There have been enough books written about Emily Dickinson to sink a small barge, but Judith Farr – who’s written a few of them herself – is one of only a handful of authors to ever focus on her love of horticulture. “The Gardens of Emily Dickinson,” a book she authored with Louise Carter, not only shines a light on a part of the poet’s life that has been all but ignored, but also reveals the impact it had on a great deal of her poetry. It makes sense, then, that the New York Botanical Garden would ask for her help on “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers,” a new show that opens today. Todd Forrest, vice-president for Horticulture and Living Collections at the New York Botanical Gardens, wrote in an email that “each part of the three-part exhibition involved many years of work for Garden staff and members of an advisory committee of Dickinson experts and historians.” He added that, as a result of all that expertise, it’s “perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition the Garden has ever produced.” With someone like Farr onboard, it’s easy to see why.
Review Fix: What were some of Emily Dickinson’s favorite plants?
JUDITH FARR: She cared greatly about flowering shrubs and beautiful flowers. She liked gardenias, she liked camellias, she loved roses, although she doesn’t write about them that much. She loved jasmine, and she speaks again and again about jasmine because it is so perfumed, and she liked in particular the flowers that gave off a kid of heady scent–she loved perfume. A lot of them were tropical flowers, really, which she had in her conservatory, like the jasmines. At one point, she talks about the jasmine as her favorite flower, with its marvelous perfume. Then later, she talks about the daphne–that was just before she died. She associated one flower with herself–that was the daylily. She never said it was her favorite flower, but she said it was the flower that stood for her.
RF: What kind of garden did Dickinson have to care for?
J.F.: There were two gardens–one was a conservatory where she had all these remarkable tropical flowers, which didn’t grow in Amherst. Most people didn’t grow them–they didn’t know how to–but she did. Then, out on the two-acre garden outside the house, she grew a cottage garden, which would’ve been irises and tulips.
RF: Some plants thrive in very specific environments. Would it have been hard for her to maintain some of them?
J.F.: There was one advantage in Amherst that she had–they had a horticultural school, and I think she took a great deal of learning from the presence of that school in her village. Then there were people in her family who were tremendously interested in exotic flowers. Exotic flowers were very much of concern in the 1860s, when Emily Dickinson was at the height of her writing career, such as it was. She bought books, read magazines and got interested in the whole business of tropical flowers. Her father, because he wanted to do something for her, he had built her, on the left of the house, a conservatory with all the proper equipment to grow tropical flowers. In icy Amherst, with its horrible weather, she was growing scented flowers. When you look at her poetry about love being equal to gardenias in the middle of the frost, and love even being part of the heat in the middle of the winter–she was using flowers often as her symbols for that kind of experience, that snow would be falling down outside, and she would be growing these extraordinary tropical flowers. She said at one point to her cousins, “I don’t have to go to Jamaica. I’ve got Jamaica right here.”
RF: How faithful a replica of her garden is this?
J.F.: I don’t know whether the New York Botanical Garden is attempting to reproduce Emily’s garden as it may have been– nobody quite knows. They’re going to reproduce every flower that she ever grew, they’re going to try to reproduce a vivid impression of the homestead, and a vivid impression of the conservatory, with its glass cases. You get as close as you can get without knowing–without anybody knowing–exactly how it looked at that moment in time. I think what they’ve tried to do is extraordinary.
RF: Do these flowers reflect on her personality?
J.F.: I think the jasmine meant a very great deal to her, because in my own opinion, the man who gave her the jasmine flower–whose name was Samuel Bowles, he was the editor of the Springfield Republican–I think he may’ve been the man she loved. Nobody knows who was the man that she loved so much in the early part of her life. To give somebody a jasmine plant meant “I love you, you are the soul of my soul,” and this man gave her that plant. She kept it alive in her conservatory for 25 years.
RF: Dickinson composed about 1,800 poems. How many of them were inspired by her flowers?
J.F.: Two-thirds of her letters talk about flowers in one way or another. In the press release, it said that three-quarters of her poems appeal to nature. Well, originally, I said one-third of her poems talk about flowers, so it’s really only one-third of the poems that talk about flowers and two-thirds of the letters that do. But you see, she looks at the flower, and all of a sudden the flower becomes something else. For instance, she looks at a lilac, and by the time she’s through with it, she’s really talking about a sundown. She talks about the sundown as the points of a lilac flower, and points of a lilac as the points of sundown. She never wrote sentimental poems about flowers–they always turned out to mean themselves and something more.
This article originally appeared on AllMediaNY.com