Two Typical Victorian Flowers

Everyone can easily list two important Victorian flowers.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor hesitates not one moment and presents his two typical Victorian flowers.

He writes, “The hollyhock and the scarlet geranium are what one thinks of as typical Victorian flowers.”

Taylor then explains why he includes the hollyhock. He says, “The hollyhock almost qualifies as a true florists’ flower.”

He gives the history of the hollyhock which I did not know. It seems that a shoemaker from Saffron Walden named Charles Baron introduced it to England from the Grand Orient in the sixteenth century.

Another choice

I guess we are all entitled to an opinion here.

My first choice for the most important Victorian flower would have to be the dahlia. The dahlia is both big and showy. Those are qualities one thinks of when you think of the Victorian era, especilly the 1890s.

This 1888 catalog cover from the John Lewis Childs Seed Company in New York says it all. [below]

Childs catalog cover of 1888 bursts in dahlias.

I could live with the geranium as the other top choice for that period of the nineteenth century. Everyone grew geraniums.

What are your top two Victorian flowers?

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More Nurseries Accompanied 19th Century Suburban Expanse

It is no surprise that seed companies and nurseries grew after 1870 when suburbs spread around the perimeters of large cities.

Patrice M. Tice in her book Gardening in America 1830-1910 wrote that the number of men employed as seedsmen, nurserymen, and gardeners increased 275% between 1870 and 1930.

The seed companies and nurseries provided the homeowner with every garden and landscape need in the new suburb.  The companies  presented some products unfamiliar to the homeowner but, in the ads from the companies, essential.

In 1894 the C. P. Lines and E. F. Coe Seed Company from  New Haven, Conn. wrote in its catalog called Attractive Home Grounds: “From the most restricted city lot to the more liberal setting of the suburban home and country estate, the possibilities of completing the effect by the judicious manipulation of nature’s furnishings—her grass, shrubs, trees, with their varying tints and shades of every imaginable color and form—give possibilities that should not be neglected by any one.”

This 1887 Lovett’s catalog had everything the suburban gardener would need.

Lovett’s from New Jersey said that its  catalogue was “indispensable to all owners of country and suburban homes, whether it be a mere village lot, or the extensive grounds of the rich man’s country seat.”

The green industry grows with a strong housing market.

As suburbs spread around the country, seed companies and nurseries emerged to provide the homeowner with seeds and plants, but also instruction on how to design the home property.

The English garden, with its signature lawn, often provided the model for that instruction.

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Coleus Varieties Still Abound

The battle between perennial advocates and those who loved to plant annuals stretched into the twentieth century both in England and America.

In 1905 Helena Rutherford Ely wrote in her book Another Hardy Garden Book, “Would that the Coleus might vanish from the land.”

Annuals, like the coleus, had been a major part of the garden since the 1850s.

So annuals were not going to go away without a fight. Even today that is the case. There are more beautiful coleus on the market than ever.

In its catalog of 1895 the seed company W. R. Shelmire from Avondale, Chester Co., Pa. boasted that the company offered seventy-five or more varieties of coleus.

In a speech to an international horticultural group In 1892 in Ontario the Cornell botanist and writer L. H. Bailey cautioned about the drive to increase newer varieties of plants. He questioned their relevance.

Bailey said, “There are more varieties of all plants in cultivation now than at any previous time.”

Then he said, “The question which you all desire to ask me is whether all this increase represents progress. Many poor varieties have been introduced.”

In other words, how many coleus do we need?

Rosy Dawn Gardens, a coleus growing specialist, says today there are hundreds of varieties of coleus, many of them on the market.

I personally like the coleus and always include it in my garden.

Here is a container of coleus on my deck this summer. [below] Loved the lime, yellow, and green combination from the first moment I saw this plant at a local Home Depot. It’s name is ‘Main Street River Walk’.

Coleus ‘Main Street River Walk’ on my deck right now.

So what can we make of the situation?

Proven Winners, a major grower of annuals, shrubs and perennials, offers twenty-eight varieties of coleus on its website.

Breeders continue to offer newer varieties and we choose the ones that work for us.

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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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We Still Grow Victorian Annuals

We still grow Victorian annuals

In 1890 the garden writer, poet, and song writer from Wisconsin Eben E. Rexford [below] wrote a book called Home Floriculture.

Eben E. Rexford (1888-1900)

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York published the book.

Rexford was a rather well-known writer in that Victorian period. It is not suprising that Vick agreed to publish the book.

Ads for the book appeared in the Vick seed catalog. Thus the company promoted the book as well.

Here is a chromolithograph of flowers that appeared in Vick’s seed catalog. [below] Many familiar annuals made up the mix.

Vick’s chromo of 1871 [courtesy of Millicent W. Coggon]

Rexford included a chapter in his book called “The Best Annuals.”

He recommended five annuals “for massing and making a brilliant show.” The Petunia, Phlox, Nasturtium, Calliopsis, and Aster made up the list.

The Vick Seed Company had been selling these flowers for many years. They are also quite familiar to gardeners today. They are among our favorite annuals.

The Victorian period gave us the annuals we still grow in the garden. We treasure them today, much like the Victorians at the end of the nineteenth century.

Through his book Home Floriculture Rexford became a source for what annuals to grow in the garden both yesterday and today.

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Old Fashioned Flower Garden Still Rocks

Old fashioned flower garden still rocks –

Victorians loved flowers in all their color.Late nineteenth century garden writer and landscape manager for Central Park Samuel Parsons loved flowers.

 

He wrote in his book Landscape Gardening, first published in 1891, “I believe in making a distinct and comfortable abode of flowers – in a word, a flower garden, and an old-fashioned one, if you choose to call it so.”

Even though his job was to supervise the maintenance of one of America’s landscaped gems, he still loved flowers.

He said, “Flowers really satisfy us better, and do better in the garden, where we can coax and tend them a little.”

Gardeners know that flowers will only satisfy when we can take care of them.

As we enjoy spring now, perhaps you, like I am, are deciding on what flowers to plant in your garden.

Seeds just arrived in the mail for nasturtiums and cosmos, two easy flowers to grow from seed.

A few weeks ago I ordered a few dahlia tubers.

You can see that in the next few weeks I will be busy planting flowers to enjoy during the summer and fall.

There is something so special about an old-fashioned garden, filled with plants we have known for yerars.

Parsons put it in these words, “The growth of a renewed regard for the simple and often old forms of single flowering plants is a promising sign in horticulture.”

What he means I think is the joy we find in growing old familiar plants.

Nineteenth century Rochester seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) loved flowers as well. Through his work he tried to instill that love in his many customers scattered around the country.

Here is an illustration from his monthly magazine, filled with some of his favorite old fashioned flowers. [below]

James Vick chromolithograph, 1873

Mother’s Day Weekend Plant Sale

The annual Herb Plant Sale of the New England Unit of the Herb Society of America will once again be held in conjunction with Mass Hort’s Gardeners’ Fair at Elm Bank, 900 Washington Street, Route 16, in Wellesley, Mass. 

The date is Saturday, May 11, rain or shine. 

Mass Hort members can shop from 8 to  9 a.m.

The general public is welcome from 9 a.m. to  3 p.m.

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Early American Gardening Centered on Vegetables

Early American gardening centered on vegetables

In  the first half of the nineteenth century gardeners focused on growing vegetables rather than cultivating a flower garden.

Perhaps the emphasis on vegetable growing may have been related to the simple need to survive. 

Vegetable growing and farming consumed the early decades of the country. Once we had food on the table, we could worry about a flower garden.

In his book The Victorian Garden Tom Carter writes, “Until the middle of the century gardening writers dismissed flowers in favour of useful vegetable products.”

By the 1860s and 1870s seed company owners like Rochester, New York’s James Vick (1818-1882) still featured the importance of growing vegetables.

Here is an illustration from Vick’s catalog. Vegetables surround almost the entire house. [below]

In the catalog Vick wrote, “There is almost as much pleasure in growing a choice vegetable well, in bringing it to the highest possible state of perfection, as there is in producing a beautiful flower.”

Then Vick mentioned the lowly cauliflower, pictured in the left of the illustration. [above]

He wrote, “Indeed, some think with Dr. Johnson, that a Cauliflower is the handsomest flower that grows.”

Vick’s advice became important to his customers, so I am sure they followed his guidance in growing vegetables.

By that time gardeners were also enjoying their many flowers as well.

 

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Victorians Loved Cut Flowers

Victorians loved cut flowers

The Victorian period in the nineteenth century ushered in a love for cut flowers from the garden.

Here is a beautiful chromolithograph from William Rawson’s seed catalog of 1888 called ‘Gems from the Wild Garden.’ The image visualizes what a glorious choice of flowers for tea and lunch were available to the Victorians. [below]

Rawson Seed Company, Boston

In his book The Victorian Garden Tom Carter calls this love of cut flowers from that period ‘floristry.’

He writes, “Competition was the essence of floristry, and the spring and summer months were filled with shows held all over the country.”

The flower shows proved an outlet to show off flowers like roses and dahlias.

I remember on ‘Downton Abbey’ when Maggie Smith’s character said,
“My yellow rose won top prize at the county fair.”

Even in the cities Victorian gardeners took pride in floristry.

Carter writes, “Workers in the industrial towns took to floristry as about the only form of gardening open to them in the restricted spaces of urban living.”

Whether in country or city, Victorians encouraged floristry and so they enjoyed their cut flowers.

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Media Drives Garden Industry

Media drives garden industry

We gardeners like to think we are original in planning and installing a garden space.

In an environment of newspapers, magazines, books, and, of course, social media that is not possible because we are surrounded by media messages in both advertising and editorial content.

Since the 1890s the media have become the major influence on our ideas about gardening.

Quaker OatsAt the end of the nineteenth century people wanted standardized products that came from the nation’s factories, whether clothing, shoes, or food.  Even seed company and nursery owners illustrated their large operations in a chromolithograph included in the pages of the catalog.  A customer could then see the trial fields, the building which made boxes for the company’s many orders, and, of course, the multi-storied factory that served as the seed company or nursery headquarters.

People didn’t want just any oat meal.  They wanted Quaker Oats.

And they got that, and lots of other standardized products.

People also wanted a garden like the one illustrated in the garden catalog, which spread across the country in the millions from the many seed companies and nurseries, operating as the modern business they had become.

The Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist might have felt the power of the media on his business when he wrote in 1857: “Nurserymen have to cater for the wants of their customers, and they wish everything that receives a newspaper puff, however indifferent in quality–so that we go on increasing in all sorts of varieties.”

Garden Catalogs

No surprise then that the yearly catalog from the seed company or nursery helped people to choose seeds and bulbs for the flower garden.

This Smith catalog from Worcester, Massachusetts in 1898 provides an example from that period of the vibrant Victorian garden.

Because everyone was ordering the same seeds and bulbs there was a certain sameness in plant choice and garden design.

People wanted to conform to the norms of the culture.

Thus standardized gardens appeared everywhere.

It reminds me of the ‘ready garden’ you can buy today. All the seeds are embedded in a cloth that you simply lay on the prepared soil and water.

Not only has the garden vendor given you a garden. That person has also provided the design and the seeds.

All you need to do is water and watch it grow.

 

 

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