Recently I came across a garden book written in 1887 by the son of George Ellwanger who started Rochester, New York’s Mount Hope Nursery in 1840. Mount Hope became an important source for trees and shrubs and shipped them across the country.
The younger Ellwanger, whose name was also George, called his book The Garden’s Story.
In the book he commented on the popular garden catalog.
Ellwanger’s language stretched beyond the boundaries of clear writing. The style, reflecting the Victorian influence of that decade, reeked of a bit of exaggeration, especially in the opening pages.
He offered a critique of the current seed and nursery catalogs which he called ‘Avant couriers’.
His words speak for themselves.
Ellwanger wrote: “Avant-couriers of spring continue to blossom diurnally through the post, in the shape of flower and vegetable catalogues. These unfold some interesting studies in form, and review new possibilities of color…to heighten the effect of the foliage and fruit of some new strain of gourd, rita-baga, or colossal onion. The most powerful appeal of the season is a full-page plate of liver-colored tomatoes and zinnias in combination.”
Then he wrote about the Moonflower: “In another distinctly aesthetic overture, a plant of the Ipomaea tribe, sent out under the name of Moon-flower, has embowered an entire cottage; while the moon itself, represented as rising in the horizon, shines only with a borrowed splendor in the presence of this high-class luminary.”Finally, Ellwanger connected this flower with what he calls the ‘flower millenium’. He wrote, “When the catalogue informs one, in addition, that ‘the flowers [of the Moon-flower], when unfolding, expand so rapidly as to be plainly seen, affording amusement and instruction, and that, being a free bloomer, the effect on a moonlight night is charming,’ the reader need no longer doubt the advent of the floral millennium.”
The end of the nineteenth century he considered the ‘floral millennium’, a time when a passion for flowers captured the imagination of the American gardener.
We gardeners follow a long line of gardeners who have come before us.
I find a certain comfort in the thought that gardening is a link to a community of gardeners, both past and present.Many writers have pointed out that Adam and Eve were the first to garden. Eden was the first garden.
Here are three quotes about the garden that inspire me.
Grace Tabor in her book Old-Fashioned Gardening,written in 1913, said: “Garden making is a primitive art; nothing indeed antedates it as an occupation, whatever one’s favorite authority may be. So we may confidently say that it was in making gardens that man first gave expression to himself.”
Randall Schultz’s recent online garden newsletter Home, Garden and Homestead News includes a quote that I like. Eric Lautzenheiser, former director of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, said, “People are afraid they will make mistakes. Who’s to say what’s good taste and bad taste? We’re overly concerned with what’s proper in plant selection—gardening is supposed to be recreation.”
Candace Wheeler in her 1901 book Content in a Garden wrote: “We are comparatively unlearned in the comfort and content of the garden if we suppose that it begins and ends with the delight of the eye. It is true that that is the thing which first attracts us, the thing we are first aware of, but when we live in the garden we find ourselves constantly growing into a most subtle knowledge of the different ways of beauty.”
Two old quotes and one new one tell us that gardening is self-expression, gardening is process, and gardening is art. Sounds to me that gardening is a lot like life itself.
Recently I came across a wonderful article by Beth Kephart in the Philadelphia Enquirer called “Finding Refuge, Seeking Perspective.” She tells the story of how she found solace and an inner comfort just in walking the grounds of William Hamilton’s home in Philadelphia called Woodlands.
At the end of the eighteenth century William Hamilton (1745-1813) designed the landscape for his home Woodlands in the modern English garden style. He loved botany and gave America the ginkgo, the Lombardy poplar, and the Norway maple.
Thomas Jefferson too admired Woodlands.
Woodlands’ landscape served as an important early example of the English garden in its natural or picturesque style on American soil.
Even Grace Tabor in her book Old-Fashioned Gardening, written in 1913, said: “The fame of Woodlands spread so that all visitors of cultivation and taste who came to Philadelphia had heard of it, and made a point of seeing it.”
Then she mentioned famous visitors to the garden, “John Bartram and Humphrey Marshall were both friends of William Hamilton and much of his success may have been inspired by the counsel and advice of these two botanicals. The natural style, which by this time was quite the rage, driving everything else before it, found an advocate in him, and ‘Woodlands’ was probably the best example of it that the country possessed at the close of the eighteenth century.”
You can still visit Woodlands today. The property is now designated a National Historic Landmark District in recognition of its unique history and rich resources.
What I like in Tabor’s book is that she made such a point about Woodlands’ importance in American garden history. She even referred to the garden style, the natural, as the rage at that time.
Thus William Hamilton’s property emerged as an example of modern landscape gardening where people could see for themselves the current form of the English garden.
The nineteenth century industrial revolution introduced large factories for every business that often meant many buildings which needed dozens of workers.
A sleek looking factory meant that a company was modern. Here is an advertising image from the Pabst Brewery from the 1890s [below]. Notice the tall smoke stacks that generated a grey smoke that covered the near-by city streets of Milwaukee.
Seed companies and nurseries also included their own factories in advertising. Such buildings might have produced packages and boxes for seeds and plants or included print shops for the business.
Pamela Walker Laird in her book Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing writes: “Factories appeared in a wide range of formats directed to women and children.”
Seed and nursery catalogs were written for women since women made most of the purchases for the home.
The John Salzer Co. seed catalog cover [above] included at the top an illustration of the company headquartes that looked like a factory with these words: “John A. Salzer, Co. Establishment, La Crosse, Wisc.”
Notice that the company headquarters was referred to as ‘Establishment’.
It was an opportunity for the company to boast about its current size and at the same time show the world how progressive it was.
Thus the advertising from the seed companies and nurseries joined ranks with other companies of that time, a period when national advertising demanded this self-aggrandizement on the part of the business.
Wisconsin company owners Captain Fred Pabst in Milwaukee and John Salzer in La Crosse both appeared to be progressive in their respective businesses, one to sell beer and the other seeds.
The change in landscape design that took place in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century has defined the English garden ever since.
It was at that time that wealthy aristocrats rejected the formal symmetrical landscape design popular in gardens like the gardens of Hampton Court.
In his book The Flower Garden the landscape gardener Charles McIntosh (1794-1864) wrote, “In the true English style we have neither the Italian terrace, the French parterre, nor the Dutch clipt evergreen.”
The extensive lawn became the signature look of the English garden. The design was called the natural style, and sometimes the picturesque, because it reflected the art form of the painted landscape.
Serpentine walkways rather than straight were also an element in this new English garden style.In his The Book of the Garden Mcintosh said: “Upon the introduction of the natural, English, or picturesque style into our gardens, a complete crusade was begun against every object or work of art met in grounds.” The new garden design initiated a revolution in the landscape.
The English had not seen a landscape like this before 1700. Thereafter garden writers referred to it as the ‘modern’ landscape.
McIntosh [above] preferred the natural style in his own work as you can see in the illustration he included in his book, written in 1853.
That natural English landscape contributed to the model of the home landscape included in essays and illustrations in the garden catalogs of the late nineteenth century. The 1898 catalog from the Richard Smtih Company in Worcester, Mass. (below) was an example of that style.
Recently the Newsletter from the Somerville Garden Club included an article about Aruncus dioicus or Goat’s Beard.
When I read the article, I thought of this plant in my own garden. I planted a row of them at the back of the perennial bed over twenty years ago.
This is truly an old-fashioned perennial that was once called Spirea Aruncus. It loves shade so I chose it for my garden where minimal sunshine appears.
I wondered too what nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries wrote about this plant.
In 1885 Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included an article from the weekly English garden journal Gardener’s Chronicle in his magazine called Gardener’s Monthly. The title of the article was “The Aruncus offers unique beauty in the garden.” I loved the title and made it the title of this post.
The article said, “A grand plant, not by any means so abundant as it should be in our gardens, owing to its very distinct and effective appearance. Of course there are positions in the garden where it would be out of place, but there are many others to which it would give additional beauty. We have yet much to learn and appreciate in the arrangement of hardy plants.”
Then the author, whose name was simply noted at the end of the artilce by ‘T,’ described the plant. He said, “I may say, for the benefit of those unacquainted with the plant, that it grows from 3 to 4 feet high, with large divided foliage, and immense plumes of white flowers, forming when established most conspicuous objects. I lately saw several masses 3 and 4 feet in diameter, and as much high, and nothing could surpass their unique beauty.”
Because this plant is so big, it is probably better to position it in the back of the perennial bed or border. Garden books often advocate for planting Aruncus in a damp or moist area, but I grow it in dry soil with no problem.
The garden journal called Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1897 said, “Spirea Aruncus is popularly known as the ‘Goats Beard.’ It is a very effective species and one of the best of border plants. It is a native of England, grows from three to four feet in height, and blooms during the months of June and July. The foliage is very handsome, the leaves being of pinnate form and of a light green color. Flowers are a creamy white and borne in large branched panicles.”
The two nineteenth century garden magazines certainly give high praise to this plant.
Aruncus is one of our native plants even though Vick’s magazine said it was native to England. The American Beauties Native Series offers it for the gardener among its collection of plants.
Aruncus dioicus is an easy plant to grow and does not take over an area. I like that about it.
No surprise that it deserves a spot in anyone’s shade garden.
Exotic plants have long been a staple in the American garden. Each year plants from Asia, Africa, and South America still continue to become part of our plant pallet.
At one time the English garden included a special garden of plants that were native to America. It was called the ‘American garden’.
In 1855 English nurseryman William Paul in his book The Handbook of Villa Gardening wrote: “American plants is a term which embraces a variety of flowering shrubs, mostly evergreen, which are found to thrive best in a peat or bog soil…The dark foliage and splendid blossoms of the rhododendron, the chaste and delicate kalmias, the brilliant and varied colours of the azalea, have deservedly going for them a prominent place in English gardens.”
Even Grace Tabor in her book Old-Fashioned Gardening,written in 1913, said: “The earliest houses were built of the wood of the locust — Robinia pseudoacacia — a tree which had driven the Englishmen wild with delight, and which was early carried to English gardens, were it was pronounced of all exotic trees the finest.”Finally Mark Laird in his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800 wrote: “From the 1730s to the 1760s the rage in exotics such as the Weymouth pine (Pinus strobus), the kalmia ( Kalmia latifolia), and the bottonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) was brisk…The second half of the eighteenth century saw the demand for ‘American gardens.’”
The American native tree white pine, called Weymouth pine by the English in the eighteenth century, continues to be a staple here in New England [left].
Lord Weymouth introduced the white pine to England in 1705, after the English Colonies were established in America. From that time English gardeners have included it in their collection of American plants.
English garden writer Horace Walpole wrote in 1771, “The Weymouth pine has long been naturalized here; the patriarch plant still exists at Longleat [Lord Weymouth’ s estate].”
It is that time of year, mid summer, and time to sit back and enjoy the garden after the hard work you have invested in maintaining it.
American gardens reflect a rich tradition, but also a dependence on English garden writers.
Garden historian William Howard Adams wrote in his book Gardens through History: Nature Perfected that in the late nineteenth century America lacked “an indigenous national gardening tradition or even a regional one” and detected in American gardens of that period only the influence of English writers William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll and the English Arts and Crafts movement.
That idea I found in the fascinating book by May Brawley Hill called Grandmother’s Garden that traces the history of the American garden from the late nineteenth century to 1915.
I would agree that Robinson and Jekyll have influenced American gardening. From the garden literature of the period you read their names quite frequently.
They both wrote books and articles, and Robinson even had his own magazine.
The late nineteenth century American seed and nursery industry in this country looked to both of them as resources for teaching their customers about gardening.
The Pittsburgh seedsman Benjamin A. Elliott in his catalog of 1888 encouraged the use of perennials rather than annuals, and credits William Robinson for that inspiration. Elliott portrayed the English garden style as the model for American gardening. He wrote, “We are indebted to this great champion of hardy flowers [Robinson] for some of the ideas advanced here, culled from his numerous works on gardening, which have done much to make English gardens what they are—the most beautiful in the world.”
We take for granted that words and images to promote any product can flow freely in our society.
Today we generally have no issues with whatever a company wants to say in an ad. After all, an ad is just an ad, isn’t it? It is much more than promotion.
By the 1890s when advances in printing technology made it possible to print millions of seed and nursery catalogs, promotional literature from a company reflected how well the company was doing. The implication was that the more catalogs, magazines, and illustrations from the company, the bigger and more successful the company.Take horticultural artwork as an example.
This illustration of Pelargonum Grandiflorum [left] from 1896 represents the progress of chromolithography in depicting flowers. This floral art is from the English garden book Favorite Flowers of Garden and Greenhouse by Edward Step.
Pamela Walker Laird in her book Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing writes: “Printed materials held a special significance in the nineteenth-century United States. Books, periodicals, and printed art represented both progress and the potential for future progress.”
So the more a seed company or nursery printed and illustrated, the more successful the company appeared in the eyes of the customer. The company thus seemed progressive and up-to-date, and, of course, one that the customer wanted to deal with for any seeds and plants for the garden.