Archives for December 2011

A Shumway Seed Catalog Recently Arrived in the Mail

A couple of weeks ago I received a new seed catalog from R. H. Shumway’s in Randolph, Wisconsin.

A seed catalog with that venerable name Shumway first appeared almost a century and a half ago.

The catalog I received reflected the nineteenth century look. Quite a treat to see.  Its 10 1/2 by 15 inch size made it a large catalog for the mail.  Called an “Illustrated Garden Guide” the catalog offered many seed varieties with period illustrations.

The catalog amazed me because the company owners took such care in reproducing that Victorian style of design.

Then I remembered a quote that I once read in a nineteenth century Shumway catalog.

Seedsman and Civil War veteran Roland H. Shumway in his catalog of 1887 discussed how he would like to be remembered: “Good Seeds Cheap! is my motto; and has been ever since I left the tented field as a soldier, and staked the few remaining years of my busy life, in an earnest endeavor, to place good seeds within reach of poorest planters. I will further inform you how we strive to do you good, and not disappoint you. From the beginning of the new year, until after spring planting, my industrious employees work 16 hours, and myself and family 18 or more hours a day. Are we not surely knights at labor? How can we do more? Do we not deserve the patronage of every planter in America?”

Roland H. Shumway (1842-1925)

With  a plea framed in such a stellar work ethic, how could any reader not send for some of Mr. Shumway’s seeds?

And so the company continued for generations, up to its reincarnation today.



Late Nineteenth Century Arts and Crafts Movement Impacted Gardening

Garden design during the nineteenth century went back and forth between the natural, picturesque view and a more formal garden with even a blend of the two forms at times.  By the end of the century gardeners wanted less maintenance and more native plants.

Gardeners no longer wanted the beds of annuals that demanded so much work.

In his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan lamented in 1882: “The present system of bedding out with tender plants, has been in vogue for about thirty years and has so nearly superseded the valuable classes of hardy herbaceous plants they they are almost unknown to the general cultivator.”

Within a few years though the cultural movement  called Arts and Crafts advocated a less commercial, mass produced look to any art form, including the landscape.

Garden historian Denise Otis wrote in her book Grounds for Pleasure: “Two legacies of English Arts and Crafts to American garden design were the herbaceous border and Gertrude Jekyll, an artist turned garden-maker and writer.”

By the late nineteenth century the seed and nursery catalogs advocated the herbaceous borders because the company owners of course wanted to be current in garden fashion.

Among the  1888 Rawson garden catalog illustrations I found one of my favorite images.

I included it below for you to enjoy.

You see a woman tending her flower border, made of plants of different heights and colors with the words above her as if in the sky saying “Gems from the Wild Garden.”

Somehow it reminds me of the design scheme that Gertrude Jekyll must have employed in her work at the end of the century and into the twentieth, gardening with colorful borders of perennials, mostly native plants.


The Rawson Company printed this illustration called "Gems from the Wild Garden" in its 1888 catalog.


Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Seedsman Robert Buist Gave America the Poinsettia

The Poinsettia remains a favorite plant for the holidays.

Poinsettia, courtesy of Nature Hills Nursery

Plants, like people, sometimes make a long journey from home to another culture.  That’s the story of the Poinsettia, a sun-loving tropical plant from Mexico.

The story begins with an emigrant Scottish gardener, Robert Buist (1805-1880).

After coming to Philadelphia in 1828, Buist worked for the oldest American seed company called Landreth pulling weeds, and as a gardener for the wealthy merchant Henry Pratt at his summer estate Lemon Hill.  Gardening was what he knew.

It was in the nursery business however that Buist sought to make his mark. In 1830 he partnered with Thomas Hibbert to buy Bernard McMahon’s nursery, a business well known since the early 1800s. In the new business Buist grew roses and sold them on the streets of Philadelphia, beginning what some would call market gardening.

Born near Edinburg, Buist, whose father was a gardener, trained at the Edinburg Botanic Garden. His father was his inspiration.

After Hibbert’s death, Buist bought his interest in the business and formed the Robert Buist Company, which included a seed division, a nursery, and a greenhouse.  For decades the Company became a source for seeds and plants for gardeners across the country.

Buist’s early training at the Edinburg Botanic Garden gave him the opportunity to meet James McNab, scientist and artist who eventually became the Garden’s Director.  McNab and Buist were the same age when they came to Edinburg to learn about horticulture, both sharing a dream of a career in gardening.

In the early 1830s McNab traveled to America with retired nurseryman Robert Brown to learn about our native plants.  McNab, of course, visited his friend Buist in Philadelphia.  That visit would forever be linked to our celebration of Christmas.

As early as 1819 the federal government played an important role in gathering foreign plants by instructing American diplomats to collect plants and seeds. One such diplomat was Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico.

In 1825 Poinsett came upon a plant in Mexico that so impressed him that he had cuttings shipped to his home in Charleston, South Carolina.  Buist bought the plant from him and grew it for a couple of years. He named it Euphorbia poinsettia, the first word because of its milky sap, much like other varieties of Euphorbia, and the second in honor of Dr. Poinsett.

It was the bright red bracts however that made the plant so special to Buist.  He wrote later that it was “truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen.”

When McNab visited Buist in 1834, he gave the plant to him to take back to Scotland.  The garden’s Director Dr. Robert Graham renamed it Poinsettia pulcherrima and introduced the plant into British gardens.  Till the end of his life, Buist was upset that Graham changed the name.  Nonetheless Buist put the plant on the market.

We owe Buist a debt of gratitude for making the Poinsettia available to the world.  Ever since it has become the essential Christmas decoration.


Victorian Gardeners Spoke the Language of Flowers

Nineteenth century Victorians had a connection with flowers unlike any period before them.  Some referred to this phenomenon as an expression of sentimentalism.  American gardeners of that time shared the same passion for flowers.

In her new book A Victorian Flower Dictionary Mandy Kirkby gives us a list of familiar flowers with a short history of each while noting the characteristic Victorians attributed to a particular flower.

For example, the Dahlia’s meaning is that of dignity.  It became a coveted flower for Victorians, especially in its now familiar ball shape.  Kirby writes that “an upright bloom with a tightly packed sphere of petals, sitting straight and composed on its sturdy stem-the perfect flower representation of dignity.”

Each discussion of the book’s fifty flowers begins with a drawing of the flower in bright colors and perfect form.

Kirby is careful to present the historical context for each flower, highlighting when it first arrived in England from Asia, Africa, or South America.

The few pages devoted to each flower read  in an easy style that captures the importance of a particular flower for the nineteenth century Victorian period.  Kirby includes verses of poetry and song of that time that only strengthen the flower’s cultural importance.

A bonus to the book is the Foreword by Vanessa Diffenbaugh whose debut novel The Language of Flowers has now appeared in over thirty countries.

We still love flowers today of course for special occasions, holidays, and celebrations. Kirby presents a book that  enlightens this ongoing fascination with flowers.

Read this book. You are sure to find your favorite flower.



Nineteenth Century Seed Companies and Nurseries Encouraged Indoor Plants for the Winter

During the Victorian influence in late nineteenth century America, it was important to keep plants in the house in the winter to give the sense of garden even to the indoors.  Plants like hibiscus, abutilons, and palms became quite common for house plants.

Seed company and nursery owners made sure their customers learned how important such plants were for the gardener.

Illustration of indoor plants, including vines, from Catherine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's book The American Woman's Home, 1869.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine of 1881 Gardener’s Monthly: “The love for window flowers or for plant cabinets attached to dwelling rooms seems to be increasing in popularity from year to year.”

L. Templin & Sons said in the 1886 annual company catalog: “While we are admiring our beautiful gardens, we should not forget to make some preparations for beautifying our homes during the long dreary winter months. Nothing can do more towards making the house cheerful in winter than a few pots of choice flowers in bloom.” The catalog then proposed hardy bulbs and winter-blooming plants that the reader could grow in the house.

Amaryllis 'Hercules'. Courtesy of Logee's Greenhouse.

Maybe the reason the Amaryllis bulb appears today in every garden center and chain store during the Christmas season is so that we too can have a little bit of the garden in the house when the cold of winter takes its stand.

Since the late nineteenth century we have enjoyed plants indoors with the encouragement of the seed and nursery catalogs.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick wrote in his catalog of 1874: “Keep the plants clean and comfortable, with thermometer not over seventy or seventy-five in the day, and not more than fifty or sixty in the night.”


Meehan Endorsed Landscape Designers Downing, Kemp, and Scott

The nineteenth century owners of seed companies and nurseries taught America the importance of the garden.

Sure they had a business, but they were also horticulturalists as well who knew how to garden and how to lay out a landscape.

They were adamant about teaching their customers.

Philadelphia nuseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly clearly let his readers know whose ideas on landscape he preferred.  He wrote in the  March 1877 issue of his magazine: “We would particularly recommend at this season of the year a consultation of works on taste in landscape gardening with a view to improvement in this respect. Of these are Downing, Kemp, and Scott, within the reach of every one.”

The landscape designers he recommended, New York nurseryman and writer Andrew Jackson Downing, English landscape designer Edward Kemp, and Ohio artist turned landscaper Frank J. Scott, all taught the principles of the naturalistic style of English landscape.

A. J. Downing's Estate. Courtesy: Francis Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard Univ.

Downing’s books appeared in the 1840s.  Kemp wrote an American version of his book on English design, first published in 1850.

Scott published his book The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds in 1870.

Since his readers were probably familiar with these three designers, Meehan simply used just the last name on his  list of recommended authors.

Thus Meehan supported the English style of landscpe, called the modern, rather than the formal, symmetrical design.

In the nineteenth century American gardening reflected the English landscape because the seed and nursery industries in their mass marketed catalogs  preferred English garden design.


Immigrant English Gardeners Impact American Gardening in the19th Century

English gardeners came to America in the nineteenth century, much like other immigrants, to seek a better life.

The way to that goal for such gardeners sometimes  turned out to be owning a seed business or nursery.

But there was always an allegiance to English garden style.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) immigrated from England.

Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) came to seek his fortune in America after he had studied and worked as a gardener in England.  He started a successful nursery in Philadelphia.  Soon after that, because of his writing skill, he launched a magazine called Gardener’s Monthly that ran for decades.

In the late 1870s he returned to visit England after forty years in America.

He wrote about that trip in GM in 1877, “It is the genius of selection, the art to collect and the taste to arrange, the tact to suit foreign matters to native circumstances, that has given England the gardening fame which she everywhere enjoys.  I see clearly that one weakness has been a close copying of other nations. The weakness is only natural, as our literature and all our associatons are founded on theirs.”

The horticultural societies, garden books and magazines, and even plant choices in this country, Meehan argued, depended on the English garden style.




Peter Henderson Built a New York Seed Store with Five Floors

The size of the company’s main office building, greenhouses, and trial gardens frequently became a theme in the nineteenth century seed and nursery catalogs.

The owners wanted to let the customer know they were modern and had the latest facilities to provide a quality product.

Peter Henderson (1822-1890)  built his seed empire on Cortlandt Street in New York with a five story building.  The first floor was the seed store.

Henderson catalog of 1899

The customer trusted such a company.

That’s the power of advertising.  You give the customer a reason to trust you, and you have their business.

A nineteenth century customer saw that image in the catalog and thought “If a company shows off such a grand building, it must be worth my business.”

Such boasting worked in late nineteenth century at the birth of modern advertising, and it works today as well.

Today how often do we see dozens of cars in a car lot as part of the marketing pitch from a local dealer?

What about the dozens of varieties of annuals a local nursery offers in the spring?

What images would we use today to market plants and seeds?


Nurseryman Elliott Based His Landscape Design Book on Downing

During the nineteenth century the preeminent American writer in landscape design was New York nurseryman Andrew Jackson Downing, who followed the principles of  English writer and designer John Claudius Loudon.

Downing wrote several books which came out in multiple editions during the nineteenth century.

1881 F. R. Elliott's book on landscape design

Another nurseryman Franklin Rueben Elliott (1817-1878) from Ohio also wrote a book on landscape design, based on his experience helping homeowners with their landscape.  His family published his book titled Handbook of Practical Landscape Gardening in 1881, three years after Elliott’s death.

Like many other seedsmen and nursery owners Elliott wanted to instruct his customers in the principles of landscape design.

Elliott, who was also an artist besides a writer and editor,  had spent time in Newburg, New York with Downing where he learned about landscape design.

Although Elliott wrote for the middle class, with properties smaller than the estates of the wealthy, he recognized his indebtedness to Downing whose work found more acceptance among wealthy estate owners.

Elliott wrote in the preface: “Since the labors of the lamented and talented A. J. Downing, great taste and desire for, and in the improvement of, grounds around our homes, have been developed.”

The landscape advice of both Downing and Elliott proposed the English style.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan recognized Elliott’s appeal to the middle class.  In the magazine Gardener’s Monthly which Meehan edited he wrote: “For this class this little book of Mr. Elliott’s is just the thing.”