Her path wasn't entirely sweet-scented.
Born into a moneyed Maryland family in 1878, author Louise Beebe Wilder seems—at first glance—to have led a rose garden sort of life. In fact, in The Fragrant Path, she describes her mother’s rose garden as “famous in that countryside and in the nearby city, for many shared its bounty. . .great bushes of Provence, Damask and Gallica Roses. . .a collection of the finest Teas and Noisettes of the day. Marechal Niel, Lamarque and Gloire de Dijon climbed high on trellises against the stone of the old house and looked in at the second-story windows.”
Louise eventually would marry architect Walter Robb Wilder and move to a 220-acre estate named Balderbrae near Pomona, NY, a property which must have given her much scope for her plant proclivities. As a result, she would become the author of ten garden books and bushels of articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as editor of New York Gardens and director of the New York Botanical Garden. In her spare time, she designed other people’s flowerbeds.
One of the quotes attributed to her is “He lacks much who has no aptitude for idleness.” We gardeners know what she means by that, as the point of having all those blooms is that we occasionally can just putter about among them or sit and stare at them. But it doesn’t seem as if Wilder herself could have had much time for that.
Before we begin to envy all her successes, we should recall Shakespeare’s contention that “loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.” Wilder’s seemingly ideal life appears to have fallen apart towards its end. Her husband—who had begun to suffer from mental problems—committed suicide at 60 after she refused to grant him a divorce so he could marry a stenographer he had met while designing capital buildings in Washington state. Louise herself would pass away only a few years later at the age of 59 and be buried in her parents' plot in Maryland rather than with Walter in New York.
Her son apparently became an author too, as well as a photographer. I found at least a couple books and flower photos attributed to him. But he would die at an even younger age than his parents.
Though Louise's short life obviously wasn’t entirely an Eden, we gardeners still appreciate what she managed to pack into it. I’ve read other of her books, but my favorite remains The Fragrant Path. It is dedicated to the “memory of Balderbrae,” so it must have been published after she and her family had moved to Bronxville, an artsy and affluent suburb of Manhattan.
In that book, she hints her path wasn’t all wine and roses after all when she describes the scent of wild grape blossoms. “Indescribably gentle yet searching. It searches out old memories, old scenes, old loves, and brings them before you without warning, between two breaths, sometimes with cruel clarity.”
Wilder obviously had a way with words as well as a way with plants, which explains why she still is read and quoted by so many of us modern flower fanciers. She also understood that not all her readers would have as large a "canvas" as that on which she once had worked.
As she wrote in Colour in My Garden, “In his garden every man may be his own artist without apology or explanation. . .Each within his green enclosure is a creator, and no two shall reach the same conclusion; nor shall we, any more than other creative workers, be ever wholly satisfied with our accomplishment. Ever a season ahead of us floats the vision of perfection and herein lies its perennial charm.”
Photos: The photos included in the article are my own.