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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Victorian Home Landscape Demanded Flowerbeds

Victorian home landscape demanded flowerbeds.

Flowers for a home landscape of any size were important in the late nineteenth century.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote that farmers, laborers as well the middle class, anyone, could plant flowers to enjoy.  Flowerbeds belonged not only to the garden of the estate owner.

He made promoting floriculture his life-long goal in his business.

In many ways Vick followed the practices of other seed merchants. His appeal to sell flowers, particularly to women, was what other companies were also doing at that same time.

Seedsman Azell Bowditch from Boston, for example,  wrote in his catalog: “We shall endeavor to keep pace with the ‘Flowery Age’ in which we live, and hope to be able, by attention and care, to supply our patrons with all the valuable varieties of seeds that can be obtained at any other seed establishment in the Union.”

In this illustration from Vick’s 1874 seed catalog you see a family outside their home, enjoying the outdoors. [below]

On the lawn near the house the owner planted flowerbeds, or, as they called then, carpet beds.

Annuals filled three lage beds to bring color to the landscape.

This image introduced Vick’s annual seeds in the catalog.

Thus he illustrated for his customers what the home landcape could look like with beds of colorful flowers.

 

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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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Gardening Follows Fashion

Gardening follows fashion.

In the 1870s English garden writer and horticulturist William Robinson founded and edited a garden magazine simply called The Garden.

In an article in the magazine dated January 27, 1872 he wrote about American seed company owner Peter Henderson who had his greenhouse and trial garden in New Jersey and his seed company store and warehouse in New York.

Robinson used the writing of Henderson to make the point that all gardening is fashion.

He wrote, “Flowers, or designs in flowers, says Mr. Peter Henderson, like numerous other articles of luxury, unmistakably have their fashions, which originate in large cities and have their run there for a year or two until the particular design or particular flower is supplanted by others.

“Ten years ago graceful hanging baskets were the fashion in New York, but after a year or two they were as common in the tenement of the mechanic as in the palaces of Fifth Avenue, the difference only being in the expense of the materials.

“Under these circumstances they could no longer be fashionable and rapidly gave way to the more expensive rustic stand or Wardian case, which, being less readily imitated by people of limited means, is likely to continue longer fashionable.”

Today gardening is still subject to fashion.

You will now see flowers planted with vegetables when only a few years ago that would have been unheard of in gardening.

It is not uncommon for plant growers to claim one of their own as the latest garden gem.

The old fashioned petunia has evolved through a variety of hybrids over decades.

This summer everyone will want to grow this petunia called ‘Bordeaux’ from Proven Winners who made the flower ‘Annual of the Year.’ [below]

Supertunia ‘Bordeaux’ from the grower Proven Winners

You can see that it is truly a beautiful colored flower of a bright pink with a dark center.

I grew it in my garden this past summer though at the time I did not know that it would become the ‘Annual of the Year.’

I guess that would make me right in line with following the latest garden fashion.

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We Still Grow Popular Nineteenth Century Annuals

We still grow popular nineteenth century annuals.

In 1878 a customer wrote Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick, asking him to name his six favorite annuals.

Vick responded in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly with these words,  “We hardly know what to recommend for six Annuals. Phlox, Striped Petunia, Double Portulaca, Pansy, Aster. Now we have only one more to select: Verbena, Mignonette, Dianthus, Morning Glory, Stock.

“Our readers had better select the last one for themselves, for we can’t find it in our heart to exclude so many good things from our list of six, and perhaps make hard feeling among our favorite flowers.”

The annuals that  Vick listed are the same plants we grow today. The cultivar or hybrid may have changed but the same flowers continue to shine in our gardens.

Today they are the same flowers that appear in the spring at box stores and garden centers around the country.

Chromolithograph from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Vick grew hundreds of dahlias, including new varieties, in his fields of display gardens both at his home and in his trial farm outside the city.

He was always in seach of a new dahlia hybrid. By the 1870s there were probably hundreds.

Noel Kingsbury writes in his book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, “”New versions of familiar plants sell well.”

The marketing of garden plants depends on what the gardener knows about plants.  Old familiar varities attract a customer. Thus we see the same annuals in the garden year after year.

Take as an example, the supertunia, which is the number one annual for Proven Winners.

Vick spent a great deal of time hybridizing the petunia because he considered it a popular annual.

Kingsbury gets the credit as well for this wonderful quote from garden historian Richard Gorer in writing about garden plants. Gorer says, “The hybridizers appear to have gone on breeding the same plants that have been popular for so long…they seem to lack enterprise.”

Kingsbury makes the point too when he says that the hybridizing choices were linked to familiar plants both to the nursery and the gardener.

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Victorian Seed Industry Launched Hybrid Search

Victorian seed Industry launched hybrid search.

At the moment I am reading about the nineteenth century history of garden annuals.

Hybridizing has become an important topic to examine during this period.

Richard Gorer writes in The Development of Garden Flowers that hybridizing was not extensively practiced until the early nineteenth century.

You will find a history of hybridizing in Noel Kingsbury’s book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding.

Though he covers farming, especially corn, which is so dependent on hybrids to increase the yield quality and stamina, Kingsbury also addresses horticulture and gardening.

When Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) in the 1870s hybridized the petunia by crossing two varieties, he came up with his own double cultivar called ‘Vick’s double fringed.’

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Vick gives an account of how he crossed the petunias.

He filled a room in his greenhouse with single-flowering plants while nearby he filled another room with plants bearing double flowers. He then took a basket of double flowers to the area containing the single petunias. Next he shredded the double flowers in search of pollen and collected it with a camel’s hair brush. This pollen was transferred to the pistils of the single flowers.

This was an expensive way to generate seeds. It was however from this method that Vick added his own petunia cultivar called ‘Vick’s New Fringed.’

Vick joined a long line of nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries who experimented with hybridizing.

The potential of hybridizing for even more new garden plants expanded in the early twentieth century, as Kingsbury notes, with the work of L. H. Bailey in New York and Luther Burbank in California.

Kingsbury recognizes the work of seedsmen like Vick. He writes, “Commercial seedsmen were quite important in the development of many vegetables and flower varieties.”

 

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New England Hosts America in Bloom Conference

New England hosts America in Bloom conference.

Last month I spent an afternoon in Holliston, Massachusetts, touring the many flowers, shrubs, and grasses planted in public areas around the town of 15,000.

That day Holliston hosted the national conference of America in Bloom.  AIB encourages town and city plantings to improve community and encourage local historical preservation.

New Englanders first settled Holliston in 1659, and incorporated the town in 1724.

Almost two hundred attendees enjoyed a luncheon that sunny day in a tent in Holliston’s Goodwill Park.  The group represented thirty-nine cities and towns across the country.

The middle school band played and singers entertained while the guests enjoyed New England clam chowder and lobster rolls.

It was, however, the community’s long-standing effort to beautify the town that made the day.

Over the last five years Holliston has won three awards from AIB.

A tour of Holliston following the luncheon provided a chance to see the results of the town’s work.

In the center of Holliston this border of hydrangeas, mums, and marigolds welcomed the visitor. [below]

The center of town featured these  plantings of the volunteer group called Holliston in Bloom.

A short time after I took the photo you could see AIB conference attendees admiring the same border of plants. [below]

Conference attendees admire the work of HIB. [America in Bloom – courtesy photo]

To host this national meeting speaks to Holliston’s long-standing effort to beautify the town.

Several years ago town members formed a local group called Holliston in Bloom.  Today two hundred volunteers, including some local businesses, support the program.

Many benefits flow from improving a town’s landscape. Mark Ahronian, a selectman and co-chair of HIB, said, “By keeping your town looking good, it increases local economy.”

The Holliston volunteers planted seven hundred mums throughout the town. I saw many of these fall flowers on our bus tour that afternoon.

Last year when I first heard of this national meeting in Holliston, I knew immediately I wanted to attend to see what made Holliston so important to America in Bloom.

Any visitor could see that hosting the national conference here was an honor that Holliston rightly deserved.

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To Spread the Love of Flowers 

To spread the love of flowers

Recently on a sunny Thursday morning I drove to Butternut Gardens in Southport, Connecticut.

Though it took a long time to drive there, the garden visit proved a wonderful experience.

The owner Evelyn Lee grows 700 dahlias. Of course they were in bloom and the rows of color provided a glorious sight.

Lee calls herself a flower farmer. She is also a floral designer.

She cuts the dahlias as well as other annuals and perennials she grows for arrangements for her customers.

It is, however, the love of flowers that she seeks to spread in her work.

She said, “I want a community of flower lovers.”

I thought how much her thinking reflects that of nineteenth century Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882).

Vick sought new ways to promote the love of the Victorian flowers to his customers.

His writing in his seed catalog and monthly magazine reflected that motive.

In 1878 he wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “Earnestly have we desired to see the people of this country appreciate the beauties of nature, study nature’s laws, and, above all, love flowers and delight in their culture.”

Lee starts to cut her flowers in the garden at 7:30 in the morning.

Her collection of dahlias include several in the ‘Karma’ series. Here is her dahlia ‘Karma Sangria’, cut and awaiting its showcase in a new bouquet. [below

Dahlia ‘Karma Sangria’ in the temperature-controlled barn at Butternut Gardens

To spread the love of flowers is an awesome goal for any gardener.

There is something so awesome about gardeners like James Vick and Evelyn Lee who seek to share the beauty in flowers.

We are all the better off because of their work.

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Summer Garden Included Elephant Ear

Summer garden Included elephant ear.

Colocasia, or elephant ear, is a popular plant for the summer garden in the Northeast.

It is a tropical plant that now appears in many beds and borders.

L. H. Bailey wrote in 1900 in his The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture: “Summer bedding for subtropical effects employs cannas, musas, castor-oil plants, crotons, palms, ferns of coarse habit, screw pines, dracaenas, araucanas, [and] elephant-ear caladiums.”

He refers to the elephant ear plant as a caladium.  This plant, like the caladium, is also a genus in the Arum family.

This summer I planted my first elephant ear.

It all began at a local box store in the second half of June.

While checking out the bulbs and tubers in the store, I came across one elephant ear tuber in its original package marked down to half price. The tuber measured five inches high and about four inches wide.

I had never planted an elephant ear before so I thought I would try it.

I planted it in a container at the end of the driveway, a shady area.

Soon the large leaves started appearing. That elephant ear grew just fine. [below]

Elephant ear growing in a container  in my garden

In 1875 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) included this tropical plant in his book The Flower and Vegetable Garden under the section ‘Bulbs & Plants.’

He wrote about both planting and storing the bulb. He said, “Roots obtained in the spring will make a good growth in the summer, and in the fall should be taken up and stored in the cellar, like Dahlias”.

During the summer I visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

There, near the Visitor Center, I saw a border of elephant ears, both purple and green in color. [below]

Berkshire Botanical garden included elephant ears along with a purple castor oil plant

Then while touring the gardens of Buffalo, New York during the Garden Writers Association annual meeting, we visited a garden that had several elephant ear plants in containers.

The owner brings in the containers after the first frost.  She stores them in the garage for the winter which she spends in Florida.

For me I guess this was the summer of the colocasia or elephant ear.

 

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