The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
Emily Dickinson was rumored to have always worn a white dress, and she stopped seeing visitors in her later years. She stitched together bundles of poems that her sister, Lavinia, found after her death. Who would have suspected that the eccentric spinster was so prolific? And what do those 1,800 poems actually mean, with their strange images and metaphysical allusions, punctuated by inscrutable dashes?
While Dickinson wrote her poetry in private, in public she was an avid plantswoman and a well-educated botanist. She lived during an era when the study of plants was a cultural and scientific obsession on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the thousands of letters she wrote to friends and family, Dickinson made frequent reference to the gardens at her family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She wrote about the plants and flowers she grew, some native and others exotic, both outdoors and in the glass-enclosed conservatory adjacent to the dining room of her home. She was attuned to the seasons of the year—summer was her favorite—and often marked time in her letters by referring to which flowers were blooming. She pressed flowers into her letters as well. A work of art as well as of science, Dickinson’s herbarium book was a compilation of pressed and dried flowers.
As a teenager in the 1840s, Dickinson studied botany and other subjects at Amherst Academy and at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Before her reclusive years, she made frequent visits to friends and often brought them nosegays assembled from the flowers she picked in her gardens. She once took delight in a visit to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Boston.
Dickinson lived in an age when everyone in Amherst had a farm or a garden. Her mother was known among locals for her fig trees, and there were apples, pears and cherries on the grounds as well. The stretch of land adjacent to the home became known as “Dickinson’s Meadow,” and Emily herself planted masses of bulbs, perennials, annuals and potted plants. She especially loved roses, but she also cultivated lilacs, oleanders, honeysuckles, lilies of the valley, daffodils and many other flowers.
Dickinson plied her friends with botanical riddles by presenting them with “tussie mussies”—bouquets of flowers meant to convey a message by drawing upon the symbolic “language of flowers” popular in the mid-nineteenth century. A spring crocus offered a message of youthful happiness, whereas a peony could signal bashfulness.
There are playful hints in the hundreds of her poems that refer to flowers. When the poet writes There is a flower that Bees prefer – / And Butterflies – desire – readers might well imagine that she has been contemplating the meadow from her window. What is this enigmatic bloom rounder than the Moon / And ruddier than the Gown / Of Orchis in the Pasture? Perhaps there is no mystery at all, but a set of not-so-subtle poetic clues. These are the signs that guide the reader to a familiar red clover (Trifolium pratense) whose flowering the gardener–poet of Amherst knew would announce the arrival of June.
Useful resources include Judith Farr with Louise Carter, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson (Harvard Univ. Press, 2004) and Marta McDowell, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: A Celebration of a Poet and Gardener (McGraw-Hill, 2005).