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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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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Cottage Gardens Finally Recognized

Cottage gardens finally recognized.

Everybody loves the cottage garden. It holds a mystique of a garden, limited in space, but with plants galore, mostly flowers.

There were cottage gardens in England for centuries.  If you define the term as the garden of the worker, at the time of the monastery garden in the Middle Ages, for example, the townspeople who knew the monks probably received plants from them for their own gardens. That was a cottage garden.

During the time of the landscape revolution in eighteenth century England, it was only the garden of the aristocrat, or wealthy landowner, that was discussed in poetry, articles, and books.

The term ‘English garden’ meant at that time the landscape of the gentry.

It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that the cottage garden began to be seen as an essential form of garden.

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens  that the two garden writers “John Claudius Loudon and his wife Jane can fairly be said to have created the nineteenth century suburban garden which, in the long run, influenced the shape and planting of the country cottage garden too.”

When the Loudons recognized in their writing the importance of gardens other than those owned by the wealthy, the cottage garden became an important topic in garden literature.

The Loudons opened the door to an appreciation for gardening by social classes other than the aristocracy.

Hyams says, “The Loudons, the horticultural press, and the horticultural societies brought the cottager gardener into the modern age of gardening.”

It was no surprise then that the magazine Cottage Garden began in 1848.

It was when the Loudons wrote for suburban gardeners and cottage gardeners that gardening changed forever.

Garden writers learned from all styles of gardening including the middle class and the worker.

They wrote for anybody who gardened.

Cottage gardens finally became an important topic.

 

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Goddess Flora Protects Flowers

Goddess Flora protects flowers.

Recently I saw the film Wonder Woman.  The superhero’s name was Diana Prince, or rather Princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.

I loved this fantasy movie built on a comic book heroine.

I saw some connection in the film to our fascination with gods and goddesses, even iin the garden.

In Roman mythology Diana was the goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature. She was associated with wild animals and woodland.

In eighteenth century England there was a love of classical Greek and Roman writing about horticulture and agriculture. In the landscape Temples and statues appeared that shared in that classical tradition.

Henry Hoare’s Temple of Flora (1744-1746) at his grand garden Stourhead still stands today as one shining example.

In his book New Principles of Gardening (1728) English landscape gardener Batty Langley listed the names of gods and goddesses that would be a fit subject for a statue in the garden.

He wrote, “There is nothing adds so much to the Beauty and Grandeur of Gardens, as fine Statues; and nothing more disagreeable than wrongly plac’d”.

Then he named the statues that would be appropriate for areas of the landscape like open lawns, woods, fruit-gardens, and orchards

For the flower garden he recommended a statue of  Flora or Cloris, goddesses of Flowers.

Here is an early image of Flora, goddess of flowers. [below]

Flora, goddess of flowers, by  Sandro Botticelli (Florence, 1445-1510)

Flora, in Roman religion, was the goddess of flowering plants. Titus Tatius who ruled with Romulus is said to have introduced her cult to Rome.

Romans considered Flora the one who would provide the blooms to flowering plants so they would thrive, grow, and reproduce.

Flowers were so important to the Romans that they inspired a goddess to provide for them and stand as their champion against draught and other plant disasters.

Flora’s temple in Rome stood near the Circus Maximus. Her festival, called Floralia, was instituted in 238 B.C. The celebration included floral wreaths worn in the hair much like modern participants in May Day celebrations.

A representation of Flora’s head, distinguished only by a floral crown, appeared on coins of the republic.

Paintings of Flora since that time make such a crown an essential element in depicting her.

In 1731 Sir John Clerk of Penicuik wrote a poem called “The Country Seat” about the gardens and estates of England.

In the poem he writes, “”Where Flora with a Knot of gaudy Flowrs may dress her lovely head.”

 

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Plant Marketing Drives Garden Design

Plant marketing drives garden design.

Garden architects and garden designers know a limited number of plants when they approach a client.

Some designers tend to use the same plants and similar schemes in the landscape.

One reason for that could well be that nurseries and garden centers can provide only so many plants. Original cost, space for storing them, and their popularity dictate what plants a nursery will carry.

Since inventory is limited, marketing available plants becomes important for a nursery.

It is no surprise that the same plants appear in both the nursery and in the landscape over and over again.

The book The Genius of the Place:The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820 includes a number of readings about the history of the English garden.

The book’s editors John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis include an article from The Spectator by Joseph Addison, dated June 25, 1712.

The passage from Addison’s article made it clear that a nurseryman’s available stock became integrated into the garden’s design.

That was also a time when nursery owners were often the landscape gardeners, or landscape designers.

Addison wrote, “But as our Modellers of Gardens have their Magazines of Plants to dispose of, it is natural for them to tear up all the Beautiful Plantations of Fruit Trees, and contrive a Plan that may most turn to their own Profit, in taking off their Evergreens, and the like Moveable Plants, with which their Shops are plentifully stocked.”

This was written  in 1712. Have things changed that much?

Profit from available stock is cheaper than ordering plants outside that inventory.

I love this illustration. It says it all. [below]

Joseph Addison, however,  loved the new natural look that was appearing in English gardens at that time.

He wrote, “You must know, Sir, that I look upon the Pleasure which we take in a Garden, as one of the most innocent Delights in humane Life.”

 

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Today Homeowners Face Two Lawn Options

Today homeowners face two lawn options.

Last year we celebrated the three hundredth birthday of the eighteenth century English landscape gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783).

There were events throughout the year in his honor in various locations throughout England, including several at the landscapes he designed.

Brown gave the English garden its extensive lawn. 

Since America became eager to garden in all ways English, it was no surprise that the lawn would appear across America, beginning in earnest in the mid nineteenth century.

Today however we face a dilemma with the lawn.

In various parts of America droughts threaten cities and towns.

In that situation how can we continue to cultivate an extensive lawn?

The book Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony gives us some insights.

It  includes a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted that seems to justify the lawn.  “For Olmsted, the front lawn of a house in a suburb unified the whole residential composition into one neighborhood, giving a sense of ampleness, greenness, and community.”

He pinpoints the purpose for the lawn quite clearly.

The authors F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe, however, aware of the problems with the modern lawn, provide two kinds of lawn we need to consider: the industrial lawn and the freedom lawn.

The characteristics of the industrial lawn include gas-powered lawn mowers, chemicals to maintain the lawn and exclude any weeds, and, of course, regular watering.

The freedom lawn offers another way to look at the lawn.

Rather than a monoculture of grass, this lawn would allow clover and other plants to grow in the lawn. The lawn would be mowed regularly but by a lawn mower that does not demand gas.

Chemicals would be avoided.

Watering would be at a minimum.

Perhaps sections of the lawn would be replaced by beds of perennials or ornamental grasses.

The second approach to the lawn, the freedom lawn, certainly speaks to the need to conserve energy and water, and also decrease the burning of carbon in fossil fuel. 

The authors present a valid argument.

We homeowners, however, need to decide what route we will take with our lawns.

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England’s Landscape Garden Beginnings

England’s landscape garden beginnings

We owe the origin of the landscape garden in England at the start of the eighteenth century not to just one person.

It changed gardening forever because it gave a new form to landscape. But what inspired the idea in the first place?

Tim Richardson in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden has thought about the beginnings of this English garden tradition.

He writes, “The landscape garden did not arise out of stately profession of Taste, as the Whigs would have us believe, but of an explosion of creativity.”

Thus it was no accident that poets, artists, and writers would be at the forefront of this landscape movement.  Poet Alexander Pope rose to become one of the pioneers of the landscape garden.

As Richardson points out, The Spectator essay [by Joseph Addison, dated June 25, 1712] is generally held to be the jumping off point for the English landscape garden.

The people who were stirring the ship that would bring this new vision of landscape to England wanted, as Richardson writes, “to carve a new face for Britain out of the soil itself.”

And so they did.

The garden, at least for England and America, has never been the same since.

The chief quality of the modern landscape garden design was its variety, the total of several features that would make up the landscape garden

We often simply refer to the difference in garden design before and after the early eighteenth century as the formal garden versus the natural look to the landscape.

Richardson writes, “Even more than concepts such as ‘naturalism’, ‘informality’ or ‘wilderness,’ or even the symbolic content of the design, it was variety which emerged as the most important structural element of the eighteenth-century landscape garden.”

It was a variety in the design which included soil, plants, stone, water, woodland areas, forests, and even farming that marked this new moment in gardening history.

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Lawn Mower Became Essential Nineteenth Century Garden Tool

Lawn mower became essential nineteenth century garden tool.

The lawn continues to be important to many homeowners.

The ‘modern’ design of the English garden, as it was called in the early eighteenth century, included a lawn.

The house was to appear as if  “in a sea of green.”

The gardeners during this period used a scythe to cut the grass.  Eventually the lawn mower appeared on the market, first in England, then by 1850 in America.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) sold lawn mowers in his seed catalog.

Vick wrote in his company catalog of 1875, “Lawn mowers are now a necessity. As a general rule, we may say there can be no good lawn without this useful machine. Not one in ten thousand can use a scythe with sufficient skill to secure a good lawn.”

Buckeye Lawnmower ad 

Vick recommended a lawn mower called the “Charter Oak”. He said, “Its workmanship, and the principles upon which it is constructed, we are disposed to think it is one of the best, if not the best Lawn Mower ever introduced.”

In an ad the manufacturer wrote these words about the ‘Charter Oak’ mower, “The machine is light and easily operated, beautifully and mechanically made and finished, leaving no essential point overlooked; has a three blade solid revolving cutter, preventing any appearance of ribbing on the finest English grass lawn.”

By the end of the nineteenth century the Buckeye lawn mower appeared on the market. [left]

The illustration seems to say “It is so easy to use, even a child could mow the lawn.”

Whatever a homeowner used was not as important as the goal of keeping the lawn in the home landscape trimmed.

Thus the American home owner could boast of a lawn in the long tradition of the English garden.

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Two Irish Gardens Inspire Herbaceous Borders

Two Irish gardens inspire herbaceous borders.

Since the late nineteenth century when English garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) encouraged the herbaceous  border rather than beds of annuals, the border has been an important part of garden design.

Once garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1935) arrived on the English garden scene and befriended Robinson, she also became an advocate of the herbaceous border.

David Stuart writes in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens “The great Edwardian herbaceous border has a fascinating past, and has been resilient enough to evolve into new forms relevant to contemporary gardens.”

Thus, he implies that we still include the herbaceous [American gardeners say ‘perennial’] border in the garden.

Two Irish gardens might provide some inspiration.

Late last fall I saw two herbaceous borders in Ireland, one at Powerscourt Castle and the other at the

Powerscourt herbaceous border [courtesy photo]

birthplace of St. Oliver Plunkett called Loughcrew.

Loughcrew’s border was installed in the nineteenth century. The original Powerscourt herbaceous border predates that period but the current border was installed with new plants in 2014.

Both included dozens of perennials as well as a few annuals like dahlias, which were blooming at that time.

In 1883 William Robinson wrote in his book The English Flower Garden, “In planting, plant in groups, and not in the old dotting way. Never repeat the same plant along the border at intervals, as is so often done with favorites.”

You need to fill the whole border with plants. Robinson wrote, “Have no patience with bare ground”

Now that we are approaching summer, perhaps a herbaceous border might be in the works for your garden.

These two Irish gardens certainly stand as a testament to how beautiful such a border can be.

 

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Boston Flower Show Honors Capability Brown

Boston Flower Show honors Capability Brown.

Last week the Boston Flower and Garden Show honored England’s eighteenth century gardener to the King, Lancelot Capability Brown.

For months Brown has been in the news quite a bit because 2016 was his three hundredth birthday anniversary.

At the Flower Show Joseph Gray Stonework teamed up with  the plant grower Proven Winners to create an exhibit with Brown as the inspiration.

Together they envisioned the Show’s theme “Superheroes of the Garden” in the person of Capability Brown.

Brown designed over two hundred gardens in England including Warwick Castle, which has a mythical connection to the legend of King Arthur.

Gray said, “My garden is a fantasy design of the Warwick Castle grounds and the hidden lair of Merlin the Magician.”

The exhibit featured this nine-foot high granite fountain of Merlin’s face. [below]

Proven Winners from Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, New Hampshire provided the many flowers that filled five hundred square feet throughout the exhibit.

Colors like pink in large swathes made a memorable impression on any visitor to this exhibit.

The heavy stone with the delicate looking blooms created a pleasant contrast in this award-winning exhibit and tribute to England’s Capabiity Brown, a true ‘Superhero in the Garden.’

 

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