Coastal Wilderness Marks 1920s South Florida Garden

Coastal wilderness marks 1920s south Florida garden.

I recently went back in time along the coast of South Florida to visit an island garden from the 1920s.

In Fort Lauderdale Frederic Clay Barrett and his wife Helen built the house with its garden called Bonnet House on Birch Street. The street is named after Hugh Taylor Birch, Mrs. Barrett’s father who gave the thirty-five acres as a wedding gift.

Bonnet House is situated on a coastal barrier island with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Intracoastal Waterway to the west.

Barrier islands protect the mainland from the impact of the ocean tides and currents and also provide a habitat for many kinds of wildlife.

The gardens at the Bonnet House present a visitor with several areas of both desert and tropical plants.

Barrett planted a desert garden near the main house. The garden measures three-fourths’ of an acre and serves as a transition area for the natural barrier island habitat to the south and the main house to the north.

Main House

The house was built in southern plantation style. [below]

Main house at Bonnet House

A near-by lily pond features the bonnet lily, after which the house was named, and provides a respite for the visitor.

Mrs. Barrett collected orchids and housed them in the Orchid House, also not far from the main house.

An alley of palm trees [below] ends up at a fountain, designed and built by Barrett, who, along with his wife, was an artist.

An alley of trees

The beach path leads you right up to a black iron fence separating the property from the beach. Many trees and shrubs line the path, holding in the soil but also teaching a visitor what the land looked like before the commercial development in the area.

Near the house six tall Hibiscus shrubs have become a dense screen of green leaves with orange and red flowers which were in bloom during my visit. [below]

A group of Hibiscus shrubs near the house

Visiting this garden is a trip back in time. Bonnet House also lets you see what the Florida coast looked like before the many condos and hotels lined Fort Lauderdale’s beach.

English Coveted American Plants

English coveted American plants.

Recently I read about a restored garden called Painshill near Cobham, Surrey, England.

What caught my attention was that its restoration includes a garden of American plants.

Painshill dates to the eighteenth century, the time of the birth of England’s landscape garden, which distinguished itself as more natural rather than symmetrical and formal in design. The Honourable Charles Hamilton (1704-1786) created this garden between 1738 and 1773.

He included all of the elements of the landscape garden of that time: lawn, vistas, a grotto, a lake, classic structures, and, of course, collections of the latest plants like American plant varieties.

Painshill image from Garden-Guide

Painshill [from Garden-Guide]

When Hamilton established the garden, there was a keen interest in cultivating American plants.

In the eighteenth century John Bartram (1699-1777) sent seeds of American plants from Philadelphia to his English admirers, coveting American plant varieties.

Hamilton was among that group.

In May 2006 Painshill was awarded full collection status for its John Bartram Heritage Collection, by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens.

Today Painshill comprises 158 acres of the original more than 200 acres.

What I find so interesting in this story is the idea that the eighteenth century English aristocracy wanted American plants.

That in itself makes the Painshill restoration so important to me.

Usually it is the other way around: we Americans want everything English in the garden.

Reno Gardens Showcase Old Fashioned Jupiter’s Beard

Reno gardens showcase old fashioned Jupiter’s beard.

On my recent trip to Reno I visited both public gardens and private gardens.

A plant I saw over and over again was ‘Jupiter’s beard’ or Centranthus ruber.

I did not recognize it from anything I had seen on the east coast.

The plant’s clusters of red flowers surround this large rock at the David W. Hettich Memorial Garden which is part of the Arboretum at the University of Nevada in Reno. [below]

Hettich Garden Reno

Daivd W. Hettich Garden at the University of Nevada, Reno

Later I also took this closeup of the flowers of Jupiter’s beard at another garden. [below]

Jupiter's Beard, Reno

Jupiter’s Beard, Reno

I did some research on the plant and found it was not native, but exotic, and has been here in the US for a long time.

The Missouri Botanical Garden presented some background for the plant: “Red valerian or Jupiter’s beard is a well-branched, bushy, clump-forming, woody-based perennial which is valued for its ability to produce, often in poor soils, a showy bloom of star-shaped crimson, pink or white flowers from spring to frost. Although native to the Mediterranean, this plant has escaped gardens and naturalized in certain parts of the United States, particularly along the west coast. “

Thus it is not a native plant but it is an example of a plant that has done well here, especially on the west coast.

One of my favorite nurseries Bluestone Perennials lists eight features of this plant for the gardener:

  • Blooms for 4 Weeks or More
  • Good for Cut Flowers
  • OK in Containers
  • Deer Resistant
  • Attracts Butterflies
  • Tried & True / Good for Beginners
  • Fragrant
  • Attracts Birds

L. H. Bailey writes in his Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, first published in 1901, “A very handsome old garden plant, too much neglected; blooms all summer; excellent for cutting.”.”

Even James Vick, nineteenth century Rochester, NY seedsman, recognized the value of Jupiter’s beard.

A Richfield, NY customer wrote the following in the 1879 issue of Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, “Please allow me to introduce two little favorites which I think your readers will like when they become acquainted with them – the Centranthus [Jupiter’s beard] and Silene. The former bears clusters of small flowers, white and pink…Just what I need for cutting.”

Here is a plant that I found in Reno. Little did I know about its long history as a perennial in gardens everywhere.

















European Gardens Featured Poison Ivy

European gardens featured poison ivy.

We all know that we need to avoid poison ivy when working in the garden.

There was a time, however, when European gardeners cultivated this North American plant.

In the book Flora Illustrata (2014) Elizabeth Eustis and David Andrews write, “Poison Ivy was introduced into European gardens as an ornamental exotic before its less appealing qualities were experienced”

the Poisoned Weed bookIn his book The Poisoned Weed: Plants Toxic to Skin (2004) Donald G. Crosby writes, “Although its description had been recorded in sixth century China, the common English name ‘poison ivy’ was coined by Captain Smith (of Pocahontas fame) at the Virginia colony in 1608-09, and he offered the first glimpse of its effect on his fellow colonists (Smith, 1624).”

Then Crosby notes “Like the Captain, the seventh century Dutch physician Jacques Philippe Cornut (1635) considered it a form of English ivy and named it Edera trifolia canadensis (three-leafed Canadian ivy).”

According to Eustis and Andres in Flora it was in that same year 1635 in the book published in Paris called Canadensium plantarum that the plant was given both its Latin and English name.

In 1886 this magazine engraving of the poison ivy plant shows its leaves and flowers. [Below]

Poison Ivy magazine b/w sketch 1886

Poison ivy b/w sketch in a magazine from 1886

In the 1878 issue of his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Rochester seedsman James Vick printed a letter from one of his customers. The letter said “The so called Poison Ivy is a very ornamental, but highly dangerous plant.” By then American gardeners were well aware of the problems of this plant.

So when you touch poison ivy in your garden, remember that at one time this plant was considered a desirable addition to the garden.

That may be hard to do however when you are in agony from the redness and itching that this plant has caused.

























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.



Differing Views of Nineteenth Century Garden

Differing Views of  Nineteenth Century Garden

The way to plant a flower garden changed during the nineteenth century.

Two American seedsmen wrote differently about how to install a flower garden.

Boston seedsman Joseph Breck (1794-1873) wrote The Flower Garden in 1851.

In the book he recommended the placement of the garden as a border before a window with southern or southeastern exposure.

He carefully laid out for the reader the design of the flowerbed.

Breck wrote, “This outward border will be the most appropriate place for flowering shrubs, and tall herbaceous biennial and perennial plants”.

When he discussed what flowers to plant, Breck listed several annuals, plus Dahlias and Gladiolus and Roses, with a few choice perennials. He recommended native plants like Lobelia Cardinalis, Aquilegia Canadensis, Aster Novae Anglae and Solidago.

Breck wanted a flower garden in bloom during each season. Choosing the right plant would have provided that color. His borders were to be filled with annuals, perennials, and native plants.

Carpet bedding croppedNew York seedsman Peter Henderson (1822-1890) wrote his book Gardening for Pleasure in 1875. In it he also discussed laying out the flower garden.

He admitted at the start that old-fashioned mixed borders with hardy herbaceous plants were “now but little seen”. He wrote, “The mixed system still has its advocates, who deprecate the modern plan of massing in color as being too formal, and too unnatural a way to dispose of flowers.”

The fashion he discussed called ‘massing of color’ referred to the use of many annuals of the same variety to create a display of one color. The plants were to be placed in a pattern or ribbon line like in the Sunset Seed and Plant Company catalog of 1897. [above]

The words “They Grow” in the catalog cover here might have been planted with Alyssum, which of course needed to be trimmed regularly.  Mass beds needed many plants of the same variety but also much maintenance to keep them short.

Henderson wrote, “A single misplaced color may spoil the effect of the whole.”

Thus these two nineteenth century seedsmen offered two different forms of the flowergarden.

In 1851 Breck advocated for a border of annuals, perennials, and native plants. In 1875 Henderson promoted the modern carpet bed, a design of mass planting with annuals.

I am ending with this  photo of the beautiful perennial borders from the Scottish garden Carolside in Earlson. [below] Just received this on Twitter from Great British Gardens.

Carolside Garden, Earlson, Scotland

Carolside Garden, Earlson, Scotland [Thanks to @BritishGardens]



William Robinson Encouraged Perennial Borders

It is nothing new that gardening is subject to fashion, just like food and clothing.

The nineteenth century English garden went back and forth between borders of perennials and mass planting of annuals, especially in beds on the lawn.

The English garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935), author of the The English Robinson The English Flower GardenFlower Garden,  at first supported mass planting of annuals, but then saw the error in his thinking.

Perennials come back every year, and, by the way, cottage gardens have succeeded on that very principle.

Thus, he along with artist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll encouraged the herbaceous border.

Nicolette Scourse writes in her book The Victorians and their Flowers, “It was unplanned simplicity [in gardening] which in the 1870s inspired rustic styles which were real and lasting: the woodland garden with naturalized bulbs and herbacous borders.”

Then she mentions the two gardeners who inspired the movement. She writes, “The steering forces were William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, both of whom were captivated by the wild countryside and cottage gardens as they really were.”

Of course there was a bit of interpretation on their part as to what kind of garden people needed, now based on the cottage garden, but the herbacous border became a trend.

Scourse sums up this new fashion in these words, “The charm of the cottage garden was its lack of contrived design and this was the springboard of Robinson’s garden-making.”

And so it was that Mr. Robinson spread the word about the cottage garden, which had succeeded for generations with its wonderful herbaceous border.


Miami’s Kampong Still Home to Many Tropicals

Miami’s Kampong Still Home to Many Tropicals

I first heard about the historic garden called The Kampong in the new book Rescuing Eden: Preserving America’s Historic Gardens.

Thanks to the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association, I recently had a chance to visit The Kampong, on Biscayne Bay in the Coconut Grove section of Miami. Though it was late in the day and the light was not the best, I still was amazed at the array of tropicals, many of them quite old.

Tropicals have long been an important part of the garden, even for those of us here in the Northeast.

Nineteenth century Boston horticulturalist and politician Marshall Wilder gave a speech on September 12, 1879 at the 50th anniversary of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. He said, “The introduction of [subtropical plants like palms, agaves, musas, dracaenas, caladiums and similar plants] and the multitude of ornamental-foliage plants, both hardy and tender, which now enrich our gardens, is the most characteristic feature of the present era in horticulture.”

Kampong sign at the entrance to the garden

The Kampong’s sign at the entrance to the garden

The garden at The Kampong, which means “village” in Malay, was the inspiration of the plant explorer Dr. David Fairchild (1869-1954). The U.S. Department of Agriculture hired him to travel the world and find important plants, including many fruits. He began the garden in 1898, eventually collecting 30,000 plants for his garden.

From the beginning his unusual garden attracted visitors who wanted to see the tropical plants he had collected.

When Fairchild died, his wife Marian managed The Kampong until her death in 1962.

Edward and Catherine Sweeney, wealthy collectors, explorers and world travelers,  took over the garden to preserve the collection of tropical plants. They were able to have the garden listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, The Kampong has become a major center for the study of tropical plants. The garden is linked to the National Tropical Botanic Garden, which has four other sites in the country.

The sign outside the entrance reads “Admittance by Appointment.” When I asked, I was told the garden is both private and public. Thus the garden’s staff requires a visitor to seek permission to enter the garden.

Once you are inside, as you walk the pathway, you see the tropical wonders in the trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, and fruit that Dr. Fairchild loved and collected so long ago.

A. J. Downing Changed His View on Native Plants

At one time America’s most famous nineteenth century landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) recommended exotic trees and shrubs for the landscape.

Later in his life he changed his mind.

He realized that our native plants possessed their own special qualities that made them ideal for an American landscape.

Andrew Jackson Dowing

Andrew Jackson Downing, NY Nurseryman and Landscape Gardener

Downing reflected the thinking of John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) English writer, horticulturist, and landscape gardener. Loudon wanted a place for the hundreds of new plants that were arriving in England in the early nineteenth century. He advised to use them as the primary source for a landscape design.

Over time Downing however came to appreciate the trees and shrubs of the American hills and forest.

Judith Major in her book To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening writes, “Downing’s former encouragement of the use of exotics became an embarassment as he realized that adopting Loudon’s thinking in this regard made neither practical nor aesthetic sense in America.”

For example, Downing recommended bypassing the fast growing and ‘odorous’ Ailanthus, or Tree of Life, a plant imported from Asia to England in 1751 and then brought to America. Instead, he wrote about the need to plant America’s “more noble native trees.”

Downing wrote, “We look upon it [the Ailanthus] as an usurper in rather bad odor at home, which has come over to this land of liberty, under the garb of utility, to make foul the air, with its pestilent breath, and devour the soil, with its intermeddling roots.”

Today you can still see the Ailanthus growing in cities here on the East coast. It has however become a tree that we now avoid and find invasive. [below]

Ailantus Tree [courtsy of Wikimedia Commons]

The fast-growing tree Ailanthus can grow 80 to 100′. 

By the early nineteenth century the English had been cultivating America’s native trees and shrubs for decades. They planted them in a special garden in the landscape simply called the  ‘American’ garden.

Eventually many nineteenth century Americans came to appreciate native plants.

Downing too changed his view on native plants.

Visit to a NH Public Garden Provides a Surprise

Every year in late August I make an effort to visit Prescott Park in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The gardens are filled with annuals that look terrific by this time of the year, the end of summer.

When I took this photo at 7 am last week [below], I had no idea how it would turn out since I was just snapping as I walked around the garden, which is the way I often take pictures. When I saw the photo later, I was surprised beyond words.  The photo captures the color and majesty of the garden in a kind of mystical way. It was an overcast morning and that provided a misty moment, perfect for the photo.

The garden and foundtain at Prescott Park, with the waterfront in the back

The garden at Prescott Park with waterfront in the back

You can see the dozens of coleus plants, with fuchsia as well, that surround the fountain. The red bricks on the path reflect the rain of the night before. A bit of mist appears on each side, and in the distance benches in front of the Portsmouth waterfront.

You find so many annuals throughout the garden, planted usually in a formal design, yet when you see them in full bloom at the end of the summer, they look like they have always been there, creating so much of Prescott Park’s splendor. This early morning photo captures a glimpse of that feeling.

Now you see why I make the annual trip to Prescott Park.

I am sure you probably have a garden, whether public or private, that you enjoy every summer as well.