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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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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Late Nineteenth Century Gardens Included Perennials

Late nineteenth century gardens included perennials –

Last week I visited the Moffatt-Ladd House and Garden on Market Street in the seacoast city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Portsmouth is home to several historic gardens in the downtown area. Because of its long tradition as an important early American seacoast city Portsmouth includes Colonial, Georgian, and Victorian styles of architecture and landscape.

In 1912 the National Society of the Colonial Dames acquired the Moffatt-Ladd House. Built in the late 1700s, the house once belonged to William Whipple, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The landscape includes an elaborate garden which, in its present form dates to the second half of the nineteenth century when Alexander Hamilton Ladd (1815-1900) owned the property.

Ladd kept a journal of what he planted in the garden. The journal, simply called Alexander H. Ladd Garden Book 1888-1895: A 19th Century View of Portsmouth was discovered only a few years ago and is now available for anyone to read. It provides a wonferful glimpse of American garden history.

In the book Ladd carefully lays out his work in the garden. At one point he planted 60,000 tulips.  Plants were his true love.

He also wrote about his beds and borders of perennials, which, by the late nineteenth century, had become a popular form of gardening, replacing the use of annuals. By the 1870s English garden celebrities writer William Robinson and landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll were encouraging perennial borders.

Rochester, New York nurseryman George Ellwanger (1816-1906) wrote a book called The Garden’s Story in 1889. He  argued against both the stiff formal garden and carpet, or ribbon, beds. He noted that “the objectionable forms of gardening are being superseded by a more natural style–a revival of the old-fashioned hardy flower borders, masses of stately perennials.”

Today you can still see that garden fashion in the garden at the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth. Beds of stately perennials instead of the dreaded carpet beds and ribbon beds of annuals fill the garden. [below]

Perennials in the garden at the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Though it was a very hot day when I visited, I enjoyed this reveal of garden history.

Thanks to all the volunteers who work in the garden to keep it in the style Ladd first laid out in the late nineteenth century.

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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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