Growing Orchids Reflected Social Status

Growing orchids reflected social status.

As material culture, plants can contribute to a person’s social status.

Certain plants often become connected to a higher social class.

That is the case with the orchid from the beginning of its introduction into eighteenth century England.

David Stuart in his book The Garden Triumphant writes, “Orchids of the tropical kind, mostly needed both jungle heat and humidity, were considerable status symbols from the moment of their introduction.”

As tropical plants, orchids demanded the comfort of a greenhouse or conservatory.

“By 1839 the glasshouses at Chatsworth were packed with orchids, many collected specifically for the Duke of Devonshire,” writes Stuart.

On a garden tour in southern Florida last year I came across this blue orchid growing on a tree. [below]

In this Florida front yard you can see orchids on a tree.

The flowers had the perfect combination of heat and moisture to survive on the tree trunk.

Really a beautiful sight.

It never occured to me to judge the social status of the owner of the house and garden.

Though the orchid provided many hours of pleasure to gardeners in nineteenth century America who could afford both the greenhouse and a garden staff to tend to them, today things have changed.

Victoria Zemlan in her article “By Hook by Crook: The Plunder of Orchids for the New World” says “Now, we can buy inexpensive orchids in almost any nursery, home improvement center, or grocery store, but 19th century orchids were an extravagance reserved for the nobility.”

Tom Carter, author of  The Victorian Garden which covers nineteenth century gardening,  says, “Orchids were another class of plants needing special arrangements, and only experienced gardeners attempted them.

“Even though orchids were beyond the scope of most gardeners, they appealed strongly to a curious public, and nurserymen vied to produce the showiest and most exotic specimens.”

Eventually nineteenth century nurseries in both England and America made orchids available to anyone who wanted them. They no longer belonged only to the wealthy.

Today any gardener may grow them.

Zemlan says, “Orchids haven’t lost their allure — Americans now spend more on orchids each year than on any other houseplant.”

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Landscape Garden Lost Appeal

Landscape garden lost appeal.

The English landscape garden, recognized by its informal, natural look of winding pathways and extensive areas of lawn, reached its peak in the mid-eighteenth century.

Shortly after that the style experienced a bit of decline.

The exotic plants arriving from the Americas and Asia caused a loss of interest.  Gardeners needed room to include these coveted plants, and so the extensive lawn areas became spotted with plants from outside the country.

David Stuart writes in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “Those who owned them [the newly imported exotic plants], perhaps growing the rarest that could be found, felt that they were as status-full as having a summer-house shaped like the Colosseum, and hankered after a mode of gardening that would allow them to show their wonderful plants to the world.”

Just to grow the new plants was in itself a status symbol.

The cherished landscape garden that marked England’s greatest contribution to garden art was receding into the background to make room for new annuals and shrubs. American rhododendrons and Chinese camellias attracted more attention than the sweeping lawns of Capability Brown.

Stuart says, “Consequently, by the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape garden was clearly doomed.”

Roses too, illustrated here by landscape gardener Humphry Repton, appeared in their own garden called a rosary by 1800. [below]

Humphry Repton’s Rosarium (1813)

And so, as happens in all garden fashion and style, what was once in became no longer desirable.

The classic English natural style would always be important, even into the nineteenth century, but not with the vigor of the early and mid 1700s.

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Thomas Jefferson’s English Landscape

Thomas Jefferson’s English Landscape

Thomas Jefferson advocated for the modern, natural, picturesque landscape design at Monticello after his trip with John Adams to tour the estate gardens of England.

In his article “The Picturesque in the American Garden and Landscape Before 1800”  James D. Kornwulf says, “Little documentary, and even less visual, evidence survives to prove that American gardeners followed picturesque principles on a large scale before 1786 when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams made their well-known tour of English (and, for Jefferson, of French) picturesque gardens.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello featured the modern style of the English garden called the picturesque.

As his guide for what gardens to visit Jefferson used the  book by English garden writer Thomas Whatley Observations on Modern Gardening.  Some consider the book the best description of picturesque modern gardening, written before landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752 –1818) became England’s most famous landscape gardener in the final third of the century.

Whatley included the garden at Chatsworth, north of London, which became Jefferson’s favorite landscape.  Capability Brown in the mid eighteenth century had redesigned Chatsworth to include extensive lawns.

In a 1917 article in the American magazine Landscape Architecture the architect Fiske Kimball (1888 – 1955) wrote: “Landscape gardening in America as an art, even though not as a profession, may claim as its father the father of American independence itself, a worthy forerunner of Downing, Olmsted, and Eliot.”

Jefferson created his landscape with the principles of the picturesque English style that he had experienced himself.

His friend, Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon, author of the most important early book on gardening American Gardener (1806), also promoted the same style of English landscape gardening.

Jefferson’s picturesque style would continue to influence the American home landscape throughout the nineteenth century, especially in the books and articles coming from the pen of New York nurseryman turned landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing

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Formal Garden Design Dominated Early America

Formal Garden Design Dominated Early America.

The design of the English garden during the 1600s followed a formal design which was a combination of French and Dutch elements of symmetry.

Then in the early 1700s the English took landscape to a new height in creating landscape as an art form, which they called the ‘natural’ or ‘picturesque’ landscape design.

In his article “The Picturesque in the American Garden and Landscape Before 1800”  James D.Kornwulf defines the picturesque “as the aesthetic underlying ‘le jardin anglais’ as the natural, irregular, and deliberately asymmetrical kind of planting.”

Colonial America however in the 1700s continued the formal garden design in properties along the East coast.

Though there were a couple of isolated examples of the picturesque landscape, the formal garden design dominated in eighteenth century America.

The landscape at both Middleton Place  and Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, probably dating from around 1740, represent the earliest known picturesque gardens in America, according to Kornwulf.

Richard Bushman argued in his book The Refinement of America that “In the eighteenth century informal and picturesque gardens remained subservient to the dominant influence of formal garden principles.”

The formal garden made its first monumental appearance in Colonial America at the College of William and Mary in 1694.

 

Formal garden at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg

Examples from the eighteenth century of formal garden design include the William Paca landscape in Annapolis, Maryland and the Governor’s Mansion at Williamsburg, Virginia [above].

Kornwulf says, “Without doubt, these gardens were the model for many created in eighteenth-century Virginia.”

Looking to the English for garden inspiration, eighteenth century America followed the older tradition of the more formal English garden.

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American Seedsman Encouraged Poinsettias

American Seedsman Encouraged Poinsettias

One of my favorite plant stories is how the poinsettia became a popular Christmas flower here in America.

In the nineteenth century it was common for garden magazines or journals to include articles from other garden publications, mostly English.  The source of the orignal story would often appear at the end of the article.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876 which he took from the English weekly journal called Gardeners’ Chronicle.

The article, simply entitled Poinsettia’ said, “Passing by these old friends, not without a word of hearty welcome be it well understood, we come to another plant which has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

Meehan continued with these words: “Its name commemorates a French traveler, M. Poinsett, by whom the plant was introduced to cultivation.

“He brought specimens to Charleston from Mexico in 1828, whence they were taken to Philadelphia; and specimens sent from the latter place to Edinburgh [Scotland] flowered in 1835, since which date it has become increasingly popular and plentiful in our stores.”

Poinsett had sent the plant to his friend Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist (1805-1880). Buist in turn mailed a specimen of the plant to his horticulturst friend in Scotland.  Soon after that the poinsettia, native to Mexico, became available to the public.

Today during this season you can see how poinsettias still fill the Grand Hall at The Breakers mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. [below]

Poinsettias in the Grand Hall at The Breakers in Newport, RI. [courtesy]

American gardeners, just like the English, came to treasure the plant as an indispensable part of the Christmas holiday.

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Nurseries Made Dahlias Popular

Nurseries Made Dahlias Popular.

Plants enter our gardens usually through the portal of the green industry like seed companies, nurseries, and growers.

That was the case with the dahlia.

Originally from Mexico, the dahlias appeared in Spain in the eighteenth century.

The dahlia reached England in 1803, and America a few years later.

Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey (1810-1887) became an early advocate for the dahlia. In his publication Magazine of Horticulture in 1835 he called the dahlia the “King of Flowers.”

In 1838 he wrote, “They [dahlias] have become one of the greatest and most valuable ornaments of the garden.”

Then he also said, “We believe the time is at hand when our own gardens will produce dahlias equalling the English.”

Hovey won Best in Class I for his twenty-five dissimilar dahlia blooms at the Flower Show sponsored by  the Massachusetts Horticultural Society on Saturday, October 1, 1842.

Thus his writing about the plant and also growing it, and, of course, selling it contributed to gardeners planting it in the garden.

Hovey was only one of the early nurserymen to encourage the dahlia.

Today we have a company like American Meadows which still encourages gardeners to grow dahlias.

This image [below] is from the AM company website.

American Meadows dahlia image

Dahlias  [courtesy of American Meadows]

Hovey wrote in 1840, “Some seedling dahlias have been raised, which equal the best productions of the English garden.”

American dahlia growers can stand up to the best.

Today there are 57,000 varieties of the dahlia. This flower has come a long way, with no small thanks to the American nursery business.

 

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Oliver Plunkett’s Garden Features Grotto

Oliver Plunkett’s garden features grotto.

During my recent visit in Ireland when I saw the early home of St. Oliver Plunkett (1629-1681) in Loughcrew, something else in the garden there surprised me.

At the end of the border of perennials you find a grotto. You can see that the grotto was made with rocks simply cemented to other rocks to form a sort of shelter of a few feet in height. A tiny pool of water appears at the base.

Such a grotto, made of rocks, formed an important part of English garden history.

David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes about the history of this garden decoration.

He says, “Rockeries were, at first, pure theater. From the middle of the eighteenth century, artificial grottos and mock ruins became fashionable adjuncts in any garden large enough to pretend to ‘landscape’.”

The Plunkett property includes this grotto or rock garden, also referred to as a folly, in that garden tradition. [below]

Grotto at Loughcrew, home of Oliver Plunkett

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) created the Loughcrew Estate, making it one of the greatest estates in Ireland. The property, originally 180,000 acres, became a classic landscape from its beginning. Over the centuries landscape designers and architects have contributed to these beautiful grounds.

Near the old stone walls of the church a line of yew trees stand tall even today, after four hundred years.

Gardens, woods, arboreta, and pleasure walks make this remarkable landscape at Loughcrew in county Meath an Irish treasure.

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Oliver Plunkett’s Birthplace Includes Garden

Oliver Plunkett’s birthplace includes garden.

I just finished reading a biography of Oliver Plunkett, an Archbishop in Ireland who died in 1681 as a martyr for his Catholic faith.

Four priests and five laymen, paid to testify against him, betrayed him at his trial in London. They convinced the court that Plunkett planned to invade England with the help of the

Oliver Plunkett

French.

The witnesses also claimed that Plunkett wanted England under the control of the Pope.

Plunkett never received a chance to bring his own witnesses to the trial. The case has over the centuries been studied as an example of the poorest of judicial practice.

Plunkett’s life amounted to a witness for his faith, amidst the harshest of hatred and bigotry. It is the story of a courageous man who only tried to heal and bring people together in the name of faith.

While in Ireland recently, I visited the early home and church of Plunkett in Loughcrew in county Meath, one hour from Dublin.

There I found a beautiful garden, built in the nineteenth century.

The garden included a wall with a border of perennials, too many to count. [below]

 

Oliver Plunkett's border, along a wall in his birthplace

The perennial border along the red brick wall in Oliver Plunkett’s birthplace

This border represents the garden fashion in the late nineteenth century encouraged by Irish garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935).  He proposed perennials rather than the traditional annuals for flowerbeds.

What was amazing as I walked the property at Loughcrew that day was the thought that from this spot came a giant in Irish history, the man of faith known today as St. Oliver Plunkett.

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Ireland’s Powerscourt Features Perennial Borders

Ireland’s Powerscourt features perennial borders.

My recent trip to Ireland included a visit to Powerscourt, the estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, whose long history dates back to the twelve century.

The extensive garden at Powerscourt contains many wonders, including two long perennial borders, that have made it one of Ireland’s treasures.

During the nineteenth century the walled garden’s perennial borders were installed.  They reflect the gardening world’s interest at that time in perennials rather than annuals.

Powerscourt border [courtesy photo]

Perennial borders at Powerscourt in Ireland [courtesy photo]

In the nineteenth century Viscount Powerscourt said,”The planting of the choice plants and shrubs, and seeing them increase year by year in size and beauty has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

When garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) and later garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) both encouraged gardening with perennials, borders of perennials became popular in the English garden.

Powerscourt includes other areas of nineteenth century garden style like an Italian garden in the terraces that link the house to the lake below. The terraces were constructed between 1843 and 1867.

The design of the garden reflects the desire to create a garden that is part of the wider landscape.  You can view the garden from the upper terrace where you can enjoy the harmony among garden slops, terraces, flower beds, trees, and the lake.

What caught my attention was the extraordinary collection of plants in the walled garden of perennials.

The fact that they are of mature size, well maintained, and number in the hundreds certainly contributes to the spender of the present-day Powerscourt garden.

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Flower Beds Revolutionized English Garden

Flower beds revolutionized English garden.

We take flower beds for granted, but at one time they became revolutionary, making a statement against the current garden fashion.

The story began in early nineteenth century England when gardeners needed room for the unusual plants coming into the country from Asia, Africa, and America.

Plant collectors risked dangers and even death to provide the unusual and unknown flora from around the world.  English gardeners could not get enough of such plants.

The question became ‘Where do I plant them?’ for many gardeners.  After decades of stately lawns in front of and behind the house, there seemed little space to showcase these latest garden novelties.

stuart-plants-and-gardens-2David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes, “When Lady Grenville, in exasperation [about where she would plant the new flowers coming into England from around the world], cut some large circles of the lawn in front of her drawing-room windows, and filled them with scarlet bergamots, blue salvias or yellow cosmos, she broke a century’s taboo, and started a colossal new movement.”

That was 1825. The garden has not been its old eighteenth century version since.

Here a simple act by Lady Grenville, or rather by her gardener, changed gardening.

Late eighteenth century landscape gardener Humpry Repton (1752-1818) had encouraged flowers in the landscape, even suggesting a rosarium for a rose collection. Flowers were not new. What was new was where they were planted in the landscape.

Flower beds on the lawn then became common practice both in England and America.

By 1880 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  took flower beds for granted. The beds on the lawn, he advised, needed to include annuals that bloom for the entire season. 

He wrote, “A few flower beds may be made, and usually near the borders, or opposite windows, and they should be of simple, graceful forms, and look well the whole summer, and every day and all day.”

Lady Grenville’s example illustrates how sometimes what we take for granted in gardening has a history.

Why we garden in a particular way and with certain plants expresses the culture of a particular time and place.

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