Milwaukee Honored Alexander von Humboldt

Milwaukee honored Alexander von Humboldt. The city named both a street and park after the nineteenth century German scientist.

I was born and raised in Milwaukee.

The city played an important role in making the German plant explorer, scientist, and writer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) more familiar to Americans.

Humboldt Boulevard, a street on the east side of Milwaukee, croses Fratney Street where my brother and his family lived for many years.

Humboldt Boulevard was named after Alexander von Humboldt.

Humboldt Park in the Bay View area of south-east Milwaukee, not far from Lake Michigan, was given its name in 1900, also to honor the German scientist.

Today the Milwaukee County Parks website says this about the 45-acre Humboldt Park: “Home of Milwaukee’s Craft Beer Garden, Humboldt Park also features a bandshell, ball fields and courts, a lagoon for fishing and ice skating, plenty of pathways, and community events all year long.”

Here is photo of the park from the early twentieth century. [below]

Humboldt Park [Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee]

This is a more recent view of Humboldt Park.  [below]

Humboldt Park [Courtesy of Milwaukee County Parks]

British author Andrea Wulf wrote a book about Humboldt called  The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World . The book is a joy to read because you see the impact of Humboldt on ecology, a field he pioneered. Wulf says, “His name was a household name around the country after he published his book called Cosmos.”

Cosmos appeared in five volumes from 1845 to 1862.

After 1850 Milwaukee was home to many German immigrants.  They developed a beer industry that gave the city several breweries including Pabst, which became the largest brewery in the world by the 1890s.

Wulf writes that “The U.S. Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, sent Humboldt nine American maps that showed all the different towns, counties, mountains, and rivers that were named after him.”

So when, so many years ago, I rode the bus on Humboldt Boulevard, I was honoring Alexander von Humboldt, the German scientist. I never knew that til now.

 

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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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Empress Josephine’s Dahlia Gift

Empress Josephine’s dahlia gift

I first came across the name Aime Bonpland, the nineteenth century French botanist, while I was researching the history of growing and selling dahlias.

Aime Bonpland (1773-1858) [Courtesy of Biografias y Vidas]

Bonpland (1773-1858) became the head gardener for Empress Josephine for ten years at her summer residence outside of Paris called Chateau Malmaison.

It is there Josephine insisted on the landscape style of the English garden of the eighteenth century. And so it was designed in that fashion [below]

View of the park at Malmaison [Gaverney]

Bonpland had been the travel companion in Latin America to Alexander Von Humboldt in their famous trip from 1799 to 1804. [below]

Humboldt and Bonpland in the Amazon rainforest (1850)

It is said that in the early 1800s Bonpland brought back from his trip dahlia seeds to present to Empress Josephine for her wonderful collection of plants.

Martin Kral writes in his well-researched paper “Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology: The Dahlia in History” that Bonpland and Humboldt saw dahlias growing all around them as they traveled in Latin America.

When he returned to Europe, Humboldt focused on writing his treatise on nature called Cosmos.

Andrea Wulf in her  book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World writes, “Humboldt’s botanical publications in Paris were delayed because Bonpland was now the head gardener to Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, at Malmaison, her country estate just outside Paris.”

Bonpland was a botanist, interested in plants, and slow to respond to Humboldt’s request he help with writing about what they had experienced on their trip.

It was Humboldt who would record their five years in Latin America, leaving a lasting legacy in his writing. He saw in the trip a new way to look at nature, a forerunner to what we now call ‘ecology’.

Humboldt and Bonpland were, however, a good pair for traveling together since they complemented one another with their individual skills.

Bonpland returned to Latin America after Josephine’s death in 1814.

 

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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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Exploring Early Dahlia History

Exploring early dahlia history

Since I am interested in how we came to garden with dahlias, I set on a journey to study dahlia history.

Dahlias came from Mexico’s Aztec nation.

According to Martin Kral’s article “Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology: The Dahlia in History there is much confusion on the plant’s origin.

There is no evidence, he argues, that the dahlia was Montezuma’s favorite flower, as some have proposed, but it was part of Aztec gardens.

Kral says, “When the first dahlias were grown in Spain in 1789, the stock most likely came from [those] historic Aztec gardens.”

Thus I discovered a link to the Spanish invasion of Mexico by Hernan Cortes in the sixteenth century.

The new book I then had to read for more background was When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting That Changed History by historian Mathew Restall.

As I was reading the book, I remembered that  the name ‘dahlia’ was given to the flower after it appeared in Europe in the late 1700s. Thus I probably would not find much about dahlias in this book.

I was right.

What I did find was how difficult it was to understand the purpose of  the meeting in 1519 between Montezuma and Cortes.

Did Montezuma simply surrender to the Spanish?

That is what some history books over the centuries have claimed.

What Restall points out is that it is not as clear as history books have claimed.

He writes, “Preserving and perpetuating the Meeting as Surrender became increasingly important not just to the Mexican case, but to the entire enterprise of Spanish conquest in the Americas. It was the paramount parable of justification.”

Though I saw no reference to the dahlia, I did learn how authors have interpreted the meeting between Montezuma and Cortes from the very beginning.

Cortes did find elaborately landscaped gardens. The Aztecs cultivated island gardens for food that they grew.

An early history of the conquest does mention gardens among the Aztecs.

In 1568 Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote a biography of Cortes called The History of the Conquest of New Spain.

Diaz referred to the royal Aztec nursery at Huaxtepec as “the best I have ever seen in all my life.”

It was not, however, until two hundred years later that the dahlia appeared in Europe, first in Spain then in the early 1800s in Germany, France, and England.

By the 1830s the east coast of the United States saw a robust nursery trade in dahlias.

Kral concludes, “The dahlia arrived [in Spain] as part of the 18th century expeditionary plant collection.”

 

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Connecticut’s Flower Show Included Rose Tale

Connecticut’s Flower Show Included rose tale.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick included a letter from a customer in his Vick’s illustrated Monthly of 1878.  

The letter said, “A distinguished divine said that a Rose is the autograph of God. His signature, in the house or in the garden, is a benediction of sweetness and beauty.”

The Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, held a few days ago in Hartford, included a wonderful exhibit about the rose.

The Connecticut Rose Society created a setting for the mythical Bavarian town called Rosenburg.

The details in the exhibit, including its colorful backdrop, caught my eye. I couldn’t resist checking it out. [below]

The Connecticut Rose Society’s exhibit at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show

In the town of Rosenburg roses flourish in the best of conditions.

Baron von Herz who lives in the tall castle on the mountain grows roses for his wife.

The people in the town also cultivate many rose gardens that include climbing roses as well.

Unfortunately the Baron becomes ill and dies.

His widow, distraught over her husband’s death, turns against the town people who treasure their roses.

She sends diseases like black fungus spores and destructive insects to their roses. She holds these pests in her beatiful embroidered bag meant to deceive onlookers.

The villagers call her Baroness Dunkelherz (Baroness Darkheart).

The only recourse the townspeople have is to watch for her visit.

Thus the roses continue to bloom only with vigilance at all times.

Doesn’t that seem to be the story in cultivating any rose?

The Connecticut Rose Society told the story well.

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Victorian Home Landscape Demanded Flowerbeds

Victorian home landscape demanded flowerbeds.

Flowers for a home landscape of any size were important in the late nineteenth century.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote that farmers, laborers as well the middle class, anyone, could plant flowers to enjoy.  Flowerbeds belonged not only to the garden of the estate owner.

He made promoting floriculture his life-long goal in his business.

In many ways Vick followed the practices of other seed merchants. His appeal to sell flowers, particularly to women, was what other companies were also doing at that same time.

Seedsman Azell Bowditch from Boston, for example,  wrote in his catalog: “We shall endeavor to keep pace with the ‘Flowery Age’ in which we live, and hope to be able, by attention and care, to supply our patrons with all the valuable varieties of seeds that can be obtained at any other seed establishment in the Union.”

In this illustration from Vick’s 1874 seed catalog you see a family outside their home, enjoying the outdoors. [below]

On the lawn near the house the owner planted flowerbeds, or, as they called then, carpet beds.

Annuals filled three lage beds to bring color to the landscape.

This image introduced Vick’s annual seeds in the catalog.

Thus he illustrated for his customers what the home landcape could look like with beds of colorful flowers.

 

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1876 Centennial Exhibition Featured Conservatories

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition featured conservatories.

The Victorian gardener in the late nineteenth century sought exotic plants that displayed color and form whether in the garden or in the house.

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia showcased the love of such plants, especially in the windows of the house and in the glass houses or conservatories that many homes could then afford.

Schlereth Victorian AmericaThomas J. Schlereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “The horticultural hall [at the Exhibition in Philadelphia] represented the Victorian love of exotic gardens in glass conservatories.”

The Victorian conservatory became an extension of the house.

Such greenhouses served an important role in the life and work of the nineteenth century gardener.

When glass became less expensive in the late 1830s, the middle class plant lover could afford to have such a conservatory or greenhouse.

In 1892 the Parker and Wood Seed Company in Boston issued a seed catalog with a black and white drawing of an upper middle class house. Two men and two women were playing badminton on the front lawn. (below)

You also can see  a large conservatory attached to the house at the left. The conservatory provided a setting for tropical plants that the owner could cultivate and perhaps during the warm months position outdoors so the plant could enjoy the season’s warmth and rain.

A potted plant like a palm or lemon tree also added an exotic touch to the garden.

Conservatory as part of the house in this 1892 Parker and Wood Seed Catalog

Attached conservatory in Parker and Wood Seed Catalog of 1892 [Mass Hort]

The Victorian conservatory, attached to the house, appeared both in England and America, assuring hours of gardening pleasure for its owner.

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We All Garden for Different Reasons

We all garden for different reasons.

As you know, people garden for various reasons.

Every gardener you ask would probably give a different answer.

Recently I came across a letter from one of the readers of the nineteenth century garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, published by Rochester, New York seed company owner, James Vick (1818-1882).

 Every issue of the magazine included letters from his audience of readers, spread around the country.

 In the August 1878 issue of the magazine one reader wrote, “Thousands of people grow flowers and derive no happiness from their culture, and often a good deal of pain. They grow flowers for the same reason that they build costly houses and dress extravagantly – to excel their neighbors, for display and ostentation.”

Vick’s Flower Chromo E, 1874

Gardening to such a person, according to the writer, meant keeping up with the latest garden fashion.

It was important to such a gardener to display that fashion as well.

The writer makes the point that there was “a good deal of pain” in this type of gardening.

Perhaps because it was done not for the joy of it, but for the display it provided for one’s neighbors.

For many gardeners there is a physical, emotional, and even spiritual joy that comes from spending time in the garden with plants, water, earth, and stone.

Perhaps that is one reason today we read about the focus on meditation and contemplation associated with gardening.

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Early Monasteries Encouraged Flowers

Early monasteries encouraged flowers.

The early monasteries of Europe like that of St. Benedict, founded in the sixth century, included walled gardens.

Benedict is recognized as the founder of Christian monasticism. Today the Benedictine order is one of the largest in the Catholic Church.

Monastery hallway [Thanks to Pexels]

The early monasteries of that period also cultivated flowers for religious decoration.

Jack Goody says in his book The Culture of Flowers, “It was mainly the monastic branch of the church that came to advance horticulture and eventually nourished their production and use.

“Monastic gardens harbored not only fruit, vegetable and shade trees, but plants later to be destined for the decoration of altars on holy days. Many of the early monastic gardens concentrated on flowers for their medicinal properties and the related culinary ones.

“That was a slow process that covered some thousand years.”

Eventually it would become second nature for churches to use flower decorations and displays with other plants like cuttings of evergreens.

The practice of decorating the altar and the sanctuary along with the outside of the church is now an accepted custom.

Now it’s that time of year when churches decorate for Christmas. 

A reader wrote to New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) in 1879 and said,  “We have for years trimmed our church for Christmas, using about twelve hundred feet of Hemlock wreathing.”

During this Christmas season we think nothing of using poinsettias to brighten the church sanctuary.

The poinsettia, introduced in the mid-ninetenth century to the nursery trade, is now a staple of Christmas church decoration.

The Benedictine nun St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) encouraged the well-being of soul, body, and mind with the flowers and herbs she grew in her monastery garden.

When you think about it, the accepted practice of cultivating flowers in the garden owes a bit of thanks to these early monasteries of Europe.  

They encouraged flower gardening at a time when many cultures shunned it.

Goody says, “Gradually, through the course of the Middle Ages, Europe experienced a revival of the garden and the garland, as well as of botany and of gardening.”

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