For almost 200 years, the Preston House has anchored the west end of the Salem community. And this holiday season, the home now known as the White Oak Tea Tavern has been accented with arrangements of wild and long-cultivated plants which reflect the grace of the house.
The collections of deep green Virginia pine, twisted tawny willow branches, plumes of gray-green rosemary, scarlet-edged nandina leaves, blue berries of red cedar, cones from evergreens and seed pods show up on window sills, in fireplaces and on tables in the public rooms.
Garlands of running cedar frame one fireplace. The more formal banquet room has della robia arrangements of fruits and nuts similar to what might have been used in Colonial Williamsburg.
All the arrangements are artfully put together to form “a collage of elements,”explains floral artist Esther Davis of Salem.
Davis knows where each type of leaf, flower and tree specimen comes from. She collects many of them from the flower beds and grounds of the Tea Tavern on West Main Street which she tends as a volunteer for the Salem Historical Society that owns the tea tavern building. They also come from the house she owns on Clay Street, and on her regular early-morning walks on nearby Little Brushy Mountain.
“When I put together arrangements, I think a lot about texture, density, shape and color,” Davis says.
Many of the plants Brown is re-discovering at Salem’s oldest home were planted by Dr. Esther Brown, whose family willed the house to the historical society.
“The fun in the garden is finding what Dr. Brown had in the garden. I noticed native plants under the rubble when the house was being renovated,” Davis said. “Dr. Brown had planted quite a nice native plant garden, with wild clematis, bleeding heart, salvia, ginger and Jack-in the-Pulpit,” for example.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of the tea tavern on May 1, one of Dr. Brown’s sons mentioned to Davis that his mother used to have poppies under the ancient osage orange tree on the side lawn near the Go-Mart gas station. That idea is for the future, but a couple of chartreuse fruits of the osage orange add bright color to a mantel.
Over Christmas and New Year’s, Davis used all fresh greenery on the tea tavern’s tables: euonymus, holly and pink alstroemeria nestled against pine. In the windows are plants from Davis’ yard and other sources: rosemary, red-berried winterberry, Arizona cypress, English ivy, even the burnished orange wild grass known as Bluestem. “People around here usually call it broom sedge,” Davis said, adding that she collected that from up the hill on Little Brushy.
Dried leaves of magnolia and Dusty Miller from Davis’ garden show up in other areas.
“My point with these arrangements is it is amazing what one can put together from items gathered around people’s homes and woods,” she explained.
Davis took into consideration upstairs dining areas of the tea tavern where live greenery might tend to dry out more, and used elements which didn’t need so much water to stay pretty.
She relishes filling her studios in her Clay Street house with plant materials.
“One can accumulate quite a nice inventory of things to work with in that time,” she allowed. She is particular about choosing colors. “Nothing but the right green will do,” for her in arrangements, she added.
In the past, Davis has been known for her elaborate, colorful arrangements of flowers she painstakingly dried with silica gel, in some cases reconstructed, and even tinted to restore their color. She even wrote a book on the subject, “Sensational Dried Flowers,” which was published by Rodale Publishing in 1999. She has been designing with plant material since 10 years before that, when she moved to Salem from Washington State.
One of her favorite jobs was the year Davis was selected to design seasonal arrangements for the Virginia Governor’s Mansion when Tim Kaine was in office. She has also been a featured speaker at the granddaddy of all flower shows, the Philadelphia Flower Show. The member of the Salem Garden Club has talked “to a good many garden clubs in the area about floral art.
Davis relishes life, and has beaten cancer twice. She enjoys spending time hiking, gardening and taking nature photos, as well as supporting people going through cancer treatment.