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Volume 15, Issue 17 ~ April 26 - May 2, 2007


Hildreth Morton

August 14, 1917–April 14, 2007

by Sandra Olivetti Martin

Some seekers journey great distances and climb high mountains to find enlightenment; here in Chesapeake Country, we needed go no farther than Davidsonville, where Hildreth Morton gave us sanctuary at Bittersweet Hill Nursery.

Hildreth, who died Saturday, April 14, at her farm home and business on Governors Bridge Road, was by occupation a master gardener, nursery woman and plant seller. In all those she excelled, but she was far more.

A visit to her three greenhouses, especially the central Lord Byron English Glass House, was likely to send you home with a trunk full of tenderly grown herbs, aromatic geraniums, labyrinthine ferns and wily exotics. You purchased greedily in hope of bringing home a start of magic. For in this hothouse Hildreth created a wonderland where beauty, harmony and solace flourish in shades of green highlighted by grace notes of red, orange and purple brilliance.

There is no better place to come on a winter day, especially a late winter day when spring’s long-delayed coming feels like Ceres’ ache for her daughter Persephone, whose annual detention in the underworld gives us winter. For the winter holidays, Hildreth would have decreed a fantasy garden in the Lord Byron English Glass House, a miniature hobbitland of greenery executed in full detail by an imagination as fecund as Mother Nature’s.

Warmed and enchanted, you accepted her invitation. Though your body stood outside looking in, you were no longer a winter-weary adult but a traveler exploring a serendipitous fairyland.

Other gardens followed the seasons. “Our display gardens give people a forward idea of what they want to do in their own backyards,” Hildreth told me in 1997. “We start our herb and water lily gardens in the first of February to appeal to people’s sense of early spring. The urge is there: The days are longer; birds and bees are stirring. As flowers are ready, we design other gardens.”

Hildreth was a woman with a plan. She knew exactly what she was doing; so the name of her farm — a tobacco farm when purchased by Hildreth’s late husband, jurist James Cooke Morton — likely reflects more than the presence of the red-orange berried vines in the habitat. For Hildreth seized and savored the day as only one can who knows how quickly it passes.

Mother Nature you know only through her handiwork. Hildreth we knew in person. She was always fully present at Bittersweet Hill, jaunty, aging and engaging, a flaming hibiscus pinned into her jet-black hair. You might ask Hildreth about a plant, but you learned far more. Most of all, you saw how a woman could live exactly as she chose, preserving who she wants to be through all the years – hers were 89 – thrown at her.

We will visit Bittersweet Hill Nursery again, but we will miss Hildreth.

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