Plant Hunters Still Search for Exotics

Plant hunters still search for exotics.

Traveling around the world in search of plants for the home garden may seem like a dream job.

The plant however sometimes turns out to be more than just a plant.

Sarah Rose’s book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History tells the story of English plant hunter Robert Fortune (1812-1880).

She traces the  mid-nineteenth century journey of Fortune into China to bring back tea plants. Fortune hoped they would grow in India and thus compete with the Chinese tea market.

Kew Garden

Fortune visited Kew Garden in London, the center of botanical research for the “entire world” as she puts it. Rose writes: “Fortune steps up to a great greenhouse, the Palm House, gloriously situated on a hill.”

That reminded me that when visiting London a couple of years ago it was important that I see the Palm House at Kew. Here is my first view of it that sunny day. [below]

The Palm House, built from 1844-48, at Kew Garden in London to house plants collected abroad.

The size of this shiny structure overpowers you as you approach.  How impressive it must have been in the nineteenth century when greenhouses and conservatories were only available to the wealthy until eventually the price of glass fell.

Plant hunters, like Fortune, represented horticultural institutions such as Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society in their quest for the newest plant varieties for the English garden.

At Kew the plants would find a home in the new Palm House.

In many cases plants like the weigela which Fortune brought back from China in the 1840s eventually became part of the English garden palette.

Nineteenth century American seed companies and nurseries later listed the plant as a garden favorite, and so American gardeners would plant weigela as well.

Rose writes: “Fortune popularised a remarkable variety of flora in the wake of his Chinese travels.” His “discoveries” included the bleeding heart, the white wisteria, twelve species of rhododendron, and the chrysanthemum.

We now know that  when plants from other habitats become part of a new environment, there may be no natural predators.  The result is that such plants can overrun the local landscape.

The interior of the Palm House at Kew.

Rose writes, “Today there is only guarded enthusiasm for the mass globalization of indigenous plant life.”

Nonetheless, plant hunters like Fortune still search the world for exotic plants that will grow in the American garden.

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English Garden Inspired White House Landscape

English garden inspired White House landscape.

The garden fashion that our early Presidents admired was that of the English.

In her book All the Presidents’ Gardens author Marta McDowell tells the story of how various Presidents left their mark on the landscape at the White House.

Thomas Jefferson preferred the English romantic garden, according to McDowell.

She writes, “While it was not the first romantic garden plan in America – William Hamilton’s Woodlands predated it, for example – it was certainly on the leading edge.”

The elements that made us this design included  the simple carriage drive, underscoring Jefferson’s republican ideals of direct and open government.

She writes, “The thirty-foot-wide roadbed allowed two way traffic; the circular turnaround had a ninety-foot diameter.”

Jefferson offered a bit of formality and neoclassical design in the White House landscape.

English politician and writer Thomas Whatley’s book Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) had influenced Jefferson’s opinion about the landscape garden. Jefferson had seen several of the great gardens of England on his grand tour of the country with John Adams, all recommended by Whatley.

Jefferson loved the English garden.

McDowell writes, “A gently curving pedestrian walk invited strollers along the north perimeter of the property. On the south side of the house, two linear flower borders outlined a rectangle that framed the facade.”

Thus the early English design choice for the garden of the White House set the stage for what would become America’s most famous landscape.

 

 

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Defining the English Garden

Defining the English garden

The sweeping lawn of the English landscape garden developed in the 

Lancelot Capability Brown 

eighteenth century under the inspiration of gardener to the King Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

Tim Richardson writes in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden, “The Brown brand resulted in a green monotony across England, and even across much of Europe and parts of America; it was primarily Brown’s example which inspired the nineteenth-century phenomenon of the ‘English garden’.”

So we have Brown to thank for the lawn which has long defined the English garden both in Europe and in America.

Today the term ‘English garden’ is full of so many meanings.

When we use words that have multiple meanings, we tend to be on a higher level of the ladder of abstraction because we are not clear.

Academic and Senator Samuel I. Hayakawa, in his book Language in Thought and Action, described what he called the ladder of abstraction, a concept used to illustrate how language and reasoning evolve from concrete to abstract.

Thus, for example, the more you want to confuse your audience, the more likely you are to use words that do not have a clear meaning.

You could say that such is the case with the expression ‘English garden’.  Because of its history it has so many meanings.

Which English garden do you mean?  From what period?

One thing we do know however is that the lawn has been an integral part of the English garden since the eighteenth century.

Here is Chatsworth, north of London, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Derbyshire. [below]

England’s Chatsworth 

Over the centuries several landscape gardeners provided its design, but it was Brown that installed the extensive lawn in the eighteenth century.

Today Chatsworth stands as one of his most famous English gardens, marked by his signature lawn.

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Victorian England Treasured US Rhododendron

Victorian England treasured US rhododendron.

Right now you see rhododendrons in bloom everywhere.

The native rhododendron has fascinated me for many years. I always look forward to its late May and early June blooms.

Here’s a view of my garden right now. [below]

A scene in my garden with two rhododendrons that are blooming.

Our native rhododendron, however, played a greater part in the English garden in the nineteenth century than our own.  At that time they were more popular in England than here in America.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870 lamented the fact that Americans did not appreciate the rhododendron.

He wrote, “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”

Today we acknowledge the battle between native and exotic plant choice for the garden.  The issue is certainly not new.

Native plants, according to the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs, were not as popular as ornamental plants from countries like China and Japan.  But first these plants, including native US varieties, had to appear in the English garden.

The same happened to the rhododendron.

Eventually, it assumed an important role in American gardens.

Frederick Law Olmsted used the rhododendron extensively in 1895 for his landscape design at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

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Victorian Home Landscape Required Lawn

Victorian home landscape required lawn.

The lawn became an important part of the American home landscape in the nineteenth century.

The seed and nursery catalogs often featured a lawn in illustrations and offered the best method of laying out and cultivating a lawn.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  was no different. He often wrote about the lawn.

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in August of 1878 he referred to the lawn as a jewel, an emerald.

He said, “A well kept lawn, with a few beautiful trees and a belt or group or two of shrubbery on the border, needs but little other adornment. A few beds of foliage plants or flowers, or vases, are like diamonds set in emerald, and the latter, especially, impact a graceful elegance which nothing else can give. They are infinitely superior to the most costly statuary, which is better suited to the hall than the garden, and quite out of place in such simple, unpretentious places as are most of the private gardens of this country.”

This illustration of ‘Home Grounds’ appeared in his magazine in 1880. [below] Notice the lines of the flowing lawn.

Home Grounds. Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1880 [Courtesy of the Five Colleges Depository at the University of Massachusetts]

It was the homeower’s duty to provide the lawn because it alone was the important setting for the home.

In February of 1879 Vick wrote, “Those who do not make home beautiful and happy are morally or intellectually inferior, generally both, but not always.”

It was as if there were a moral imperative to cultivate a lawn to demonstrate a homeowner had taste.

A  customer from Nebraska wrote Mr. Vick in 1880 and asked, “What is the best Grass for lawns, and also the best ornamental and shade trees for lawns? If convenient, will you give the plan of a lawn?”

 Every Victorian home needed a lawn.

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Today Homeowners Face Two Lawn Options

Today homeowners face two lawn options.

Last year we celebrated the three hundredth birthday of the eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

There were events throughout the year in his honor in various locations throughout England, including several at the landscapes he designed.

Brown gave the English garden its extensive lawn. 

Since America became eager to garden in all ways English, it was no surprise that the lawn would appear across America, beginning in earnest in the mid nineteenth century.

Today however we face a dilemma with the lawn.

In various parts of America droughts threaten cities and towns.

In that situation how can we continue to cultivate an extensive lawn?

The book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony gives us some insights.

It  includes a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted that seems to justify the lawn.  “For Olmsted, the front lawn of a house in a suburb unified the whole residential composition into one neighborhood, giving a sense of ampleness, greenness, and community.”

He pinpoints the purpose for the lawn quite clearly.

The authors F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, however, aware of the problems with the modern lawn, provide two kinds of lawn we need to consider: the industrial lawn and the freedom lawn.

The characteristics of the industrial lawn include gas-powered lawn mowers, chemicals to maintain the lawn and exclude any weeds, and, of course, regular watering.

The freedom lawn offers another way to look at the lawn.

Rather than a monoculture of grass, this lawn would allow clover and other plants to grow in the lawn. The lawn would be mowed regularly but by a lawn mower that does not demand gas.

Chemicals would be avoided.

Watering would be at a minimum.

Perhaps sections of the lawn would be replaced by beds of perennials or ornamental grasses.

The second approach to the lawn, the freedom lawn, certainly speaks to the need to conserve energy and water, and also decrease the burning of carbon in fossil fuel. 

The authors present a valid argument.

We homeowners, however, need to decide what route we will take with our lawns.

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England’s Landscape Garden Beginnings

England’s landscape garden beginnings

We owe the origin of the landscape garden in England at the start of the eighteenth century not to just one person.

It changed gardening forever because it gave a new form to landscape. But what inspired the idea in the first place?

Tim Richardson in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden has thought about the beginnings of this English garden tradition.

He writes, “The landscape garden did not arise out of stately profession of Taste, as the Whigs would have us believe, but of an explosion of creativity.”

Thus it was no accident that poets, artists, and writers would be at the forefront of this landscape movement.  Poet Alexander Pope rose to become one of the pioneers of the landscape garden.

As Richardson points out, The Spectator essay [by Joseph Addison, dated June 25, 1712] is generally held to be the jumping off point for the English landscape garden.

The people who were stirring the ship that would bring this new vision of landscape to England wanted, as Richardson writes, “to carve a new face for Britain out of the soil itself.”

And so they did.

The garden, at least for England and America, has never been the same since.

The chief quality of the modern landscape garden design was its variety, the total of several features that would make up the landscape garden

We often simply refer to the difference in garden design before and after the early eighteenth century as the formal garden versus the natural look to the landscape.

Richardson writes, “Even more than concepts such as ‘naturalism’, ‘informality’ or ‘wilderness,’ or even the symbolic content of the design, it was variety which emerged as the most important structural element of the eighteenth-century landscape garden.”

It was a variety in the design which included soil, plants, stone, water, woodland areas, forests, and even farming that marked this new moment in gardening history.

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Dahlia Mania Struck Early Nineteenth Century

Dahlia mania struck early nineteenth century.

This week I will plant dahlia tubers in my garden.

First I will have to unpack and inspect each of the tubers still stored in my basement.

The dahlia happens to be my favorite flower because it provides such wonderful autumn color in the garden. 

At one point gardeners loved this plant so much that there was a frenzy created for the latest hybrid. The craziness over this plant was called ‘dahlia mania’ and it took place in the 1830s both in England and America.

Communication scholar Hugh Dalziel Duncan writes in his book Communication and Social Order, “A style of dress or a taste in furnishings, so affect people that we use the word ‘rage’, in the sense of mania, to define their sudden and overwhelming power.”

Duncan implies that a material object like clothing or furniture could create a ‘rage’ in a particular time and place.

Well, that happened with the dahlia that first arrived in Spain from Mexico in the 1600s. It was not until the late 1700s that the plant appeared in English gardens.

English botanical artist Margaret Meen painted this bouquet of dahlias in 1789. [below]

Margaret Meen “Dahlias (Asteraceae)” (circa 1790) [Courtesy of the Royal Bontanic Gardens, Kew]

The garden interest in the plant however did not take off for a couple of decades.

It was not until after 1804 when Lady Holland re-introduced the dahlia in her garden at Holland House in Kensington, near London, that dahlias became the rage.

A dahlia flower produced many seeds, from which new hydrids could develope.

That is what the dahlia is famous for to this very day: producing many hybrids. 

In 1834 English garden writer and horticulturist John Claudius Loudon, called the ‘Father of the English Garden,’ wrote about the many dahlia varieties already on the market.

He said  “At almost every nursery several hundred sorts [of dahlias] may be procured; but as new sorts are continually coming into fashion, and the old sorts becoming neglected, it would be of little use presenting a list of varieties.” 

Just a few years later Loudon also wrote about dahlia mania in The Gardener’s Magazine.

He said, “The culture of the dahlia, though it has not attained so extravagant a pitch in England as that to which the tulip is said to have arrived in Holland, is yet now engaged in, in Britain, by a much greater number of persons than ever were possessed by the tulip mania.”

Loudon thus recognized a mania for the newest dahlia even greater than the past rage for tulips.

 

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Nineteenth Century Wisconsin Hort Society Encouraged English Garden

Nineteenth century Wisconsin Hort Society encouraged English garden design.

The English garden with its lawn, curved path, trees to line the property and kitchen garden out back had become the fashion on the American east coast throughout the nineteenth century.

In her book Vintage Wisconsin Gardens: A History of Garden Making landscape architect and historian Lee Somerville describes how in the nineteenth century the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society encouraged that same English style for the home landscape.

Somerville writes, “In 1869, as the WSHS was reorganized after the Civil War, President Joseph Hobbins forcefully outlined the prevailing ideals for the vernacular garden in his opening address to the membership.”

In his remarks Hobbins described the look of the modern home landscape.

Somerville writes, “The picture Hobbins painted can be clearly traced to the principles espoused by Andrew Jackson Downing, Jacob Weidenmann, Frank J. Scott, and others.”  

This group of famous nineteenth century landscape gardeners fostered the look of the English garden, with its lawn and trees to line the property.

The homeowner was to plant trees, shrubs, and flower beds to create an ornamental front yard that would enhance “the view from the street and provide a picture for those inside the house.”

Hobbins was familiar with the landscape theory of Downing who wrote of ‘rural art’ that ought to  guide the homeowner, beginning with a lawn.

That design was of course the English garden with its principle feature, the lawn, inherited from the early eighteenth century when the natural or modern English garden first emerged.

Most Wisconsin gardeners would wind up with vernacular gardens that were a blend of the English view along with the emerging mid-west emphasis on native plants in what they called the new prairie landscape design.

Just as had happened on the east coast through the encouragement of seed companies, nurseries, and landscape designers, the nineteenth century recommendation for Wisconsin homeowners also centered on the English garden style.

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Two Irish Gardens Inspire Herbaceous Borders

Two Irish gardens inspire herbaceous borders.

Since the late nineteenth century when English garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) encouraged the herbaceous  border rather than beds of annuals, the border has been an important part of garden design.

Once garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1935) arrived on the English garden scene and befriended Robinson, she also became an advocate of the herbaceous border.

David Stuart writes in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens “The great Edwardian herbaceous border has a fascinating past, and has been resilient enough to evolve into new forms relevant to contemporary gardens.”

Thus, he implies that we still include the herbaceous [American gardeners say ‘perennial’] border in the garden.

Two Irish gardens might provide some inspiration.

Late last fall I saw two herbaceous borders in Ireland, one at Powerscourt Castle and the other at the

Powerscourt herbaceous border [courtesy photo]

birthplace of St. Oliver Plunkett called Loughcrew.

Loughcrew’s border was installed in the nineteenth century. The original Powerscourt herbaceous border predates that period but the current border was installed with new plants in 2014.

Both included dozens of perennials as well as a few annuals like dahlias, which were blooming at that time.

In 1883 William Robinson wrote in his book The English Flower Garden, “In planting, plant in groups, and not in the old dotting way. Never repeat the same plant along the border at intervals, as is so often done with favorites.”

You need to fill the whole border with plants. Robinson wrote, “Have no patience with bare ground”

Now that we are approaching summer, perhaps a herbaceous border might be in the works for your garden.

These two Irish gardens certainly stand as a testament to how beautiful such a border can be.

 

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