December 26, 2009

Remembering 'The Julia Child of Horticulture', Thalassa Cruso


Opening title card for PBS's 1960's gardening program "Making Things Grow" by Thalassa Cruso


Now that the pace and energy of Christmas and the Holiday season is slowing down bit, I can rest and catch up on other things I like. With two weeks off from work, these are the days where I can catch up with all sorts of unfinished projects, of which there are far to many.

Since Julia Child seems to be everywhere right now, and because this Christmas, one of my favorite gifts was the complete set of vintage Julia Child videos from her public television cooking program in the 60's, I've been also reminded of Thalassa Cruso, Julia's peer in the horticultural world, at least with novice's and houseplant lovers. Being from the Boston area, and having had parents that were closely involved with public television, Boston culture and the arts during that period, I find the nostalgic revisit to Julia's videos much more than just inspirational, for Julia's home studio was near where I lived, WGBH in Boston, and it seems as a child, we bumped into her tall ( 6 foot 2 inch!) frame of boiled wool and practical shoes, everywhere, from the museum openings as the Museum of Fine Arts, to Horticultural Hall and concerts at WGBH studios. So, to me, it all seems too natural for it was not unusual to bump into Julia at a local supermarket buying lentils, ( OK, it was only twice, but still, memorable).

Anyway, this is a long way to say that in this slow week of remembering Julia, worth every moment, I think it would be nice to remember Thalassa Cruso too. Thalassa Cruso (1909-1997) , who the New York Times referred to as "The Julia Child of Horticulture".

As Time magazine recenty recalled: "There is nothing highhanded about Thalassa, a 59-year-old British-born grandmother who finds "relief from the everyday pressures of life by working among living things which refuse to be hurried." On her twice-weekly show, Making Things Grow, which is carried on five educational stations in New England, she is to spathiphyllum cannae-folium what TV Chef Julia Child is to pate en croute.
Fatshedera in a Mini. Thalassa's pitch is like a cactus—plain yet prickly. Holding up a wire-looped hanging pot, she sniffs: "I consider this pot a bore." Banging down a tray of bulbs on her worktable, she declares: "Now this is a rather ratty object, a relative of the onion called tritelia. It's really not worth the trouble of growing, but some people do, so I have to show it to you." She talks about cow dung as if it were French perfume, condemns tinfoil wrapping as "a crime against a blooming plant."

Although I was teased by my older siblings, who found my interest in this older, British lady with the show that started with classical music, and who smashed naughty slugs, and spritzed her house plants with water, rather boring), for they wanted to wanted to watch "Love American Style" or "The Banana Splits". Our black and white Motorola more often than not, still would be tuned in to Making Things Grow, for thankfully, it was moved to Saturday afternoons when nothing else was on, and I could watch is by myself. Today, I wonder what might be inspiring the hortiphiles of the future, for I fear current programing may result in a bevy of killer shark experts and tornado hunters. I can't think of a contemporary 'Thalassa Cruso' except perhaps Martha Stewart ( the old program). But for my generation and older, many young gardeners were strongly influenced by her program 'Making Things Grow", which 'planted the seeds' that grew into a love and passion for plants.

I wish that WGBH, public television in Boston, would release her videos, although, I am sure that they might include some out of fashioned, techniques, many of us would still enjoy them. I can remember watching both Julia and Thalassa on Saturday afternoons, and surely, Thalassa's program 'Making Things Grow" was highly influential in getting me even more interested in plants. I will always remember her fearlessly smashing a giant pot of a Clivia miniata, and then sawing the root ball in half, a vision I always recall when repotting our huge specimens. Gardening takes confidence and determination, and Thallassa's acerbic British tone and perfect diction of a school teacher, made certain that you, the human, was in charge of the plants. For in the 60's, when the house plant movement was just starting to regenerate with macrame spider plants in the windows of hippies and those who wore patchouli , there were also those who talked to plants in a Jerry Baker way.

Thalassa was neither of those, being raised in a British household in England where plants and horticulture were an everyday part of life, her style was more like that of my parents, who also we're first generation immigrants, seeing plants as being useful both indoors and out, for very different purposes, but neither a mere decoration, for indoor plants we're there for the soul, and not treated as merely pets. They must be grown well, cultured, and cared for, but also re-propagated, by grafting, cuttings and or division, and then the mother plant, tossed into the compost. Thalassa's style was the same. Hack and smack horticulture, I guess, no emotional connection to plants, rather, more of a biological one. I do miss that sort of attitude, especially from a TV host who marketed herself as 'the everyman gardener". Today, our style of entertainment errs on plants either being treated as pets, novelties, or a bit too disposable. That is, if they are not made of silk. We've lost something along the way here.

As a young gardener, living in as rather horticulturally aware family, I could balance the innate knowledge shared with me by my parents, with the more exotic knowledge of Thalassa Cruso. Here was this ten year old kid, not playing baseball or football, but instead, taking the bus into the city to spend hours in the library at the Horticultural Society, being encouraged to borrow books first on more simple ventures, such as those on forcing bulbs or propagating houseplants, and later, on cultivating South African Bulbs and on growing alpines in pots. Thalassa Cruso introduced me to the Clivia miniata, the citrus tree indoors, the Spathyphyllum, the Jade Plant, the Paperwhite Narcissus. If there is anyone to blame for a lifetime of obsession, it surely is Ms. Cruso. If only I had met a writer in those formative years, maybe I could have done more with this passion!

Perhaps best way to experience Thalassa's wit and knowledge, is to find her books either on eBay or at other on-line vintage book sellers like Alibris. They are often very affordable, ( like a dollar or so in the US), and a great read to keep at the bed side. I often recall her stories about vintage Holiday plants in the England of her childhood, the holly, ivy and Hellebores and Anemones. I remember her stories about plant displays on the porches of her home outside of Boston, tiered stepped displays of Petunia's and Pansy's in early summer, her tales of Gloxinia displays in late summer, her story about having a custom made copper liner for her plant window, so that she could fill it with gravel and plant Paperwhite Narcissus for the winter. These are all influential stories that are personal to me, and which still move me to either try or execute somewhere in my future.

It was Thalassa Cruso who inspired many hoticulturists in the 1960's to attempt growing the orange Clivia miniata, then, not common at all. He books then told the story of the famed Yellow Clivia, which many of you know from reading this blog, we too have a long connection with. So, even though I never met Thalassa, I feel a little more connected.

Ten years ago, while exploring in Japan, we visited Mr. Nakamura, who together with Sir Peter Smithers helped bring the famed yellow Clivia miniata to the rest of the world. In the late 1960's, Thalassa Cruso wrote about her journey to obtain a division of a rare yellow Clivia from Kew in England. That plant came from Sir Peter Smithers, and his form called Vivo Yellow was first sent to Mr. Nakamura in northern Japan, where it first bloomed, and he named it after Sir Smithers home in Italy, Vico Morocote. I thought of Thalassa's letter and journey to owership of the then, valuable plant ( they are much more affordable today), as we found ourselves being invited to Mr. Nakamura's secret greenhouses in rural Japan, where hundreds of these plants we're being grown, and where hundreds of seeds and offspring where shared with us, and currently live in our greenhouse. Plants connect through story, and heritage, in one way or another. Being able to trace back sometimes, is a meaningful addition that adds to the entire experience.

Apparently WGBH is unable to transfer the old recordings over to DVD or digital due to cost limitations, but former host of The Victory Garden ( yes, another infuencial program that should be rereleased) Michael Weishan, has shared a terrific story and a video clip on his blog, worth visiting. The hour long Bonsai episode link is here.

Many thanks to Stephan Orr's great plant blog, that inspired me to write this.

Also, Is it just me, or is former Martha Stewart exec. Margaret Roach and Thalassa Cruso separated at birth?

5 comments :

  1. Anonymous6:13 AM

    Being 45, I vaguely remember this show from when I was a small kid (along with another PBS show featuring another iconic female host, Maggie Lettvin's exercise program). Didn't Thalassa' set fold in onto itself via some sort of swinging door-like mechanisms? I believe I remember each show she would "open up" her set as the opening credits scrolled, and she would "close" her set up at the end. Am I remembering this correctly?

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  2. Anonymous12:20 PM

    I remember Thalassa well. I watched her PBS show with my mom and we learned so much from her. I still have her books. Thanks for the memory.

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  3. Anonymous9:19 PM

    To opening poster, yes, your memory is accurate. As a 46-year-old, I also remember watching her when I was a kid--mainly for her entertainment value! (Also watched Maggie Lettvin and Julia Child for the same reasons.) But it was extra cool watching a TV personality open up, then close up her set.

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  4. William Anderson12:43 AM

    Michael Weishan's story got me in bonsai. Now I'm the happy caretaker of several trees. My latest love is an italian cypress. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. I remember Thalassa very well and she was one of two people (the other was Jim Crockett) who inspired me to graduate with two degrees (one in botany, the other in horticulture). I don't think I would ever be able to reach the level of expertise that these two people had no matter how much I continue to study. May they both rest in peace.

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