Lawrence, Elizabeth (1904–1985)
Lawrence, Elizabeth (1904–1985)
American landscape architect whose legendary gardens in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina, provided a backdrop for her writings. Born in Marietta, Georgia, on May 27, 1904; died on June 11, 1985, in Annapolis, Maryland; daughter of Samuel Lawrence and Elizabeth (Bradenbaugh) Lawrence; grew up in North Carolina; graduated from Barnard; first woman to receive a degree in landscape architecture from the North Carolina State College of Design, 1930.
Received the Herbert Medal of the American Plant Life Society (1943) for her contributions to gardening and gardening literature; honored by the American Horticultural Society and the National Council of State Garden Clubs for A Southern Garden.
A Southern Garden: A Handbook for the Middle South (University of North Carolina Press, 1942, rev. ed. 1967); The Little Bulbs: A Tale of Two Gardens (Duke University, 1957); Rock Garden in the South (Duke University, 1960); Gardens in Winter (Harper, 1961); Lob's Wood (1971); (author of introduction) The Gardener's Essential Gertrude Jekyll (Breslich and Foss, 1983); Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins (Duke University, 1987); (edited by Bill Neal) Through the Garden Gate (a selection of her newspaper columns, University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
On March 19, 1941, Elizabeth Lawrence—a Barnard graduate and trained landscape architect—wrote William Crouch, director of the University of North Carolina Press: "I have written a garden book for the Middle South based on my own records which I have been keeping for a number of years with a book in my mind, for there is no book for gardeners in our section, and there is need of one." The first edition of A Southern Garden appeared in 1942, received decent reviews, sold moderately for the next 15 years, then quietly went out of print. In 1957, the year of its demise, Lawrence published The Little Bulbs and took on a weekly gardening column for the Charlotte Observer which she would continue for the next 14 years. For years, though gardeners sang the praises of A Southern Garden, they were reluctant to hand out their hard-to-come-by copies. In 1967, when a revised edition was published with a new introduction, Katherine S. White wrote in The New Yorker: "A Southern Garden is far more than a regional book; it is civilized literature by a writer with a pure and lively style and a deep sense of beauty." Minus its ten-year hiatus, A Southern Garden has been in print for over 50 years.
When the book was first published, Lawrence was writing of her garden in Raleigh. Six years later, she built a new house and garden in Charlotte. "Broad stone steps, planted with tiny treasures and flanked by a rock garden, led down from the terrace's edge to a wide walk of fine crushed gravel," wrote Edith Eddleman in her foreword to the new edition. "On one side of the walk, Carolina cherry laurels (Prunus Laurocerasus) pruned up high gave the illusion of a row of olive trees. Moving from the terrace to the path, I felt that I had journeyed from an alpine meadow to the Mediterranean."
It was Lawrence and her colleague Caroline Dormon in Louisiana who encouraged others
to preserve the native wildflowers of the region. Sometime in the late 1940s, Eudora Welty had put Lawrence's name on the mailing list of the Mississippi Market Bulletin, a free bimonthly made up of classified ads from rural families from several Southern states who had land, livestock, tools, produce, seeds, and plants to sell. Lawrence regularly ordered plants by way of the Bulletin, often initiating a prolonged correspondence with the flower sellers, usually women who dealt in "old timey" plants. Fascinated with the numerous rare plants, Lawrence set out to learn their botanical names. "Reading the flower lists is like reading poetry," she wrote, "for the flowers are called by their sweet country names, many of them belonging to Shakespeare and the Bible."
In 1962, Lawrence determined to meld the bulletins, plants, and correspondence into a book but died before the work was completed. Editor Allen Lacy, who sifted through a huge box filled with the material to fashion Gardening for Love, wrote in his introduction, the "book ranged widely into the whole history of gardening in the Western world, with references to Pliny and Virgil, to herbalists such as Parkinson and Gerard, and to more recent writers such as Thoreau and Sarah Orne Jewett —and to Eudora Welty."
Sometimes called the Jane Austen of gardening, Elizabeth Lawrence is to gardens, notes Lacy, what M.F.K. Fisher is to food. "I do not suppose there is any part of the world in which gardens are not beautiful in spring," wrote Lawrence. "Travellers in other seasons are told, 'you should see our gardens in spring.' To which they reply, 'but we cannot leave our own then.'"
Lawrence, Elizabeth. A Southern Garden. University of North Carolina Press, special edition, 1991.