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FLORA: A November bouquet

“A November bouquet” depicts Cornelia Phillips Spencer's revered goldenrod with blue asters, black berries of catbrier, fruit of chokeberry and turning leaves of strawberry bush and sweetgum. Photo of original painting by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
I’m returning to the words and paintings of Cornelia Phillips Spencer, who took a closer look at our local flora 139 years ago.

“A November bouquet” is an appropriate accompaniment for Mrs. Spencer’s description. This particular fall wildflower bouquet, initialed J.J. S., is the work of Mrs. Spencer’s daughter, June James Spencer, who later married James Lee Love, assistant professor of mathematics at UNC.

A note by James Love in the Spencer papers of the Southern Historical Collection tells that, at her mother’s encouragement, June had become a fine botanical artist and in turn encouraged her mother, who is credited with most of the flower portraits in the collection.

In “Late summer woods,” N.C. Presbyterian, Oct. 8, 1873, Cornelia Phillips Spencer extols the “weeds.”

“If one should delight in weeds, now is the time. … It is often a little painful to find that in the late summer we must class among weeds many a plant, whose pretty flower early in the season seemed a paragon of delicacy; – now, the coarse and rampant growth is undeniably plebian and weed-sy. I fear that my summer favorite, the goldenrod, runs some risk of such deterioration. … The Vernonias, –commonly called ironweeds, – are a beautiful companion to goldenrods, their clear and brilliant purple being in the best possible contrast … the flowers, taken singly, or the heads with their singularly pretty involucres, would be ranked among our very daintiest darlings.”

“A coarse leaf and a coarse stem and a way or growing along the road side has given these beauties the name of weed. The asters are very conspicuous now, from pure white through all the shades of lavender and purple. They too look charmingly with the goldenrods. … The sunflowers and their cousins the Rudbeckias are a little flaunting, and should make the back-ground of a bouquet. Most of our fall flowers are rather strong growers and high colored.”

In the late fall Cornelia Phillips Spencer found blue asters still in flower with the crimson foliage of Virginia creeper. Photo of original painting by Ken Moore

Later that same year Cornelia Spencer wrote “A journey in October” for the N.C. Presbyterian, Oct. 29, 1873.

“With all possible, all due admiration for the gorgeous assemblage of colors in later October, I must own to a great love for our landscapes while the greens are yet predominant, and the crimsons and yellows and browns are only the touches, – ‘Autumn laying here and there, A fiery finger on the trees.’”

“There is more leisure for observation and for enjoyment and full appreciation of the effects of color then, than when the whole forest is a mass of glowing hues. But what splendor of changing beauty the Creator has ordered to be shed around our daily life from the first of October to the close of November, when the last rich shades of brown are lost in the purple haze of Indian summer. People ought to be much abroad these days, and should take their children out and be never tired of calling their attention to the glories of the scene.”

Mrs. Spencer extolled the colors of sumac leaves here depicted with stem of deciduous holly. Photo of original painting by Ken Moore

Cornelia Phillips Spencer advises us well!

Email Ken Moore at flora@carrborocitizen.com. Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

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