In Search of Better Annuals

When you plan a flower garden, which you might be doing about this time, remember that annuals are essential.

Annuals will provide continuing flowers for the garden til the fall if you choose your varieties carefully.

When perennials have gone by and lost their bloom, annuals still shine in colors galore.

Since the Victorian garden of the nineteenth century, there has been a focus on the annual.

Perhaps because it was also the period when plant hunters traveled as far away as Africa, Asia, and South America for new varieties of flowering annuals.

It was then that the dahlia came from Mexico and the petunia from South America.

Breeding of Newer Annuals Needed

In 1947 garden writer John C. Wister edited the book Woman’s Home Companion Garden Book: For All Sections of United States and Canada.

Wister enlisted several writers to fill the chapters with helpful instructions on the many topics under which one could discuss such a wide area as ‘gardening.’

He does a superb job in the book. It is truly a resource and guide, even today, after seventy-five years.

I keep it on the shelve and refer to it when necessary, always ending up with the feeling that I am happy I have the book.

He devotes a section to the topic of ‘annuals.’

Wister writes, “Some of the showiest garden flowers are annuals.

“For this reason, perhaps, more work in selective breeding for improvements and disease-resistance has been done with annuals than with any other class of plants.”

In his words Wister paints a picture of what we have seen with annuals over several decades.

It should be no surprise that every year still brings new varieties of annuals like the petunia, coleus, and verbena.

New Verbena

The beautiful verbena ‘Lanai Peach’ received the prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. [below]

Syngenta Flowers has given us this new variety of the verbena.

Verbena ‘Lanai Peach’ [Image courtesy of Gardenia]

And so the search goes on.


The Gazebo in Victorian Gardens

In Lousiana the plantation known as Rosedown, built in 1830, became one of the early examples of the evolution of gardening in nineteenth century America.

Rosedown, St. Francisville, Louisiana

The owner Mary Turnball kept a diary of what she planted on her twenty-eight acres. She began the diary in 1836.

She gardened in the early decades of the century with vegetables and herbs.

After 1850 flowers appeared in greater numbers in her garden.


She also built a gazebo on the property.

The National Garden Bureau defines the gazebo in these words:

A freestanding structure, traditionally comprised of six or eight open sides, with a solid, pitched roof. A gazebo can serve as an outdoor room, providing a perfect place to read, dine, or work. (However, with its open sides, you may get wet during strong rainstorms!)”

Here is the gazebo at Rosedown. [below]

Gazebo at Rosedown

John Highstone wrote the wonderful book Victorian Gardens.

He says, “The gazebo, a place of meditation for the early Victorians, adds grace and beauty to larger gardens.”

The gazebo is also an example of trelliage, as Highstone notes.

He writes, “Decoration abounded, and nowhere could one find more decorative pieces for the garden than in trelliage.” Thus garden structures would include trellises, fences, and screens.

Today there is a renewed interest in the gazebo as a pleasant “retreat from the world.”

The gazebo, in whatever garden it appears, remains a reminder of Victorian garden history.


Welcome to the Poison Garden

Northeast of London in the heart of Northumberland you will find Alnwick Castle.

The castle dates back to 1750.

Over the past few years the owner, the Duchess of Northumberland, has restored the gardens of the Castle, at the request of her husband, the Duke.

Many visitors come every year.

The popular attraction for the twelve acre site has become her famous Poison Garden, a garden of one hundred toxic plants that could kill, sicken, or debilitate.

Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northhumbland, began the work of restoring and creating the gardens in 1995. It took fourteen years to complete the task.

She wanted something special about the garden. That’s when she came up with the idea of adding a Poison Garden.

Smithsonian Magazine writer Natasha Geiling wrote a wonderful article about the Poison Garden called “Step Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare).”

Alnwick Castle’s popular attraction: The Poison Garden [Courtesy of Alnwick Castle]

She says, “After visiting the infamous Medici poison garden on a trip to Italy, the duchess became enthralled with the idea of creating a garden of plants that could kill instead of heal.”

The Duchess collected one hundred such plants to make the garden. The plants include hemlock, belladonna, monkshood, wormwood, giant hogweed, mandrake, cannabis and coca.

Remember that the plant is toxic under certain conditions, like imbibing.

Geiling writes, “Because of the plants’ dangerous qualities, visitors to the Poison Garden are prohibited from smelling, touching, or tasting any of them.”

A guide must accompany any visitor into the Garden.

The Garden sits behind a black iron gate. An iron fence surrounds it on all four sides.

Not too inviting. But, after all, the plants are all killers.

This black iron gate and fence greet the visitor to the Poison Garden.
[Courtesy of Alnwick Castle]


Searching for Flowers and Herbs of Early America

I once spent an entire day at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and I loved it.

The various houses, along with their gardens, especially the Governor’s Palace, made the visit a journey into American garden history.

Lawrence D. Griffith in his book Flowers and Herbs of Early America sets out to discover the plants of the early decades of America’s colonial and Federal garden by looking at the early plants at Williamsburg.

He documents fifty-eight species of flowers and herbs and explores how they were cultivated and used.

The book is filled with plants, and tells the story of how each found a home in a Williamsburg garden.

Griffith is curator of plants at Colonial Williamsburg, so he knows the plants well.

He set out to create a list of early flowers and herbs at Williamsburg.

He even read the works of Dioscorides.

Dioscorides was the eminent first-century Greek physician and surgeon who served in the Roman army.

Griffith writes, “For almost fifteen hundred years, Dioscorides was regarded as the ultimate authority on plants and medicine.”

He searched also in early English plant directories, of which there are several.

Building a Garden

Griffith’s goal was to create a garden of early plants at Williamsburg.

After research of the plants he would use, he tracked down seeds for them.

He prepared the soil, planted the seeds, and watched how they grew.

The book is his journey of discovering and growing those early Williamsburg plants.

He lists flowers first and then the second half of the book he devotes to herbs.

I thoroughly enjoyed the historical background of the plants. At the same time I was surpised to see that many of them are still popular in gardens today.

Griffith not only provides a history of each plant, but also recommends the best method in encouraging their growth in your own garden.

Who could ask for anything more?


Exotics Not Always Welcomed in 19th Century America

In the nineteenth century it was not always popular to include exotic plants in the landscape.

At the same time some horticulturists called for more native plants.

In her amazing book of garden essays Foreign Trends in American Gardens: A History of Exchange, Adaptation, and Reception Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto brings up the issue.

Eric MacDonald, one of the writers, says,

“By the close of the nineteenth century American gardens seemed increasingly populated by plants whose ancestors had originated in other places.”

Plants like the Nasturtium…


Many summers I have planted this lovely Nasturtium ‘Butter Cream’ in my garden. [below]. What would my garden be like without it?

Nasturtium ‘Butter Cream’ Courtesy of: National Garden Bureau

The Spanish conquistadors discovered the nasturtium in the seventeenth century.

The flower came to England in 1686.

According to Flowers and Herbs of Early America by Lawrence D. Griffith they also came from the West Indies into Spain then to France and Flanders.

Today it is a common flower in the garden, but it is not native to the United States.

Voice of Opposition

Still there was in the nineteenth century a concern that including too many exotics in the garden was not to be encouraged.

That sentiment came from no-less a prestitious horticultural journal than Garden and Forest.

McDonald writes, “While the editors and other contributors to Garden and Forest cautioned against the use of foreign elements in American landscapes, advertisers and other contributors extolled their virtues.”

Commercial interests were at play in the deluge of exotic plants that came into America.

That voice won out in the long run.

Even though some critics remarked “Efforts to perpetuate freaks of nature, which, had she been left to herself, would never have multiplied in any appreciable extent.”

In Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening you will find a nasturtium, formally referred to as Tropaeolum, as a species called Peregrinum.

The description says, “Flowers pale yellow, 1 in. long. A particularly dainty type used in English cottage gardens. Peru.”

This lovely flower, popular in English and American gardens, came from South America.

Courtesy of London’s Garden Museum

English Garden Style Inspired Nineteenth Century America

The English landscape garden with its lawn, pathways, trees lining the property, and boxwood shrubs surrounding the flower beds dominated America in the nineteenth century.

It was as if we had little imagination.

Perhaps America was too busy settling in, too busy just surviving, to concern itself with the landscape.

Even America’s own Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted showed a predilection for the English landscape, especially the lawn.

Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto edited the book Foreign Trends in American Gardens: A History of Exchange, Adaptation, and Reception.

She writes, “American garden design in the nineteenth century was dominated by the influence of the English landscape garden, as reinterpreted for a democratic society in both American public parks and private gardens by such notable practitioners as Frederick Law Olmsted.”

America Responds

By the end of the century landscape garden designers like Charles Platt had had enough of this dependence on England.

He called that artistic leaning a type of ‘Anglomania.’

The Japanese garden through an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 made America consider seriously other views of the landscape like the Asian.

At the same time in the Berkshires of Massachusetts novelist and gardener Edith Wharton promoted Italian garden design .

America’s own midwest landscape architects proposed a prairie design for the landscape with a focus on native grasses.

Slowly there was movement away from simply the English view of landscape as the only choice for Americans.


When Fuchsia and Verbena Were the Rage

Plant collectors brought wonderful new garden plants to England in the nineteenth century.

Soon the plants decorated American gardens as well.

The verbena and the fuchsia were in that group

In Business History Review Cheryl Lyon-Jenness wrote an article entitled “The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America.”

She said, “Colorful, long-blooming bedding plants like fuchsias and verbenas were all the rage.”


The fuchsia, native to South America, came into English and American gardens about the same time in the first half of the nineteeth century.

Soon after there were many varieties of fuchsia.

Noel Kingsbury in his book Garden Flora said “A French book in 1848 listed 520 varieties [of fuchsia]. Forty years later aroud 1,500 were listed.”

Rochester, New York seed merchant James Vick (1818-1882) loved the fuchsia.

He wrote in his catalog of 1880: “The Fuchsias, as all know, are elegant flowers, delicate in coloring and exquisitely graceful in form.”

However he saw more value in them than simply house plants.

He said, “The usual plan is to obtain plants, flower them in the house a little while, and then consider them useless. This is all wrong.

“No flower will make a more beautiful bed or screen near the house or on the borders of the lawn, than the Fuchsia, if partially shaded; and it will even bear almost entire shade.”

Then Vick offered pots of thirty-six different varieties of fuchsia.

The price was 25 cents a pot, or $2.25 for a dozen.


Verbena in the garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly (1880)

The annual verbena, or Verbena x hybrida, has a long history in this country. The plant is originally from South America but made it’s way to England in the early nineteenth century.

David Stuart wrote in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “The Verbena had been in England since 1826.”

 Denise Wiles Adams in her book Restoring American Gardens says, “Verbena x hybrida was the result of extensive hybridization beginning ca.1840 between four species of Verbena.”

According to the December issue of the Southern Cultivator in 1855, Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist (1805-1880) introduced the verbena to the United States.  The date seems to be around 1839.

It has been a favorite ever since.


How many hybrids of one plant do we need?

I love the weigela shrub.

At the edge of our front lawn the old-fashioned weigela florida has bloomed each spring for many years.

Did you know, according to Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, there are 170 varieties of this shrub available on the market?

Most of them come from Holland and Canada.

My question is: who needs so many varieties of one plant?

In my Garden

I am happy our weigela florida shrub continues to provide color outside the front door. [below]

This Weigela grows right outside my front door. [photo by Ralph Morang]

History of the Weigela

Robert Fortune (1812–1880), the Scottish plant collector, introduced it in 1845 from China to England, where it first grew at the gardens of the Horticultural Society.

This shrub, with its reddish-pink bell-shaped flowers, was named after the German botanist Christian von Weigel.

Soon American nursery catalogs listed it as the newest exotic plant from England.

In 1848, the English garden periodical Curtis’s Botanical Magazine wrote that it grew in the Royal Gardens of Kew and other botanical gardens in Great Britain.

Weigela florida grows four to five feet high and just as wide, and is valued as a specimen or border plant.

The leaves are two to five inches long, and usually have one end narrower than the other, a pointed tip, and a notched edge. The flowers measure an inch and a half in length. The inner envelopes of the flowers are usually a white, pink, or red color.

This shrub does well in most fertile soils, but prefers a moist, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade.

It blossoms in springtime, mostly during May, April, and June.

What I like about it also is that this shrub is easy to grow and maintain.

A question

I need to ask you a question nonetheless.

How many hybrids of one plant do we need?


Nineteenth Century Commercial Botanical Artist: Dellon Marcus Dewey

To sell seeds and plants in the nineteenth century the garden industry had to rely on botanical art to persaude a customer.

The commercial botanical artist like Dellon Marcus Dewey (1819-1889) provided colorful illustrations for the plant sales person.

When the customer saw the image of beautiful flowers or shrubs in the plant peddler’s book of illustrations, it was just a matter of time before he (or possibly she) decided to purchase.

Nineteenth Century Rochester, NY

Rochester, New York had received the name ‘Flower City’ in the mid nineteenth century because of its number of garden companies that sold seeds and plants.

The botanical artist played a key role in selling them.

Rochester’s D. M. Dewey was one such artist.

Historian and librarian Karl Kabelac wrote an article for the University of Rochester Library Bulletin called “Nineteeth Century Rochester Fruit and Flower Plates.”

Kabelac writes “His [Dewey’s] premises in the Reynolds Arcade [in downtown Rochester] were spacious and convenient.

“Here not less than thirty artists and others are employed in making drawings, paintings, etchings, photographs, etc.

“And in reproducing the same either for the trade regularly, or to fill special orders from Nurserymen or Horticultural Societies.”

Dewey had already painted 275 plates by 1859, when he began his own business.

Twenty years later he offered over 2300 plates including this pear. [below]

Dewey plate 1860. Courtesy of U of Rochester

Dewey’s Book

In 1872 Dewey published a book of his botanical art work with the title: The Nurseryman’s Pocket Specimen Book, Colored from Nature. Fruits, Flowers, Ornamental Trees, Shrubs, Roses, etc.

Cultural historian Charles Van Ravenswaay in his book about the art work of Joseph Prestele Drawn from Nature praised Dewey.

Van Ravenswaay wrote, “Dewey used several different techniques, including his distinctive hand-painted work, to produce a popular art of more than average quality.

“This tireless man with his fertile, inventive mind, exploited to its full potential the nurseryman’s plate business and dominated it throughout its best years.”

Dewey proved to be an extraordinary artist who helped people see the potential of improving the home landscape with just the right plant.


Last Year Saw a Rise in Gardening

What amazed me in the last few days was the number of articles I read about an increase in gardening over the past year.

The Boston Globe ran a story with the title “Sowing Seeds of Climate Action in the Garden” by Leah C. Stokes.

The focus in the story was the number of people who took up gardening during the past year of the pandemic.

People had a lot of time on their hands and gardening became one way to keep busy.

For Stokes, however, as it turned out, it was more than just a past time.

She already was convinced of the importance of gardening, but she went deeper in appreciating the value of the soil.

Her gardening became a real way to relate to the earth, a thought totally unexpected on the part of so many gardeners.

Stokes says, “Gardening gives us another way of living with the earth.”

She had been gardening before, but now saw new opportunities with her status as confined to her home.

Her appreciation of the soil increased for sure.

She writes, “I found my ambitions growing under quarantine and wanted to try large-scale composting.” And she did just that.

Children too took up gardening

On the website Kids Gardening we learn about gardening with young people.

During 2020 many of them took up gardening for the first time.

Emma Shipman, Executive Director of Kids Gardening, writes that Sadie, age 6, was introduced to gardening during a Zoom call.

Shipman writes “Her teacher used our lesson plans to inspire the kids in her class to get outdoors during the Spring quarantine.”

Sadie planted her first garden in an old raised tub that her sister painted.” [below]

Courtesy of Kids Gardening

Stokes writes, “This year’s gardening trend could be like a seed: the beginning of something much bigger.”

Learning about Gardening

So, whether you were a beginner in the garden, or someone who already had a deep passion for gardening, the past year opened up the garden gate in new ways for so many people.