Saturday, October 23, 2010

“A Thoughtful Garden”

For 40 years, Robin Lane Fox has graced the pages of The Financial Times with his weekly, witty garden column. And “graced” is an apt expression—for he was hired by the irascible editor precisely to enliven the hitherto aseptic Wednesday edition of the FT.

In honor of those 40 years, Fox takes us on a rare tour of his Oxfordshire garden—and with it offers us a dazzling display not simply of color and texture, but of erudition and sardonic wit. This tour is unlike any other you may have experienced: Helen of Troy; a badger’s feast of Prozac and peanut butter; a biographical sketch of FT’s tyrannical editor—all (and more) make an appearance! This really is a must-see, and you can access it here.

Fox has also assembled and rewritten many of those columns in a book entitled Thoughtful Gardening. The American edition has not yet been released, but my dear reader must already have deduced that I am submitting an advance order.

In 2009, I began a series of entries in my journal devoted to particular plants in my garden—entries that I thought I’d share during the wintertime when life in the garden takes its hiatus. In the spirit of Fox, I offer here a profile of Tanacetum parthenium (a.k.a. Feverfew or Bachelor’s Buttons).

“Feverfew: its compact clusters of bright white flowers with a center crown of yellow remind of daisies; its leaf shape, citrus scented, evokes chrysanthemum (of course; they belong to the same Asteraceae family). Feverfew appeared in the garden last year [2008]—I did not plant it—next to the Boxwood, and did well, but remained fairly compact. This year [2009]—well, it blossomed in the company of others; it is now of gigantic proportions, well over two feet in height, and I had to stake it yesterday. Feverfew is native to Eurasia (specifically the Balkan, Anatolia, and Caucus regions) and has been used to treat fevers, headaches, and arthritis, hence its common name derivation from the Latin febrifugia (meaning “acting to reduce or cure fever”), itself a compound of febris (fever) and the verb fugare (put to flight, chase away).
Tanacetum, the Latin for immortality, might give more than a clue as to its designation as “an obnoxious weed,” for its invasive tendency must be countered with the utmost vigilance. But Tanacetum derives etymologically from the Latin for death, Thanatos. The Greeks and Romans associated the plant with the underworld, for the plant either mimics the smell of a corpse or masks the smell of a corpse—the literature prevaricates on this one (though I must come down on the side of the latter for no corpse I’ve smelled reeks of citrus). Parthenium owes to a tale told by Plutarch about a mason worker who fell from the roof of the Parthenon as it was being built, and who was treated with this particular plant, at the time called the Virgin’s Plant, or Partheneum [note to self: Athena, for whom the Parthenon was erected, might be history’s first, most famous virgin].

So here we have in this one, not-so-little plant the confluence of opposition: Tanacetum parthenium, one name signifying immortality, the other on death. Surely, we must dub this “Hegel’s gal,” for in it we find the perfect dialectic, the use of Feverfew a perfect synthesis: medicinal herbs, medicine, and the art of tending and caring bind life and death into a coherent whole. A plant with so much mythology simply deserves, no matter how obnoxiously invasive it is, to be grown in the garden.”

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