Reading Plants Like Late Nineteenth Century Climbing Rose

Reading plants like late nineteenth century climbing rose.

I am still filled with awe at the life and career of the nineteenth century plant hunter Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859).

He brought both science and imagination to his understanding of nature.

Andrea Wulf in her  book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World points out that Humboldt read plants.

She writes, “Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books — and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movement of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.”

Humboldt’s view of nature as one, and not divisions by various sciences, took the world of understanding plants in a new direction.

Now that I think of it, his idea of reading plants makes perfect sense.

A plant you have in your garden right now had a journey to that spot, a journey that may have been decades or centuries. It is not simply a sunflower or a lily of the valley.

They both express a time and a culture from which they originate.

I know they are beautiful in their own right, but they also reflect the history of gardening.

Take the rose as an example and one rose in particular.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ became a popular rose with gardeners in the late nineteenth century.

Tradecard for the ‘Crimson Rambler’ Rose

It was introduced to the garden market in England in the early 1890s.

It had come from Japan to a nursery, first in Scotland, then in England.

Queen Victoria traveled to the nursery to see this special rose.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ became a popular climbing rose for the next thirty years both in Europe and America.

Eventually it was replaced by other climbing roses, less inclined to problems of disease and insects.

Thus I see more than simply a rose. It represents to me the nineteenth cenutry nursery industry. Its origin tells us it was an exotic in gardens at that time.

The Peter Henderson Seed Company from New York used this rose in its catalog of 1896 [below].

The new ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose appeared here in this 1896 Henderson seed catalog.

‘Crimson Rambler’ was not just a rose. It represented as well the influence of the Victorian garden industry on homeowners everywhere.

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Nineteenth Century Botanical Art Book Illustrated Social Status

Nineteenth century botanical art book illustrated social status.

Botanical art reveals wondrous details about plants through the eyes of the artist.

Ronald King, former Secretary at the Botanic Gardens in Kew, in his book Botanical Illustration says, “It was not until 1530 that attention was turned fully upon the plant and an effort to draw it as it actually appeared.”

Once interest in the study of botany took off in the eighteenth century, especially with Linnaeus’ triumph in coming up with a system to categorize plants, botanical art also grew.

The English physician Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) became interested in botany and made botanical writing his career.

In 1807 Thornton published a book of botanical art with the title New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus. He wanted to promote the work of Linnaeus who distinguished plants by their method of reproduction.

The subtitle was Temple of Flora. The book became an important nineteenth century example of botanical art as well social status.

In his book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives Stephen Buchman writes, “The most famous work of botanical scientific illustration of all time is the unique Temple of Flora by Englishman Robert John Thornton.”

Thornton enlisted artists Peter Henderson and Philip Reinagle for most of the twenty-eight paintings in the book called a florilegium but did this painting of the cabbage rose himself. [below]

Cabbage Rose by Robert John Thornton from Temple of Flora published in 1807

King defines ‘florilegium’ as a book with portraits of flowers included for their ornamental value.

Buchman writes “The Temple of Flora is properly known as a florilegium, and such books were popular with the wealthy and privileged from the second half of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century.”

Access to works of botanical art during Thornton’s time was restricted to the more educated and wealthy.

Eventually by the early twentieth century when printing became cheaper and mass education was the norm, books of botanical art were available to everyone.

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Nineteenth Century Formal American Landscape

Nineteenth century formal American landscape

Last week I drove to the Hunnewell estate in Wellesley, near Boston. Both Wellesley College, which is adjacent, and the Hunnewell garden overlook beautiful Lake Waban.

Boston financier and horticulturist Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (1810-1902) designed his landscape in the emerging English formal look of the mid-nineteenth century.

In his great garden history book Victorian Gardens Brent Elliott says  “By the 1840s England was entering what has been called ‘the heroic age of gardening.’ England was leaving the natural look of the landscape.”

Writing also about that period Alan Emmet says in her book So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens “Nature, no longer particularly revered [as in the 18th century], was now considered as merely the canvas upon which human genius could work wonders of artifice.”

In 1865 Hunnewell gave $2000 to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to encourage the art of landscape gardening. He knew and appreciated landscape design.

Hunnewell improved the landscape of his own property in Wellesley with a formal garden of evergreens.

The Hunnewell Pinetum, as his collection of evergreens was called, still stands today as a symbol of mid-nineteenth century garden design. It reflects the formal English garden of the same time which was expressed in the work of landscape gardener William Andrews Nesfield (1793-1881) and architect Sir Charles Barry.

Hunnewell once said “The laying out and planting of our country places are often the result of chance rather than any well-dedicated plan.” He had a plan, a formal design.

The nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs embraced the natural English garden style, later the gardenesque, and then the more formal design.

The seed company and nursery owners convinced us of the importance of both the natural and the formal landscape style, especially in parks.  Philadelphia garden writer and nursery owner Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine of 1865: “We all wish to see the public grounds of this country equal to those of Europe.”

America followed the English style of landscape both in private homes and in public parks.

Hunnewell contributed to the evolution of  America’s landscape gardening through his emphasis on a formal look in the garden.

Below you can see his garden of pines across the lake. [below]

The Hunnewell Pinetum with blooming azaleas in the background

A close-up view of the Pinetum shows the pruning that continues to this day. [below]

Well-trimmed evergreens still appear in the landscape of the Hunnewell Estate, adjacent to Wellesley College

Emmet says in her book “Hunnewell may have been the first American to follow English prototypes in reviving the formal garden.”

 

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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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Flower Shows Share Long Tradition

Flower Shows share long tradition

Recently I attended the Boston Flower and Garden Show.

Though it was a cold day and remnants of a recent storm of wind, rain, and snow lingered on, it was a wonderful morning.

Such shows teach gardeners about new plants and provide ideas for this summer’s garden.

I had the opportunity to see many excellent landscape designs spread throughout Boston’s World Trade Center where the show took place.

The awarding winning exhibit by Miskovsky Landscape deserved the acclaim it received. It proved the top winner with seven awards, including Best of Show. [below]

The award-winning Miskovsky exhibit at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show

Flower Shows have been an important part of American gardening from at least the early nineteenth century.

Philadelphia seed company owner Robert Buist introduced dahlias at the Pennsvylvania Horticultural Society flower show in the mid 1830s.

Of course the Massachusetts Horticultural Society sponsored its own flower shows in what was then called Horticultural Hall on Massachusetts Avenue, right across from Symphony Hall.

Though Mass Hort has now relocated to the suburbs. the words over the building’s entry “Horticultural Hall” make it clear that this red brick structure was once home to fabulous flower shows.

The English of course have a long tradition of such shows with the annual Chelsea Flower Show in May now the grand dame of them all.

Rochester seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) once received a letter from a reader who was traveling in England,

Vick included the letter in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November 1878.

His reader wrote, “I went to a Flower Show the other week, at a place called Quarndon, a beautiful little village, situated on a hill, overlooking a magnificent country. The show was held in a tent in a field, and was largely attended.

“The center tables were filled with plants, loaned by several ‘Lords’ and ‘Squires,’ and were of a high order – I mean the plants.

“The side tables held the articles for competition. Dracaenas. Caladiums, and some luxurious tropical plants, were interspersed with Coleus, Ferns of all descriptions, Fuchsias, Abutilons, Balsams, Cockscombs, etc.”

He described several of these plants in great detail.

It was obvious that this flower show gave him a great deal of pleasure. He simply wanted to share that with Mr. Vick.

That’s another reason we go to a Flower Show.  It should provide a bit of pleasure for a gardener.

That only seems right especially because spring has arrived.

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When Cottage Gardens Became Fashion

When cottage gardens became fashion, thanks to Gertrude Jekyll.

In the early nineteenth century English garden writer John Claudius Loudon first recognized the cottage garden as an important form of gardening.

He was attempting to reach gardeners wherever they were.

It was not until English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) appeared on the scene however that we had people replicating the cottage garden in what was then called the ‘stylized’ cottage garden.

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens, “From the old cottage garden Gertrude Jekyll borrowed the charm of natural simplicity and from it she produced a garden style. The deliberate practice of ‘natural’ simplicity in gardening, including rock gardening, at last made the cottage garden self-conscious.”

What is important here is that Jekyll became the artist who gave form to a garden she called the cottage garden.

it was her interpretation of the cottage garden for the middle class.

Thus the cottage garden became a ‘style’ of gardening, or as Hyams writes, a stylized garden.

Welford on Avon, Warwickshire

Hyams writes, “The designer of a stylized cottage garden in the old manner must begin by putting aside curvilinear layout – derived at many removes from the serpentine designs of Capability Brown – in the shaping of paths, lawn-edges and the edges of borders, and go back to straight-line geometry and hard edges.”

The style was anything but the long flowing lawns of Brown that had distinguished the English garden in the later part of the eighteenth century.

This much smaller garden included climbers like clematis and roses, perennials like lily of the valley and phlox, lavender as hedges, annuals, peonies, and roses like ‘York and Lancaster.’

We witness here the birth of a garden fashion.

It has lasted to this day.

We still think of the cottage garden as an old familiar relative.

We know it well. It seems to have been around forever.

It is in reality the interpretation of Gertrude Jekyll that we share in its ‘stylized’ form.

Hyams writes, “The great gardener, borrowing sweet disorder from the cottager’s garden, returned it to him enriched with new plants, but stylized.”

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Cottage Gardens Finally Recognized

Cottage gardens finally recognized.

Everybody loves the cottage garden. It holds a mystique of a garden, limited in space, but with plants galore, mostly flowers.

There were cottage gardens in England for centuries.  If you define the term as the garden of the worker, at the time of the monastery garden in the Middle Ages, for example, the townspeople who knew the monks probably received plants from them for their own gardens. That was a cottage garden.

During the time of the landscape revolution in eighteenth century England, it was only the garden of the aristocrat, or wealthy landowner, that was discussed in poetry, articles, and books.

The term ‘English garden’ meant at that time the landscape of the gentry.

It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that the cottage garden began to be seen as an essential form of garden.

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens  that the two garden writers “John Claudius Loudon and his wife Jane can fairly be said to have created the nineteenth century suburban garden which, in the long run, influenced the shape and planting of the country cottage garden too.”

When the Loudons recognized in their writing the importance of gardens other than those owned by the wealthy, the cottage garden became an important topic in garden literature.

The Loudons opened the door to an appreciation for gardening by social classes other than the aristocracy.

Hyams says, “The Loudons, the horticultural press, and the horticultural societies brought the cottager gardener into the modern age of gardening.”

It was no surprise then that the magazine Cottage Garden began in 1848.

It was when the Loudons wrote for suburban gardeners and cottage gardeners that gardening changed forever.

Garden writers learned from all styles of gardening including the middle class and the worker.

They wrote for anybody who gardened.

Cottage gardens finally became an important topic.

 

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Four Kinds of Garden Advertising by 1900

Four kinds of garden advertising by 1900.

Advertising garden products like plants and seeds has long been an avenue for increased sales.

By 1900 at the launch of modern advertising  there were four kinds of appeal in advertising messages, according to Thomas Schlereth in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915.

Schlereth writes: “Four overlapping cycles of advertising ‘styles’ appeared in the brief compass of two generations:

  1. plain talk, direct and factual copy
  2. jingles and trade character style – like Quaker Oats
  3. a concrete ‘reason why’ the product was worth buying
  4. advertising by suggestion or association – opulent art and striking layouts.”

In the January 1856 issue of Genesee Farmer, Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick first advertised French vegetable and flower seeds, because he “found it impossible to obtain in this country a good article of the finer sorts of seeds.”  The advertising resulted in customers buying his seeds. It convinced Vick of the important role advertising played when selling his seeds.

By 1872 Vick spent $15,000 yearly on advertising. Today that amount would be $270,000.

The Vick Seed Company advertised in 3,300 newspapers and magazines like the American Agriculturist, the most popular agricultural magazine at that time. Vick wrote that this magazine “has a larger subscription list than any similar journal in existence.”

In his ad in the American Agriculturist of 1879, the following words appeared: “Vick’s seeds are the best in the world. Five cents for postage will buy the Floral Guide, telling how to get them.”

As an early advocate for advertising, his appeal was more closely alligned with the plain talk appeal with its use of direct and factual copy.

By 1901 New York seedsman Peter Henderson approached advertising by suggestion in selling his  garden seeds. [below]

Notice the association with upper class social status in this ad: the mansion, the extensive landscape, the dress of the woman cutting hollyhocks.  All of that opens up the idea that planting hollyhocks is linked to upper class fashion, money, and style.

You can have it all, as they say.

Peter Henderson Seed Company ad in Harper’s

The same idea is presented here in another Henderson ad from that same time. [below]

 

Peter Henderson 1901

By 1900 you could no longer simply state the name of the product and provide factual copy.

You needed to motivate the buyer by associating the product with the buyer’s dreams and hopes.

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Crane Estate Restores Italian Garden

Crane Estate restores Italian garden

Since for several months I had heard about the beautiful restored Italian garden at the Crane Estate, I had to visit.

The non-profit Trustees of Reservations owns the property called Castle Hill and its Crane Estate, right along the ocean on Boston’s north shore in the town of Ipswich.

Today Castle Hill remains a 165-acre National Historic Landmark.

When Chicago industrialist Richard Crane bought the property as a summer home for his family in 1910, he built an Italian villa.

In 1928 he replaced it with a 59-room English-style mansion. [below]  A gravel drive welcomes a visitor to  the house.

The Crane Estate mansion on Castle Hill in Ipswich, built in 1928

The house, high on a hill, is situated quite close to the waters of the Atlantic.

That day I saw this beautiful view of the ocean from the terrace outside the house. [below]

View of the water from the mansion at the Crane Estate

The Italian garden was the first and most elaborate of the gardens created by the Cranes.

They chose the Olmsted firm in Brookline to design the garden. The garden, to which you descend as you walk from the house, includes remarkable stonework in archways, terraces, and statues.  Its fountain stands at the center, along the front wall. 

In this picture of the garden you get a sense of how low it is. The house is in the background to the left. [below]

The restored Italian garden of the Crane Estate

Many of the perennials that make up the garden beds would be familiar to any gardener.

They include sedum, phlox, echinacea, and monarda.

In the early 1900s perennial beds were the fashion. So was the Italian garden.

After all, that was the time that popular garden books included Charles Platt’s Italian Gardens (1894) and Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens.

The four-mile, white-sand Crane Beach, which I have visited many times over the years, is located just beyond the entrance to the road that takes you to the house.  The beach has become a wonderful summer attraction for many on the north shore.

This garden at the Crane Estate, restored in the last year or so, certainly reflects the period of the house along with its owners’ love of the Italian garden.

 

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Goddess Flora Protects Flowers

Goddess Flora protects flowers.

Recently I saw the film Wonder Woman.  The superhero’s name was Diana Prince, or rather Princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.

I loved this fantasy movie built on a comic book heroine.

I saw some connection in the film to our fascination with gods and goddesses, even iin the garden.

In Roman mythology Diana was the goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature. She was associated with wild animals and woodland.

In eighteenth century England there was a love of classical Greek and Roman writing about horticulture and agriculture. In the landscape Temples and statues appeared that shared in that classical tradition.

Henry Hoare’s Temple of Flora (1744-1746) at his grand garden Stourhead still stands today as one shining example.

In his book New Principles of Gardening (1728) English landscape gardener Batty Langley listed the names of gods and goddesses that would be a fit subject for a statue in the garden.

He wrote, “There is nothing adds so much to the Beauty and Grandeur of Gardens, as fine Statues; and nothing more disagreeable than wrongly plac’d”.

Then he named the statues that would be appropriate for areas of the landscape like open lawns, woods, fruit-gardens, and orchards

For the flower garden he recommended a statue of  Flora or Cloris, goddesses of Flowers.

Here is an early image of Flora, goddess of flowers. [below]

Flora, goddess of flowers, by  Sandro Botticelli (Florence, 1445-1510)

Flora, in Roman religion, was the goddess of flowering plants. Titus Tatius who ruled with Romulus is said to have introduced her cult to Rome.

Romans considered Flora the one who would provide the blooms to flowering plants so they would thrive, grow, and reproduce.

Flowers were so important to the Romans that they inspired a goddess to provide for them and stand as their champion against draught and other plant disasters.

Flora’s temple in Rome stood near the Circus Maximus. Her festival, called Floralia, was instituted in 238 B.C. The celebration included floral wreaths worn in the hair much like modern participants in May Day celebrations.

A representation of Flora’s head, distinguished only by a floral crown, appeared on coins of the republic.

Paintings of Flora since that time make such a crown an essential element in depicting her.

In 1731 Sir John Clerk of Penicuik wrote a poem called “The Country Seat” about the gardens and estates of England.

In the poem he writes, “”Where Flora with a Knot of gaudy Flowrs may dress her lovely head.”

 

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