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.


Chicago Gave America the Prairie Style of Landscape

The English lawn came to Chicago in the 1850s.

The home landscape in the Victorian decades that followed resembled the home landscape design of the east coast at the same time.

By the end of the century the University of Illinois landscape instructor Wilhem Miller proposed that native plants, like grasses, be used in the landscape. He called it the ‘prairie style’ of landscape. He eventually wrote a book about it entitled The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening, published in 1914. [below]

Miller loved the English garden with its natural style.  He considered the use of native plants perfectly suited in that kind of design.

Thus from the American midwest began this movement to use native plants in the landscape. By the early 1900s landscape architect and plantsman Jens Jenson (1860-1951) had already begun to design home landscapes in that kind of design, preferring native plants, in the more natural rather than geometric look.

Miller rightly recognized Jenson’s early contribution.  Miller called Jensen “probably the first designer who consciously took the prairie as a leading motive.”

On my recent trip to Chicago I stayed in Naperville, about an hour drive southwest of Chicago.

While driving around the streets of Naperville, I noticed along Book Road an area the size of a couple of city blocks, that  looked like prairie fields, where a pathway provided a walker a view of nothing but fields of native plants in various sizes. It was a beautiful sight.

Today Naperville continues that tradition of using prairie plants in the landacape, in this case, through its public park-like areas.

Miller 3In her book Chicago Gardens: The Early History Cathy Jean Maloney writes, “Chicago’s prairie-style landscape architects designed properties across the nation, but have been rediscovered only in the past few decades.”

That recognition of the prairie style reinforces the importance of native plants in the landscape.





Early English Gardens Included an American Garden

Exotic plants have long been a staple in the American garden. Each year plants from Asia, Africa, and South America still continue to become part of our plant pallet.

At one time the English garden included a special garden of plants that were native to America. It was called the ‘American garden’.

In 1855 English nurseryman William Paul in his book The Handbook of Villa Gardening wrote: “American plants is a term which embraces a variety of flowering shrubs, mostly evergreen, which are found to thrive best in a peat or bog soil…The dark foliage and splendid blossoms of the rhododendron, the chaste and delicate kalmias, the brilliant and varied colours of the azalea, have deservedly going for them a prominent place in English gardens.”

Even Grace Tabor in her book Old-Fashioned Gardening,written in 1913, said: “The earliest houses were built of the wood of the locust — Robinia pseudoacacia — a tree which had driven the Englishmen wild with delight, and which was early carried to English gardens, were it was pronounced of all exotic trees the finest.”

White Pine [courtesy of the RECOLLECTING NEMASKET blog]

White Pine [courtesy of the Recollecting Nemasket blog]

Finally Mark Laird in his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800 wrote: “From the 1730s to the 1760s the rage in exotics such as the Weymouth pine (Pinus strobus), the kalmia ( Kalmia latifolia), and the bottonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) was brisk…The second half of the eighteenth century saw the demand for ‘American gardens.'”

The American native tree white pine, called Weymouth pine by the English in the eighteenth century, continues to be a staple here in New England [left].

Lord Weymouth introduced the white pine to England in 1705, after the English Colonies were established in America. From that time English gardeners have included it in their collection of American plants.

English garden writer Horace Walpole wrote in 1771, “The Weymouth pine has long been naturalized here; the patriarch plant still exists at Longleat [Lord Weymouth’ s estate].”

Today the white pine grows in my New England garden in abundance.   Pinus Strobus


Twelth Century Nun Inspires Herb Garden at Spring Flower Show

Last Saturday  I spent an afternoon at the Rhode Island Spring Flower and Garden Show in Providence, RI.

The temperature for the day reached 50 which provided a sense of warmth in the air, an ideal time to drive down to visit the Show.

The theme of the Show centered on gardens with classic cars. An exhibit of  a medicinal garden called “The Healing Garden”  took second place. It was my favorite exhibit.

The exhibit featured Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) who encouraged the well-being of soul, body, and mind, with herbs from the garden providing for health needs.  She recently became beatified, the first step to sainthood in the Catholic Church.

A wagon filled with straw stood at the front of the exhibit. Nearby several herbs including valerian and rosemary grew in the small garden area.  Hildegard wrote about the two hundred herbs she used in her medicinal work.  She helped both members of the Order and people from the community as well.  She wrote several books on eating healthy and using natural healing methods. In fact, there is renewed interest in her legacy, especially in Germany.

The back wall of the exhibit showed a five by eighteen foot mural of the cloister of the Benedictine nuns of that century as they worked in the fields of herbs [below].

RI Flower Show Exhibit

Mural at the Rhode Island Flower and Garden  Show exhibit “The Healing Garden”

What impressed me the most however was that the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy sponsored the exhibit.  Senior gardener and designer J. Peter Morgan said, “The resurgence in popularity of holistic medicine prompted us to exhibit the many healing plants within the College of Pharmacy’s Youngken Garden.”

If there is any place for emphazising herbs as medicine, the Pharmacy program at the University ought to be front and center in that effort.  So it is with URI.

The College of Pharmacy chose to exhibit its healing garden with the shining example of  the Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen.


Solidago Transformed from a Weed to an Ornamental

From before colonial times and well into the nineteenth century the English have shown a fondness for American native plants.

One such variety was the weed called Solidago or goldenrod.

The Englishman William Cobbett (1763-1835) in his book The American Gardener once wrote about a border of goldenrod at Hampton Court in London that was thirty feet wide and a half-mile long.  People referred to it as “the most magnificent walk in Europe.”

I found that  reference in Peter Hatch’s new award-winning book on Thomas Jefferson’s garden called A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.

Hatch also mentions the gardener Jeremiah Simple who wrote in the early journal American Farmer, “What we most despise here as more than useless, is cultivated with care in Europe, and our most noxious plants are returned to us as treasures.”

Solidago virgaurea [Courtesy Wikipedia]

Solidago virgaurea [Courtesy Wikipedia]

Nineteenth century seedsmen and nursery owners often complained in their catalogs and other publications that American gardeners did not consider native plants important.

For example, in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) wrote that American gardeners would not know a rhododendron if they saw one, whereas the English found them ideal in the garden.

More recently in her book Herbs in Bloom garden writer Jo Ann Gardner first saw goldenrod in a garden at the Newfoundland Botanical Garden.  She wrote after that for her “No longer was goldenrod an unwanted field weed, but a desirable ornamental.”

I have solidago in my garden where it just seems to appear in September, often with one of my favorites, the New England aster.  I must admit solidago looks good at that time of the season with its bright yellow color.

What do you think of solidago?