The Fran Gordon Garden

If you take a tour of the Mark Twain House, your guide will have you pause on the patio take in the Carriage House. But during the growing season, the garden in the foreground steals the show!

While they lived here in Hartford, the Clemenses often spent their summers in Elmira, New York, and so their summer plantings were not extensive. But with some historical context and hints from one particular book, the museum’s Grounds and Gardens Coordinator Christie Kuriger and her talented volunteers have created a garden that reflects what those in Nook Farm would have looked like. In 1883, Livy Clemens gave their gardener Daniel Molloy a copy of horticulturalist Peter Henderson’s Practical Floriculture. Molloy’s copy of this book survives to this day, and his markings give us some evidence of what might have been planted on the grounds—especially flowers that were at their peak in late summer, when the family would return from Elmira. Scroll down to learn more about the flowers in this garden, how Peter Henderson wrote about them in the past, and how our gardeners plant and care for them today.

The garden honors Frances Gordon (1924-2014), a dynamic, funny and brilliant woman who loved Hartford and made the Mark Twain House her business, garnering support and volunteers in the 1960s and 1970s and founding the Friends of The Mark Twain House & Museum.

Veronica

Veronica (Veronica spicata) is also known as spike speedwell. It’s a perennial that likes full sun and can tolerate dry conditions. It works well in rock gardens.

Henderson pointed out that there were lots of kinds of veronica, from low creeping plants to the tall varieties we have. In his time, blue flowers were most common. What color are the ones in our garden?

Photo credit: David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Anise Hyssop

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) blooms in the summer, with purple flowers that smell like anise or licorice. It does well even if things get a little dry, which can often happen later in the summer here in New England. Peter Henderson observed that while many people planted it in their gardens, it had also “escaped in many places to the roadsides.”

Photo credit: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Purple Coneflowers

Purple coneflowers are another perennial plant. If you leave the flowers standing in the garden at the end of the summer, birds will eat the seeds all winter! Peter Henderson said the scientific name–Echinacea purpurea–came from the Greek word echinos, meaning hedgehog. Why do you think this flower reminded people of hedgehogs?

Photo credit: Jg44.89, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Butterfly Weed

The name makes it pretty clear what living creature loves butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and its orange flowers. Henderson described these as “remarkable for their curious flowers and the silky substance which fills the seed-pod.”

There’s a wild relative of this plant that you might know. Does Henderson’s description remind you of a flower you’ve seen by the side of the road? (Hint: butterflies like these other flowers too!)

Daylilies

Daylilies, despite their name, aren’t true lilies at all—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful! In fact, their scientific name Hemerocallis comes from Greek words meaning “day” and “beautiful.”

Henderson had this to say about this familiar flower: “Strong perennial plants with yellow or copper colored flowers. They are perfectly hardy and thrive best in a moist shady situation.” What colors do you see in our garden? One of the daylilies in our garden is named “Huckleberry Candy.” Can you find it?

In the 19h century, Henderson advised gardeners that there was “considerable confusion in names” when talking about daylilies,  because at that time, the term “daylily” also referred to another common flower still used in New England landscaping today: hostas. You’ll find some of them at the museum too—but in a different garden!

Photo credit: Salicyna, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Perennial Sunflowers

Perennial Sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) bloom here between July and September, attracting birds and butterflies.

You may notice these are much smaller than the sunflowers you’ve seen elsewhere. Those bigger ones are annual sunflowers. This means that you plant them and they come up for one year and then that’s it. Perennial means that these sunflowers come up every year in the summer, no matter how cold the winter gets.

Peter Henderson noted that it was the fashion in the late 19th century for women to wear sunflowers—even the very large ones! Once, after rudely brushing off his wife’s attempts to place a smaller flower in his buttonhole, Sam Clemens apologized, saying “I will do penance & wear a sunflower down street if you say so.”

Photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli from Northeast Pennsylvania, USA, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Zinnias

You may have grown zinnias in your own garden or at school. Henderson said these flowers had “great value as ornaments for the flower garden” and usually bloomed in August if started from seed in a greenhouse.

Zinnias can be single flowered–with a single row of petals and a visible center–or double flowered–with multiple rows of petals that cover the center of the flower. Which kind do you see in our garden?

Henderson loved that zinnias came in lots of colors: “we have now dazzling scarlets, yellow, orange, lilac, rose, white, and crimson.” Which colors do you see in our gardens?

Snapdragons

Snapdragons are a familiar annual in many New England gardens. Their name comes from the shape of the individual flowers–can you see a dragon’s face?

Henderson called snapdragon a “beautiful summer flowering plant . . . in colors of yellow, white, crimson, scarlet-orange, rose, etc.” Which do you see in our gardens?

Photo credit: Syrio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yellow Loosestrife

Yellow loosestrife is a perennial member of the primrose family. From June to September, it blooms in a whorled pattern in which tiny yellow pointed flowers with a red center grow in a circle around the stem. Henderson says the name “loosestrife” comes from its historical use as a soothing herb–it was said to settle an upset stomach.

Photo credit: Hanna Zelenko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pansies and Violas

Pansies and violas (Viola X  wittrockinana) are beloved spring flowers in New England. Henderson said they would give “profuse and continuous bloom from March to June” if started from seed in January.

In a letter to his wife’s parents written from Buffalo, where they lived before moving to Hartford, Sam Clemens proudly stated “We have got one panzy in bloom.” Have we done better than Sam?

Photo credit: Kolforn (Wikimedia), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sweet Alyssum

Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a fragrant annual that originally grew on islands off the coast of Spain and North Africa.

Henderson said it was very popular in window boxes in London and was particularly useful for bouquets. It’s said to smell of honey—do you agree?

I dreamed last night that I woke up in the library at home & your children were frolicking around me & . . . both families of Warners had finished their welcomes & were filing out through the conservatory door wrecking Patrick’s flower pots with their dress skirts as they went. Peace & plenty abide with you all! —Sam Clemens to Joseph Twichell, 26 January 1879, Munich

Photo credit: w0zny,CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dianthus

Dianthus are also known as “pinks.” In Practical Floriculture, Henderson states: “The Pinks are numerous and varied, many of them having a rich, clove fragrance. They present an endless variety in color and style of flower.” Pinks include flowers like the ones we have growing in our garden as well as other forms you might be more familiar with from the florists, like carnations. 

The Clemens family’s second gardener, John O’Neill, was well known in Hartford for his beautiful dianthus. The Hartford Times mentioned his skill in a May 1890 report on a local flower show:

Mr. John O’Neil, for the past five years gardener for Mr. Samuel L. Clemens, exhibits six varieties of pinks, among them the well known Hartford Seedling and the Portia.

The Portia was a scarlet carnation variety that had just been introduced to American gardens in the 1880s, but though it might have been “well known” in the Gilded Age, we’re not sure what the Hartford Seedling variety looked like!

Yarrow

Yarrow (Achillea “Moonshine”) is another summer-blooming plant that works well in full sun and poor, rocky soil. Henderson states that the wild version of this plant often grows in “our roadsides and neglected fields.” Even so, the dedicated garden volunteers here at the museum never neglect our yarrow!

Photo credit: David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Shasta daisies

Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’) were developed in the 1890s near Mt. Shasta, CA by Luther Burbanks. They were a brand new kind of flower for families like the Clemenses, too new to be in Peter Henderson’s books! A summer perennial, this flower looks a bit like the ox-eye daisies that grow wild throughout New England.

Photo credit: David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Iris

The irises in our gardens are a kind called “bearded irises.” Can you spot the beard?

Henderson mentioned irises in his books, but he was less interested in the kinds we have, as they were already “common.” Instead, he was excited about a different kind of irises that had just been introduced to the United States from Japan a few decades earlier: “These are really grand plants, and worthy of a place in all gardens.” Flowers go in and out of fashion just like clothes, and Henderson was always looking for the latest trends!

Photo credit: Leslie Wagle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tree peony

Tree peonies (Paeonia rockii ‘Joseph Rock’) bloom in the spring. The plant will grow up to 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and our gardener Christie says that once they’ve been established in a spot, “they do not like to be moved–or pruned!”

Daffodil

In spring, you’ll see a lot of daffodils in the Twain gardens. They bloom March through May in a variety of yellows, whites, oranges, and pinks, and their hardiness made them “of utmost consequence to the flower gardener,” in Henderson’s opinion. We certainly make good use of them here! Daffodils are in the genus narcissus, named for the character from Greek mythology who was so captured by his own beautiful reflection in the water that he stared at himself until he was turned into a flower.

 The town is budding out, now—the grass & foliage are, at least—& again Hartford is becoming the pleasantest city, to the eye, that America can show. –Sam Clemens to Livy Clemens, 12 May 1869

Photo credit: Wilhelm Zimmerling PAR, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hyacinth

Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) are planted in the fall to bloom in the spring. They come in blue, pink, white, purple, red, and yellow, and all of them have extremely fragrant flowers!

Photo credit: Corwinhee, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Grape Hyacinths

Don’t get those other hyacinths confused with grape hyacinths, though! These flowers (Muscari armeniacum) share a name and bloom at the same time in the spring, but they are two different species of flower altogether. Grape hyacinths can be planted and remain in the ground for many years. “On the east end of Long Island,” Henderson claimed, “some fields are literally blue with the flowers in early spring.”

Photo credit: daryl_mitchell from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada,CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Spiderwort

Spiderwort (Tradescantia) gets its scientific name from John Tradescant, gardener to Charles I of England. Henderson says spiderwort grows well in hanging baskets, greenhouses, in the house, or even in water! Perhaps they were in the “hanging basket of flowers” that Sam imagined Livy attending to at her childhood home in Elmira. Here at the museum, though, we grow them right in the dirt—and that works just fine!

Climbing rose

Peter Henderson includes climbing roses in his section on flower gardens “for a city or village lot,” as they are hardy plants that grow up not out. Why would that be good for city gardening? The climbing rose we have is called “Florentina.”

I say the land has lost its ancient desolate appearance; the rose and the oleander have taken the place of the departed sage-brush; a rich black loam, garnished with moss, and flowers, and the greenest of grass, smiles to Heaven from the vanished sand-plains; the “endless snows” have all disappeared, and in their stead—or to repay us for their loss, the mountains rear their billowy heads aloft, crowned with a fadeless and eternal verdure . . .

Samuel Clemens to Orion Clemens, 7 August 1862, Nevada Territory

Cosmos

Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) are annuals that bloom from June until the frost comes in the fall. They are originally native to Mexico, and they are beautiful, low-maintenance plants. Their name comes from the Greek for “to adorn.” Peter Henderson said their flowers were “very showy.” Do you think he meant that in a good way or a bad way?

Photo credit: Maurice Flesier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Kerria

Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica ‘Picta’) is a deciduous shrub in the rose family with yellow rose-like blossoms. It likes rain, and blooms in April and May in New England. Henderson described it as an “old favorite.”

Photo credit: Jeffdelonge, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Flowering Quince

Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) is a shrub that blooms in the spring in New England. The museum’s gardeners prune ours into a lovely hedge that highlights its red and pink blossoms.

In Henderson’s books, this shrub and those similar to it were included in the genus Cydonia with the plant that produces the edible quince you might be more familiar with. Since then, botanists have decided the plants should be categorized separately, and came up with a new name for the new category. This happens a lot as scientists study plants, and it’s why many of the plants in our garden are listed under different names in Henderson’s books.

Photo credit: Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Allium

The alliums in our garden are beautiful perennials that bloom in the spring. While the flower may be unfamiliar to you, we bet you know some of its relatives—onions and garlic. (Don’t eat these flowers, though–or any of the flowers in our gardens!)

Peter Henderson thought these flowers were lovely but had probably been ignored as ornamental garden plants because people associated them with those relatives and didn’t think of them as beautiful flowering plants on their own. Do you think they’re worth having in the garden?

My friend, the flower which you took such honest pains to pluck & lug some thousand of miles is not a flower at all but a mere onion . . .

Samuel Clemens to Thomas Bailey Aldrich, 20 October, 1875, Hartford

Photo credit: Нацку, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Woodland stonecrop

Woodland stonecrop is a plant native to many forest spaces in Eastern North America. Like all plants in the genus Sedum, stonecrop is a succulent—a plant with leaves that are fleshy and full of moisture to help them survive in dry soil. Succulents are popular houseplants today. Do you know of any? Henderson thought stonecrop was a valuable ornamental plant in particular spots in the garden: “Locations where rocks exist in their natural condition can often be made highly interesting and ornamental by setting out plants of a drooping or trailing habit to overhang among them.” What do you think he meant by rocks “in their natural condition”?

Photo credit: Guettarda, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dahlia

In the Gilded Age, floriculturalists like Peter Henderson recommended dahlias for climates like ours here in Connecticut: “The climate of the Eastern and North-western States is better adapted to the early development of the flowers of the Dahlia than warmer latitudes, and thus we find that though the frosts occur here earlier in the fall, yet the season of flowering is of longer duration than in districts where the fall frost is later in coming; hence the climate of Boston or New York is better for Dahlias than that of Baltimore or Washington.”

The picture of the dahlia to the left was taken in our gardens in early October—looks like Henderson was right!