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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Plant Marketing Drives Garden Design

Plant marketing drives garden design.

Garden architects and garden designers know a limited number of plants when they approach a client.

Some designers tend to use the same plants and similar schemes in the landscape.

One reason for that could well be that nurseries and garden centers can provide only so many plants. Original cost, space for storing them, and their popularity dictate what plants a nursery will carry.

Since inventory is limited, marketing available plants becomes important for a nursery.

It is no surprise that the same plants appear in both the nursery and in the landscape over and over again.

The book The Genius of the Place:The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820 includes a number of readings about the history of the English garden.

The book’s editors John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis include an article from The Spectator by Joseph Addison, dated June 25, 1712.

The passage from Addison’s article made it clear that a nurseryman’s available stock became integrated into the garden’s design.

That was also a time when nursery owners were often the landscape gardeners, or landscape designers.

Addison wrote, “But as our Modellers of Gardens have their Magazines of Plants to dispose of, it is natural for them to tear up all the Beautiful Plantations of Fruit Trees, and contrive a Plan that may most turn to their own Profit, in taking off their Evergreens, and the like Moveable Plants, with which their Shops are plentifully stocked.”

This was written  in 1712. Have things changed that much?

Profit from available stock is cheaper than ordering plants outside that inventory.

I love this illustration. It says it all. [below]

Joseph Addison, however,  loved the new natural look that was appearing in English gardens at that time.

He wrote, “You must know, Sir, that I look upon the Pleasure which we take in a Garden, as one of the most innocent Delights in humane Life.”

 

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Victorian Container Gardening

Victorian Container Gardening

Gardener Lucy M. Clark writes the following guest post on how the Victorian influence in gardening still lives on. 

 

Victorian estates paid a lot of importance to landscaping and container planting.

The Victorian Period was a time of vanity, culture, and high regard to social class. Back then it mattered that you were rich and had an estate with beautiful landscaping. Gardening was among the most well-loved leisure activities, including container planting.

If you want to venture into Victorian container planting, here are some tips.

Parlor plants were common decorative materials in the Victorian era.

A Brief History

For this topic, it’s important to note that plant life had become so much more diverse in that era. People would plant these delicate florals and rare species of plants in beautiful vases, jars, and pots. This type of gardening is known today as Victorian container planting. This practice turned gardening into an art form. They were using expensive brass jars, cement pots, and other unique containers for both indoor and outdoor plants.

Brass jars and carved vases were commonly used as planters.

Some of the more lavish Victorian homes would have greenhouses and solariums where their plants could thrive. However, since Victorians loved to decorate with rich, dark colors, and heavy embellishments, the indoor plants had to be tough to be able to survive the harsh conditions of a typical Victorian home. These included heliotropes, palms, jasmine, and ferns among many others. Victorian indoor plants were considered not just decorative materials but also a mark of one’s social class.

Parlor Plants

Parlor plants have a way of brightening up the room and making it feel more luxurious. As in Victorian homes, parlor plants go well with heavy home embellishments. You can choose from a wide array of parlor plants if you wish to incorporate one into your own home. Thankfully, we now have modern solutions to improving plant growing conditions indoors. Here are some parlor plants that were common in the Victorian era. Maybe you want to consider getting these too!

Sword Fern

Back in those times, ferns were used as decorative material in various containers. These included metal, wood, pottery, paper, and even gravestones. Because of pteridomania, the craze among gardeners for ferns, people had their own parlor plant ferns in lavish vases and pots.

Sword ferns can grow 3-4 foot fronds, which were truly a sight to see in that era. The now popular Boston fern was later discovered in 1984 by a Massachusetts florist.

 Sword ferns are a common parlor plant in the Victorian era.

Aspidistra

Hailed as a “cast iron” plant, the Aspidistra was favored by many Victorians because it didn’t require much maintenance. In fact, this plant can survive low light and neglect. Just give it some good soil to thrive. Occasionally the Aspidistra produces brown and purple flowers near its base and grows with large, glossy leaves with clumpy and corn-like features.

Palm

Another Victorian favorite was the Kentia parlor palm, which was pretty much a constant in Victorian photographs. The Kentia palm can grow up to 5-12 feet indoors and has lush, arching leaves. This structure makes it quite the visual in Victorian homes. The less light this type of palm receives, the more foliage it produces.

 The Kentia palm is a favorite parlor plant among Victorians.

Jerusalem Cherry

The Jerusalem Cherry parlor plant was given its name because of its popularity around Victorian holidays. It is a native to Peru and grows as a shrubby and bushy houseplant with white flowers that turn to red-orange berries. Unlike the three other parlor plants, the Jerusalem Cherry is much more high-maintenance. The plant requires high indoor humidity, as well as bright lights to support both structure and flowering. While its berries add a lot of color to a Victorian room, these are somewhat poisonous. Today’s florists and garden centers would replace these parlor plants with ornamental pepper.

Choosing Containers

Because it wouldn’t be Victorian container planting without beautiful containers, you may want to choose vintage ones that blend perfectly with luxurious, dark-colored Victorian rooms. Considering that you want these parlor plants to mimic the classic Victorian style, you can’t say no to vintage articles of furniture and decorative materials.

This specialty shop offers antique vase and brass jar copies that can be used for Victorian container planting.

Luckily for the classics-at-heart, you can get copies of Victorian vases and planters in specialty shops and garden stores. You can choose from a variety of classic designs and materials for the perfect containers that will match your room. You can also make good use of wooden planks or pallets to make your own vintage jardinieres. These are great for both indoor parlor plants and outdoor florals and shrubs.

Of course, nothing can match the charm and history of authentic Victorian plant containers. For the Victorian era lovers, you may want to check out your local antique store for some of these pieces.

Conclusion

It’s a comfort to know that a lot of people are still committed to preserving the Victorian culture, whether it be in fashion design, arts, or, in this case, gardening. With its expansive influence on modern society, the nineteenth century is truly a gift.

 

Hi there! I’m Lucy – founder of GardenAmbition.com and I’m a self-confessed garden fanatic. Gardening has always been a passion of mine and will always be my favorite pastime. Now that I am married and have one adorable son, I have the time to write and share my personal experiences with other garden enthusiasts.

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