Resist Colonial Attitude toward Plants

Last week I came across an amazing new article entitled “It’s time to decolonise botanical collections.”

The author Alexandre Antonelli is the Director of Science at Kew, England’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

The main idea of the article is that plants were not ‘discovered’ like a treasure in the sea. They might well predate by many years the first time their species was recorded.

Antonelli writes, “For hundreds of years, rich countries in the north have exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the south.

“Colonial botanists would embark on dangerous expeditions in the name of science but were ultimately tasked with finding economically profitable plants.”

Exotic plants are still taken from other countries and brought to the homeland of the plant hunter.

Kew became the major destination for plants from other countries, for the purpose of improving the gardens of England.

Antonelli recognizes the subtle racism in that attitide that has endured for centuries.

Kew will tackle structual racism in plant and fungal science. He says, “We will strive to increase the ethnic representation of our staff and students.”

Also, he says “Our current work on a new science strategy is an opportuntity to ensure our research is framed in the context of equality, diversity, and inclusion.”

Herbarium at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Book Currently Reading

What’s really more than a coincidence is the book I am currently reading.

The title is A Natural History of the English Garden by Mark Laird.

Laird traces England’s involvement with plant collecting from 1650 to 1800, one hundred fifty years.

He writes about the important English botanists and horticulturalists from that period including John Evelyn, Peter Collinson, Philip Miller, Mary Delany, and William Curtis.

Each of them loved plants, especially the newer varieties arriving in England.

They all cultivated gardens and often wrote about their collections, or like Mary Delany created works of art that illustrated plants.

The goal of plant hunting around the globe was to build up the plant collection at Kew.

Laird writes, “Plant collecting had obvious relevance for apothecaries and doctors.”

By 1778 in Kew “plants from across the seven seas were being added to the original compendium of the four continents.”

It was common for English aristocrats to foster plant collections in their own gardens as well.

No individual’s plant collection however rivaled that of Kew.

Kew housed all the finest in exotics available to England.

Thus, because Kew represents such a vast and important history of plant collecting, Antonelli’s remarks are all the more relevant.

They force us to rethink at this time the collecting of plants, including for institutions like botanical gardens.

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Bergenia Flowers for Spring

Along our driveway a large section of granite rock gradually rises to almost four feet in height.

There in a crevice you will find the spring blooming bergenia.

I planted it many years ago.

Bergenia in a crevice in the granite rock along our driveway

Over time this tough plant has found a home in the rock.

Every spring I can depend on its purple flowers.

Its leaves are large, leathery, and thick. In the middle appear the flowers on long stems.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’

The plant grower Monrovia now offers a bergenia called bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’

The plant description says it all. This is a ” bold, low-growing rosette of large glossy, leathery, toothy, green leaves with showy stalks of small magenta flowers that emerge in early to late spring.

“Effective in shaded foreground plantings and borders.

” Cool fall weather turns the foliage a showy reddish bronze hue. An herbaceous perennial; may remain evergreen in mild winter regions.”

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’ Courtesy of Monrovia

Victorian Favorite

A photo of bergenia plants appears In the book Victorian Gardens by Caroline Holmes. The setting is a garden, dating back to the nineteenth century.

In the photo several bergenia plants border a circular walkway. They are planted on each side of a cement bench that is at the center.

According to Holmes, the bergenia, popularly known as Elephant’s Ears, was one of English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll’s favorite edging plants.

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Wisteria at the Home of John Adams

This is the time of the year the purple flowers of the wisteria vine put on their show.

America’s most famous wisteria has to be the one that climbs thirty feet up the side of President John Adams’ house, part of the Adams National Historic Site, in Quincy, Mass. At this time while in bloom it usually attracts  both history lovers and gardeners.

A wisteria vine, Wisteria sinensis, climbs thirty feet up the side of President John Adams home in Quincy, Mass.

The vine  came to England from China in 1816.

As the story goes, according to a book by Wilhelmina Harris, long-time superintendent of the Site, First Lady Abigail Adams planted the vine.  Abigail died in 1818, and Donald Wyman, noted horticulturalist from Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, wrote that the vine, which originates in China, was introduced into America in 1816.  So it is quite possible Abigail planted it.

The wisteria vine grows slowly but once it is rooted pushes aggressively along any surface it can climb.  You need a trellis or arbor to support it.    Bob MacKenzie, the head gardener at the Adams house, said,  “We have to keep trimming it so that it does not take over the house.”

Plant Explorers

When England sent plant explorers around the world, beginning in the eighteenth century, trees and shrubs as well as this wisteria were part of the find.  English gardeners treasured exotic plants like this wisteria called Wisteria sinensis.  In the nineteenth century it was common for Americans to import English exotic plants.

According to Flowers: A Guide for Your Garden by Ippolitio Pizzetti and Henry Cocker, two East India  Company captains transported the first plants of Wisteria sinensis from China in May of 1816.

Shortly after that the Wisteria sinensis must have made its way from England to Quincy and  the Adams home.

In the nineteenth century the English gave America exotic plants as well as a garden style.  As in the case of the wisteria, the plants eventually became part of our landscape pallette.

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Victorians Loved Bedding Out Plants

In the Victorian era in order to create the flashy flowerbeds called carpet beds or ribbon beds, a gardener had to employ an array of colorful plants, usually annuals.

Luckily, thanks to plant hunters, there were annuals arriving from Asia, South America, and Africa to fill that need

Many of the plants you will easily recognize because they still appear in our gardens today.

English garden historian and lecturer Caroline Holmes wrote the book Victorian Gardens (below).

Her theme is, of course, Victorian gardens, but she also mentions the many plants that made up the gardens.

For example, Holmes says, “Geraniums were popular Victorian flowers in the ground, trained up conservatory walls, or in pots.”

All Victorian gardeners consulted the reference book by Robert Thompson called The Gardener’s Assistant. A Practical and Scientific Exposition of the Art of Gardening in all its Branches (1859).

Thompson listed the important bedding-out plants for that time in England.

You will certainly recognize their names.

They include petunia, verbena, fuchsia, and lobelia.

They are all annuals we still grow in our gardens today.

Though we may not create carpet beds any more, for some reason we continue to use such annuals as essential in the garden of today.

Garden Illustrations

Holmes includes many illustrations of gardens in her book.

She also demonstrates how to design and plant a ‘bedding in high summer.’

The plants she suggests for such a planting are Begonia semperflorens, Cerastium tomentosum, Lobelia ‘Chrystal Palace’ and Heliotrope ‘Marine.’

The book is filled with photographs of colorful nineteenth-century flower beds at various English country houses like Harewood House and Osborne House, and even at Hampton Court Palace garden.

Though today we do not have the time or resources for carpet bedding, we still love the bedding out of annuals.

In fact, every summer the major growers provide new varieties of an old favorite annual for the home gardener.

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Women Gardeners in Late 19th Century

You might easily associate the flower garden with the work of women.

After all, isn’t that how people thought about flowers in the garden?

Is it still true that men take care of the lawn and the vegetable patch and leave the flowers to women?

That’s an example of how gender has been linked to certain forms of gardening for centuries.

I found a pattern of the portrayal of women in garden advertising when I looked at dozens of seed catalogs from the late nineteenth century.

Women were alwayts dressed neatly, representing the upper middle class, the audience for the catalog.

In this catalog cover froim Peter Henderson in 1892 notice how prim and proper the woman presents herself. [below] She is cutting daffodils for tea or lunch, but certainly not working in the garden.

Henderson 1892 Catalog Cover

In fact, I did not see any women in the catalog illustrations actually working in the garden though I often saw them in the garden.

They may have been interested but did not, or perhaps could not, work in the garden.

Caroline Ikin wrote the book The Victorian Garden.

She writes, “The role of women in the garden was changing during the late Victorian era.”

We know that working class women gardened in the mid to late nineteenth century. They formed the major customer base for seed company owners like James Vick (1818-1882)

Vick wrote in 1878, “It is but a few years since woman was permitted to grace the festive board of agricultural and horticultural exhibitions. Now no occasion of this kind is deemed complete without her presence.”

Garden Club Movement

It was in the early 1900s that the Garden Club movement began in the United States. It was a formal way of recognizing woman’s role in the garden as designer and, if needed, both as planter and as weeder.

Then several books for women gardeners appeared on the market.

Women could not only enjoy looking at the garden, but could now more freely work in the garden, learn about botany, and even try landscape design.

Ikin writes, “With more middle-class women turning to gardening as a pastime and a means of self-improvement, a market was created for gardening books aimed specifically at women, as well as for tools and gadgets designed for female use.”

By the early 1900s the Garden Club movement here in the United States became the source of empowering women to garden, encourage native plants, and advocate for landscape design.

The late Victorian culture recognized women as gardeners.

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More Nurseries Accompanied 19th Century Suburban Expanse

It is no surprise that seed companies and nurseries grew after 1870 when suburbs spread around the perimeters of large cities.

Patrice M. Tice in her book Gardening in America 1830-1910 wrote that the number of men employed as seedsmen, nurserymen, and gardeners increased 275% between 1870 and 1930.

The seed companies and nurseries provided the homeowner with every garden and landscape need in the new suburb.  The companies  presented some products unfamiliar to the homeowner but, in the ads from the companies, essential.

In 1894 the C. P. Lines and E. F. Coe Seed Company from  New Haven, Conn. wrote in its catalog called Attractive Home Grounds: “From the most restricted city lot to the more liberal setting of the suburban home and country estate, the possibilities of completing the effect by the judicious manipulation of nature’s furnishings—her grass, shrubs, trees, with their varying tints and shades of every imaginable color and form—give possibilities that should not be neglected by any one.”

This 1887 Lovett’s catalog had everything the suburban gardener would need.

Lovett’s from New Jersey said that its  catalogue was “indispensable to all owners of country and suburban homes, whether it be a mere village lot, or the extensive grounds of the rich man’s country seat.”

The green industry grows with a strong housing market.

As suburbs spread around the country, seed companies and nurseries emerged to provide the homeowner with seeds and plants, but also instruction on how to design the home property.

The English garden, with its signature lawn, often provided the model for that instruction.

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Nineteenth Century Introduced Flower Gardens

Nineteenth century introduced flower gardens

In the eighteenth century the classic English garden took the form of an extensive lawn, a lake, a deer park, and trees to line the property. There was little room for a flower garden.

The famous royal gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1715-1783) designed his many contracted landscapes around the country in that style.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor tells the story of how the flower garden assumed its important role.

He writes that the landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) became a lone voice, encouraging the planting of flowers in the landscape.

Taylor says, “Humphry Repton’s evident, though subordinate, interest in flowers and flower gardens marks the beginning of a change in taste.”

Flowers began to take on a small, but significant role, in the landscape.

Taylor says, “The eighteenth century was flower-conscious in its gardening, but very far from exclusively so. The flower garden, generally speaking, took up only a very small proportion of the total garden area, and was secluded from the house.”

Repton however encouaged flowers in the landscape. Early in the nineteenth century he painted a scene of a garden of roses that he simply called ‘The Rosarium.’

His painting represents an entire garden area dedicated to the beautiful and now essential rose.

This is his painting:

Humphry Repton’s Rosarium (1813)

Today we take flower gardens for granted. We assume they have been around forever.

As Taylor points out, there was a gradual development of interest in flower gardens. Eventually, especially by the late Victorian period, such gardens would become essential.

It was the nineteenth century however that introduced flower gardens.

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Formal vs Natural Garden Design

Formal vs natural garden design

There has long been a battle with various levels of passion between those who love formal garden design and those who don’t.

Some prefer the ‘natural’ design as the English proposed it in the early eighteenth century. It became the style of garden for decades and still persists.

Landscape designer and nurseryman from Pennsylvania and later California J. Wilkinson Elliott (1858-1939) ranted about the absurdity of the formal garden in his book Adventures of a Horticulturist (1935).

J. Wilkinson Elliott

Elliott said, “I do not like formal gardens. I consider them an abomination and a thorn in the flesh.”

He was pretty clear where he stood on the issue.

Then he gave his reasons.

He wrote, “The first rule to be observed in making a good garden is to make it as natural as possible, and that does not mean that design is not necessary.”

Even though the garden looks more natural, it still takes the art of design to realize it.

Eliott concluded, “The best-designed garden is one that looks as though it had not been designed.”

He wrote that in 1935.

Today we still make a distinction between natural and formal. Some gardens showcase a bit of each type of design.

Wonder what Elliott would think of that?

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Flower Gardening Began Mid Nineteenth Century

Flower gardening began mid nineteenth century

Just finished reading the book Handy Book of the Flower-Garden by English horticulturist David Thomson, editor of The Gardener journal.

Thomson wrote the book in 1876.

He makes the argument that flower gardening as we know it did not become popular until after 1850.

Thomson says, ” [In the early 1800s] flower gardens had then seldom a separate locality devoted to them and then they had that advantage, they were generally of unshapely figures cut out in turf, and arranged, as the designers fondly but erroneously imagined, after the principle of English gardening as inculcated by Wheatley and Uvedale Price.

“These figures were mostly filled with a miscellaneous assortment of shrubs and herbaceous plants, many of which possessed only botanical interest. The California annuals were then undiscovered in the Far West, and all the fine recent introductions were unknown and unthought of.”

He argued that new plants were just coming into the country in the first half of the nineteenth century. That was the grand time of the plant hunter who traveled the world in search of plant varieties suitable for a flower garden.

That was also the case in America.

It was only by mid-century that people had the leisure time to cultivate a flower garden.

Plants that arrived in England from Asia, Africa, and South America eventually came to America.

It was then too that the seed merchants began to send out catalogs to lure the homeowner into cultivating a flower garden.

By the end of the nineteenth century seed companies like W. W. Rawson in Boston were sending out yearly catalogs with stunning illustrations of their latest flower for the garden. [below]

W. W. Rawson’s catalog of 1897 with carpet bed on the lawn

By then flower gardening, whether in carpet beds or borders, had all sorts of requirements to be called a flower garden. Flower gardens had arrived.

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Jane Loudon Encouraged Women Gardeners

Jane Loudon encouraged women gardeners

In the first part of the nineteenth century John Claudius Loudon became the voice for the gardener. He wrote several books, edited a magazine Gardener’s Monthly, painted, and also designed landscapes.

John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843)

When he wrote something about gardening, everyone took it seriously.

He married author Jane Weber, age 23, when he was 47.

Jane, a writer herself, helped him with his garden writing, but first she had to learn about gardening. She was a novice in gardening.

Her husband became the teacher, though not always with the greatest of patience, as Geoffrey Taylor writes in his book Some Ninteeth Century Gardeners.

Jane Loudon (1807-1853)

After he died, Jane continued her own garden writing career, publishing several books.

Above all, she supported women working in the garden.

In her book The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden she encouraged women to garden.

She wrote, “I should recommend all persons fond of gardening, and especially ladies, who have sufficient leisure, to manage their gardens themselves, with the assistance of a man to perform the more laborious operations.”

Men could help where needed. She said, “It sometimes happens that a man-servant in the family, who is not overburdened with indoor duties, will answer the purpose; but it is generally preferred to employ a man who has been brought up as a gardener.”

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