Victorian England Treasured US Rhododendron

Victorian England treasured US rhododendron.

Right now you see rhododendrons in bloom everywhere.

The native rhododendron has fascinated me for many years. I always look forward to its late May and early June blooms.

Here’s a view of my garden right now. [below]

A scene in my garden with two rhododendrons that are blooming.

Our native rhododendron, however, played a greater part in the English garden in the nineteenth century than our own.  At that time they were more popular in England than here in America.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870 lamented the fact that Americans did not appreciate the rhododendron.

He wrote, “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.”

Today we acknowledge the battle between native and exotic plant choice for the garden.  The issue is certainly not new.

Native plants, according to the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs, were not as popular as ornamental plants from countries like China and Japan.  But first these plants, including native US varieties, had to appear in the English garden.

The same happened to the rhododendron.

Eventually, it assumed an important role in American gardens.

Frederick Law Olmsted used the rhododendron extensively in 1895 for his landscape design at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

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Public Relations Campaign Attacks Clover

Public relations campaign attacks clover.

The lawn has been a part of the home landscape since the eighteenth century.

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both treasured the English lawn, the inspiration for all lawns American.

Clover in the lawn. [Courtesy of Today’s Homeowner]

Clover, the tiny four leafed plant we all love, has been a part of the lawn for decades as much as bluegrass.

Then in the 1950s a chemical company, to advance a weed killer, used a public relations campaign to declare white clover a weed.

Warren Schultz tells the story in his book The Chemical-Free Lawn. He writes that in the 1950s “a major producer of grass seed and chemicals launched a public relations campaign disparaging clover. Clover is a weed, the company declared. It doesn’t belong in the modern lawn.”

The goal of the campaign was to sell a chemical to kill lawn weeds, including clover.

Schultz says, “Its point of view carried the day, and now homeowners spend a lot of time and money trying to get rid of this once-popular plant, blind to its fine qualities.”

Clover has long been a part of lawn seed mixes. 

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote about the value of clover in 1878 in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick said, “Kentucky Blue Grass, with a little White Clover, about a pound to the acre, and a few ounces of Sweet Vernal Grass, will make a good lawn.”

In 1936 Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening also noted the value of clover.

Under the name, white clover, or Trifolium repens, Taylor’s says, “It is the chief clover in grass mixtures and makes a valuable constituent of lawns.”

In the past garden books and magazines often said that clover was valuable for the lawn.

More recently in Pennsylvania the Lehigh Valley Master Gardeners wrote in their blog, “Clover is a legume, like soybeans, and it has the ability to fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere and convert it to a form readily available to plants, including the grass it shares soil with.  People liked clover for this reason and it lessened the need for fertilizing the lawn.”

The public relations campaign in the 1950s was succesful. Today it is common for companies selling herbicides to consider white clover a weed.

In this time of frequent draught and renewed interest in native plants, why not reconsider the case of the clover, and even, as many people are doing, welcome it as an integral component of the lawn?

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Early Wisconsin Gardeners Valued Native Plants

Early Wisconsin gardeners valued native plants.

Just read a wonderful story about native plants in Lee Somerville’s book, Vernacular Wisconsin Gardens: A History of Garden Making.

As it happened a homeowner cleared a beautiful little valley full of native plants to prepare it for landscaping. He then called in a landscape architect for advice on how he might improve the area. The owner was surprised when the architect advised the planting of the same kinds that the owner had so thoroughly removed.

Gardeners like Philadelphia’s John Bartram encouraged native plants in the eighteenth century.

Then in the nineteenth century as exotic plants arrived for American gardens from Asia, South America, and Africa, native plants took a back seat in the home landscape.

During that time Wisconsin garden opionion leaders, however, kept recommending native plants for the garden.

Somerville writes in her book that in the publications of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society “The use of native plants was first suggested in the 1850s as an easy and economical way to improve the look of Wisconsin home grounds.”

In the early 1900s the movement called the midwest Prairie style of landscape design, launched in the midwest by designers Jens Jensen, O. C. Simonds, and Wilhelm Miller, encouraged the use of native plants in the home landscape.

Certainly Wisconsin gardeners knew about this new midwest style of gardening, particularly through the work of WSHS in its articles and lectures.

Somerville says, “In general the varieties of plants in the Wisconsin vernacular garden changed less than did the patterns in which they were planted [from beds to borders]. The exception is in the marked increase of native shrubs and plants after 1900.”

The book’s listing of native perennials, popular in Wisconsin gardens in 1915, includes the columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. [below]  This plant is still worthwhile in the garden.

Columbine Aquilegia canadensis, [courtesy Prairie Nursery, Westfield, Wisconsin.] 

Native plants have traveled a rocky road in American garden history. It is good to see this early emphasis on native plants for Wisconsin gardens.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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]

 

 

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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.

 

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