Thursday, May 27, 2010

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Lawrence!

there is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again. ~elizabeth lawrence

Who was Elizabeth Lawrence?
For the uninitiated, Elizabeth Lawrence was a garden writer of some renown who lived in Charlotte for thirty years. She wrote over 700 columns for The Charlotte Observer and several books, which are now considered classics of gardening literature. Today her Charlotte home and garden is owned by the Wing Haven Foundation.  On Tuesday, Emily Herring Wilson came to Wing Haven Gardens from her home in Winston-Salem and talked to a group of us about her new book, Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence.  

Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence
Emily Wilson's book is based on letters Elizabeth had written to Ann Bridgers who lived across the street from her in Raleigh in the 1930s and 40s.  Ann was a well-known actress who had been involved in the production of Coquette, a Broadway play that starred Helen Hayes.  Elizabeth seemed to worship Ann, and Ann was the one who encouraged her to write about plants and gardening and eventually to write her first book, A Southern Garden.

Moving to Charlotte
Elizabeth's garden on Ridgewood Avenue began when she  moved to Charlotte after the death of her father to live with her mother.  Her mother essentially gave her the garden, while she managed the house.  It was in this house that she wrote The Little Bulbs, A Tale of Two Gardens, Gardens in Winter, Lob's Wood, as well as her many columns for The Charlotte Observer.  She continued to correspond with Ann Bridgers until Ann's death in 1948.

A Precious Gift
Letters reveal details of family and personal life in a way books do not.  Emily Wilson compared writing about a private life to "carrying an egg around,"- to being entrusted with a "precious gift to protect."   It was Emily's suggestion that we all read something of Elizabeth's on the day of her birthday, May 27,  to honor her life.

The Garden 
You come to the house along the sidewalk on Ridgewood from Wing Haven, which is only a few houses away.  The garden continues to undergo renovation to one day fulfill Elizabeth's sentiment that, "It couldn't be prettier."

Iris fulva 'Dorothea K. Williamson' just past the gate to the backyard garden.

View to the back of the garden - Stewartia pseudocamellia is at the back right of the photo.

There are several varieties of big, beautiful hostas in the garden.

A late azalea whose name is unknown.

A Unique Group
Many people in the audience at Wing Haven Tuesday had known Elizabeth Lawrence.  Lindie Wilson, the woman who bought the house from her in the 1980s and subsequently edited a collection of her essays, Beautiful at all Seasons, was also there.  When Emily Wilson (no relation to Lindie) asked how many people had hellebores in their gardens that originally came from Elizabeth, many raised their hands.  It occurred to me as I thought about it, there might even be some in my garden due to a past connection with a former director of Wing Haven.  I like to think so.

So, why is Elizabeth so adored by so many?
Elizabeth Lawrence was passionate about plants and about gardening in the middle south.  No one else had written specifically for our climate before she did. She was a gardener and a writer in a time when women were expected to marry and have children. Emily Wilson, whose respect and admiration for Elizabeth Lawrence is contagious, sums it up by saying Elizabeth lived life on her own terms.  And, Emily has done her part to continue that legacy, ending the lecture with the thought, "You want your life to go forward, even when you aren't here anymore."

Excerpt from Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence
The Elizabeth Lawrence Garden website



  1. What a wonderful post. It's no secret how much I admire Eliz. Lawrence and enjoy reading her books and columns. I'm pretty sure I have every book she wrote, plus books of her columns, plus the books by Emily Wilson. I would have loved to have joined you there, in her garden, listening to Emily talk about her.


  2. Carol tweeted that you wrote about Elizabeth Lawrence's birthday. I haven't read the newest book by Emily Wilson but enjoyed "Two Gardeners" very much,

    Thank you so much for the photos and stories, Daricia...good luck at becoming Elizabeth ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  3. Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence™May 27, 2010 at 8:31 PM

    Nice post! I'm another fan of EL. I will be visiting her garden this summer (again) when I'm in town to visit with Lindie Wilson...I will be helping her promote the Garden Conservancy's Open Days tour.

    Helen Yoest

  4. What a nice posting Daricia. Wonderful tribute.
    We are soon to be coming to SC, hope we can meet one day. We won't be too far from each other (I think)

  5. carol, thank you so much for stopping by. i was only vaguely aware of elizabeth lawrence (and confused her with wing haven's elizabeth clarkson) before reading about her on your blog. the romance of being in her garden with people who knew her and hearing about her from an author who adored her was compelling! i hope you get to do that too, sometime. i look forward to reading more of her books and the books about her.

  6. annie, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. i appreciate it very much.

    helen, i'm noticing that i spelled lindie incorrectly. i don't think i'll be able to resist the urge to correct it! i've enjoyed your posts about charlotte gardens. thanks for stopping by.

    janet, thank you so much, loyal reader and commenter! :) i do hope we get to meet, and i'll bet we will!

  7. Thank you for the introduction to Elizabeth Lawrence. I was about to read her a few years ago but had become frustrated by reading garden commentary for gardens in zones so different from my own. This new book and your post are enough to goad me back into the humid climes.

  8. Hi, Daricia, I would LOVE to visit Elizabeth Lawrence's garden some day! I've left a challenge for you on my blog! :)