Victorian England Loved US Native Plants

Victorian England loved US native plants.

During the nineteenth century, the English sometimes included a garden called the ‘American Garden’, an area in the landscape filled with American native shrubs and perennials.

The English loved American native plants, like Rudbeckia or Black-eyed Susan, Baptisia australis or False blue indigo, and Phlox.

Here is a Baptisia australis growing in my garden. [below] The plant is a beautiful addition to the garden, and almost care-free.

Baptista Australis, garden of Thomas Mickey, Rye, NH. Photograph by Ralph Morang

Baptisia australis, in my garden [Photograph by Ralph Morang]

New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly  in November 1880, “Our readers would be surprised if they could know how great a variety of hardy plants from all parts of the world are brought under cultivation for ornament in Great Britain and Europe. Some of the plants of our fields and prairies that we should consider least likely to be so employed find favor in the yards of our trans-atlantic cousins.”

The rhododendron from America enjoyed the reputation of an exceptional plant for the Victorian English garden while at the time America knew little about the plant.

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly wrote in 1870, “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”

The Harlan P. Kelsey Company, a nursery in Boston, said in its company catalog of 1892, “While the whole earth outside the United States has been searched and explored to obtain the choicest trees and plants for beautifying our American parks, lawns, cemeteries, and gardens, yet the more beautiful American plants are rarely seen in cultivation, and, as a rule, are unknown to Americans.”

Today things have changed. Across the country gardeners everywhere cultivate native plants.

It seems like it took us a long time to accept the fact that native plants can contribute a great deal to the garden.




Victorian Women Required Gravel Walks

Victorian women required gravel walks.

Gravel walkways have long been a tradition for the English garden. Some argue that the English perfected the gravel pathway which included designing, installing, and maintaining it throughout the year.

Gravel walkways in the Victorian garden were necessary because women would not walk on the grass.

In her book The Victorian Flower Garden Jennifer Davis wrote, “Gravel walks were thought necessary in Victorian days for [as one manual of the era points out] tender and delicate ladies ‘who will not set the sole of their feet upon grass.’ “

This gravel way, thank to The Gallician blog

A gravel walk in a garden [thanks to My Galician Garden blog]

Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon wrote in his early garden book American Gardener (1806) “Roll the walks once a week regularly after either turned or new laid; such will render them firm and neat, and also greatly prevent the growth of weeds.”

McMahon borrowed most of the content of his book from English garden writers so his advice follows the English tradition of gravel walks.

He ends his discussion of walks with these words, “It is a general rule among neat gardeners, who are allowed sufficient help, to roll and sweep the gravel walks every Saturday.”

According to nineteenth century Rochester,New York seedsman James Vick, the English used arsenic to keep down the weeds on a gravel walk.

That also helped of course to prevent Victorian women from tripping on any weeds as they walked the gravel path.


Growing Flowers Once Linked to Social Status

Growing flowers once linked to social status.

How I remember my visit to England’s Rousham, a grand old house with a landscape by William Kent, dating back to the eighteenth century.

A massive lawn fills much of the property and stretches to the walls of the house.

I enjoyed walking the gravel pathways of the walled garden of shrubs and flowers.

The walled garden held both vegetables and cut flowers in keeping with the tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth century English garden for the wealthy.

Scourse writes in her book The Victorians and their Flowers, “Flowers like the pink were only to be found in humble gardens during the eighteenth century, for those of the rich were fashionable landscapes where flowers had no place, except hidden behind kitchen-garden walls.”

The high red brick walls became home to the many gardeners who worked at the estates of the wealthy during the summer months. They provided food for the table and flowers for decorating in the house.

Rousahm Walled Garden

Rousham’s walled garden with the house in the background

Scourse suggests that the kind of flowers that the wealthy cultivated were not the same as the cottager or the mechanic grew in their own garden.

She writes, “In accordance with the snobbery of the period, flowers as well as gardeners thus had a tradition of class. Thus, the old ‘florists’ flowers’ were refered to as ‘mechanics’ flowers’ while there were others more fit for the rich man’s parterre.”

Laborers grew pinks, carnations, auriculas, anemones and hyacinths.

Who would have thought that growing a particular kind of flower expressed social status?

Eventually there came more exchange between the classes on gardening. Scourse writes, “Interest in flowers as well as the hobby of growing them was potentially a great leveler.”  Florist clubs and plant societies helped to bridge the gap.



Loudon Encouraged the Flower Garden

Loudon encouraged the flower garden.

English landscape gardener and writer John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), who followed Humphrey Repton, encouraged a landscape design with a picturesque look.

He also added the flower garden.

In 1836 he drew this plan [below] for N. M. Rothchild in which he included a serpentine or winding road into the property and trees spotted throughout the lawn to hide the public road. 

The plan reflected elements of the picturesque garden style that Loudon inherited from earlier landscape gardeners (designers) including William Kent and Capability Brown.

The plan also included a flower garden.

Flower gardens were not generally considered a part of the picturesque or naturalistic tradition, originating in the early 18th century. The sweeping lawn dominated the view.

Laird FlowringMark Laird, however, in his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800 makes the point that flowers were indeed part of that picturesque tradition.

Throughout his designs, beginning at Scone in Scotland, Loudon advocated  for flowerbeds in the landscape.

He maintained a prominent role as an English garden designer who also inspired American landscapes though the work of Andrew Jackson Downing, who considered Loudon his mentor.

It was thus no surprise that Downing also  included the flower garden in his design for the home landscape.


Victorians Went Wild for Orchids

Victorians went wild for orchids

Nineteenth century England enjoyed plants coming from around the world.

The garden would never be the same.

English garden writer and landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) coined the term ‘gardenesque’ to define the new kind of landscape where collections of plants took center stage.

Collecting plants, including orchids, motivated many gardeners, but mainly those with plenty of money.

Head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) in 1837 built the Great Conservatory for the Duke’s orchid collection. [below] The Duke began to collect exotic species and Chatsworth became the world’s largest collection of orchids at the time.

Other gardeners soon followed Paxton’s example in building similar structures for their plant collections, especially plants from a sub-tropical setting.


Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, built in 1837, demolished c. 1920

Nicolette Scourse writes in her book The Victorians and their Flowers “In the Victorian era, it was not unusual for a fanatical collector to have 18,000 orchids, and the varying requirements of the plants as well as their sheer numbers and size often demanded more than six greenhouses.”

It must have been hard for a Victorian gardener to compete with that amount of orchids in one collection.

In America the Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) consoled middle class gardeners, his customers, whose income might not have allowed even a few orchids.

Vick wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1879, “We may not, dear readers, be able to indulge in Camelias, and costly Ferns and Orchids, yet we can have flowers just as beautiful, almost for nothing.”

A nineteenth century middle class American gardener could enjoy beautiful flowers, just not orchids.

Scourse summed up the extravagant collecting of orchids in these words, “The wealthy were now seized by a craze for orchid flowers.”




The English Garden Inspired America’s Downing

The English garden inspired America’s Downing.

America’s early landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) drew heavily

Andrew Jackson Dowing

Andrew Jackson Dowing

on the writing of English landscape gardeners in his own work.

He also recognized that a professional gardener was not to be found on American soil.

Downing lamented that Americans knew little about designing and caring for a garden in the classic English meaning of the term.

He wrote, “We never remember an instance of an American offering himself as a professional gardener.”

Americans knew how to farm, but next to nothing about the ‘refined’ operation of the garden.

So where did Americans learn how to garden? From the English, of course.

He wrote, “We may, therefore, thank foreigners for nearly all the gardening skill that we have in the country, and  we are by no means inclined to underrate the value of their labors.”

He wrote these words in his article “American versus British Horticulture” in his magazine The Horticulturist in June of 1852. [below]

June 1, 1852

June 1, 1852

He wrote, “No two languages can be more different than the gardening tongues of England and America.”

Downing had been a fruit grower in New York. He sold his part of the business to his brother so he could devote his time to pursuing his goal of making American home landscapes reflect a sense of artful rural taste.

He wrote for the wealthy whose property spread over acres as well for the middle class gardener who had only an acre. His books like A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening and his magazine made him famous.

Downing’s primary guide was John Claudius Loudon, England’s most important garden writer and landscape gardener in the first half of the nineteenth century.




The American Garden versus the English Garden

The American Garden versus the English Garden.

Recently I came across an article by Noel Kingsbury that brought out the difference between the English garden and the American garden.

The name of the article was Why American yards will never rival British gardens.

I couldn’t believe it.

The story features Daniela Coray, an American garden designer who studied in England where she won awards for her designs. She later came to America to work as a garden designer for a Washington, DC garden center.

Coray said, “This is a key difference between American and English gardening… it’s a status symbol. We don’t have a robust gardening culture and I rarely have clients interested in planting.”

Americans, she argues, are more interested in how the garden provides a sense of social status.

I understand that motivation completely. It supports the reason that from the mid-nineteenth century many people spent fortunes on their suburban landscapes.

Last week I flew to Florida to attend the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition in Fort Lauderdale, a trade show for the green industry. The show included over 400 growers, many from southern Florida, with about 16,000 attendees who were mainly garden center owners in search of plants.

The day before the show started several of us took a special bus tour of gardens in the Coconut Grove section of Miami.

There we visited a beatiful garden, designed in a modern style, that showed exquisite use of lawn, shrubs, grasses, as well as orchids in the landscape. Here is a photo of the garden that I took that day. [below]

Florida garden with a modern design

Florida garden with a modern design

I think it is a beatiful garden.

Since the nineteenth century the seed companies and nurseries of America have considered the English garden the preeminent garden.

I think, however, we have some outstanding gardens here in America.

What do you think?


America Admired English Gardener Joseph Paxton

America admired English gardener Joseph Paxton.

Nineteenth century America knew the reputation of Paxton, the head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s estate Chatsworth in northern England.

Paxton became England’s most famous horticulturist in the mid-nineteenth century. His garden publication Magazine of Botany would see many years of circulation. Middle class gardeners became eager subscribers.

The history of English landscape design owes much to Joseph Paxton who designed Birkenhead Park, an early example of how a city could create public green space. The Park inspired Frederick Law Olmsted who wrote about his visit to Birkenhead.

Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) head gardener at Chatsworth, writer, and garden designer.

Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) head gardener at Chatsworth, writer, and garden designer.

American garden writers of the nineteenth century recognized Paxton’s role in the development of the garden, even though there is no record that he ever came to America.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly wrote about Paxton’s death in 1865.  Meehan said: “Paxton, by his example and success, has been one of the best friends the working gardener ever had, elevating him and his profession to a point never before attained, and is entitled to the honor of a Saint in the Horticultural Calendar, and to be held in ‘everlasting remembrance’ .”

The fact that Meehan mentioned Paxton in his magazine illustrates how important English gardening was to America. Meehan proposed that Paxton be canonized as in the tradition of the Catholic Church which seeks to give its members an individual who can serve as an inspiration.

Paxton, as an English gardener, could well serve the role of one who could teach America how to garden.

In a sense he was, since often American nurserymen and seedsmen considered the English garden style superior to that of America.


Downing Admired Chatsworth

During the mid nineteenth century Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s premier nineteenth century landscape gardener, admired the garden at Chatsworth, the work of head gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865).

Andrew Jackson Dowing

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)

In 1850 Downing visited England’s Chatsworth, begun in 1617. He later wrote these words: “Chatsworth, the magnificent seat of the Duke of Devonshire, has the unquestionable reputation of being the finest private country residence in the world.”

You know since you need inspiration for a garden or landscape, you sometimes borrow ideas from other gardens you have visited. In one sense it is a high form of admiration.

Downing, like any gardener, found a certain enjoyment in visiting such grand gardens as Chatsworth. They inspired his writing about the kind of home ladnscape America needed at that time, a fashion quite similar to the English garden, though adapted for the American home.

He describes the landscape of Chatsworth in detail, including  the water fountains, the rock garden, the arboretum, the greenhouses, and, of course, the lawn that gives the sense of a park to the estate.

You can still see the Chatsworth lawn in the photo here.  [below] It is a lawn that Capability Brown installed during the eighteenth century, bestowing upon it even more historical importance.

The Lawn at Chatsworth

The Lawn at Chatsworth

Downing, a New York nurseryman who wrote several books and edited the magazine The Horticulturist,  admired the English garden style.  He admitted that his writing depended on the work of English horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon, who had published a garden magazine and many books.  Loudon’s magazine also included articles written by Downing.  Loudon was probably the most influential English garden writer in the first half of the nineteenth century.

What style does your garden represent?  Who is your inspiration for your garden?

Downing admired Joseph Paxton’s English garden at Chatsworth.


Paxton Garden Reflected Victorian Garden Fashion

Head gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) sought to provide his employer the Duke of Devonshire with the latest plants.

The Duke enjoyed such botanical treasures, sometimes including Paxton in his own travels to seek out new plants.

The plant everyone wanted and everyone coveted was the large water lily named Victoria amazonica or Victoria Regia. Paxton succeeded in bringing it into flower at Chatsworth where in 1849 in order to prove the strength of the leaves of the plant, Paxton’s daughter Annie stood on one of the leaves of the plant. [below]

At Chatsworth Paxton built a special lily house for the plant.


Paxton's daugher on the water lily

‘Annie on Lily Leaf’ Illustrated London News (November 17, 1849)

Years later at his own home outside of London called Rockhills, Paxton showed that he still pursued the latest garden fashion. There he lived in an elegant Victorian house on the corner of the Crystal Palace park. 

The landscape reflected the garden style of Victorian England of that period.

On the porch climbers like wisteria, passion flowers, and jasmine ran up the trellises. A gravel walk led a visitor to the house door.  On the lawn circular beds with flowering shrubs brought color while smaller beds were filled with the newest geraniums. Carpet beds and ribbon beds, the fashion of the day, also made up the garden.

His garden illustrated the latest Victorian fashion, all of it labour intensive.

In her extraordinary biography of Paxton, A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton, Kate Colquhoun writes,”In this garden, as he had at Chatsworth, Paxton proved himself the greatest garden authority of his time.”

Thus, Paxton did not just garden, but gardened, as we all do, in the latest fashion and style for that time and place. In his case that happened to be Victorian England.