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.


Victorian Dahlia ‘White Aster’ Still Shines

Victorian dahlia ‘White Aster’ still shines.

The online garden business called Old House Gardens works with twenty-one growers in fifteen states to provide it’s tubers and  bulbs.

The Sun Moon Farm in Rindge, New Hampshire supplies some of it’s dahlia tubers.

Recently I drove to Rindge to check out Sun Moon Farm, and, of course, see its dahlia field.

No fancy sign welcomes you to this CSA working farm. During the growing season the farm supplies vegetables to households in NH as well as Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At Sun Moon I found many dahlias in bloom.

The rows of dahlias seemed to go on forever. [below]

Rows of dahlias at Sun Moon Farm

A dahlia I was in search of was the dahlia ‘White Aster,’ first offered for sale in 1879.

That makes it, according to the Old House Gardens’ catalog, “the world’s oldest surviving garden dahlia.”

I was amazed at the long row of ‘White Asters’ I saw that morning. Magnificent. [below]

Sun Moon’s dahlia ‘White Aster’ filled its own row in the field with its cheery white flower.

This dahlia shines with its hundreds of small, ivory globes, making it a treasured pompon type which just might add that white color you need in a late summer bouquet.

A letter about white dahlias appeared in Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick’s magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1879.

A customer wrote, “For four years I have grown dahlias in my garden…

“Last spring I wanted a white one and mother bought me a root for twenty-five cents. When it had flowers in September, it was the prettiest thing I ever saw.

“The flowers were not half as large as my old ones, just as pretty as could be, and didn’t look much like Dahlias, but more like Asters.

“This plant was the nicest plant I had, for there were, I guess, hundreds of flowers”

In response Vick wrote the following: “There are plenty of the small Dahlias, and of all colors that can be desired, except the long sought blue.

“There are two very good white sorts White Aster and Little Snowball.

“This class of Dahlias is called Pompon or Bouquet, and bears great numbers of flowers, from one to two inches in diameter.”

Vick recommended ‘White Aster’ but also recognized the importance of dahlias for the fall garden.

He wrote, “The dahlia is our best autumn flower. We can depend upon it until frost, no matter how long delayed.”



Garden Learning Never Stops

Garden learning never stops.

Sometimes newer gardeners appear to be unfamiliar with the most common of plants.

Perhaps it is because there seems to be so much to learn about gardening.

That problem is not new.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick  (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August of 1881: “A correspondent of one of the London journals declares that some of the best of our annuals, those common in our gardens, and familiar to all gardeners twenty years ago, are now unknown to young gardeners, and that one would be puzzled to pick a lady a bouquet of flowers from positively good gardens, that was not mainly composed of Pelargoniums, Verbenas, and other plants commonly used for bedding.”

He recognized that gardeners needed to keep up with the newest in garden fashion but also not to forget the older plants.

Vick continued, “This is true, and much more true of English gardeners and gardens than of American.” Thus he seemed to put a bit of blame on English gardeners, but praised Americans who were eager to learn about gardening.

His conclusion could have been based on his experience with his seed business. He received hundreds of letters every year from his customers, asking questions about plants and gardening.

Vick was happy to respond to such questions in both his catalogue and magazine.

Today there are dozens of new plants that come on the market every year. Who can keep track of all of them?

One solution might be to continue to learn about gardening through garden visits, garden books, and garden social media like blogs.

Recently I came upon an old fashioned flower, unknown to me for many years.

While in Ireland a couple of weeks ago, I toured the site of the Battle of the Boyne, which took place in 1690 on the River Boyne near the town of Drogheda.

A beautiful Victorian garden is now included in the back of the site’s visitor center.

There I saw one of my favorite flowers, which I learned about only a year or two ago.

A bunch of calendula flowers appeared in this container along the wall near the greenhouse. [below]

Calendula at the Garden at the Battle of Boyne site in Ireland

Calendula in the garden of the Battle of the Boyne site in Ireland















Atlanta Gardens Feature Victorian Caladium

Atlanta gardens feature Victorian caladium.

The recent Garden Writers Association annual meeting in Atlanta featured several garden tours.

Caladium beds appeared in a few of the gardens.

Since I just started growing caladium in my New England garden the last couple of years, I was quite interested in seeing how these shade loving plants grew in Atlanta.

Wherever we saw them, I found them to be healthy and vigorous, showing the best of color with their fabulous leaves of green, white, and red.

Here is one garden with its bed of caladium. [below]

Caladium at Atlanta

Caladium bed in an Atlanta garden

The caladium has appeared in gardens since the Victorian period.  Then they naturally ranked among the choicest plants for the garden because of their large, colorful leaves.

Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) sold it in his catalog of 1880. The plant however does not appear in his catalog of the early 1870s.

He wrote, “The Caladium is one of the handsomest of the ornamental-leaved plants. Roots obtained in the spring will make good plants in the summer.”

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly of 1879 he wrote instructions on winter care for the caladium.  A customer from Newfield, New York wrote that the previous year he had lost the caladium that he had stored in the basement.

Vick responded in the magazine, “They should be kept in a cool, dry place, and in sand.  A good, well-drained cellar usually offers a suitable place, but they should be stored on shelves, and not on the cellar botton.”

This is certainly timely advice, since we are now in the midst of the month of October, time to think about over-wintering such tender tubers.

Vick offers timely advice.

If protected over the winter, next spring the caladium tuber will be ready to plant in the garden.












Victorian Gardeners Loved Lily Auratum

Victorian gardeners loved lily auratum.

Recently I have been reading about lilies and the frenzy they created in the late nineteenth century, both in England and in America.  Everyone wanted lilies.

Among the popular lilies appeared the plant called lily auratum.

The nineteenth century Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick praised this lily in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.  In 1880 he wrote, “All of our readers have heard about the celebrated Auratum Lily, and it has no doubt been seen by nearly all.”

Then he spoke of its origin.

He wrote, “The lily is a native of Japan and abounds in the mountains, where the bulbs are gathered and shipped to this country in large quantities.”

Nicolette Scourse says in her book The Victorians and their Flowers that the English plant hunter Robert Fortune brought this lily from Japan in 1860 or 1861.

In Restoring American Gardens Denise Wiles Adams claims that the Parsons plant catalog from New York first listed it in 1861.

I went in search to see where this lily might be available today.

I found it in the catalog from White Flower Farm. [below]

The plant’s dotted white flower with yellow lines is as beautiful as Vick wrote about it in the nineteenth century.

Lily auratum var. platyphyllum from White Flower Farm

Lily auratum var. platyphyllum from White Flower Farm

Vick loved the flowers on this plant. He said, “We have received many reports from our readers of plants that have given from ten to thirty blossoms each year for several years.”

Today nurseries still sell this plant, originating in the nineteenth century, thanks to an English plant collector who traveled to Japan to find plants for the English garden.

The Elliott Seed Company catalog of 1891 included this illustration of a child standing next to a lily. [below] Though perhaps not the auratum, the image reveals the importance of the lily to gardeners.

The six-foot lily auratum gave off a strong vanilla fragrance. One of Vick’s customers wrote him and said, “It filled the air with its sweetness.”

Elliott Seed Catalog of 1891

Elliott Seed Catalog of 1891

Based on the frequent mention that Vick gave this lily in his magazine, it remained popular for Victorian gardens for decades.

A reader once wrote Vick, “I hope your customers will try an Auratum.”



Differing Views of Nineteenth Century Garden

Differing Views of  Nineteenth Century Garden

The way to plant a flower garden changed during the nineteenth century.

Two American seedsmen wrote differently about how to install a flower garden.

Boston seedsman Joseph Breck (1794-1873) wrote The Flower Garden in 1851.

In the book he recommended the placement of the garden as a border before a window with southern or southeastern exposure.

He carefully laid out for the reader the design of the flowerbed.

Breck wrote, “This outward border will be the most appropriate place for flowering shrubs, and tall herbaceous biennial and perennial plants”.

When he discussed what flowers to plant, Breck listed several annuals, plus Dahlias and Gladiolus and Roses, with a few choice perennials. He recommended native plants like Lobelia Cardinalis, Aquilegia Canadensis, Aster Novae Anglae and Solidago.

Breck wanted a flower garden in bloom during each season. Choosing the right plant would have provided that color. His borders were to be filled with annuals, perennials, and native plants.

Carpet bedding croppedNew York seedsman Peter Henderson (1822-1890) wrote his book Gardening for Pleasure in 1875. In it he also discussed laying out the flower garden.

He admitted at the start that old-fashioned mixed borders with hardy herbaceous plants were “now but little seen”. He wrote, “The mixed system still has its advocates, who deprecate the modern plan of massing in color as being too formal, and too unnatural a way to dispose of flowers.”

The fashion he discussed called ‘massing of color’ referred to the use of many annuals of the same variety to create a display of one color. The plants were to be placed in a pattern or ribbon line like in the Sunset Seed and Plant Company catalog of 1897. [above]

The words “They Grow” in the catalog cover here might have been planted with Alyssum, which of course needed to be trimmed regularly.  Mass beds needed many plants of the same variety but also much maintenance to keep them short.

Henderson wrote, “A single misplaced color may spoil the effect of the whole.”

Thus these two nineteenth century seedsmen offered two different forms of the flowergarden.

In 1851 Breck advocated for a border of annuals, perennials, and native plants. In 1875 Henderson promoted the modern carpet bed, a design of mass planting with annuals.

I am ending with this  photo of the beautiful perennial borders from the Scottish garden Carolside in Earlson. [below] Just received this on Twitter from Great British Gardens.

Carolside Garden, Earlson, Scotland

Carolside Garden, Earlson, Scotland [Thanks to @BritishGardens]




Caladium Grows Well in my Garden of Shade

In mid March I found in the local Job Lots a bag of three caladium bulbs. The variety was called ‘candidum’ which just glows with its green veins on large white leaves.

I knew that the caladium needed a lot of shade. Since shade fills my garden much of the day, I decided to grow it and planted the bulbs in a clay pot. Though it took several weeks, the caladium leaves finally appeared. [below]

Caladium candidum growig in a pot on ledge in my garden

Caladium ‘candidum’ growing in a pot on ledge in my garden

What I did not know is that this plant has long been a part of first the English garden and then the American garden.

James Vick in his 1880 seed catalog called Floral Guide presented an illustration of a flowerbed with rather tall tropical plants, including a caladium. He wrote, “They give us a taste of the luxuriance and glory of tropical foliage, and on lawns where there is sufficient room, nothing will afford greater pleasure. We give an engraving showing one of these beds. It was fourteen feet in diameter.” [below]

Bedding system of gardening as it appeared in Vick's seed catalog in 1880

Bedding system of gardening as it appeared in Vick’s seed catalog in 1880. You can’t miss the large caladium leaves in the middle.


Vick then described the plants in the bed in these words, “The tall plants in the center included three Ricinus, or Castor Oil Plants, the next row nine Canas, about eighteen inches apart; then a circle of nine Caladiums, about thirty inches apart.”

Just a few years later Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan sought to learn more about the caladium. He wrote in the 1884 issue of his magazine Gardeners Monthly , “Having the past Spring come into possession of some Caladium bulbs, the growth of which has since proved a source of great satisfaction, I desire to inquire more about this interesting family of plants.”

The English by that year had already cultivated several varieties of the caladium.

An article in the January 12, 1884 issue of the English garden magazine called Gardener’s Chronicle said, “Among the many varieties of stove plants [needing bottom heat] the Caladium holds an important place. Public admiration is not unduly lavished on it for its beauty, its delicacy, and its graceful and ornamental appearance.”

The article then listed twenty-three varieties of caladium, including ‘candidum’, described in these words: “Candidum, with large bright white leaves, and with finely marked green ribs and borders.”

Never did I suspect that the day I entered that Job Lots store would provide a journey into garden history, but that’s what happened. 

Caladium grows in my garden of shade.


The Spring Garden at James Vick’s Home in 19th Century Rochester Amazed Visitors

I have visited East Avenue in Rochester, New York several times.  My purpose was to see where the home of the seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) once stood.

I found the spot though the house of course is long gone.

It was on East Avenue in his gardens that he grew hundreds of tulips in the spring. What a spring-time joy that must have been for a visitor to see after a long hard winter such as we have had here in New England.

The Horticulturist magazine wrote in 1867, when Vick’s seed business was still young: “He now occupies, on the southeast part of the city, twenty-three acres of ground for growing seeds, chiefly flower seeds, and employs six horses and about twenty-five men

Vick's Home on the South Side of East Avenue. 1877

Vick’s Home on the South Side of East Avenue in Rochester, NY. 1877

and women. The collection of bulbs on these grounds is large – over a hundred thousand tulips flowered the past season.”

Vick of course wanted his customers to know what they were buying when they bought his seeds and bulbs.

His display garden of tulips in spring must have dazzled his customers. The Horticulturist magazine put it this way: “During the blooming season the display of these and other flowers presented a brilliant and magnificent appearance.”


Gardeners Still Await the Annual Catalogs

My past few posts here have centered on a look at the roots of American consumer culture.

I have written mainly about how advertising at the end of the ninteenth century became the major tool which motivated people to buy the goods that were being mass produced.  The garden industry was at the forefront of that movement as we can see from the size of catalogs, filled with seeds, plants, vases, and other assorted garden products including the lawnmower.

This Sunday’s Boston Globe featured a column called “Checking out our consumer culture” in which writer Katherine Whittemore examines six books about advertising, including William Leach’s Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.

What I liked about her review was that she constructs a line of argument through the books she mentions which is that  advertisng and marketing somehow or other get us to buy things we may not really need.

"Brandwashed", one of the books Whittemore writes about

“Brandwashed”, one of the books Whittemore writes about

In gardening that may be a difficult concept to swallow since we all seem to want the latest plant or the newest fad in our garden.

Now that it is Chrsitmas time I am once again confronted with the question of what new material possession do I need. I again hit the wall because I really don’t need anything. I have enough things. We have enough.

Yet the ad industry continues to push forward the glitter of ever new products.

It is hard to resist advertising and marketing. Whittemore, for example, writes that Whole Foods places its flower section right by the doors, so we are unconsciously ready to associate the store with freshness.

The late nineteenth century seed and nursery companies structured their catalog in a particular way. First, an introductory essay, then columns on gardening and the landscape, followed by the list of seeds and plants for sale, and finally ads.  There was a reason for that order, and that, of course, was to motivate the gardener to make a purchase.

This year, since December 1, I have already received several  garden catalogs, some  of substantial size.

In this holiday season, as both a gardener and one interested in the study of advertising, marketing, and public relations, I must say that the consumer culture is alive and well.


Post Office Became More Commercial by the end of the Nineteenth Century

Vick Receipt for an order of seeds 18xx

America was built on the principle of free expression of ideas.

From the beginning of the country newspapers operated with the assurance of a free press.

As a result of the Post Office Act of 1792, a new form of the post office became a vital communication link for the nation, carrying not just private correspondence, but also newspapers, which were allowed in the mails at a low rate to promote the spread of information across the states.

The post office service then made accessible newspapers and magazines that expressed political ideas that might indeed diverge from one another.

By 1900 everything changed and the post office became the major vehicle to sell products.

In his book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture historian William Leach said, “In the nineteenth century, the goal of the U. S. Postal Service was to make ‘knowledge and truth’ available to more and more people. By the end of the World War I, this goal had been altered; the greatest use of the mails was now American business.”

The nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries used the post office service to send their garden catalogs to their customers who were scattered around the country.

As the country moved to a more of a consumer culture by the end of century, the post office too took on the role of a provider of information of new products and services.Vick Receipt for an order of seeds 18xx

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York mailed several catalogs yearly in hopes of  seed orders. Like all companies at that time, the post office was an important tool for their business.

Rural Free  Delivery became available in 1896 which  meant that every home in America could receive mail.

That year was a boom for any company that used a catalog to sell its products.

Vaughn Seed 1891

Vaughn Seed Catalog 1891

The Vaughan Seed Company from Chicago began its catalog seed sales after winning awards for its flower displays at the Chicago Exhibition in 1893 and the passage of the Rural Free Delivery Act.

Mail delivery proved a valuable asset to their business.

The mail order business also provided the inspiration for a new warehouse for Maule’s Seeds, located in Philadelphia. In his 1889 catalog  Maule wrote, “Three years ago I had especially built for me the finest warehouse in America for conducting the mail-order business. I have devoted my entire attention to furnishing the gardens of America with my seeds direct, with the aim of doing the largest mail-order business on the continent.”

In 1898 the Childs Seed Company catalog said it was not uncommon during the busy months of the business “for Mr. Childs to receive as high as eight to ten thousand letters in a single day, including hundreds of Registered letters and thousands containing Money Orders.”

The mail delivery of seeds was so successful for the seed trade because the seed companies had learned that the seed packet, originally developed as a marketing strategy, made it easy to ship seeds around the country.

The garden business was truly a modern, efficient enterprise, thanks to the post office.