Archives for June 2020

Resist Colonial Attitude toward Plants

Last week I came across an amazing new article entitled “It’s time to decolonise botanical collections.”

The author Alexandre Antonelli is the Director of Science at Kew, England’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

The main idea of the article is that plants were not ‘discovered’ like a treasure in the sea. They might well predate by many years the first time their species was recorded.

Antonelli writes, “For hundreds of years, rich countries in the north have exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the south.

“Colonial botanists would embark on dangerous expeditions in the name of science but were ultimately tasked with finding economically profitable plants.”

Exotic plants are still taken from other countries and brought to the homeland of the plant hunter.

Kew became the major destination for plants from other countries, for the purpose of improving the gardens of England.

Antonelli recognizes the subtle racism in that attitide that has endured for centuries.

Kew will tackle structual racism in plant and fungal science. He says, “We will strive to increase the ethnic representation of our staff and students.”

Also, he says “Our current work on a new science strategy is an opportuntity to ensure our research is framed in the context of equality, diversity, and inclusion.”

Herbarium at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Book Currently Reading

What’s really more than a coincidence is the book I am currently reading.

The title is A Natural History of the English Garden by Mark Laird.

Laird traces England’s involvement with plant collecting from 1650 to 1800, one hundred fifty years.

He writes about the important English botanists and horticulturalists from that period including John Evelyn, Peter Collinson, Philip Miller, Mary Delany, and William Curtis.

Each of them loved plants, especially the newer varieties arriving in England.

They all cultivated gardens and often wrote about their collections, or like Mary Delany created works of art that illustrated plants.

The goal of plant hunting around the globe was to build up the plant collection at Kew.

Laird writes, “Plant collecting had obvious relevance for apothecaries and doctors.”

By 1778 in Kew “plants from across the seven seas were being added to the original compendium of the four continents.”

It was common for English aristocrats to foster plant collections in their own gardens as well.

No individual’s plant collection however rivaled that of Kew.

Kew housed all the finest in exotics available to England.

Thus, because Kew represents such a vast and important history of plant collecting, Antonelli’s remarks are all the more relevant.

They force us to rethink at this time the collecting of plants, including for institutions like botanical gardens.

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Newport’s Restored Blue Garden

A restored garden always brings a sense of excitement.

You are seeing a garden the way it was first installed.

Or so you think.

Last week I visited the restored private garden called Blue Garden in beautiful Newport, Rhode Island. [below]

Blue Garden in Newport, Rhode Island

The garden is located in an area just past the Gilded Age seaside mansions on Bellevue Avenue. You proceed on Ocean Avenue and shortly you arrive at the property located on Beacon Hill Road.

To say the garden has been restored is only the beginning of what the philanthropist and horticulturalist Dorance H. Hamilton and her team of architects, contractors, and landscape designers have created.

The restored Blue Garden is a glorious garden experience.

Environtmental Concern

What I learned was that though the garden has been restored, the new garden is in keeping with serious environmental and maintenance concerns.

For example, the many plants that have been introduced demand far less upkeep than the original varieties included on the Olmsted plant list of 1913.

I saw frequent groupings of white Scaevola aemula and blue Veronica ‘Magic Show Wizard of Ahhs.’ They complement each other quite well.

The two pools still form the backbone of the garden. They sit exactly where they were in the 1913 design of the Blue Garden by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

The garden had been left for years and became severely overgrown with invasive plants like the Norway maple.

When Mrs. Hamilton purchased the property in 2012, she wanted, above all, to restore the Garden.

She succeeded.

With over two thousand annuals, perennials, vines, and shrubs along with two hundred fifty evergreens in the three acre garden-site you experience a bit of yesterday, but designed with today’s concern in water and land preservation.

The design of the garden still reflects the formal garden style which was popular in the early 1900s, with such landscape designers as Charles Platt, Edith Wharton, and, of course, the Olmsted Brothers firm.

Everything the builders found as they dug up the original garden, where it could be, was recycled in some way.

Though the builders had the original plant list from Olmsted, they opted, where possible, for plant varieties that were easier to maintain.

Plan a Visit

Newport in the summer becomes a major attraction for the State of Rhode Island. Nonetheless, the Blue Garden ought to be on your list of places to visit.

Remember that the Blue Garden is a private garden and open only at special times. Thursdays til October you can join a guided tour of the Garden. Email the Director Sarah Vance ahead of time since the number of visitors admitted is limited.

The Blue Garden: At the top of the pergola Wisteria frutescens, ‘Amethyst Falls’ and along the cement edge blue Lobelia in containers.
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In Search of Coleus ‘Main Street’

Every summer garden needs coleus.

Whether in containers, a border, or a bed there is a coleus that will add color.

Nineteenth century Victorian gardeners used this plant for colorful carpet beds.

Many will peform well in shade, but some newer varieites do best in sun.

For the past three summers I have searched out both local nurseries and big box stores for the new coleus series called ‘Main Street’.

I would eventually find one or two varieties, mostly one.

The new one I found for this season is ‘Main Street Ocean Drive.’ [below]

Coleus ‘Main Street Ocean Drive.’ Photo courtesy of Dummen: Rush Creek Growers.

In the past I have planted coleus ‘Main Street Oxford Street’ and also ‘Main Street Granville Street.’ I liked both of them for their color and shape.

When I searched on line for a history of this series what surprised me is how many varieties of ‘Main Street’ are out there.

Quite a few.

The coleus, a colorful summer treasure, has a long history in the garden.

History of the Coleus

According to Allison Kyle Leopold’s The Victorian Garden, the coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The American Agriculturist of 1880 wrote, “Plants with bright-colored variegated foliage are of special value in this country, where our hot summers prevent us from doing much in the way of producing bedding effects with flowers. The intense heat that causes such a rapid development and short duration of flowers is, as a general thing, favorable to the growth and coloring of the leaves of the so called ‘foliage plants’. Among these plants the coleus stands at the head.”

Of course the nineteeth cenutry seed companies and nurseries sold the coleus to their customers.

The Dingee and Conard Seed Company catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them. In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects. We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

For more ideas about coleus varieties for this summer, check out suggestions from the National Garden Bureau on Pinterest .

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Women in Horticulture: Yesterday and Today

I am currently reading Michael Waters’ book The Garden in Victorian Literature.

This title fits into my general area of interest, the history of the garden.

 In this case I am looking at how novelists and poets wrote about the garden in the Victorian period.

Such literature tells us a great deal about the garden, but also about the role of women in horticulture.

Women in Horticulture Week

Earlier this week I discovered that June 1-5 is Women in Horticulture Week.

I can see a thread between the two sources of our understanding the garden as a cultural phenomenon: Victorian fiction where the garden takes center stage and the evolving role of women in the garden.

Katie Dubow, president, Garden Media Group, the primary sponsor of this special week, says,  “Women play a crucial role in the horticulture industry—not only as entrepreneurs, growers, researchers, marketers and employees at all levels, but also as the largest consumers of home and garden products.”

Victorian Literature, Women, and the Garden

Victorian literature paints its own image of women and the garden.

We know that the nineteenth century was a time in which the influence of women was relegated to taking care of the family, and in terms of the garden, mostly tending to flowers.

Waters writes, “An assumption almost universal in Victorian literature: women, not men, have a natural and privileged affinity with flowers.”

Women were then even compared to flowers: beautiful and sensual, and there to bring a sense of feeling and emotion to taking care of the household.

Though women had a lot to do with running the household, they were not encouraged to seek any fulfillment outside the home.

By the end of the nineteenth century women were voicing their own frustration with that role.

Women wanted to be more self-determining.

Slowly that role of women emerged to provide women leadership roles in the field of horticulture.


It is a good idea  to support, honor, and promote women professionals and their achievements during Women in Horticulture Week.

Today’s woman in the garden is quite different from her Victorian ancestor.

Here is Monet’s beautiful Victorian painting, “Woman in the Garden.”

Claude Monet Woman in the Garden 1866
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Wave Petunia Celebrates 25 Years

The petunia, first brought from Argentina to England in 1831, provides a powerful example of the importance of hybridizing in the garden industry.

We continue to grow petunias, and, in fact, they are among the top sellers each spring.

It is the same petunia from the nineteenth century, but hybridizers have had a field day with this flower.

In 1894 Boston seed company owner W. W. Rawson wrote about the petunia in his catalog. 

Rawson wrote, “The brilliancy and variety of their colors, combined with the duration of their blooming period, render them invaluable.” 

Today the petunia comes in many colors, and the flowers are either single and funnel shaped, ruffled, or doubled.

Wave Petunia

The Ball Horticultural Company brought the Wave petunia (Petunia x hybrida) to America in 1995. 

Since the Wave petunia first appeared, the petunia world has not been the same.

This year is Wave petunia’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

Wave Petunia

According to Wave’s blog, a Japanese brewery bred the first Wave petunia.

“Beer and wine companies often employ horticulturists who grow plants for the many flavors and components that go into making their products. Back in the 1990s, this particular company was exploring opportunities for wine-grape breeding when it uncovered a vigorous spreading petunia growing wild just like a weed. “

And so the Wave petunia was born.

The little white flower from South America took the English garden world of the nineteenth century by storm

It continues to do so to this day.

Rawson once said, “It was only a few years ago that they were comparatively unknown, and now no garden is considered complete without them.”

The latest All-American Selections winner is Wave ‘Carmine Velour.’ [below]. The shape of the flower and its color say it all.

Wave ‘Carmine Velour’

The Wave petunia continues to be a stunning flower for both a container and a garden bed.

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