Petunias Slowly Gained Garden Prominence

 I couldn’t believe it when I first heard from a worker at a garden center that the petunia was toxic.  To me the petunia looks just too beautiful to kill you.

That surprise was nothing compared to what I read in Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly from 1868.

It took decades for the petunia to attain the status of a coveted flower in the garden.

Meehan devoted an entire article in that volume of GM to the petunia. The article began with the plant’s travel from Brazil to England, where it first appeared in 1823.

Then the author of the article W. P. from Detroit said, “For a long time after its first introduction, the Petunia was looked upon as almost worthless, and from the flimsy appearance of its flowers, was pronounced a ‘miserable weed’, but we must now abandon the word weed, for the Petunia has become a florists’ flower.”  

By 1868 flower-lovers everywhere treasured it.

A bit later the 1874 catalog of seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, NY listed eight varieties of petunias.

Vick wrote in the flower description: “The improvement of this flower has been constant.”

Even today.

A petunia variety from Proven Winners that I love is Supertunia® ‘Pretty Much Picasso.’

One summer I grew it in a container in my backyard on top of this wrought iron table [below]. 

Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’

The popular petunia began its journey to American gardens from England, as was the case with many flowers in American gardens in the nineteenth century.

Today the petunia is one of the top ten most popular summer annuals, according to the National Garden Bureau.

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Victorians Teasured Colorful Flowers

Victorians believed that colorful flowers needed to fill the garden all summer.

In his book The Garden in Victorian Literature Michael Waters writes, “The massing of plants in showy color schemes grew rapidly in popularity.”

Waters provides three reasons for those colorful Victorian gardens.

First, the influx of foreign plant materials during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Second, the hybridization of already available species, including dwarf varieties of older plants.

Third, the introduction of greenhouses, in which huge numbers of tender annuals could be raised for wholesale use.

Thus, Waters says, “Brillance of color became the top prerequisite of the mid-Victorian garden.”

Verbena

The list of plants every garden had to have included the verbena.

The verbena, a Victorian favorite, continues among the best sellers for the garden industry.

Today the plant grower Proven Winners constantly searches for ever newer varieties of plants.

PW has introduced a beautiful, new verbena called ‘Dark Blue’.

James Vick

The Rochester, New York seed merchant James Vick (1818-1882) mentioned the popular verbena in his garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November 1881.

He wrote, “The term, bedding plants, has long been in use, and is applied to all those tender plants that, preserved through the winter under glass, are there propagated and raised, and finally planted in beds in the spring to serve for the decoration of the garden for one season. Such plants are Geraniums, Heliotropes, Verbenas, Lantanas, and a multitude of other flowering plants.”

The Vick Company of course offered verbenas in its seed catalog. [below]

Vick won awards for his verbenas at State Fairs around the country including Michigan.

He wrote in 1880 in his garden magazine: “Among our garden flowers none is more valuable and more prized than the Verbena.”

The verbena was, however, only one of many annuals that offered colorful bloom in the Victorian flower garden whether for beds, borders, or 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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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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Victorians Loved Bedding Out Plants

In the Victorian era in order to create the flashy flowerbeds called carpet beds or ribbon beds, a gardener had to employ an array of colorful plants, usually annuals.

Luckily, thanks to plant hunters, there were annuals arriving from Asia, South America, and Africa to fill that need

Many of the plants you will easily recognize because they still appear in our gardens today.

English garden historian and lecturer Caroline Holmes wrote the book Victorian Gardens (below).

Her theme is, of course, Victorian gardens, but she also mentions the many plants that made up the gardens.

For example, Holmes says, “Geraniums were popular Victorian flowers in the ground, trained up conservatory walls, or in pots.”

All Victorian gardeners consulted the reference book by Robert Thompson called The Gardener’s Assistant. A Practical and Scientific Exposition of the Art of Gardening in all its Branches (1859).

Thompson listed the important bedding-out plants for that time in England.

You will certainly recognize their names.

They include petunia, verbena, fuchsia, and lobelia.

They are all annuals we still grow in our gardens today.

Though we may not create carpet beds any more, for some reason we continue to use such annuals as essential in the garden of today.

Garden Illustrations

Holmes includes many illustrations of gardens in her book.

She also demonstrates how to design and plant a ‘bedding in high summer.’

The plants she suggests for such a planting are Begonia semperflorens, Cerastium tomentosum, Lobelia ‘Chrystal Palace’ and Heliotrope ‘Marine.’

The book is filled with photographs of colorful nineteenth-century flower beds at various English country houses like Harewood House and Osborne House, and even at Hampton Court Palace garden.

Though today we do not have the time or resources for carpet bedding, we still love the bedding out of annuals.

In fact, every summer the major growers provide new varieties of an old favorite annual for the home gardener.

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Frustrated I Cannot Get to My Garden

Today I saw trays of spring flowers outside the supermarket.

Though I loved seeing them as a sign of spring, they also reminded me of my current dilemma.

I have been trapped in our condominium for six weeks now, due to the state’s shelter in place rule.

My garden is at our house in the neighboring state.

I cannot go there without enduring a two week lock-down here when I return.

To avoid that I simply stay away from my garden, located only an hour away.

That does not mean I don’t think about the garden.

Here is the entrance to the house along with a bit of the garden. [below]

Front entrance, lined with shrubs, perennials, and annuals

Notice the rather tall red dahlias called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ on the right. The cement container, filled with coleus and geraniums, stands at the corner of the cement entry.

In the mean time

Right now I read about gardening. I think about what I will do once we can travel out of state more easily.

The plants I want this summer come to mind. I know I will plant more caladium.

Worry about Deer Damage

Possible deer damage sometimes demands my attention about this time in spring. I know I may have to address such damage if I should find it.

Luckily a few weeks ago I was able to enlist a landscaper in the area to put down Milorganite fertilizer over the lawn and flower beds. Though it is not sold as a deer repelant, it does a good job ih keeping deer away.

Yesterday I heard the governor say we still have a few more weeks for the lock down to continue.

Hope it ends soon so I can see my garden, in whatever shape I find it.

I will be so delighted first just to see the garden and then to walk the familiar garden paths.

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No Garden without Nasturtiums

I recently ordered five packets of nasturtium seeds.

The varieties are both the climbing or spreading variety and the clumping kind of flowers.

Every garden needs to have nasturtiurms.

The main reason is they are so easy to grow. No potting inside weeks before the ground warms up. This seed you can plant right in the ground or in an outdoor container.

The Garden Museum in London sent me this beautiful illustration of ‘Empress of India’ nasturtiums by British artist Hannah McVicar.

‘Express of India’ Nasturtium by artist Hannah McVicar

Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening says this about the humble Nasturtium: “The common garden nasturtium comprises the genus Tropaeolum, the only one of the family Tropaeolaceae…They are native of the cooler parts of South America.”

James Vick, the nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner, included Nasturtiums in his catalog, magazine, and his book as well.

He wrote, “Flowers of all the different shades of yellow, orange, and red….They are very desirable.”

In his seed catalog of 1873 Vick said, “This flower has of late been much improved, the blossoms being larger and more showy.”

How can we loose? Nasturtiums show superb qualities for the gardener: easy to grow, with splendid flower color, and ever so dependable.

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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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