The Story Of The Cornucopia: It’s All Greek To Me

For my mother, Thanksgiving décor meant a white tablecloth and fine crystal. But as a child, I longed for more. So once I had my own household, I added the cornucopia. The horn-shaped basket packed with fall fruits and vegetables filled my spirit with holiday joy. In my mind, it was the very essence of the harvest season.

That being said, I later discovered that the origins of the cornucopia had nothing to do with a basket, nor was it meant to contain fruit. It all started with a goat named Amalthea.


Cornucopia, or cornu copiae, translates literally to horn (cornu) of plenty (copiae). In the English language, it also means abundance. But while the word may have Latin roots, its origins are firmly rooted in Greek mythology.

In Greek legend, the cornucopia refers to the horn of Amalthea, the name of the goat who fed the infant Zeus on Crete. According to one version of the myth, Zeus broke off one of Amalthea’s horns and gave it to the nymph daughters of Melisseus. In so doing, he endowed it with the power to be filled with whatever its owners desired. 

Cretan goat

The Cretan goat known as Kri Kri/Photo: Evita Kouts

Other accounts say Amalthea was herself a nymph, and it was she who fed the god (with goat’s milk). When the goat accidentally broke off one of her horns, the nymph filled it with fresh herbs and fruit and gave it to Zeus as a gift. 

The Childhood of Zeus by Jacob Jordaens/Louvre Museum

Whatever the reason for the horn being separated from the goat, Zeus is said to have so loved Amalthea that he placed her among the stars as the constellation Capra, (which is Latin for goat). Today we know her as Capricornus (horned goat), or Capricorn.

constellation capricorn

The constellation Capricorn


Other legends associate the horn of plenty with Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, fate and fortune. As the giver of abundance, she is often depicted bearing a cornucopia.

Fortuna holding a cornucopia/Istanbul Archeology Museum/Photo:

Throughout the ages, the cornucopia has been a fixture in classical art. You’ll find it in paintings and on buildings and coins where it has become synonymous with the harvest and abundance. In fact, there are entire towns, businesses, jails and temples named after it. And here in Washington, DC, it appears five times on the U.S. Capitol

An ancient bas relief depicting a goat’s horn overflowing with fruits

Statue of Zeus with a cornucopia

Cornucopia sculpture in Greece


While it is unlikely that the Pilgrims had a cornucopia, Americans have nonetheless adopted the vessel as one of the most popular Thanksgiving decorations. As a symbol of plenty, it’s a natural fit for a lavish table. Nowadays, however, it usually takes the form of a basket rather than an actual horn (although there other materials available.) People traditionally fill it with fruits, but vegetables, nuts, flowers and leaves are also popular. 

ceramic cornucopia

A ceramic cornucopia

Still, there’s something about the story of the goat Amalthea that I find especially heart-warming. This Thanksgiving when I set the table, I’ll be thinking of her and the abundance she represents, a harvest wish for plenty to cultures throughout the ages.


Ten Great Ideas For Decorating With Gourds

If you’re like me, when those big boxes of gourds hit stores in October, your mind whirls with possibilities. The curious shapes seem to embody the spirit of fall. The problem is that, once you get them home, the little vegetables seem somehow lacking. Sure, you can just toss them in a bowl. But, if you really want to get creative, decorating with gourds requires some additional  ingredients.


Have you ever wondered where these little guys come from? The soft-shell gourds belong to a family of plants called cucurbita. Native to the Andes and Mesoamerica, cucurbitas include both ornamental and non-ornamental gourds as well as melons, squash and pumpkins. People grew and ate these plants over 10,000 years ago in the region of present-day Mexico. 

Cantine variety of ornamental gourds

Nowadays, though, we value gourds more for their curious sizes and shapes than for their culinary uses. These include bottle, kettle, pear, Crown-of-Thorns, egg and the popular cantine (that looks like a tiny pumpkin.)  Incalculable in number, the different shapes are the result of gourds’ tendency to cross-pollinate not only with each other, but also with pumpkins and squash. And this provides for all kinds of design possibilities.


So if you’re looking to create something special, how do you spice things up? By adding some seasonal ingredients. Luckily, autumn provides a wealth of natural materials to choose from. Here are the key elements:


Decorative accents like feathers, twigs, nuts and leaves are one way to add interesting texture and color to your gourd arrangements. They are also great signs of the season. Ringneck pheasant tail feathers, curly willow branches, walnuts and various size pinecones all heighten the appeal.

Ringneck pheasant tail feathers

Curly willow branches 


Walnuts’ large size make them the perfect accompaniment to gourds


Did you know that ornamental gourds make great vases? You can carve them out and fill them with flowers, berries and vines. Hypericum berries, orange bittersweet, purple, red or orange dahlias or yellow lilies all make great fillers while adding pops of seasonal color.

Hypericum berries

Hypericum berries

Orange bittersweet

Assorted dahlias

Yellow lilies provide good color contrast


Not interested in florals, feathers or berries? Carve out your ornamental gourds and add votive candles for a warm and toasty look.


Below are some great ideas from around the web for decorating with gourds. Click on the links for more detailed information.


There aren’t any extra seasonal ingredients here. But what makes this wreath interesting is the combination of shapes and colors. Gourd wreath, Southern Living


White gourds pop against dark green leaves such as ornamental kale. Below, pine cones and a wood bowl add warmth to this rustic look. 


There’s no mistaking the vase-like shape of this mini gourd. Not only does the spray of red flowers complement the gourd’s green color, but it is in perfect proportion to the base of this natural container.


A miniature take on the traditional hollowed-out pumpkin, these different sized gourds glow with the warm light of votive candles. 


When selecting flowers and berries for your gourd vases, keep in mind the color of the ‘container’. Below, purple and orange dahlias, bittersweet berries and green leaves provide great color contrast to the butter-hued gourd.


What makes this arrangement work is the fall coloration and striking similarity in texture of the gourds and basket. 


This modernist arrangement with orange zinnias, flax leaf and feathery grass may not be for everyone, but it sure is eye-catching.


Looking for a great table arrangement? These slender glass vases filled with stacked orange gourds and single strands of ivy are clean and elegant.


In the world of garden design, texture is almost more important than flowers. Texture makes plant combinations visually arresting while adding a ‘warmth’ to the overall arrangement. Below, a white gourd ‘vase’ is the perfect complement to frilly gerbera daisies, magnolia leaves, mottled cantines, prickly kale and spiky evergreen sprigs.


If you have the space, these glamorous arrangements are sure to amaze. At Longwood Gardens, designers stacked gourds in black metal towers and accented them with potted yellow mums . (Notice how the pots and towers are the same color.)

Happy designing!



Why Carnations Are The Official Mother’s Day Flower

For those of you who think Mother’s Day was created by Hallmark, the real story is much more touching. It all sprang from a daughter’s love for her mother, the trials of war and a gift of 500 white carnations.

It Started in West Virginia 

It all began in 1905 when Anna Jarvis lost her mother. She and her mother had been very close friends. Consumed by grief, Anna made a solemn vow. She pledged to establish a national day to honor her mother and all mothers for the positive contributions they made to society.

Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had raised her family in the mid 1800’s and had suffered great hardship. Of the 12 children she gave birth to, only four survived. The others died from diseases common at the time, including measles, typhoid and diphtheria. 


Yet despite having endured so much loss, Anna’s mother remained stout-hearted. In the 1850s, she began organizing coalitions of mothers from across West Virginia to combat childhood illness. The women raised money for medicines, inspected food and milk and nursed those who were sick. 

The coalitions became known as the Mothers Day Work Clubs.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

When in 1861 the Civil War broke out, the mothers also became volunteer nurses, caring for both Confederate and Union soldiers.

Mother’s Day Work Club members took care of all soldiers

Even after the war, the clubs continued to be a unifying force. In 1868, Jarvis organized a Mothers’ Friendship Day, which brought together mothers of former foes and encouraged reconciliation among area families.


Shortly after Ann’s death, her daughter Anna organized a memorial at her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia. During the service, she passed out 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower) to all the mothers in attendance. With this unofficial inauguration, Anna began writing letters to national, state and local politicians to gain their support for a Mother’s Day movement. 

And unbelievably, a decade later, 46 states and many foreign countries, including Canada and Mexico, were holding Mother’s Day celebrations!

Finally in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made things official. He signed Proclamation 1268, which created a national Mother’s Day as A public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.

Letter signed by President Woodrow Wilson establishing Mother’s Day

The second Sunday in May became the official day of celebration. And the wearing of a white carnation, Ann Jarvis’ favorite flower, became a tradition.


Anna Jarvis’ originally intended for Mother’s Day to be a personal celebration between mothers and their families (this is why Mother’s takes the singular possessive and not the plural). She imagined it as a time when millions would visit their mothers and write hand written notes expressing their love and affection.

Vintage Mother’s Day card

With the official recognition of the holiday, however, florists, card companies and other merchants began jumping on the bandwagon. Jarvis became more and more enraged as she watched Mother’s Day drift further and further away from her original idea. Nothing upset her more than the printed Mother’s Day card. She wrote,

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. 

By 1920, Jarvis had become so angered over the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she launched a campaign to abolish the holiday. Declaring Mother’s Day a failure, she organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits to stop others from profiting off of the day.

In 1923, she even filed suit against the Governor of New York over a Mother’s Day celebration. When the court rejected her plea, she formed a protest and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She devoted the remainder of her life to fighting against the very day she had established.

Jarvis died, childless, in 1948 at the age of 84. She is buried next to her mother in Philadelphia.


Yet a century later, Jarvis’ legacy lives on in our annual Mother’s Day celebration. And there’s no doubt that carnations have become the official Mother’s Day flower. In her day the carnations were white, but since then pink and red colors have also become popular.

In fact, today it is generally believed that pink carnations represent gratitude while red ones signify admiration. And white carnations are now reserved for honoring a mother who is no longer living.

Red carnations signify admiration

Despite Jarvis’ later efforts, every U.S. president since 1914 has issued an official Presidential Mother’s Day Proclamation recognizing and honoring America’s mothers. And today, the custom is celebrated all over the world (albeit on different days.)

On a personal note, I like receiving printed cards and flowers on Mother’s Day, but have to agree with Jarvis that nothing beats a hand-written note from your child. I’m lucky enough to receive such letters each and every year.

Wishing all of you a very happy Mother’s Day!


Mistletoe: The Poisonous Plant We Hang At Christmas

For centuries, people have hung mistletoe as a symbol of love and romance. But regrettably, the plant doesn’t share the same feelings. Why?  Because mistletoe contains a Christmas cocktail of toxins that when ingested can harm humans and pets. I advise keeping it out of reach if you’re planning on hanging it this season. Continue reading

5 Top Christmas Tree Types: A Guide To Finding Your Perfect Match

Every year is different when it comes to Christmas. But in my home, there is one thing that remains constant. When I shop for a tree, I always head straight for the Fraser firs. These are the trees I grew up with, and their fragrance reminds me of my childhood. And as we all know, memory is a key component in any holiday décor. Continue reading

Valentines Day 2018: How To Really Say It With Flowers

This winter, I’ve been passing the time rereading a few French classics. It’s been a great way to while away the hours, especially since many of the books focus on life in the garden. Such is the case with Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Lys dans la Vallée (The Lily of the Valley). It’s a great story of French love and society and how a pair of frustrated lovers establish a secret correspondence by flowers. Continue reading

Longwood Gardens’ 10 Best Christmas Trees of 2017

Orchid Tree/A Longwood Christmas

The Orchid Tree at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens

OK, so maybe you won’t be copying the orchid tree above, but this time of year Longwood Gardens is teeming with ideas, especially when it comes to Christmas trees.  Located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (an easy two-hour drive from Washington, DC), Longwood is resplendent this December as it pays homage to France. And the eye-popping horticultural displays are nothing short of ooh-la-la. Continue reading