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Gardens of Earthly Delights


In the shadows of skyscrapers and apartment blocks, foragers find a paradise among the slippery rocks of London’s River Thames. Scouring crevices for bits of ceramic, glass, carved stone and metal, they hope for “the dopamine hit released by making a find,” as historian Malcolm Russell writes in “Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories From the River Thames” (Princeton University Press, $35, 224 pages).

Bone hairpins surfacing in the muck may have been used by beauticians in ancient Roman colonies. Chinese coins could have belonged to stowaways smuggled aboard British merchant ships in 18th-century Canton. A 19th-century glass rod would have served to crush sugar cubes harvested by enslaved Africans on Caribbean plantations. Syringes for mercury injections helped Victorian sex workers relieve their syphilis symptoms.

Russell makes sense of the millennia of currents that jumbled together bullet casings, rosary beads, printers’ metal type and bristleless toothbrushes.

Starting in the 1920s, Mildred Bliss, the wife of philanthropist Robert Bliss, collaborated with landscape architect Beatrix Farrand on garden plans for Dumbarton Oaks, the couple’s Washington, DC, property, which is now owned by Harvard University.

Oakdom, as Farrand nicknamed the site, has blazes of forsythia and wisteria as well as forest glades in subdued palettes where spies like Jonathan Pollard have been known to exchange secrets. The Blisses’ cremains are interred alongside rose beds with crisp geometric footprints.

Farrand is at the heart of a trio of new or revived books, starting with “Garden as Art: Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks,” an essay collection edited by Thaïsa Way, Dumbarton Oaks’ program director of garden and landscape studies (Dumbarton Oaks, $49, 292 pages).

Way also contributed a preface to a new, revised edition of Farrand’s “Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks” ($35, 272 pp.), with commentary by Jonathan Kavalier, the site’s director of gardens and grounds. And Monacelli has released a new edition of Judith B Tankard’s biography “Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect” ($60, 248 pp.).

The books trace the neighbourhood’s origins in farmland tilled by enslaved people before the Civil War. Farrand preserved many 19th-century trees, “unhurt and undisturbed,” as she reassured Mildred Bliss. A creeping fig vine that sprouted in the 1860s or so still engulfs the interior of the Blisses’ orangery.

Farrand, who also helped fill the Blisses’ library with lavishly illustrated garden literature, wrote that the grounds were meant to offer peace “even to the most restless mind.”

“English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries” (Yale University Press, $40, 392 pages), by landscape architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, profiles about two dozen mavericks who astonished visitors with sculptured terrain. The property owners sometimes fended off depression by focusing on pruning trees into the shapes of peacocks or lining pathways with chiseled stone figures of famous authors.

Hydraulics powered thunderous waterfalls, human-made mountaintops were covered with pulverised white stone to simulate snowfall, and grottoes teemed with ceramic gnomes or pet kangaroos.

Some sites were praised for amounting to “extraordinary caprice,” and others accused of “reckless whimsicality,” Longstaffe-Gowan writes. One 19th-century aristocrat, Dame Eliza Broughton, loved her miniature Alps to the point that her will dictated that her corpse be “carried to the grave by my Gardener.”

Like many of the landscape feats that Longstaffe-Gowan describes, the Broughton peaks have vanished.

Starting in the 1940s, retired opera singer Ganna Walska brought in teams of personnel to organise plants with strong personalities at Lotusland, her property in Montecito, California. She welcomed visitors to her bamboo groves and cycad mazes, reachable via paths lined in amethysts and stone lanterns.

“Lotusland” (Rizzoli, $60, 288 pages), with a foreword by architect Marc Appleton and photos by Lisa Romerein, offers close looks at mermen sculptures bearing tridents and fountains made of tiered clamshells.

Sprinkled throughout the book are portraits of Walska wearing flowers in her hair and exuberantly patterned clothes, her arms outstretched in emulation of the forms of her agaves, waterlilies and lemon trees. — NYT

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