By Jill Severn
January is a month for thinking rather than acting. And Mirabel Osler’s book, A sweet plea for chaos, makes me think of surprising things.
For example, who knew there was a patron saint of gardeners? He was called Saint Fiacre de Breuil. He began his life around 600 AD. He rose to fame in Ireland for his herbal remedies for all kinds of ailments, but then migrated to France, where he miraculously cleared a large area of land in one day with his staff. (A staff, at that time, was a kind of walking stick, not a hired helper.) A woman who witnessed his feat of land clearing reported it for witchcraft, but her superiors were convinced of its holiness.
According to this document annotated in Wikipedia, his abilities were very varied:
“Saint Fiacre is the patron saint of the commune of Saint-Fiacre, Seine-et-Marne, France. He is the patron of producers of vegetables and medicinal plants, and of gardeners in general, including ploughmen. It is believed that his notorious aversion to women is the reason why he is also considered the patron of venereal disease victims. He is also the patron saint of hemorrhoids and fistula victims, taxi drivers, box makers, florists, hosiery, tin makers, tile makers and people with infertility. “
I will wonder all 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 “vegetable growers, 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 a teenager to resist pressure from his father to become a priest. He immigrated to the United States in 1905. He was a loner and a genius, and apparently a tough guy to get along with. Without attending university, he mastered many languages, as well as botany, anthropology and photography. He landed in Hawaii in 1907 and spent 13 years cataloging island plants, teaching, and writing five books. This was followed by decades of botanizing and writing about the cultures of western China and Tibet.
Rock was sometimes employed by the United States Department of Agriculture as an “agricultural explorer”. His botany work has also been funded by the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution. His collected photographs are kept at Harvard; a herbarium in Hawaii bears his name and many plant species bear his name. He’s even praised in a poem by Ezra Pound.
So maybe Saint Fiacre’s varied abilities are not as exceptional as I initially thought. Now I wonder how many other botanical explorers are out there to spark a gardener’s imagination and make us wonder where the plants we grow come from and how they traveled from their natural habitat to our gardens.
It’s a lot to learn and a lot to think about as this week’s snow cover slowly melts from our gardens.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She enjoys the conversation between gardeners. Start one by sending an email to [email protected]