. Rachel (Bunny) Mellon loved gardening from a young age and was able to indulge her interest because she came from a wealthy family and then married the philanthropist Paul Mellon. The book deals with the gardens she created at their homes in Manhattan, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Antiqua, but most of all, with the gardens surrounding the house the Mellons built in the 1950s at Oak Spring, and adjacent to which they added a library in the early 1980s.
The first time I visited the library, Nancy Collins gave me a tour of the garden which has been maintained by the Foundation since Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014. The photographs in the book do a great job of communicating the atmosphere of the garden as well as the plants growing there. The word I would use to describe it is homey rather than palatial, but there is definitely a sense that everything is planned, from the allée of crab apple trees to the herbaceous beds to the vegetable garden. It is simply a wonderful place to be. Mellon created her library in support of her passion for plants. She studied the great gardens and garden writers of the past. Holden lists Mellon’s “Pentateuch” of books that informed her designs (p. 160): The Compleat Gard’ner by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie (1693), Phytographia curiosa by Abraham Munting (1714), The Flower-Garden Display’d by Robert Furber (1734), Le Jardin Fruitier by Loise Claude Noisette (1821), and Flower Guide: Wild Flowers East of the Rockies by Chester Albert Reed (1920).
These reside in the library along with 16,000 other books, manuscripts, and art works; there are even a few herbaria. They include a scrapbook made as a Christmas gift for the Mellons from horticulturalists Charles and Katherine Pecora. The plants were collected at Oak Spring and the adjacent Rokeby Farm in 1968. Katherine worked as a secretary at the farm for many years, and this collection is very much in the tradition of creating a presentation volume for patrons. Other herbaria include one of algae assembled by Eliza French during the 19th-century seaweed craze, and one of New Zealand Ferns by George Davenport, again a product of a fad of the time. There is also a printed herbarium catalogue produced by the 19th-century German nurseryman Carl Jeppe that lists those who subscribed to the volume, beginning with the local gentry. Another is a sumptuous 18th-century herbarium of medicinal plants attributed to Carlo Sembertini and described in one of four volumes on the library collections published by Oak Spring (Tomasi & Willis, 2009, pp. 334-339).
Gardens also covers a number of other Mellon homes, each site’s plants and design adapted to its particular location. Besides these Mellon also created several for friends including two at the White House. John F. Kennedy asked her to redesign the Rose Garden outside the oval office. Working with the President and the National Park Service she managed to develop an environment that has pleased White House occupants for decades and served as a backdrop for many important governmental events. The garden was so successful that Jacqueline Kennedy invited Mellon to also remake the East Garden on the opposite side of the White House, a more private space. This wasn’t accomplished until Lady Bird Johnson was First Lady. She also worked with Mellon and the result was called the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.
Mellon was a Francophile and a good friend of her favorite fashion designer, Hubert de Givenchy. She developed gardens for his Château du Jonchet and then worked with him on a much more public project, recreation of the Potager du Roi, the king’s kitchen garden at the Palace of Versailles. It was originally designed between 1678 and 1686 by one of her favorite garden writers, Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, to provide fruits and vegetables for the royal table. Givenchy was the head of the World Monuments Fund France, which wanted to revive the garden that was in decay, and he brought Mellon to see the “plot,” much larger than an ordinary kitchen garden. She collaborated with him on the design, and the Mellons paid for the entire project including an irrigation system, basin and fountain, and the King’s Gate.
Rachel Mellon is in the tradition of the great garden designers and plant lovers who have enkindled fervor for plants and contributed so much to our knowledge and appreciation of them. Her passion lives on in the Oak Spring Garden Foundation and its wonderful library. The Foundation is now expanding its mission to reach a broader community of plant lovers.
Holden, L. J. (2018). The Gardens of Bunny Mellon. New York, NY: Vendome.
Quintinie, J. de Le, & Evelyn, J. (1693). The Compleat Gard’ner: Or, Directions for Cultivating and Right Ordering of Fruit-gardens and Kitchen-gardens; with Divers Reflections on Several Parts of Husbandry. In Six Books. London, UK: Gillyflower.
Tomasi, L. T., & Willis, T. (2009). An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Upperville, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library.