Archives for June 2011

Plant Collectors Still Search the World for Exotic Plants

Just finished reading a new book that I could not put down. I know you hear that often, but this book, For All the Tea in China, kept me interested from the start.

The Palm House, built from 1844-48, at Kew Garden in London.

The author Sarah Rose traces the  mid nineteenth century journey of English plant collector  Robert Fortune into China to bring back tea plants that would grow in India and thus compete with the Chinese tea market.

Rose mentioned that Fortune visited Kew Garden in London, the center of botanical research for the “entire world” as she puts it. She writes: “Fortune steps up to a great greenhouse, the Palm House, gloriously situated on a hill.”

When visiting London a couple of summers ago, it was important that I  see the Palm House at Kew. Its shiny structure overpowers you as you approach it.  How impressive it must been in the nineteenth century when greenhouses and conservatories were only available to the wealthy until finally the price of glass fell.

Plant collectors, like Fortune, represented horticultural institutions like Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society in their quest for the newest plant varieties for the English garden.  At Kew the plants would find a home in the new Palm House.

In many cases plants like the weigela which Fortune brought back from China in the 1840s eventually became part of the English garden palette.

Nineteenth century American seed companies and nurseries would later list the plant as a garden favorite, and so American gardens would plant it just as the English had earlier.

Rose writes: “Fortune popularised a remarkable variety of flora in the wake of his Chinese travels.” His “discoveries” included the bleeding heart, the white wisteria, twelve species of rhododendron, and the chrysanthemum.

We now know that  when plants from other habitats become part of a new environment, there may be no natural predators or competitors.  The result is that they can overrun the local landscape.

The interior of the Palm House at Kew.

There still are plant collectors like Fortune who travel the world looking for the newest plant varieties for the garden.  Rose says, “Today there is only guarded enthusiasm for the mass globalization of indigenous plant life.”   Nonetheless, plants collectors still search the world for exotic plants that will grow in the American garden.


Our Native Plants more Popular in England

The native rhododendron has fascinated me for many years. I look forward to its late May and early June blooms.

These two rhododendron shrubs in my garden just finished blooming.

Our native rhododendron, however, played a greater part in the English garden in the nineteenth century than our own.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870: “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”

Today we confront the battle on many fronts between native and exotic plant choice for the garden.  Know that the issue is not new.

Native plants, according to the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs, were not as popular as ornamental plants from other countries like China and Japan.  But first these plants, including native US varieties,  had to become part of the English garden.

The same happened to the rhododendron. Eventually, it assumed an important role in our gardens. Frederick Law Olmsted used it extensively in 1895 for his landscape design at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.



Whipple House Garden in Ipswich, Mass.

The summer gives me an opportunity to visit gardens which is  always fun for me.

On a recent afternoon I drove north of Boston to Ipswich, Mass.  to the kitchen garden at the Whipple House, built in 1677.  History weaves through many of the towns on the north shore.

When I arrived,  the gardener Judith Hallberg gave me a tour of the  areas around the house.  The raised beds of the kitchen garden, designed by garden historian Isadore Smith (AKA Ann Leighton) and landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff, caught my eye immediately.

In the  early 1960s Smith and Shurcliff set out to recreate what would have been a typical wife’s kitchen garden of the seventeenth century. They designed a garden with mostly herbs since the wife was responsible for both the food and the medical needs of the family.

In the eighteenth century there was not much time for a pleasure garden of decorative flowers so the plant choices of the kitchen garden were based on the cooking and health needs of the family.  That was clear from the plant varieties I saw in the garden.

The English style of a fenced-in kitchen garden with raised beds lined up in a symmetry is also the style at the restored gardens of Colonial Williamsburg.  There is a link between the Whipple House and the Williamsburg garden restoration.  In the 1930s Boston landscape architect Shurcliff, who previously had worked with American landscape pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted, recreated the garden of the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg.

According to landscape architect and garden writer Rudi Favretti, the Whipple garden style, centered on the practical needs for plants, continued as the predominant form of gardening well into mid nineteenth century America.

The Whipple House  illustrates the early influence of English garden design on American gardening.


New York’s High Line

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference in New York.

While there  I made sure to allow time for a garden stroll through High Line.

High Line  is a new public park built on a former  1.45-mile-long elevated rail structure running several city blocks from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street on Manhattan’s West Side.  A pathway guides the visitor through the park, but its many  shrubs, grasses, and perennials create the charm of this park.

High Line Park in New York

It was a late afternoon when I arrived. The sun heated the area below on the street, but when I took the steps up, I could feel a cool breeze. Then I knew I would like this garden.

What I noticed immediately was that many people were there. Some strolling the walkway, others sitting on the many bences throughout the park.

Public parks took off in America in the late nineteenth century. The most famous, Central Park, also in New York, was the design of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

Earlier Olmsted had traveled to England to see the picturesque parks there, including Birkenhead, designed by Joseph Paxton.  The English picturesque park style with its broad vistas, the extensive lawn,  the water, the walkways, and especially the trees, contributed to his design for Central Park.

The pathways of High Line, a new form of public park in New York, led me on a springtime walk I will not soon forget.


The Nineteenth Century Ideal American Home and Landscape

The nineteenth century seed and nursery industries advertised their seeds and plants to the emerging middle class with catalog essays and images of an ideal garden and landscape.

The  link between the family and home emerged as a popular theme in home plan books as well as contemporary literature like The Mother’s Magazine and Family Circle.

Clifford Edward Clark, author of the book The American Family Home 1800-1960 , wrote: “Since  the primary function of the home was supportive and restorative, advocates of the cult of domesticity most often pictured the house in a protected rural or small town setting, nestled in a pleasant grove of trees with children playing out in front.”

In his catalog New York seedsman James Vick  (1818-1882) illustrated the ideal home, a before [above]  and after [below] look, with the later including a manicured lawn and plantings around the home.

Vick’s drawings reflect the Victorian period in which Americans were encouraged to develope an extensive landscape and gardens.

Notice in the second image below a woman stands on the front lawn. The home is her domain where  her good taste in a landscape provides the proper setting to raise  children.

The seed and nursery industry catalogs used  themes like home and family to promote a Victorian landscape with a  lawn, shrubs, vines,  and flower beds of annuals, reflecting what was in style with English garden design at that time.


Thorburn Visits Loudon in England

In London New York seedsman Grant Thorburn (1773-1863) once visited John Claudius Loudon(1783-1843), the man who opened the door for nineteenth century middle class England to the  joys of gardening.

Some garden historians refer to Loudon as the ‘father of the English garden’.


[left: The catalog is the G. Thorburn & Sons entry of 1832, the oldest item in the Oregon State University seed catalog collection.]

Thorburn wrote of that visit:  “In London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Glasgow, and elsewhere, I had the pleasure of conversing with some, and not a few either, of the best men of the age—great fighters, great racers, great duelists, and great playactors. Small as I am, I look down on them. But great preachers, great physicians, great surgeons, and great teachers of any science, I think are the true friends of man.

“But, in my opinion, the most extraordinary man in our age is J. C. Loudon, F. L. S. H. S.,.&c., of London. His hands are lame, so that he is unable to carve his food or wield a pen ; yet he has sent forth, and continues to send forth to the world, more books than any one who lives, or has lived,perhaps since the days of Shakspeare. His Encyclopedias of gardening, of plants, and of agriculture alone, one would think, when he looks on them, are more than sufficient for the labours of the longest life.”

The words tell us that Thorburn felt privileged to know Loudon.

Loudon’s ideas on garden design provided the inspiration for  nineteenth century New York nurseryman and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, whose books on architecture and landscape saw many editions.

Many American seedsmen and nurserymen, like Thorburn,  considered J. C. Loudon important not only for English gardeners, but for American gardeners as well.



Annuals in the Victorian Era

American gardeners  fell in love with annuals after 1850 during our own Victorian period.

The use of perennials in the garden fell off until later in the century when they became stylish with the encouragement of English garden authorties William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll.

This T. W. Wood & Sons catalog cover from the late 1880s shows a bed of annuals in a well trimmed planting on the lawn.

Philadelphia seedsman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in 1872: “The evil which accompanied [flower beds, ribbon beds, and carpet beds] was in nearly banishing from cultivation the beautiful and interesting tribe known as hardy herbaceous plants. From early spring til late in the fall some of them were in bloom.”

In 1882 Warren H. Manning, New England plantsman, wrote: “The use of tender plants and annuals for bedding purposes in summer decoration has been in vogue for about a quarter of a century, and they have almost entirely superseded hardy herbaceous plants for general cultivation.”

When the English garden style  emphasized perennials rather than annuals, we discovered the English had been enjoying many of America’s native perennial plants for decades.  By the end of the century native American perennials became  a part of our home landscape.

As we had for the whole century, America followed the style of English garden design.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs provided the inspiration.



Must Have the Newest Plant

Every gardener feels the need to buy the latest variety of plant.  That feeling is built into the gardener’s profile.

Philadelphia seedsman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1868 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “No matter how small the flower-garden may be, the aim should be to improve as we go, and make each season’s garden look better than the last.”

Certainly words you would expect from a seed and plant merchant.

The strange thing about that is that it works.

Every spring gardeners flock to the local garden center to check out the latest variety.

The new supertunia called 'Pretty Much Picasso' sits atop this wrought iron table in my garden.

This year I had to have the newest supertunia from Proven Winners called ‘Pretty Much Picasso’.

My rationale was that its coloring of pink with green edges  outshines any other petunia, and besides it’s new.

The nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs called new plants ‘novelties’.  Every catalog urged customers to be current gardeners by buying the latest plant.

The Hallock and Thorpe Company from Queens, New York, wrote in its 1885 seed catalog how the cultivation of new plants had spread throughout the country: “We are reminded of what an interest has grown during the past ten years in lilies, in roses, in geraniums, in gladioli, in carnations, and in chrysanthemums. We are not wrong when we say that the interest is more than hundred-fold increased. We point with pride to the labor we have done in those fields, to the numerous varieties that are of our origination–we may say, our children.”

We may not use the word ‘novelty’ when talking about plants, but we still like the latest from the garden center.