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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Plimouth Plantation’s Home Landscape

Plimouth Plantation’s home landscape

It is mid November and our thoughts turn of course to the Thanksgiving holiday.

That means we remember the pilgrims who sailed from England in 1620, landing in Plymouth, south of Boston.

Today we can learn about the pilgrims from Plimouth Plantation, a site that replicates that early period of our country’s history.

The colonists represent an important example of early home landscaping in this country. They designed a landscape that fit their needs.

The English colonists knew of course of their homeland’s landscape and garden style.

Before they made the voyage, they had no idea what the land and weather would be like in their new home.

They would however build a house, resembling the style they knew in England.

Architect Gerald Foster wrote a practical guide to home architecture called American Houses: A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home.

He says, “Arriving on the New England shore, the 17th-century English settlers immediately erected Native American huts and wigwams or dug into the earth for temporary shelter.

“For permanent housing, they drew on their own experience and built simple cottages based on familar English homes.”

Here is a reproduction of an early colonial house you can see at Plimouth Plantation. [below]

Replica of an early colonist’s house at Plimouth Plantation [Courtesy of Plimouth Plantation]

They would also adopt a landscape similar to what they knew from England of the seventeenth century.

Because they were concerned from the beginning with their own survival in the new land, any landscape making or gardening had to be simple and useful.

Notice in the image [above] that a bed of vegetables and herbs lies in front of the thatched roof house. That kitchen garden takes up a substantial part of the front area.

The garden shows rows of plants, mostly vegetables and herbs but with a few flowers as well.  In England a walled garden held such rows to create what the English referred to as their ‘kitchen garden.’

As with all landscape design, Plimouth Plantation reflects a form that is particular to a time and culture.

 

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Opium Enriched Nineteenth Century Boston Merchant

Opium enriched nineteenth century Boston merchant –

Nineteenth century Boston merchant Thomas H. Perkins (1764-1854) cultivated a landscape at his country estate in Brookline, Massachusetts in the English landscape style.

This portrait of Perkins by Thomas Sully today hangs in the large first floor meeting room  of the downtown Boston Athenaeum. [below]

Boston Athenaeum’s portrait of Thomas Handasayd Perkins

Perkins became one of America’s first millionaires.

To increase his sale of goods to China Perkins found himself in the opium trade.

In 1815 he opened an office in Afghanistan in order to buy opium there to sell to China.

Stephen Harris wrote a great book called Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900, which covers the history of gardening.

Harris writes, “Ultimately, tea transformed English society, was a driver of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century, maintained the opium trade with China and became a new crop for colonial India.”

He draws a link between the sale of tea and the sale of opium in the nineteenth century. Both made certain people quite wealthy.

Perkins’ Fortune

Perkins built his fortune by selling opium more than any other product.

At the same time he offered substantial financial assistance to local institutions like the Boston Athenaeum and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Today these institutions as well as Perkins School for the Blind, another of his charities,  have had to respond to this part of their history. People inquire how they could have accepted money made from selling opium.

In their book Merchant Prince of Boston: Colonel T. H. Perkins, 1764-1854 Carol Seaburg and Stanley Peterson write, “They cheerfully rationalized that the opium habit was not nearly so debilitating as the habit of drink.”

I don’t know what the word ‘cheerfully’ means here. I would say they saw opium as a business. It was, after all, legal in America at that time.

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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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