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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Nineteenth Century Introduced Flower Gardens

Nineteenth century introduced flower gardens

In the eighteenth century the classic English garden took the form of an extensive lawn, a lake, a deer park, and trees to line the property. There was little room for a flower garden.

The famous royal gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1715-1783) designed his many contracted landscapes around the country in that style.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor tells the story of how the flower garden assumed its important role.

He writes that the landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) became a lone voice, encouraging the planting of flowers in the landscape.

Taylor says, “Humphry Repton’s evident, though subordinate, interest in flowers and flower gardens marks the beginning of a change in taste.”

Flowers began to take on a small, but significant role, in the landscape.

Taylor says, “The eighteenth century was flower-conscious in its gardening, but very far from exclusively so. The flower garden, generally speaking, took up only a very small proportion of the total garden area, and was secluded from the house.”

Repton however encouaged flowers in the landscape. Early in the nineteenth century he painted a scene of a garden of roses that he simply called ‘The Rosarium.’

His painting represents an entire garden area dedicated to the beautiful and now essential rose.

This is his painting:

Humphry Repton’s Rosarium (1813)

Today we take flower gardens for granted. We assume they have been around forever.

As Taylor points out, there was a gradual development of interest in flower gardens. Eventually, especially by the late Victorian period, such gardens would become essential.

It was the nineteenth century however that introduced flower gardens.

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Garden Flowers Familiar to Generations

Garden flowers familiar to generations

We all love garden annuals like lobelia and asters in the summer garden.

Such annuals, and many like them, have been part of our flower gardens for centuries.

Why is it that every garden center in the spring sells the same flowers like carnations, impatiens, and petunias? Because they are familiar.

We garden with plants that have been part of the garden world for decades and even centuries. The varieties may change because we have so many hybrids, but the plants are familiar.

Garden historian Geoffrey Taylor writes in his book The Victorian Flower Garden, “It is The Gardener’s Dictionary and its author [Philip Miller] that must occupy the most honorably prominent place in any account of the background to the Victorian garden.”

Catalog cover of familiar flowers in 1882
[D. M. Ferry & Co.]

He argues that the Victorian garden has roots, literally, in the gardens of earlier decades, especially the 1700s when plants were arriving in England from around the world. It was then that botanist Miller (1691-1771) supervised the Chelsea Physic Garden and wrote about the garden.

Some of the flowers Miller mentions include the crocus, the snowdrop,hyacinth, and narcissus for spring.

The list also includes anemone, stock, the rose, tulip,carnation, phlox, and coreopsis, mostly for summer.

So our flower choices are familiar because we have been growing them for decades and even centuries.

Perhaps that is why it is difficult for gardeners to try new plants when spring appears.

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Book Contract in the Mail

Book contract in the mail –

I received some wonderful news this week.

Ohio University Press offered me a contract to publish my new book All about Flowers: James Vick’s Nineteenth Century Seed Company.

I want to thank the people who read earlier versions of this book and gave me advice on how to make it clearer and more enjoyable.

Many people do not know James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, New York who owned one of the largest seed companies in the country.

The main idea behind the book is that Vick sold Victorian flowers for the garden that we still love today, a century and a half later. He promoted the kind of Victorian garden that we all love.

What was so fascinating about him was the way he conducted his business.

His goal was to spread the love of floriculture.

Letters from customers he included in his catlaog and magazine testify to his great passion for flowers and his love for his customers.

I think that’s what amazed me most, his relationship with his customers, spread around the country.

Publication Date

At this point I have no idea when the book will actually come out but certainly not before the fall of 2020.

An academic press like OUP enlists reviewers to read the manuscript. The author does not know who they are.

One such reviewer said,  “Historians have previously overlooked plantsman James Vick and his significance to 19th c. ornamental horticulture. Thomas Mickey’s book makes an indispensable contribution to the field of U.S. ornamental horticultural history. “

James Vick (1818-1882)

Here is an image of the kind of flower chromolithograph that Vick made available to his customers. They would hang it up in the living room as decoractive art.

Vick’s chromo [couretsy of Millicent W. Coggon, a Vick descendant]

I am happy to report that the book includes several colorful illustrations from both Vick’s catalog and his magazine, Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

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Flower Gardening Began Mid Nineteenth Century

Flower gardening began mid nineteenth century

Just finished reading the book Handy Book of the Flower-Garden by English horticulturist David Thomson, editor of The Gardener journal.

Thomson wrote the book in 1876.

He makes the argument that flower gardening as we know it did not become popular until after 1850.

Thomson says, ” [In the early 1800s] flower gardens had then seldom a separate locality devoted to them and then they had that advantage, they were generally of unshapely figures cut out in turf, and arranged, as the designers fondly but erroneously imagined, after the principle of English gardening as inculcated by Wheatley and Uvedale Price.

“These figures were mostly filled with a miscellaneous assortment of shrubs and herbaceous plants, many of which possessed only botanical interest. The California annuals were then undiscovered in the Far West, and all the fine recent introductions were unknown and unthought of.”

He argued that new plants were just coming into the country in the first half of the nineteenth century. That was the grand time of the plant hunter who traveled the world in search of plant varieties suitable for a flower garden.

That was also the case in America.

It was only by mid-century that people had the leisure time to cultivate a flower garden.

Plants that arrived in England from Asia, Africa, and South America eventually came to America.

It was then too that the seed merchants began to send out catalogs to lure the homeowner into cultivating a flower garden.

By the end of the nineteenth century seed companies like W. W. Rawson in Boston were sending out yearly catalogs with stunning illustrations of their latest flower for the garden. [below]

W. W. Rawson’s catalog of 1897 with carpet bed on the lawn

By then flower gardening, whether in carpet beds or borders, had all sorts of requirements to be called a flower garden. Flower gardens had arrived.

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Nineteenth Century Petunia Continues Its Popularity

Nineteenth century petunia continues its popularity

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 for such prominent growers as Proven Winners.

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.

Since the Wave petunia first appeared on the market in 1995, the petunia world has not been the same since.

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 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.”

Here is a petunia called Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ from Proven Winners in my backyard. [below]

Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ on the table in my back yard

How many petunias did you grow this summer?

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Jane Loudon Lists Familiar Flowers

Jane Loudon lists familiar flowers

Recently I came across a nineteenth century book on gardening by writer and gardener Jane Loudon (1807-1858).

Loudon (or ‘Mrs. Loudon’ as the book’s title page lists her) wrote the book The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden to show that women could venture into the world of gardening with many benefits. They would profit from physical exercise and at the same time learn about the world of plants.

This is the title page of the book. [below]

Courtesy of State Library of South Australia – Library number: 635.9 L886.7

The book, edited like a dictionary or encyclopedia, lists various plants and garden topics.

What I found most fascinating is that this book from 1846 lists annuals for the garden that we still grow today.  

The same plants appeared in the seed catalogs of Rochester, New York’s James Vick (1812-1882) from the 1860s.

Vick did not search out new plants, but accepted the traditional varieties that people were already growing.

One example is the petunia, brought to England from Brazil in 1832.

Loudon writes, “Perhaps no plants have made a greater revolution in floriculture than the Petunias. Only a few years ago they were comparatively unknown, and now there is not a garden, or even a window, that can boast of flowers at all, without one.”

The petunia took a slot in the top five of Vick’s favorite annuals.

To this day the petunia assumes a central spot in the garden.

Proven Winners recently listed their most popular annuals for 2019.  The petunia, in the form of their current hybrid called ‘supertunia,’ became the grower’s best seller.

Loudon also writes about other familar annuals. The morning glory, the nasturtium, sweet pea, and geranium all appear in her book.

It seems that the nursery business keeps offering the same plants that have been part of the garden for decades. The only difference, of course, is the constant search they undertake to find the latest hybrid.

Jane Loudon did more than simply alert the gardener to what plants are important. She was creating the gardener’s palette.

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In Search of a Blue Dahlia

In search of a blue dahlia –

I have often heard that there is no blue dahlia.

Last year I planted a blue dahlia I bought at the market Stop and Shop. The bright photo on the front of the box depicted a very blue colored dahlia. The name of the variety was ‘Blue Bell.’ I had to buy it.

On the website Gardenia.net I read a bit about this dahlia.

The site said, “Produces truly beautiful purple-blue flowers adorned with broad petals that fade to lavender-blue.

“The fully double flowers, up to 4-6 inches…are normally large and the plants easily top 40 inches tall, although there are even taller varieties.”

I thought what a find this was to come across a blue dahlia in a local supermarket.

It did not bloom last year, but I still packed it up to store for the winter.

It bloomed this year. As you can see, it is not really a pure blue look.

It looks more like a purple. [below]

Dahlia ‘Blue Bell’

Dahlia expert and writer Bill McClaren wrote the book Encyclopedia of Dahlias.

He says, “If a bloom in the red class has the least hint of blue in it, it is classified as purple.”

Other dahlias in my garden

I planted several dahlias this summer.

When I was walking around the garden last week, I realized that the front door was framed with dahlias.

There I saw on the right the tall red ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and on the left in the back the yellow ‘Sunburst Nelson.’

This photo of the front steps highlights the colors of both yellow and red in these two dahlias. [below].

Dahlias frame this view on my front steps.

It was fun to experiment with a blue dahlia, but these two faithful varieties work just fine for me.

James Vick (1818-1882), seed company owner from Rochester, New York, loved dahlias. No surprise that he wrote in 1878, “The dahlia is ouir best autumn flower. We can depend upon it until frost, no matter how long delayed.”

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Dahlias Everywhere

Dahlias everywhere

Everywhere I go I see dahlias in bloom. I find color galore in gardens near and far.

Last week I attended the open house of the Cross Street Flower Farm in Norwell, Mass. Hundreds of dahlias stood in bloom in rows of various colors on this farm. Many people enjoyed the warm afternoon as they walked the path between the rows of bloom.

One dahlia among the two acres of the flower at Cross Street was a medium sized stunning white variety called ‘Sneustorm’.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Recently I drove to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and found myself in search of dahlias.

These I found along the harbor in downtown. The blue water gave off a wonderful background color to this scene on that bright sunny afternoon. [below]

A scene along the harbor in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire

While in Portsmouth, I visited the Moffatt-Ladd House and Garden on Market Street. The three story nineteenth century Georgian Mansion includes a Victorian garden behind the house.

What would a Victorian garden be without dahlias?

There I found a row of yellow dahlias tied to stakes to maintain a wall of yellow color. The gardener told me the dahlias have been planted there each summer for over thirty years.

Though he did not know the name of this yellow dahlia, he said it was an older variety. [below]

Yellow dahlias in the garden at the Moffatt-Ladd House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

In my own garden I planted several dahlias in mid-May.

Here is my favorite dahlia, right outside the front door. This variety called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dates to the 1920s.

A ”Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia outside my front door

Nineteenth century seed company owner James Vick, from Rochester, New York, loved dahlias. He had acres in bloom for his customers to visit at this time of the year.

Now I can understand why Vick once wrote, ““When we look upon a well-formed Dahlia, we are compelled to acknowledge that it is a wonder of beauty and perfection.”

If you are interested in learning how to grow dahlias, check out this website: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/flowers/delightful-dahlias/.

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