Garden Renewed: Rescue of an Old Place

Recently I finished reading a book, published in 1892, called The Rescue of an Old Place.

The book traces the journey of a late nineteenth century couple to renew a Victorian garden.

 

 

Author

The author, Mary Caroline Robbins, tells the story of discovering the home and renewing its landscape in Hingham, Massachusetts, not too far from where I live.

She and her husband purchased the property in the early 1890s.

Robbins writes, “The site of the old house, shaded by some fine Elms and White Ashes, was too near both streets to be at all desirable, though the shrubbery and the tangled remains of an old flower-garden rendered it very attractive.”

She could see the potential in the landscape, though it had long been neglected and seemed to be  crying out for attention.

Winter Street

Their house sat on four-acres along Winter Street.

On a recent visit to Hingham I drove down Winter Street. Though I could not find the house, I saw the contours of the land along each side of the street.

I also noticed that part of the street bordered on a marsh with water that came from the near-by ocean.

Hingham is a town along the coast that attracts people who covet a quaint New England seacoast town.

Garden

The book devotes a great deal of space to the poor condition of the trees and shrubs as well the garden.

As I was reading it, I could see how clearly the author wanted to make the landscape attractive.

She sought to save much of the existing plantings, identifying much that she found on the property.

She named the property ‘Overlea.’

Robbins writes, “When came to examine matters at Overlea, as we named our acquisition,  from its command of the meadow, we found that a good sweeping and dusting would do wonders for it.”

But it was the long-neglected Victorian flower garden that called out to her.

She wrote, “Next to our tree garden came the old-fashioned flower garden as an object of care and interest in the renovation of the place.”

She restored it with popular Victorian perennials and annuals.

The life of a garden

Though a garden may decline and even cease to exit because of neglect, some form of regular maintenance will preserve a gardener’s work for a long time, even generations.

Gardeners know the challenge so well.

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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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Plant Language Shapes Reality

Plant language shapes reality – 

I just can’t say enough about Andrea Wulf’s book on Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) called  The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World.

As a retired professor of Communication Studies, I was happy to read her comments on Humboldt’s brother Wilhelm and the latter’s theory about language.

Wilhelm was an educator, interested in ideas and the pursuit of knowledge.

He identified the purpose for language as much more than simply a vehicle for the writer or speaker to formulate an idea.

Language, he said, shapes the way we look at the world.

Wulf writes, “According to Wilhelm’s radical new theory, different languages reflected different views of the world. Language was not just a tool to express thoughts but it shaped thoughts…It was not a mechanical construct of individual elements but an organism, a web that wove together action, thought and speaking.”

The way we talk about plants is the way we relate to them.

For example, as soon as you hear the word ‘succulent’ you probably have a general idea of the kind of plant it is and perhaps its growing habit as well as water and light needs.

I heard recently from a young gardener that succulents are in today. Just the mention of the word can make people who are into plants come up with their ideas of the best and worse ways to deal with this group of plants.

I remember seeing Sansevieria ‘Black Star’ in the landscape at the wonderful estate in Miami called Vizcaya. [below]

There were several beds and borders that included this Sansevieria.  It has a beautiful green color with cream edging. Thus it can add color and structure to the landscape.

Then I realized that I grow it as a house plant as you can see from this table in our living room. [below]

Sansevieria ‘Black Star’

The word ‘succulent’ applied to the genus ‘Sansevieria’  told me what kind of plant it was.

Thanks to the website for Stokes Tropicals you can learn more about this plant:

“Sansevieria ‘Black Star’ is an easy-to-grow, double-duty (indoors or outdoors), exotic-looking plant that thrives on neglect.  Tolerates low humidity. Tolerates low water and low feeding. Tolerates being root bound. Few if any plants are as foolproof to grow.

“Sansevieria is a succulent plant, and needs a well-drained soil. Sansevieria are great and hardy house plants in the United States. You do not have to have a green thumb to grow a Sansevieria. “

The word ‘ succulent’ can mean, as it does for me, Sansevieria.

Wilhelm’s theory about language helps gardeners to see and deal with the world of plants.

Of course, we can’t forget two plant words that stir up all sorts of ideas and subsequent action. They are  ‘native’ and ‘exotic.’

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Plant Hunter Humboldt Became Early Environmentalist

Plant Hunter Humboldt Became Early Environmentalist

In reading garden history books, both old and new, I often came across the name Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859).

He was a nineteenth century German plant hunter, explorer, and scientist.

Humboldt became an early environmentalist. He saw plants, animals, rock, soil, and water as all connected.  We, as he often wrote, are one with the world around us.

When I found out one of my favorite garden authors Andrea Wulf had written a book about Von Humboldt, I searched the local library and found it.

The title of her book is The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World.

Humboldt gave us a new meaning for nature.

He journeyed to Latin America from 1799 to 1804 with French botanist Aime Bonpland. Together they climbed, walked, and just observed nature wherever they could.

In commenting on his travel, Wulf writes “as he describes how humankind was changing the climate, he unwittingly became the father of the environmental movement.”

As he was climbing Chimborgo Mountain in the Andes Humboldt “saw the whole of nature laid out before him.”

He had created a new vision of nature from his travels in Latin America.

As Wulf so clearly spells out in her book, Humboldt was not so much interested in finding isolated facts but in connecting them. As he said it, individual phenomena were only important ‘in their relation to the whole.’

Since I am interested in gardening and plants, whenever Andrea Wulf mentioned either of the two words I paid particular attention

She writes, “Instead of placing plants in their taxonomic categories, he saw vegetation through the lens of climate and location: a radically new idea that still shapes our understanding of ecosystems today.”

Today when we face so many issues about what to do about the state of the environment, Humboldt provides much insight for the direction we need to take.

We need to use our imagination, he wrote, to begin to address any solution.

 

 

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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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Love of Flowers Promotes Health and Well-Being

Love of flowers promotes health and well-being.

It is spring and the time of year that gardening takes off in full force.

One thing we need to do is to make sure we plant flowers so that we have color in the garden. Who wants to look at just a sea of green all summer? Not me.

We need flowers to survive.

At least that is what Stephen Buchmann writes in his book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives.

He says, “The belief that plants are beneficial for medical patients is at least one thousand years old. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, monks in monasteries built beautiful gardens to see and comfort the ill.”

Though I think that we have known of the medicinal value of plants much longer than one thousand years, he makes a point about how important plants are for our health and well-being.

Buchmann writes, “Plants are often the primary gifts given to hospital patients, and for good reasons.

“Flowers, whether in pots or flower beds, have taken on a new cultural and evolutionary role as our companion plants.

“Perhaps it is the flowers who have led us along garden paths, using their seductive petaled beauty, since they were first intentionally grown, tended, and admired in ancient gardens.”

Something about a flower, like this dahlia, brings a smile and a bit of joy to the human heart. [below]

‘Ketsup and Mustard’ Dahlia

We cultivate flowers because we need them. They are not just pretty. In some way they provide us with hope, health, and happiness.

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Strawflower Became Victorian Favorite

Strawflower became Victorian favorite

Lately I have devoted some time to consider what annuals I want to plant whether in containers or beds.

For that research I visited a local big box store.

In the large greenhouse area there I found the Licorice plant or Helichrysum petiolare, a low silvery green trailing plant with heart-shaped leaves. It is a native of South Africa.  You grow it more for its leaves than its flower.

Helichrysum is a genus that contains five hundred species of annuals, perennials, and shrubs.

What surprised me was that in the genus you once found the old-fashioned annual called strawflower, Helichrysum bracteatum. Today the strawflower however is listed as Xerochrysum bracteatum, formerly Bracteantha bracteata. [below]

Strawflowers [Courtesy of Selkie Island]

The strawflower was a favorite in Victorian times.

Ippolito Pizzetti and Henry Cocker write in their wonderfully helpful two-volume garden book Flowers: A Guide for Your Garden, “They are the classic Victorian everlasting flowers, used frequently during that period to make wreaths for cemeteries – an arrangement of the dried flowers often protected under glass. They were also used for decoration inside during the winter.”

A comment from the authors about the flower itself caught my eye. They write that the strawflower was an annual “whose flowers have the dubious distinction of being equally attractive dead or alive.”

James Vick (1818-1882) who owned a sizable seed company in Rochester, New York in the late nineteenth century included in his catalog of 1880 a section called “Everlastings.”

He said “The Everlastings, or Eternal Flowers, as they are sometimes called, have of late attracted a good deal of attention in all parts of the world.

“They  retain both form and color for years, and make excellent bouquets, wreaths, and every other desirable winter ornaments, and there is no prettier work.”

In the section he offered Helichrysum in colors of white, yellow, and red “of very many brownish shades.” Then he concluded it was “one of the best Everlastings.”

Vick was both echoing the importance of this flower and at the same creating it as a necessary part of every truly Victorian garden.

 

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Flowers – Companions on Life’s Journey

Flowers – companions on life’s journey.

This spring brought to my attention a book called The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives.

I never really thought about the role that flowers play in our daily lives.

The author scientist Stephen Buchmann writes, “With their beauty, flowers comfort us; they make us smile and ease our grief.”

In that simple statement he sums why, for centuries, people have treasured flowers.

Flowers are our companions on the journey of life.

Here is an illustration of flowers from the Parker and Wood Seed Company catalog of 1887. [below]

Flowers in 1887 catalog of the Parker & Wood Seed Company, Boston

That year’s marketing artwork represented the high Victorian period here in America. Such colorful flowers as carnations, pansies, mums, the sweet pea vine, and petunias added so much color to the home, the garden, celebrations, and even the sick bed.

Buchmann writes, “We garden with flowers and they soothe our minds and bodies. They inspire us.”

He says, “Flowers and people need and depend upon one another for mutual survival.”

His book opened up so many ways to understand and appreciate flowers in our everyday lives.  We plant and care for them for sure, but they give us so much back.

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Flower Gardens Followed Farming

Flower gardens followed farming.

It is spring and my thoughts turn to working in the garden.

My garden includes beds of perennials, colorful shrubs, many trees, vines, and soon several annuals that I simply must have.

It may seem that flower gardens have always been important.  That is not the case. What has always been important is survival.

In most cultures gardens filled with flowers only appeared after a long stretch of time devoted to farming that made available the food needed for the family table.

Stephen Buchmann writes in his fabulous book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives, “No cultures with agriculture develop pleasure gardens unless the collective belly is full.”

If you think about the beginning of our own country, a similar situation occurred.

Thomas Jefferson thought the whole country was to be built on the role of the farmer who worked the soil to provide for a family.

Throughout the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, there was little time for pleasure gardens, or gardens of flowers.

Most people were simply trying to survive.

Thus any working with the soil centered on agriculture.

Most early American garden magazines emphasized the progress of farming.

Certainly we know during this time gardeners grew some flowers, but that was not the focus for a home garden.

It was not until after 1850 that we saw the growth of flower gardens with the emergence of seed companies who had flower seeds to sell. Thus their customers could add a touch of beauty to the home landscape.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in 1878, “To any who can look back a quarter of a century, the increase of a love of flowers and their cultivation within that time seems almost marvelous.

“Twenty-five years ago a ‘laylock’ or two, a red ‘piney’ on either side of the front door, a few straggling, untrimmed rose bushes, and, perhaps, half-a-dozen bunches of the old-fashioned yellow Day Lily, constituted the floral adornments of even the most pretentious country homes.

“But, now, a day’s ride through almost any of our rural districts will reveal a succession of bright pictures upon which memory loves to linger.”

In the nineteenth century Rochester developed a thriving garden industry and the city became known as the ‘Flower City.’

Vick congratulated the seed industry for its help in bringing flowers into the home garden. He wrote, “There is no question that those same packages which, in the beginning of the year 1852, went out from ‘the flower city’ of the Empire State on their beneficent mission to all parts of the land, have had no small share in producing this happy change.”

 

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