Archives for August 2019

Victorians Suffered Orchid Mania

Victorians suffered orchid mania

You have heard about tulip mania in the seventeenth century and perhaps even dahlia mania in the early nineteenth century.

In 1894 the London magazine Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art published an article entitled “The Romance of Orchid Collecting” about the sickness called orchid mania in late Victorian England.

Collectors were going crazy over the newest and latest orchids, in spite of the many dangers involved in hunting for orchids.

Earlier in the century Charles Darwin had done research on orchids. Historian James T. Costa mentions the mania in his book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory. He writes, “Victorian orchid collectors suffered this form of madness.”

The Chambers’s article discussed the trials, tribulations, murder and mayhem that resulted from the hunt for orchids.

“A plant no bigger than a tulip bulb has been sold for many times its weight in gold.”

That someone could become so obsessed with a particular plant is probably not surprising if you consider plant collecting as both a hobby and current fashion.

Darwin, however, was interested in orchids because they cross pollinated.

His interest was scientific.

In the course of Darwin’s investigation into flower structure and pollination, he started a line of orchid research in the 1840s.

Costa does not, however, make any mention of Darwin suffering from orchid mania, probably because that ‘illness’ came later in the century.

Darwin, too, was more interested in plant experiments than plant collecting.

And so, you might say, the orchid mania bug never bit him.

Photo from my Florida trip. You can see orchids on this tree in the front yard. [Thanks to FNGLA garden tour.]
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Victorian Seed Company Believed in Advertising

Victorian seed company believed in advertising

Recently from the New York Botanical Garden’s Mertz Digital Nursery and Seed Catalog site I learned a bit about the relationship between seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) and J. Walter Thompson, the great American advertiser at the turn of the twentieth century.

Here is what the article said about Vick and Thompson,

 “James Vick of Rochester, NY spent about $100,000 a year, an enormous sum of money in those times, in advertising, all with the J. Walter Thompson agency.  When Vick died (1882) the management of the business was taken over by his son James Vick, Jr. 

” Vick promptly told Thompson that he had all the business he could expect to get and decided to quit advertising and add $100,000 a year to his profit.  Thompson cautioned Vick by saying ‘Vick you are crazy; it will only be a question of time until you are bankrupt.’

  “Soon thereafter the Vick family’s diminished finances forced Vick’s daughter to become a governess for one of his Pittsburgh clients.”

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J. Walter Thompson, important advertising executive in late ninetheenth century America. [Courtesy of NY Botanical Garden, Mertz Catalog Collection]

I thought what a sad story this is turning out to be.

Here is an early Vick catalog from the same site [below]:

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Vick seed catalog from 1876.[Courtesy of NY Botanical Garden, Mertz Catalog Collection]

The Mertz commentary concludes with these words, “Thompson’s story may have been more a case of resentment about losing the Vick account than an unbiased evaluation of the Vick’s business prospects. The James Vick and Sons nursery business continued operations until the 1930’s when it was sold to Burpee. “

That Vick spent a great deal of money on advertising probably contributed to his popularity in the late ninteenth century. His reputation as an honest peddler of seeds spread across the country.

It was, I believe, his sincere interest in his customer that sealed the deal and made the company a success.

He wrote “I have labored to teach the people to love and cultivate flowers, for it is one of the few pleasures thst improves alike the mind and the heart, and makes every true lover of these beautiful creations of Infinite Love wiser and purer and nobler.”

There is no dubt that advertising for the James Vick Company could have first introduced a potential customer to Vick and his seeds.

It was, however, his warm relationship with his customers, mainly in his writing, that kept them coming back for more seeds.

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Commercial Grower Prefers Cuttings for New Plants

Commercial grower prefers cuttings for new plants

Recently I visited Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, New Hampshire, a major grower for the plant brand known as Proven Winners.

What amazed me is each year from December to March the amount of small plants, called liners, that Pleasant View grows from vegetative cuttings.

The liners or small plants are then shipped out to garden centers that repot them and grow them til the spring for sale at the nursery.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) advised the use of cuttings for new plants in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick proposed the use of a bell glass for small pots, each holding a number of cuttings. [below]

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879

The glass jar of course controlled light, moisture and temperature for the young plants as they grew.

Pleasant View devotes 700,000 square feet to the many trays of plants in special greenhouses which afford ample control of heat, light, and moisure.

In this way Pleasant View grows millions of young plants to ship out in the spring to garden centers and nurseries, mostly on the east coast.

Here is a photo I took of trays of cells, each of which contains a small plant. Notice how many plants there are in just this small space in one greenhouse. [below]

Small plants in cells, inside a tray, await shipment to a garden center near you.

Vick understood the science of this process of growing plants through vegetative cuttings.

In 1879 he wrote, “The florist and the nurseryman construct propagating houses, with beds heated by pipes with hot water flowing through them, to keep up a steady heat to encourage the production of roots in advance of the growth of the stem.”

Vick knew the importance of vegetative cuttings to reproduce certain plants like many annuals.

Today, Pleasant View does ninety percent of its propagation for Proven Winners with vegetative cuttings which, in this case, are flown in from Central America.

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Darwin Wrote about Plant Struggle for Survival

Darwin wrote about plant struggle for survival

This past June here in the NE provided a great deal of rain. It kept pouring down for what seemed days and days. Little sun appeared.

What grew in the garden, without bounds it seems, were weeds.

I have never seen such a vast number of weeds which took over so much of my garden. I spent what seemed several weeks just weeding.

Dealing with weeds is an important way to understand not only gardening but ecology as well.

In the book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory the author James T. Costa writes about Darwin’s many experiments with plants.

Weeds like all plants are trying to survive. We humans call these plants ‘weeds’ which legitimizes and encourages treating them like an enemy that must be crushed.

Costa writes, “What seems an exuberance of vegetation with its flitting and creepy-crawly denizens, unruly enough to strike terror into the heart of gardeners whose taste favor the manicured has in fact a certain order or underlying structure in Darwin’s eyes.”

This ‘struggle for existence’ that Darwin explored in his work could well be the story of the weed.

Costa writes, “When we observe nature we often miss the struggle, seeing only peace and harmony, and mistake this for the natural condition of the living world.”

Perhaps that is a lesson that gardeners learn only too quickly. The peace and harmony we search for in the garden is really a state we impose on the garden.

The garden is a place where plants struggle to survive. Some make it while others do not.

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