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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We Still Grow Victorian Annuals

We still grow Victorian annuals

In 1890 the garden writer, poet, and song writer from Wisconsin Eben E. Rexford [below] wrote a book called Home Floriculture.

Eben E. Rexford (1888-1900)

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York published the book.

Rexford was a rather well-known writer in that Victorian period. It is not suprising that Vick agreed to publish the book.

Ads for the book appeared in the Vick seed catalog. Thus the company promoted the book as well.

Here is a chromolithograph of flowers that appeared in Vick’s seed catalog. [below] Many familiar annuals made up the mix.

Vick’s chromo of 1871 [courtesy of Millicent W. Coggon]

Rexford included a chapter in his book called “The Best Annuals.”

He recommended five annuals “for massing and making a brilliant show.” The Petunia, Phlox, Nasturtium, Calliopsis, and Aster made up the list.

The Vick Seed Company had been selling these flowers for many years. They are also quite familiar to gardeners today. They are among our favorite annuals.

The Victorian period gave us the annuals we still grow in the garden. We treasure them today, much like the Victorians at the end of the nineteenth century.

Through his book Home Floriculture Rexford became a source for what annuals to grow in the garden both yesterday and today.

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Victorian Garden Advice Works

Victorian garden advice works

Garden writers of the Victorian period can offer advice useful for today’s garden as well.

American gardener, writer, and poet Eben E. Rexford (1848-1916) wrote several books about gardening.

In 1890 Rexford first published his book Four Seasons in the Garden.

Several editions followed later in the early 1900s.

Rexford included a chapter called “The Garden in Summer.” In it he addressed several topics familiar to any gardener.

His list of annuals, for example, seems like the summer plants you’d still find at any nursery or big box store. They included Dahlia, Gladiolus, Sweet Pea, Pansies, Asters, and Petunias.

He advised the gardener to make sure to keep up with watering as needed.

Then he wrote about the importance of weeding. He said, “While most of the work of pulling weeks ends with June, it will be necessary to continue the warfare against them, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the season.”

How well we gardeners know that.

Then I was surprised to read his list of summer plants with showy leaves, a must for any garden.

Rexford said, “Beds of ornamental foliage, like the Coleus, Alternanthera, Achyranthes, Pyrethrum, and Centaurea, will require constant and careful attention if you would have them afford entire satisfaction.”

He endosed the mass planting of such ornamental foliage.

He wrote, “If planted in rows or patterns, they must be clipped two or three times a week to prevent the several colors used from reaching out beyond the limits assigned them and blending with other colors, thus destroying that distinctness of outline upon which much of the beauty of a bed of foliage plants depends.”

Boston Athenaeum

Recently I found Rexford’s book at the downtown Boston Athenaeum.

Still in the pocket of the book was a return slip with the date of July 11, 1907 stamped on the slim but well-used card.

Over a hundred years ago someone checked out this book at about this time in the summer, perhaps for some ideas on the summer garden.

Rexford speaks to today’s gardener as much as he did to the Victorian gardener of his day.

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Containers Dominated Boston Flower Show

Containers dominated Boston Flower Show

Last week I took the Silver line train into the Seaport section of Boston for the annual Boston Flower and Garden Show.

The weekday that I attended a moderate amount of visitors filled the Seaport Center. It was easy to navigate the floor.

What took me by surprise was the emphasis on container gardening.

It was captured in the exhibit by Miscovsky Landscaping called “Potlandia.” [below]

Giant terra-cota pots stood out in this exhibit by Miskovsky Landscaping from Falmouth.

The exhibit included three giant planters, each probably ten feet tall.

These pots made of terra-coat were painted in bring, attractive colors.

The plantings in each of them were pretty much the same. The center of the pot included a Japanese maple along with shrubs and perennials. Remember these containers were quite large.

The exhibit won a prize of $2000 for its outstanding forced plant material, including fruit trees.

You could see many bulbs throughout the design.

I took this photo to provide a perspective on the size of the containers. [below]

The exhibit called ‘Potlandia.’

There is no question that the size of the containers made a bold statement about the importance of the container in the landscape.

I got that.

So as I walked around the Show every container after that seemed to be important.

The exhibit by Terrascape Design had wrought iron planters with wonderful brightly colored plants.

A series of window boxes even caught my eye. Many great plants filled each of them.

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Ordering Dalia Tubers

Ordering dahlia tubers –

Right now I am receiving garden catalogs, many with dahlias to sell.

In the past I have searched both on-line sources and catalogs to find a particular dahlia tuber that I wanted to plant.

Often no luck.

It seems to me it is better to choose from the selection offered than spend time looking for a particular variety. There are, after all, over 10,000 registered dahlias.

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

Dahlia History

American gardeners have been ordering dahlias since the early 1800s.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) had over 500 dahlia varieties in his trial fields.

He sold named varieties and his own hybrids for that time.

The flower has had its ups and downs since the beginning.

Now you might say there is a Renaissance of interest in growing dahlias. We like everything about this flower. 

If the popular dahlia shows in September are any indicator, there are a lot of people today who love dahlias.

Price

The price of a dahlia tuber can vary quite a bit.

Take ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ as an example. With its dark leaves and bright red flowers, it is one of my favorite dahlias.

The least expensive online price for one tuber is $3.25, and the most expensive $11.95.

Quite a difference.

Vick offered ‘White Aster’  in his catalog of 1880 for 25 cents.

You can still buy ‘White Aster’ today, but, of course, at the current rate.

I can see why Vick wrote in his seed catalog: “The Dahlia is the grandest Autumn Flower we have.”

 

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Victorian Annuals Still Popular

Victorian annuals still popular –

I have visited the downtown Georgian Mansion called the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, NH many times.

What I like about it is that the garden skeleton basically dates back to the Victorian period. Today the gardeners, mostly volunteers, have sought to use garden drawings and written material as a guide for how the garden should look.

Luckily in 1990 Joseph Copley, curator of the Portsmouth Historical Society, found the garden journal of the late nineteenth century owner Alexander H. Ladd (1815-1900).

Ladd took possesion of the mansion in 1862. Over the years he lived there he became passionate about his garden, located behind the house.

In his journal Ladd writes about several annuals he regularly planted that are still popular today.

He mentions these annuals that he grew in his garden: pansy, petunia, sweet pea, verbena, and zinnia.

To make room for his spring narcissus, Ladd planted narcissus bulbs in an area where he had earlier planted verbena.

He wrote on November 7, 1889, “I planted Verbena bed with my largest selected Poets Narcissus – of which 608 (illegible) put in this bed.”

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) also wrote about the verbena in his seed catalog under the section called ‘Annuals.’

Vick wrote in 1873, “Well-known and universally popular bedding plants; may be treated as half-hardy annuals.”

Here is a colorful illustration from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly of 1880. [Below]

Verbenas, Vick’s Illustrated Monthly [Courtesy of the New York Public Library]

The tradition of planting Victorian annuals like verbena continues.

Little did Ladd suspect that his favorite annuals would remain popular with gardeners over a century later.

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Who Doesn’t Love Flowers?

Who doesn’t love flowers?

The  book The Rescue of an Old Place tells the story of restoring a house and its garden in the late nineteenth century.

The location is Hingham, Massachusetts, a New England seacoast town.

The author Mary Caroline Robbins shows little tolerance for those who would doubt America’s love of flowers.

She writes, “While we and our neighbors are doing our best to stock our grounds with ornamental shrubs and blossoms, it is discouraging to be told by some of our periodicals, which are probably edited by gentlemen who live chiefly in towns, that Americans do not love flowers, because they are used among the rich and fashionable in reckless profusion, for display rather than enjoyment.”

The book traces her journey to restore the flower gardens on the seacoast property she and her husband had purchased.

She says, “I wish that our urban critics could walk through this ancient town, and be introduced to its flower lovers, and get a glimpse of its interesting gardens, before they make up their minds so positively about the tendencies of our people.”

Loving flowers – basic to human nature

“The flower-dealers of the country” she says “need have no apprehension as to the future of their industry. It is based on one of the elementary wants of our nature. Flowers will be loved until the constitution of the human mind is radically changed.”

She writes about the popular flower California poppy. [below]

Eschscholtzia, the California poppy, is the State flower.

She says, “The State flower of California was introduced to the children of that commonwealth as the Eschscholtzia before they could spell it, but this does now prove any lack of love or admiration for it on their part.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) loved flowers.

He wrote these words about California’s poppy in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1878:

“The Eschoscholtzia Californica, as its name indicates, is a native of California. We have seen it in Europe grown by the acre for supplying the world with its seeds, but no where so gorgeous as in its native home.

Because of his own passion for flowers Vick tirelessly encouaged growing them in the garden.

Like Vick, Mary Caroline Robbins thought flowers were an essential part of any garden.

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Remembering Years of Pleasure from Gardening

Remembering years of pleasure from gardening

Alexander Hamilton Ladd (1815-1900) lived in a colonial mansion on downtown Market Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

William Whipple, an eighteenth century relative and the original owner of the house, had signed the Declaration of Independence.

A horse chestnut that Whipple planted in 1776 when he returned from the signing in Philadelphia still stands in the front to the side of the house.

Today, however, A. H. Ladd is remembered primarily for his garden in the back of the property.

Alexander H. Ladd’s garden journal

Ladd kept a journal of his work of many years in the garden.  The journal, discovered only in 1990, became a book simply titled Alexander H. Ladd’s Garden Book 1888-1895: A 19th Century View of Portsmouth.  It recounts his love of gardening.

After many years of working in the garden Ladd reflected on how much the garden meant to him.

In a letter to his son William dated Saturday, November 16, 1895 Ladd wrote about the pleasure the garden had given him for so many years.

He said, “I think it [the garden] is as good and productive a garden as any in the state, and I have never seen a better one. I have been at work upon it for 30 years and have gotten lots of pleasure, health, and vegetables from it.”

Very simply stated, isn’t it?

He enjoyed gardening because of the pleasure it gave him.

Ladd planted thousands of tulips every Fall. He dug them up after blooming and stored them for planting later for the next spring.

His love of gardening included dark moments as well.  These are moments when you ask yourself, is it all worth it?

Ladd wrote in his journal on October 24, 1889, after planting dozens of tulips, “I can never do better, and perhaps not so well again, and have lost much interest in this Hobby.”

He gardened, inspite of dark moments, because of the pleasure it gave him.

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Nineteenth Century Botanical Art Book Illustrated Social Status

Nineteenth century botanical art book illustrated social status.

Botanical art reveals wondrous details about plants through the eyes of the artist.

Ronald King, former Secretary at the Botanic Gardens in Kew, in his book Botanical Illustration says, “It was not until 1530 that attention was turned fully upon the plant and an effort to draw it as it actually appeared.”

Once interest in the study of botany took off in the eighteenth century, especially with Linnaeus’ triumph in coming up with a system to categorize plants, botanical art also grew.

The English physician Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) became interested in botany and made botanical writing his career.

In 1807 Thornton published a book of botanical art with the title New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus. He wanted to promote the work of Linnaeus who distinguished plants by their method of reproduction.

The subtitle was Temple of Flora. The book became an important nineteenth century example of botanical art as well social status.

In his book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives Stephen Buchman writes, “The most famous work of botanical scientific illustration of all time is the unique Temple of Flora by Englishman Robert John Thornton.”

Thornton enlisted artists Peter Henderson and Philip Reinagle for most of the twenty-eight paintings in the book called a florilegium but did this painting of the cabbage rose himself. [below]

Cabbage Rose by Robert John Thornton from Temple of Flora published in 1807

King defines ‘florilegium’ as a book with portraits of flowers included for their ornamental value.

Buchman writes “The Temple of Flora is properly known as a florilegium, and such books were popular with the wealthy and privileged from the second half of the eighteenth century through the early twentieth century.”

Access to works of botanical art during Thornton’s time was restricted to the more educated and wealthy.

Eventually by the early twentieth century when printing became cheaper and mass education was the norm, books of botanical art were available to everyone.

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Tulip Mania Provides Garden Marketing Lesson

Tulip mania provides garden marketing lesson.

The tulip has long been a popular spring flower.

Here is an illustration from Boston’s W. W. Rawson seed catalog of 1904. [below]

An illustration of tulips that appeared in the W. W. Rawson Seed Catalog of 1904

A new tulip farm of several acres opened in Rhode Island a couple of years ago.

Now for two or three weeks in April hundreds of people flock to see the fields of thousands of tulips in bloom.  You need a reservation just to visit.

Though today they are precious to every gardener, tulips once were out of reach of most people when they commanded high prices and were sold to the highest bidder.

That happened during the seventeenth century in Holland when the first tulips were arriving from Turkey and Iran. We called the frenzy tulip mania.

Tulip mania provides a lesson in the power of garden marketing.

Stephen Harris says in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden, 1501-1900 “During tulip mania, staggeringly high prices were paid for individual bulbs. A single bulb of one of the rarest and most prized, ‘Semper August’, was sold for up to twice the price of an Amsterdam house.”

The market for the tulip had grown to such an extent that only the rich could afford them.

Tulip mania, with its limited market, ended in the winter of 1636-37.

In his book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How they Change Our Lives Stephen Buchman writes “Fortunately tulip bulbs no longer command astronomical prices as they are easily mass produced.”

Eventually growers in Holland figured out how to grow tulip bulbs in large numbers.

The marketing that resulted from the mass production of tulips meant persauding every homeowner to grow them, no matter the size of the garden.

No surprise that scenes like the illustration in Rawson’s catalog appeared often.

As Harris says, “By the late eighteenth century, as more cultivars were developed and effectively propagated, prices had dropped dramatically; 730 named tulips in one catalogue ranged in price from a few pence to several shillings per bulb.”

Today most plants you buy at that big box store or garden center are there because they have been mass produced and mass marketed to gardeners like you and me to emphasize their appeal.

Thus we probably won’t see another tulip mania.

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