“Books don’t just go with you, they take you where you’ve never been.” This anonymous quote was the perfect fit when 50 Arkansas Master Gardeners visited the Mississippi home of the famous 20th century American fiction writer Eudora Welty in October. Some had read “One Writer’s Garden — Eudora Welty’s Home Place” where “they had never been”; others read it afterward.
Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was an author with a talent for weaving images of flowers and gardens into her writing although her passion for the garden in her own backyard was not widely known. Among her many books was the 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning “The Optimist’s Daughter.”
Eudora inherited her passion for gardening from her mother, Chestina, who designed the garden in 1925, arranging it in the style typical of the day with separate areas known as “garden rooms” to extend family life outdoors.
Over the next 75 years, the gardening duo maintained the garden until ill health and eventually death led to neglect of the garden. Eudora willed the home to the Mississippi Department of History, and restoration of the garden began in the late 1990s. Thanks to Chestina’s carefully kept garden journals, the garden today looks much like it did in the 1930s and 40s, although very few plants are originals planted by the Weltys.
It has arbors and trellises laden with roses and hyacinths (A docent shared seed pods to take back to Arkansas.); perennial borders featuring heirloom daylilies; a cutting garden with such favorites as hollyhocks, zinnias, daises, marigolds and cosmos; an oval bed of irises, daylilies, white daffodils and spider lilies; and a woodland garden with trees, shrubs and wildflowers.
There is also the all important “camellia room.” Eudora cherished many plants, but it is believed that her favorite was the camellia — the flowering shrub that she collected. Camilla is also called the “rose of winter” because it blooms from fall to spring. In her autobiographical novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” she describes Chandleri Elegans as her father’s favorite. There are more than 30 varieties growing on the grounds today.
Chestina loved many flowers but roses most of all — a passion she passed on to her daughter, who frequently wove the names of roses into her fiction. For example, the red tea rose Etoile de Hollander inspired the character’s name Etoyle in “Moon Lake” and later in the novel “Losing Battles.” And the 1925 Dainty Bess hybrid tea was mentioned in “Delta Wedding.”
Many of the roses we saw are also growing in our own gardens today, including Silver Moon, Souvenir de la Malmaison, Lady Banks, Dainty Bess, Peace and Cecil Brunner.
Other plants grown in the Arkansas River valley that we saw thriving in the Welty garden included confederate jasmine, sweet olive and confederate rose.
Eudora once wrote, “We used to get down on our hands and knees. The absolute contact between the hand and the earth, the intimacy of it, this is the instinct of a gardener.”
Interestingly, the small breakfast room has a large window, and the table is located in front of the window that overlooks the garden. This view is panoramic and shows off much of the garden that includes many of the favorites of the time and are still favorites today.
We saw many, many beautiful plants. And as usual on garden tours, there is always one plant we gardeners can’t resist. This time it was the white ginger lily (Hedychium coronarium), also called butterfly lily because its flowers resemble butterflies. The mass of green sword-like stalks was taller than we were, and we had to pull down the beautiful white blossoms to take in the intense gardenia-like fragrance.
Everyone wanted one. Since October was not the time to plant ginger, we all left Mississippi empty handed, but with plans to get rhizomes in the spring. This may be a challenge for those of us in the Arkansas River valley since ginger lily is hardy only in zones 8a-11, but we will not be deterred. After all, in gardener logic, zone 7b is only one number shy of 8a. And if all else fails, this lily can grow in containers and carried indoors before the first freeze.
Of special interest to me were some of Eudora’s writing tools displayed throughout the house. One was her manual typewriter on the desk in her bedroom where she did all of her writing. Another was an original page of a short story in which she had literally cut and attached paragraphs together with straight pins. This is a far cry from today’s wonderful “edit” icon that allows “cut and paste” with the click of a button. I think Eudora would have loved this 21st century writing tool.
“One Writer’s Garden” was published in 2011 by the University of Mississippi and focuses in one way or another on her hands-on gardening experience as well as her life in the 20th century. Flowers were Eudora’s reminders of specific people and places.
It also contains numerous color photos of plants — some taken by Eudora — as well as family photos.
The cover features a beautiful camellia (a favorite of the Welty family) and the back photo is one that gardeners can identify with. It is my favorite and shows Eudora relaxing in a lawn chair watering the garden with a hand-held hose.
Authors Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown and photographer Langdon Clay filled the pages with details (some shared above) and photographs of the garden as it appeared in its prime and after it was restored.
The next best thing to visiting the Eudora Welty home and garden in Jackson, Miss., is to read “One Writer’s Garden.”
Here’s an alert from Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville: Based on the overwhelming response to “Chihuly: In the Forest,” the exhibition has been extended an extra two weeks, until Nov. 27. More than 165,000 have visited the exhibit.
Next week, the topic will be: lion’s tail in bloom grabs attention in the garden.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.