Plant Language Shapes Reality

Plant language shapes reality – 

I just can’t say enough about Andrea Wulf’s book on Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) called  The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World.

As a retired professor of Communication Studies, I was happy to read her comments on Humboldt’s brother Wilhelm and the latter’s theory about language.

Wilhelm was an educator, interested in ideas and the pursuit of knowledge.

He identified the purpose for language as much more than simply a vehicle for the writer or speaker to formulate an idea.

Language, he said, shapes the way we look at the world.

Wulf writes, “According to Wilhelm’s radical new theory, different languages reflected different views of the world. Language was not just a tool to express thoughts but it shaped thoughts…It was not a mechanical construct of individual elements but an organism, a web that wove together action, thought and speaking.”

The way we talk about plants is the way we relate to them.

For example, as soon as you hear the word ‘succulent’ you probably have a general idea of the kind of plant it is and perhaps its growing habit as well as water and light needs.

I heard recently from a young gardener that succulents are in today. Just the mention of the word can make people who are into plants come up with their ideas of the best and worse ways to deal with this group of plants.

I remember seeing Sansevieria ‘Black Star’ in the landscape at the wonderful estate in Miami called Vizcaya. [below]

There were several beds and borders that included this Sansevieria.  It has a beautiful green color with cream edging. Thus it can add color and structure to the landscape.

Then I realized that I grow it as a house plant as you can see from this table in our living room. [below]

Sansevieria ‘Black Star’

The word ‘succulent’ applied to the genus ‘Sansevieria’  told me what kind of plant it was.

Thanks to the website for Stokes Tropicals you can learn more about this plant:

“Sansevieria ‘Black Star’ is an easy-to-grow, double-duty (indoors or outdoors), exotic-looking plant that thrives on neglect.  Tolerates low humidity. Tolerates low water and low feeding. Tolerates being root bound. Few if any plants are as foolproof to grow.

“Sansevieria is a succulent plant, and needs a well-drained soil. Sansevieria are great and hardy house plants in the United States. You do not have to have a green thumb to grow a Sansevieria. “

The word ‘ succulent’ can mean, as it does for me, Sansevieria.

Wilhelm’s theory about language helps gardeners to see and deal with the world of plants.

Of course, we can’t forget two plant words that stir up all sorts of ideas and subsequent action. They are  ‘native’ and ‘exotic.’

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Reading Plants Like Late Nineteenth Century Climbing Rose

Reading plants like late nineteenth century climbing rose.

I am still filled with awe at the life and career of the nineteenth century plant hunter Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859).

He brought both science and imagination to his understanding of nature.

Andrea Wulf in her  book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World points out that Humboldt read plants.

She writes, “Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books — and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movement of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.”

Humboldt’s view of nature as one, and not divisions by various sciences, took the world of understanding plants in a new direction.

Now that I think of it, his idea of reading plants makes perfect sense.

A plant you have in your garden right now had a journey to that spot, a journey that may have been decades or centuries. It is not simply a sunflower or a lily of the valley.

They both express a time and a culture from which they originate.

I know they are beautiful in their own right, but they also reflect the history of gardening.

Take the rose as an example and one rose in particular.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ became a popular rose with gardeners in the late nineteenth century.

Tradecard for the ‘Crimson Rambler’ Rose

It was introduced to the garden market in England in the early 1890s.

It had come from Japan to a nursery, first in Scotland, then in England.

Queen Victoria traveled to the nursery to see this special rose.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ became a popular climbing rose for the next thirty years both in Europe and America.

Eventually it was replaced by other climbing roses, less inclined to problems of disease and insects.

Thus I see more than simply a rose. It represents to me the nineteenth cenutry nursery industry. Its origin tells us it was an exotic in gardens at that time.

The Peter Henderson Seed Company from New York used this rose in its catalog of 1896 [below].

The new ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose appeared here in this 1896 Henderson seed catalog.

‘Crimson Rambler’ was not just a rose. It represented as well the influence of the Victorian garden industry on homeowners everywhere.

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Tulip Mania Provides Garden Marketing Lesson

Tulip mania provides garden marketing lesson.

The tulip has long been a popular spring flower.

Here is an illustration from Boston’s W. W. Rawson seed catalog of 1904. [below]

An illustration of tulips that appeared in the W. W. Rawson Seed Catalog of 1904

A new tulip farm of several acres opened in Rhode Island a couple of years ago.

Now for two or three weeks in April hundreds of people flock to see the fields of thousands of tulips in bloom.  You need a reservation just to visit.

Though today they are precious to every gardener, tulips once were out of reach of most people when they commanded high prices and were sold to the highest bidder.

That happened during the seventeenth century in Holland when the first tulips were arriving from Turkey and Iran. We called the frenzy tulip mania.

Tulip mania provides a lesson in the power of garden marketing.

Stephen Harris says in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden, 1501-1900 “During tulip mania, staggeringly high prices were paid for individual bulbs. A single bulb of one of the rarest and most prized, ‘Semper August’, was sold for up to twice the price of an Amsterdam house.”

The market for the tulip had grown to such an extent that only the rich could afford them.

Tulip mania, with its limited market, ended in the winter of 1636-37.

In his book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How they Change Our Lives Stephen Buchman writes “Fortunately tulip bulbs no longer command astronomical prices as they are easily mass produced.”

Eventually growers in Holland figured out how to grow tulip bulbs in large numbers.

The marketing that resulted from the mass production of tulips meant persauding every homeowner to grow them, no matter the size of the garden.

No surprise that scenes like the illustration in Rawson’s catalog appeared often.

As Harris says, “By the late eighteenth century, as more cultivars were developed and effectively propagated, prices had dropped dramatically; 730 named tulips in one catalogue ranged in price from a few pence to several shillings per bulb.”

Today most plants you buy at that big box store or garden center are there because they have been mass produced and mass marketed to gardeners like you and me to emphasize their appeal.

Thus we probably won’t see another tulip mania.

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Love of Flowers Promotes Health and Well-Being

Love of flowers promotes health and well-being.

It is spring and the time of year that gardening takes off in full force.

One thing we need to do is to make sure we plant flowers so that we have color in the garden. Who wants to look at just a sea of green all summer? Not me.

We need flowers to survive.

At least that is what Stephen Buchmann writes in his book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives.

He says, “The belief that plants are beneficial for medical patients is at least one thousand years old. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, monks in monasteries built beautiful gardens to see and comfort the ill.”

Though I think that we have known of the medicinal value of plants much longer than one thousand years, he makes a point about how important plants are for our health and well-being.

Buchmann writes, “Plants are often the primary gifts given to hospital patients, and for good reasons.

“Flowers, whether in pots or flower beds, have taken on a new cultural and evolutionary role as our companion plants.

“Perhaps it is the flowers who have led us along garden paths, using their seductive petaled beauty, since they were first intentionally grown, tended, and admired in ancient gardens.”

Something about a flower, like this dahlia, brings a smile and a bit of joy to the human heart. [below]

‘Ketsup and Mustard’ Dahlia

We cultivate flowers because we need them. They are not just pretty. In some way they provide us with hope, health, and happiness.

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Strawflower Became Victorian Favorite

Strawflower became Victorian favorite

Lately I have devoted some time to consider what annuals I want to plant whether in containers or beds.

For that research I visited a local big box store.

In the large greenhouse area there I found the Licorice plant or Helichrysum petiolare, a low silvery green trailing plant with heart-shaped leaves. It is a native of South Africa.  You grow it more for its leaves than its flower.

Helichrysum is a genus that contains five hundred species of annuals, perennials, and shrubs.

What surprised me was that in the genus you once found the old-fashioned annual called strawflower, Helichrysum bracteatum. Today the strawflower however is listed as Xerochrysum bracteatum, formerly Bracteantha bracteata. [below]

Strawflowers [Courtesy of Selkie Island]

The strawflower was a favorite in Victorian times.

Ippolito Pizzetti and Henry Cocker write in their wonderfully helpful two-volume garden book Flowers: A Guide for Your Garden, “They are the classic Victorian everlasting flowers, used frequently during that period to make wreaths for cemeteries – an arrangement of the dried flowers often protected under glass. They were also used for decoration inside during the winter.”

A comment from the authors about the flower itself caught my eye. They write that the strawflower was an annual “whose flowers have the dubious distinction of being equally attractive dead or alive.”

James Vick (1818-1882) who owned a sizable seed company in Rochester, New York in the late nineteenth century included in his catalog of 1880 a section called “Everlastings.”

He said “The Everlastings, or Eternal Flowers, as they are sometimes called, have of late attracted a good deal of attention in all parts of the world.

“They  retain both form and color for years, and make excellent bouquets, wreaths, and every other desirable winter ornaments, and there is no prettier work.”

In the section he offered Helichrysum in colors of white, yellow, and red “of very many brownish shades.” Then he concluded it was “one of the best Everlastings.”

Vick was both echoing the importance of this flower and at the same creating it as a necessary part of every truly Victorian garden.

 

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Flowers – Companions on Life’s Journey

Flowers – companions on life’s journey.

This spring brought to my attention a book called The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives.

I never really thought about the role that flowers play in our daily lives.

The author scientist Stephen Buchmann writes, “With their beauty, flowers comfort us; they make us smile and ease our grief.”

In that simple statement he sums why, for centuries, people have treasured flowers.

Flowers are our companions on the journey of life.

Here is an illustration of flowers from the Parker and Wood Seed Company catalog of 1887. [below]

Flowers in 1887 catalog of the Parker & Wood Seed Company, Boston

That year’s marketing artwork represented the high Victorian period here in America. Such colorful flowers as carnations, pansies, mums, the sweet pea vine, and petunias added so much color to the home, the garden, celebrations, and even the sick bed.

Buchmann writes, “We garden with flowers and they soothe our minds and bodies. They inspire us.”

He says, “Flowers and people need and depend upon one another for mutual survival.”

His book opened up so many ways to understand and appreciate flowers in our everyday lives.  We plant and care for them for sure, but they give us so much back.

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Late Nineteenth Century Increased Marketing Images

Late nineteenth century increased marketing images.

Today we think nothing of the images for products and services that come before our eyes daily.

Most of the time they appear uninvited as advertising or emails selling something.

To think of a time when illustrations for products and services first began to appear is not an easy thing to imagine, but they had to start some time.

In the late nineteenth century newer technologies in printing appeared along with a decrease in the price of paper.

In that kind of situation the country also witnessed an increase in colored marketing illustrations.

Such images sold everything from needles to buggies.

Thomas Schelereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “In 1884 Charles Congdon, writing in the North American Review, called his age one of ‘over-illustrations,’ so filled was it with visual stimuli.”

By then chromolithographs appeared in advertising. The art form provided a lithograph “printed in colors using two or more lithograph printing stones” as Schelereth describes the process.

At the same time dahlias were experiencing an upsurge of interest among gardeners, as Ms. Lippencourt recognized in her seed company catalog in 1902. She said, “Within the past two years interest has been revived in these beautiful flowers. We offer a small selection of the very best out of a collection of 600 sorts, embracing all sorts in commerce.”

Perhaps the interest in dahlias was revived because of the stunning illustrations of dahlias that appeared on the covers of the catalog that came from seed companies and nurseries of that time.

Here is the cover on the 1894 catalog from the Maule Seed Company in Philadelphia. The pink and white of these dahlias said it all. [below]. Product illustrations in color could sell anything.

 

Here are two other catalog covers of that same time period, another from Maule and the other from Dreer who also sold dahlias with stunning illustrations. [below]

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Photography Enters Victorian American Homes

Photography enters Victorian American homes.

By the end of the nineteenth century photography had developed a foothold in advertising but also was slowly becoming part of family life as well.

Thomas Schlereth in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1918 writes, “Photography, part of American life since the work of the daguerreotypists of the 1840s, did not become an average person’s skill until the 1880s.”

Before that time a photographer would take an outdoor family photo with the family members often gathered either on the lawn or on the porch.

Here is an example of a family in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1870s captured in this photo. [below]

Notice how hard it is to see the faces of these people.  We cannot tell if they like or dislike the photo experience.

Just a few years later hand-held cameras became the sensation with the arrival of George Eastman’s  Kodak camera in the 1890s.

Then, as Schlereth writes, “Unlike the professional photographer who usually placed his subjects in front of their house, snapshot-camera buffs often favored the backyard for their settings.”

The advertising pitch for Kodak cameras remained constant well into the twentieth century.

Kodak wanted to capture that special moment of family life.  A picture would hold that memory for years to come.  That was a powerful pitch to persuade people to buy cameras. It worked.

The phrase “capturing the Kodak moment” appeared in much of the promotion for Eastman’s camera.

Thus taking family photos became an important cultural practice. An experience was not valuable unless you had photos to show it.  Photos became more precious than the experience they captured.

By the early 1900s Kodak advertised its camera with words like “At Home with the Kodak” and  “Let Kodak Keep the Story.”

The late nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries too changed with the times. Gone were the colored chromolithographs in the catalog, replaced by the ‘more realistic’ photograph of the flower or vegetable.

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Four Kinds of Garden Advertising by 1900

Four kinds of garden advertising by 1900.

Advertising garden products like plants and seeds has long been an avenue for increased sales.

By 1900 at the launch of modern advertising  there were four kinds of appeal in advertising messages, according to Thomas Schlereth in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915.

Schlereth writes: “Four overlapping cycles of advertising ‘styles’ appeared in the brief compass of two generations:

  1. plain talk, direct and factual copy
  2. jingles and trade character style – like Quaker Oats
  3. a concrete ‘reason why’ the product was worth buying
  4. advertising by suggestion or association – opulent art and striking layouts.”

In the January 1856 issue of Genesee Farmer, Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick first advertised French vegetable and flower seeds, because he “found it impossible to obtain in this country a good article of the finer sorts of seeds.”  The advertising resulted in customers buying his seeds. It convinced Vick of the important role advertising played when selling his seeds.

By 1872 Vick spent $15,000 yearly on advertising. Today that amount would be $270,000.

The Vick Seed Company advertised in 3,300 newspapers and magazines like the American Agriculturist, the most popular agricultural magazine at that time. Vick wrote that this magazine “has a larger subscription list than any similar journal in existence.”

In his ad in the American Agriculturist of 1879, the following words appeared: “Vick’s seeds are the best in the world. Five cents for postage will buy the Floral Guide, telling how to get them.”

As an early advocate for advertising, his appeal was more closely alligned with the plain talk appeal with its use of direct and factual copy.

By 1901 New York seedsman Peter Henderson approached advertising by suggestion in selling his  garden seeds. [below]

Notice the association with upper class social status in this ad: the mansion, the extensive landscape, the dress of the woman cutting hollyhocks.  All of that opens up the idea that planting hollyhocks is linked to upper class fashion, money, and style.

You can have it all, as they say.

Peter Henderson Seed Company ad in Harper’s

The same idea is presented here in another Henderson ad from that same time. [below]

 

Peter Henderson 1901

By 1900 you could no longer simply state the name of the product and provide factual copy.

You needed to motivate the buyer by associating the product with the buyer’s dreams and hopes.

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Nineteenth Century Gardeners Needed Seed Companies

Nineteenth century gardeners needed seed companies.

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries played an important role in what gardeners planted.

Many new plants were coming into Europe and America from plant collectors traveling the world in search of new garden plants. Sometimes a nursery would sponsor such a trip.

The seed companies made available the seeds from these new plants.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) offered dozens of flower seeds in the various Departments of his catalog. [below]

Thus he made the newest plants available to Victorian America.

1873 list of seeds for sale in Vick’s catalog

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens, “Plant collectors might have braved the Himalayan and Andean snows in vain, and the work of the plant breeder all ars gratis Artis had it not been for the coincident growth of the nursery trade to propagate and distribute the new garden plants.”

Thus Vick could display this illustration of a tranquil landscape filled with garden annuals from his collection of seeds in the Department he called ‘Annuals.’

In this scene from Vick’s  catalog of 1874 the parents stood on a summer deck to admire their landscape and take in the joy it brought their children, playing down below on the lawn. [below]

Vick Floral Guide 1874

The garden industry, to this very day, is instrumental in spreading the knowledge of new plants to the home gardener.

Hyams writes, “During the eighteenth century about 500 new plant species were introduced into English gardens; in the next century the newcomers were counted in the thousands.”

 

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