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.



US Became the First Country to Launch Mass Production of Goods in late 1800s

The seed and nursery catalog by the end of the nineteenth century had become a small book, not only because of the number of color illustrations that appeared within its pages, but also because the garden catalog had so many products to sell.

The seed and nursery industries were caught up in the mass production process that was sweeping the country at that time.

The American gardener by 1900 became part of the country’s new economy devoted to mass production.

In his book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture historian William Leach said, “The United States was the first country in the world to have an economy devoted to mass production, and it was the first to create the mass consumer institutions and the mass consumer enticements that rose up in tandem to market and sell the mass-produced goods.”

Burpee Catalog Cover of 1899

Burpee Catalog Cover of 1899

So it was no surprise that the Philadelphia seedsman W. Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) believed in the value of advertising for every modern business, including his own.

In the Saturday Evening Post magazine of February 4, 1905, an ad from the Burpee Seed Company said, “If you garden, you want the best and we shall be pleased to send you Burpee’s Farm Annual for 1905, an elegant book of 178 pages which tells the plain truth, with hundreds of illustrations, beautful colored plates, and describes Superb Novelties of unusal merit.”

Burpee, like other garden catalogs, used the modern form of commercial enticements to move and sell his goods.



Nineteenth Century Seed Store Featured a Horticultural Library

In 1906 the Boston seed firm W. W. Rawson moved into its new building with four floors at 5 Union Street in the downtown area.

The company had by that time enjoyed years of business in the seed industry which began for them  in 1884.

What impresed me in reading about their new home office was that the Rawson Company  included an area for reading garden books and magazines on the first floor store-front  where people walked in off the street to purchase seeds.

From The Florists' Exchange magazine, 1906

From The Florists’ Exchange magazine, 1906

Rawson wanted to keep his customers familar with what was happening in the world of gardening.

An article about the company in the trade journal called The Florists’ Exchange of 1906 said, “The new store is unique in its arrangements with a nice waiting room where customers may enjoy the privileges of an extensive horticultural library.”

Like the owners of many other nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries, Rawson saw his role as an educator.

He wanted to make sure people continued to learn about gardening.

For that purpose where else would they go but to the experts, those who wrote the garden catalogs, garden books, and garden magazines?   The authors of many such publications also owned seed companies and nurseries, like Andrew Jackson Downing, James Vick, Peter Henderson, Thomas Meehan, and Robert Buist.



The Nineteenth Century Garden Indusry Pioneered Mail Order Sales

For most of the nineteenth century the farms scattered around the country became home to most Americans.

After 1880 opportunities for employment drew many farmers to the city.

Thus for decades the garden industry had to employ mail order catalogs to attract its rural customers.

Northtrup seed catalog

Northern Grown seed catalog of 1892

Bess Gedney Chistiansen wrote in her article “A Brief History of Seed Catalogs” that the second half of the nineteenth cnetury became the golden age of mail order. “Originally concentrated in the Northeast the industry found an insatiable demand for seeds, nursery stock such as fruit trees, and agricultural and gardening advice. Just as rural families could order household items such as furniture, pens, and musical instruments from a catalog, so could a farmer send away for whatever he needed [for the garden].”

Of course, the seed and nursery catalogs grew in number and in size.

By the end of the century, the catalog was almost a book, with essays, instructions, advertising, and illustrations along with the listing of seeds and plants for sale.

For decades the mail order catalog had been the company’s primary sales tool.  W. Atlee Burpee once said, “The catalog is the silent salesman.”


Standardized Products Became the Norm in the late 1890s

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

In a media environment that is not possible because we become surrounded by media messages in advertising and editorial content in so many outlets.

Since the 1890s the media influence 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 structure 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 a glimpse of the power of the media 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.”