The Dahlia – in and out of Fashion

You might think that a flower as beautiful as the dahlia has been a garden treasure since explorers first brought it from its home in Mexico to Europe and later to the U.S.

Not true.

The dahlia has had a long history of being in and out of fashion.

When first introduced into England in the early nineteenth century, there was an uproar over this plant.

John Claudius Loudon, Editor of The Gardener’s Magazine, recognized it as a current fashion in the garden.

He wrote, “At almost every nursery several hundred sorts 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.”  

Loudon was amazed at the variety in the dahlia’s form and color.

There was even a period of dahlia mania before 1850 both in England and in America.

Then dahlias receeded in popularity.

The dahlia almost became the new hollyhock: perhaps pretty but not in my garden.

Recent Article on the Dahlia

Last week Alan Titchmarsh wrote an online article in Country Life about the dahlia.

The title of the article says it all: “How the dahlia shrugged off its ‘too common to plant’ tag – and thank goodness it did.”

He says, ” It was Country Life’s regular contributor Christopher Lloyd who was instrumental in restoring their respectability, although he would have scoffed at the use of such a word, as snobbery was as alien to Christo as silence and circumspection are to the current President of the US.”

In his own gardening and subsequent writing Lloyd put the dahlia back in the garden.

He particularly liked the wonderful dahlia called ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ which just happens to be my favorite.

Here it is in all its glory:

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ [Courtesy of White Flower Farm]

Who would have thought that the beautiful dahlia would have had such a rocky road in garden fashion?

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Poetry Inspired Nineteenth Century Gardens

What inspires a gardener can take many forms.

Often we depend on garden writers to tell us how the garden needs to look.

Nineteenth century poetry inspired two of the most famous English garden writers of that period, Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson.

Both of them despised the bedding system of plants which was popular at that time.

The garden fashion style called carpet bedding, which filled a design with colorful plants on the lawn, spread among gardeners everywhere.

Both Hibberd and Robinson found solice in the writings of Tennyson.

Michael Waters writes in his book The Garden in Victorian Literature that poetry and fiction provided gardeners with ideas on how the garden should look.

Waters says, “Two of the most prestigious and prolific garden writers, Shirley Hibberd and William Robinson, found in Tennyson’s poetry what they were looking for, and, more importantly perhaps, an absence of what they were not looking for.

“What they were not looking for was the poetic celebation of the bedding system.”

Robinson's book celebrates the value of perennials in the garden.

Robinson in his book The English Flower Garden recommends perennials over annuals in the garden.

He saw carpet beds as a waste of both money and labor.

By the end of the century there was a resurgence of interest in perennial beds and borders.

Robinson thus saw his work valued and inspiring to many gardeners, I am sure. They would take his advice about perennials.

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Dahlias and Me

We all love some flowers in the garden more than others.

That is the case with dahlias and me.

I love dahlias.

Here is ‘Creme de Casis’ which I grew this summer in a container along the driveway. [below]

Dahlia ‘Crème de Cassis’

It was the first time I planted this variety.

History of Dahlias

The dahlia first came from Mexico to Spain in the sixteenth century.

The Spanish priest, artist, and scientist Antonio Jose Cavanilles (1745-1808)  served on the staff of the Royal Botanic Garden in Madrid.

He drew illustrations of the dahlia in the late 1700s.

At about the same time the dahlia began to appear in England, France, Italy, and Germany.

From the early 1800s the dahlia had become a garden staple.

American gardeners enjoyed their first dahlias by the 1830s.

Even though it went through both periods of intense desire for the latest variety as well as disgust in just hearing its name, the dahlia is still around today.

Perfect Late Summer Flower

What I like most about this flower, besides its shape and endless variety of colors, is that it blooms in late summer until almost Thanksgiving here in the Northeast.

They begin in early August and continue til November.

James Vick on Dahlias

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1814-1882) grew hundreds of dahlias in his display gardens.

You would have found his field of dahlias about five miles north of the Rochester city limits.  [below]

Vick’s Seed House and Mill at his trial farm, located north of Rochester, New York. History of Monroe County, New York, 1877

Once the editor of the Illustrated Christian Weekly visited Vick’s dahlia field and wrote an article about his visit.

The editor’s article appeared in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly  of September 1879.

He wrote, “Mr. James Vick, of Rochester, N. Y., was the pioneer in the systematic growing of flower seeds, and without doubt the most extensive grower in America.”

That was quite the praise for Mr. Vick at a time when the seed and nursery business was growing around the country.

Then the editor raved about the blooms of the many dahlias he saw in the rows devoted to this flower at Vick’s seed farm.

He said, “Perhaps the largest field devoted entirely to one kind of flowers, at the time of our visit, was one filled with Dahlias, and containing six or more acres. It was supposed to include every variety known of real merit, and the display was gorgeous.”

What a sight that must have been – to see six acres of nothing but dahlias.

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Nasturtium – Popular Flower for Centuries

Every year I grow nasturtiums.

They are an easy flower to grow from seed. Just press the seed into the soil.

I had no idea that it had been a popular garden flower for hundreds of years. Over that time we have records of its presence in gardens.

In his book A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800 Mark Laird mentions the nasturtium.

He says in a particular flower garden “There were six pots of nasturtium [Tropaeolum] in 1691 on display as a florist’s flower.” A florist was someone who cultivated flowers to sell them later in the market.

These nasturtiums were in the ‘West Walk’, near the kitchen garden.

Dutch and Flemish Gardens

The Dutch and Flemish had introduced plants to England during this period.

Edward Hyams in his book English Cottage Gardens writes, “Dutch and Flemish horticulture was strongly felt [in the Middle Ages]; between 1550 and 1650 it added new vegetables to the English garden flora, as well as new flowers.”

Among the flowers was the nasturtium, which had come to Europe from Peru.

Laird says, “Double nasturtiums [Tropaeolum majus] came to England from Netherlands post 1686 from Peru.”

So indeed the nasturtium has flourished in our gardens for a long time.

Today we still grow them.

Renee’s Seeds in California offers sixteen varieties.

One of them ‘Buttercream’ is a favorite.

Here it is growing in a container outside my front door.

Nasturtium ‘Buttercream’

You can easily grow nasturiums in pots, borders, and under shrubs.

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English Garden Continues Its Influence

We know we have come a long way as gardeners here in the US.

We do not have the kind of dependence on the English garden that we once had. In 1906 Wilhelm Miller, an American landscape designer from Chicago, wrote the book What England Can Teach Us about Gardening.

A recent online article by Nancy A. Rubling seems to readdress that dependence and indeed recognizes that it is still happening.

The article “The English Garden Endures” makes the point that the English garden contiues to influence garden fashion.

Old-fashioned blossoms in one of the gardens at Helmington Hall [Harpur Garden Images]

Rubling writes, “With their classic hedges and bounteous blooms, traditional English-style gardens remain a popular perennial in the formal landscapes of stately estates around the world.”

Kathryn Bradley-Hole, garden editor of Country Life magazine, says “Many designers are making beautiful English gardens with a modern twist.”

Some of the elements of that modern look include ornamental grasses and easy-care perennials.

Whether rows of perennials, shrubs in a line, or a grand lawn, it is so easy to see how the English garden asetheic continues its grip on the American gardener’s imagination.

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Petunias Slowly Gained Garden Prominence

 I couldn’t believe it when I first heard from a worker at a garden center that the petunia was toxic.  To me the petunia looks just too beautiful to kill you.

That surprise was nothing compared to what I read in Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine Gardener’s Monthly from 1868.

It took decades for the petunia to attain the status of a coveted flower in the garden.

Meehan devoted an entire article in that volume of GM to the petunia. The article began with the plant’s travel from Brazil to England, where it first appeared in 1823.

Then the author of the article W. P. from Detroit said, “For a long time after its first introduction, the Petunia was looked upon as almost worthless, and from the flimsy appearance of its flowers, was pronounced a ‘miserable weed’, but we must now abandon the word weed, for the Petunia has become a florists’ flower.”  

By 1868 flower-lovers everywhere treasured it.

A bit later the 1874 catalog of seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, NY listed eight varieties of petunias.

Vick wrote in the flower description: “The improvement of this flower has been constant.”

Even today.

A petunia variety from Proven Winners that I love is Supertunia® ‘Pretty Much Picasso.’

One summer I grew it in a container in my backyard on top of this wrought iron table [below]. 

Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’

The popular petunia began its journey to American gardens from England, as was the case with many flowers in American gardens in the nineteenth century.

Today the petunia is one of the top ten most popular summer annuals, according to the National Garden Bureau.

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Victorians Teasured Colorful Flowers

Victorians believed that colorful flowers needed to fill the garden all summer.

In his book The Garden in Victorian Literature Michael Waters writes, “The massing of plants in showy color schemes grew rapidly in popularity.”

Waters provides three reasons for those colorful Victorian gardens.

First, the influx of foreign plant materials during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Second, the hybridization of already available species, including dwarf varieties of older plants.

Third, the introduction of greenhouses, in which huge numbers of tender annuals could be raised for wholesale use.

Thus, Waters says, “Brillance of color became the top prerequisite of the mid-Victorian garden.”

Verbena

The list of plants every garden had to have included the verbena.

The verbena, a Victorian favorite, continues among the best sellers for the garden industry.

Today the plant grower Proven Winners constantly searches for ever newer varieties of plants.

PW has introduced a beautiful, new verbena called ‘Dark Blue’.

James Vick

The Rochester, New York seed merchant James Vick (1818-1882) mentioned the popular verbena in his garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November 1881.

He wrote, “The term, bedding plants, has long been in use, and is applied to all those tender plants that, preserved through the winter under glass, are there propagated and raised, and finally planted in beds in the spring to serve for the decoration of the garden for one season. Such plants are Geraniums, Heliotropes, Verbenas, Lantanas, and a multitude of other flowering plants.”

The Vick Company of course offered verbenas in its seed catalog. [below]

Vick won awards for his verbenas at State Fairs around the country including Michigan.

He wrote in 1880 in his garden magazine: “Among our garden flowers none is more valuable and more prized than the Verbena.”

The verbena was, however, only one of many annuals that offered colorful bloom in the Victorian flower garden whether for beds, borders, or containers.

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Repton Brought Back Flower Gardens

We know in the modern English landscape garden dating from the early eighteenth century the extensive lawn took center stage.

Flower gardens were there, but not emphasized until serious plant collecting from around the world emerged, as well as the support of landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818).

Garden historians attribute renewed interest in flower gardens to Repton.

Andre Rogger in Landscapes of Taste: The Art of Humphry Repton’s Red Books mentions a significant threesome in Walpole’s book The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1780).

Rogger argues that Walpole linked the three most important landscape gardeners of the eighteenth century.

Rogger writes, “The tripartite sequence [in Horace Walpole’s book] William Kent followed by Lancelot Brown followed by Humphry Repton established the canon for the history of English landscape gardening.”

The Victorian Garden

It was Repton’s focus on flowers that makes him so significant as gardening with flowers emerged in the nineteenth century.

In The Garden in Victorian Literature Michael Waters, though not a historian as such, looked at the image of ‘garden’ in Victorian fiction and poetry.

Repton appears important to such artists because he brought back the flower garden to its important position near the house.

Waters writes , “Repton believed this would restore not only the art of gardening but also the social functions of the garden.

“That this was Repton’s major contribution to the history of garden design is occasionally acknowledged in Victorian fiction.”

For Repton flowers ought to be viewed both by the garden’s owner and the visitor.

Mick Thompson, writing in the journal Garden History, says, “During the second half of his career as a landscape gardener. Repton led the way in returning flower gardens, both formal and informal, close to the house where they could be seen and enjoyed.”

Repton includes flowers in this illustration from his Red Book for Ashridge of 1813. [below]. Flowers dot the lawn in both beds and borders.

The Countess of Bridgewater’s Flower Garden; detail from Repton’s Red Book for Ashridge (1813).
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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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