Victorians Suffered Orchid Mania

Victorians suffered orchid mania

You have heard about tulip mania in the seventeenth century and perhaps even dahlia mania in the early nineteenth century.

In 1894 the London magazine Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art published an article entitled “The Romance of Orchid Collecting” about the sickness called orchid mania in late Victorian England.

Collectors were going crazy over the newest and latest orchids, in spite of the many dangers involved in hunting for orchids.

Earlier in the century Charles Darwin had done research on orchids. Historian James T. Costa mentions the mania in his book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory. He writes, “Victorian orchid collectors suffered this form of madness.”

The Chambers’s article discussed the trials, tribulations, murder and mayhem that resulted from the hunt for orchids.

“A plant no bigger than a tulip bulb has been sold for many times its weight in gold.”

That someone could become so obsessed with a particular plant is probably not surprising if you consider plant collecting as both a hobby and current fashion.

Darwin, however, was interested in orchids because they cross pollinated.

His interest was scientific.

In the course of Darwin’s investigation into flower structure and pollination, he started a line of orchid research in the 1840s.

Costa does not, however, make any mention of Darwin suffering from orchid mania, probably because that ‘illness’ came later in the century.

Darwin, too, was more interested in plant experiments than plant collecting.

And so, you might say, the orchid mania bug never bit him.

Photo from my Florida trip. You can see orchids on this tree in the front yard. [Thanks to FNGLA garden tour.]
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Filoli Hosts Art Exhibit

Filoli hosts art exhibit

A few days ago I visited the wonderful historic garden Filoli, near San Francisco. The garden, surrounding a red brick mansion, dates to the turn of the twentieth century.

Right now artist and landscape designer W. Gary Smith has created an environmental art exhibit called “Nests: Patterns from Nature.”

The exhibit continues through November 10.

Smith has designed and built around the garden a series of nests with materials gathered from the Filoli Estate including its trees, shrubs, and grasses.

Nests appear in various forms and are made of different materials.

When you visit, you will see twelve expressions of ‘nest’ scattered around the property.

Here is one of the designs, a series of brown nests hanging from trees. [below]

A nest exhibit now on display at Filoli.

Filoli’s garden spans sixteen acres and was installed between 1917 and 1929.

The magnificent formal garden and grounds reflect the seventeenth and eighteenth century English garden with its sweeping lawn and many views to enchant any visitor.

Filoli represents a long history of landscape, gardening, and art.  That’s why it is one of my favorite gardens to visit.

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American Gardening Has Long Imitated English Style

American gardening has long imitated the English style

At breakfast this morning I glanced at the label on the marmalade jar.

I read the words ‘An English Classic.’ Who knew my marmalade belonged to a long line of English jams and jellies?

Here I have often written about America’s dependence on English gardening fashion.

Recently I came across a reference to that relationship.

Historian Robert H. Wiebe wrote the book The Search for Order 1877-1920.

Wiebe says, “For more than a century… Americans’ freedom and their democracy, their heritage and their culture, all acquired meaning through a comparison, explicit or implicit, with the British model.”

In the early 1900s Chicago horticulturist and landscape designer Wilhelm Miller spelled out that relationship as it concerned gardening in his book What England Can Teach Us about Gardening. (below)

Miller made the point that since the English have been gardening for so long, we needed to look to them as a guide for what we ought to do here in America.

To a certain extent his argument was true.

How often did garden writers in the nineteenth century compare an emerging American style of gardening to that of the traditional English garden?

Dahlias

Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey wrote in his Magazine of Horticulture in 1838 about the English love for dahlias.

He said,“The dahlia has done more, in England, than all other plants together, toward the dissemination of a taste for gardening.”

Then he wrote how our dahlia gardens here in America might soon resemble the quality of the English.

Hovey said “I believe the time is at hand when our gardens will produce dahlias equaling the English.”

Today we Americans subscribe to the magazine The English Garden. Each spring Americans flock to visit the Chelsea Flower Show. English garden tours remain popular in this country.

American gardening, like so much here, has long imitated the English.

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High Style Victorian Ornamental Gardening

High style Victorian ornamental gardening

In the nineteenth century plants from around the world became available for the English garden.

Such plants created a thirst for an ornamental gardening style that spread around the country.

Thomas Carter writes in his book The Victorian Garden, “Professional plant-hunters and amateur naturalists – many of them missionaries of the Church – travelled all over the world in search of unknown species to satisfy a taste for the spectacular.”

Such plants transformed the garden into formal beds, container planting,  and lines of shrubbery. [below]

Victorians treasured their ornamental gardening.

Carter writes, “The high style of Victorian ornamental gardening reached its peak in the 1850s and 1860s in the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham and of the private estates like Trenthem and Shrublands.”

Eventually America took up ornamental gardening as well.

Nineteenth century New Jersey seed company owner Peter Henderson included formal ornamental design in his book Gardening for Pleasure. [below]

Notice the formal beds near the front door to the house.

Today we continue the search for plants to contribute to the ornamental gardening style that we love.

Plant hunters still travel the world in search of that new plant.

No surprise that our gardens are filled with both native and exotic plants.

 

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Victorians Loved Foliage Plants

Victorians loved foliage plants. –

One summer I planted a banana (Musa ensete) in the center of a bed along the driveway.

The plant looked majestic among the low growing perennials and annuals that surrounded it. [below]

Banana plant in island bed in my garden

Then I remembered that the Victorian gardener in the second half of the nineteenth century also loved tall, showy, foliage plants.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden wrote, “Since the early 1860s, gardeners had used many of the foliage plants which had previously been treated as stove or greenhouse subjects to add a contrasting element to floral bedding during a summer.”

Foliage plants could include canna, colocasia, and yucca as well.

Here is a photo of a banana at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show. It is in a pot but still shows off its bold foliage for the passer-by.

A banana in an exhibit at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show

This summer I plan to make sure my blue container on the lawn has a large red cordyline, another of my favorites.

In that way I will be keeping up the tradition of the Victorian gardener who treasured plants with bold leaves.

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Victorian Conservatory Became Essential

Victorian conservatory became essential

Victorian garden fashion demanded several elements.

Plants that stood out became essential for their structure and color.

The list included ricinus, canna, yucca  – all with their bold leaves.

To grow and cultivate  plants during the winter a conservatory, attached to the house, became a must for all serious Victorian gardeners.

Conservatory as part of the house in this 1892 Parker and Wood Seed Catalog

Carter says in his book The Victorian Garden, “Eventually the conservatory became a Victorian cliché – a necessary attachment to any house of even modest pretentions, and often, no more than a place where pot plants could be brought in.”

Serious gardeners then cultivated orchids which demanded special growing conditions.

Eventually the middle class would also grow orchids in their version of that essential greenhouse or conservatory.

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When Annuals Lost Their Appeal

When annuals lost their appeal

From the mid nineteenth century England encouraged gardening with beds of annuals.

The arrival of glorious summer plants from warmer climates like Africa, Asia, and South America had encouraged that fashion.

In the 1870s however garden writer William Robinson criticized the practice. He advocated for perennials and native plants in the summer garden.

The cost of growing in the greenhouse the necessary dozens of annuals became expensive.

Another issue became  the maintenance to keep the annual beds weed-free and trimmed to the proper height and width.

Perennials would reward the gardener with bloom year after year, Robinson wrote.

Growing  native plants would also reduce the expense of the annuals since they are readily available in local fields, mountains, and woods.

Tom Carter in his book The Victorian Garden writes about the inevitability of the demise of the extensive growing and maintaining of beds of annuals.

William Robinson

Robinson himself had once been an advocate of annuals but no longer.

He wrote the book The Wild Garden in which he proposed plants other than annuals for the summer garden.

Carter says, “The movement away from the true Victorian style during the last decade of the century reflected in, and partly brought about by Robinson, … was inevitable.

 “It has been maintained that bedding, with its emphasis on annuals and a limited number of perennials, caused gardeners to disregard old-fashioned plants, bringing some of them close to extinction.”

Today we continue to preach the gospel of native plants. 

It’s not that we can’t grow annuals. It’s that we also have beautiful native plants.

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Victorians Loved Cut Flowers

Victorians loved cut flowers

The Victorian period in the nineteenth century ushered in a love for cut flowers from the garden.

Here is a beautiful chromolithograph from William Rawson’s seed catalog of 1888 called ‘Gems from the Wild Garden.’ The image visualizes what a glorious choice of flowers for tea and lunch were available to the Victorians. [below]

Rawson Seed Company, Boston

In his book The Victorian Garden Tom Carter calls this love of cut flowers from that period ‘floristry.’

He writes, “Competition was the essence of floristry, and the spring and summer months were filled with shows held all over the country.”

The flower shows proved an outlet to show off flowers like roses and dahlias.

I remember on ‘Downton Abbey’ when Maggie Smith’s character said,
“My yellow rose won top prize at the county fair.”

Even in the cities Victorian gardeners took pride in floristry.

Carter writes, “Workers in the industrial towns took to floristry as about the only form of gardening open to them in the restricted spaces of urban living.”

Whether in country or city, Victorians encouraged floristry and so they enjoyed their cut flowers.

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Victorian Garden Book

Victorian garden book

Last week I attended a meeting of the New England Hosta Society, a group I joined many years ago.

The meeting included a wonderful speaker who owns a local nursery.

The highlight of the meeting, however, was the item I won in the raffle.

To my surprise I won Tom Carter’s book The Victorian Garden.

I was familiar with this title when I placed my red ticket in the cup to bid on the book.

The bibliography and illustrations in the book indicate the English origin of the book. 

The book, however, was first published by Salem House, a member of the Merrimack Publishers Circle, Salem, New Hampshire in 1985.  R. J. Acford, Chichester, Sussex printed this edition.

The book details the development of the English Victorian garden in the nineteenth century.

Carter writes, “The range of plants available in nineteenth century Britain was constantly increasing as more and more specimens were sent home from abroad, and as colonial territories were opened up.”

The plants would include of course varieties from Asia and North America.

Look forward to reading this book during the cold weeks of winter still to come.

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Nineteenth Century Style of Planting Shrubs

Nineteenth century style of planting shrubs

Soon the Weigela rosea [below] will burst with spring color in my New England garden.

This shrub came to America in 1848 from England. Three years earlier British plant hunter Robert Fortune had found it in China. He introduced it to the English garden.

This Weigela grows right outside my front door. [photo by Ralph Morang]

Walter Elder, a nineteenth century Philadelphia horticulturalist, wrote many articles for nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s popular magazine Gardener’s Monthly, published in the same city.

In the 1865 issue of GM, Elder wrote about shrubs in the landscape.

He said ”The modern is the most  admirable and ennobling mode of embellishing large grounds with flowering shrubbery, namely massing them in groups of various dimensions and forms. All sharp points are avoided. Even at the junction of two roads or paths, sharp, projecting points are rounded and made blunt, if a group of shrubbery is to be planted there.”

He continues, “Where there is a fine view in the distance to be seen from the mansion, it would not do to plant trees to hide it, but the lawn can be ornamented with groups of shrubs.”

Seed company and nursery owners in their catalogs, books, and magazines taught America landscape principles.

In this case they instructed home gardeners on how to plant shrubs in the English picturesque or gardenesque, or as they called it, the ‘modern’ style.

 

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