Nineteenth Century Commercial Botanical Artist: Dellon Marcus Dewey

To sell seeds and plants in the nineteenth century the garden industry had to rely on botanical art to persaude a customer.

The commercial botanical artist like Dellon Marcus Dewey (1819-1889) provided colorful illustrations for the plant sales person.

When the customer saw the image of beautiful flowers or shrubs in the plant peddler’s book of illustrations, it was just a matter of time before he (or possibly she) decided to purchase.

Nineteenth Century Rochester, NY

Rochester, New York had received the name ‘Flower City’ in the mid nineteenth century because of its number of garden companies that sold seeds and plants.

The botanical artist played a key role in selling them.

Rochester’s D. M. Dewey was one such artist.

Historian and librarian Karl Kabelac wrote an article for the University of Rochester Library Bulletin called “Nineteeth Century Rochester Fruit and Flower Plates.”

Kabelac writes “His [Dewey’s] premises in the Reynolds Arcade [in downtown Rochester] were spacious and convenient.

“Here not less than thirty artists and others are employed in making drawings, paintings, etchings, photographs, etc.

“And in reproducing the same either for the trade regularly, or to fill special orders from Nurserymen or Horticultural Societies.”

Dewey had already painted 275 plates by 1859, when he began his own business.

Twenty years later he offered over 2300 plates including this pear. [below]

Dewey plate 1860. Courtesy of U of Rochester

Dewey’s Book

In 1872 Dewey published a book of his botanical art work with the title: The Nurseryman’s Pocket Specimen Book, Colored from Nature. Fruits, Flowers, Ornamental Trees, Shrubs, Roses, etc.

Cultural historian Charles Van Ravenswaay in his book about the art work of Joseph Prestele Drawn from Nature praised Dewey.

Van Ravenswaay wrote, “Dewey used several different techniques, including his distinctive hand-painted work, to produce a popular art of more than average quality.

“This tireless man with his fertile, inventive mind, exploited to its full potential the nurseryman’s plate business and dominated it throughout its best years.”

Dewey proved to be an extraordinary artist who helped people see the potential of improving the home landscape with just the right plant.

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Can’t We Just Enjoy Gardening

Lately I have been reading about gardening in the nineteenth century.

By the 1870s the garden Industry witnessed more seed companies and nurseries spreading across the country.

Every homeowner wanted a landscape with a garden.

The seed houses and nurseries, however, had as their goal the ‘selling of the garden.’

They felt it was their job to sell the consumer ways to make money off the garden. Therefore they wrote about ways one could succeed in harvesting a crop, selling flowers, and joining an outside market to peddle your goods.

We are talking about gardening, and love of gardening, or are we?

Garden Writing

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness, author of For Shade and For Comfort, wrote an article called “Planting a Seed: The Nineteenth-Century Horticultural Boom in America.”

She points out the heavy commercializing of gardening in the nineteenth century.

Lyon-Jenness then adds that there was not a surge to profit from gardening from every voice, though.

In 1872 the Pomological Society of Michigan cautioned against the onrush in garden writing about the financial gain found in gardening .

The Society published an article called “Floriculture for the Million.”

It said, “It is time that some improvement should be taking place in our horticultural literature; we have, I think, enough books like some recently published: ‘Money in the Garden,’ ‘Gardening for Profit.’ ‘Practical Floriculture,’ teaching mainly how to grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers to sell.

“Let us have something like ‘The delight of Horticulture,’ ‘The moral use of flowers,’ and books of that character, and it will be the commencement of better times in horticulture.”

I never thought of it that way.

We don’t always have to make money from gardening, or see gardening in dollar signs.

Sometimes, can’t we just enjoy gardening?

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Plants as Commodity

It wasn’t always the case that a plant had a certain dollar value.

Sometimes people planted what was available, what they loved, or what they could find.

There was no question about the cost of the plant.

Just because a plant is now for sale, however, does not mean it is worth growing.

Commercial Plant Business

In 1990 Julie S. Higginbotham wrote the article “Four Centuries of Planting and Progress” for the trade journal American Nurseryman.

She said, “America’s commercial nursery trade was born on Long Island, where the first major nursery was founded in 1737.”

Nursery Trade

Of course, the search for new plants to sell in the nursery began around that time as well.

Thank God we don’t have too many periods of tulip mania or dahlia mania as we did in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries respectively. There gardeners/investors lost fortunes in pursuit of the ‘must have’ plant.

One thing we do know about buying plants.

Noel Kingsbury says it so well in his book Hybrid: “New versions of familiar plants sell well.”

There is ample evidence from the lists of top selling plants for growers like Proven Winners.

Each year the same plants seem to make the list.

Maybe Kingsbury is on to something here.

Why is it that every year people buy plants like verbenas, geraniums, petunias, and begonias in such numbers?

It could be that gardeners know them and trust they will do fine in the garden.

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Two Ways to Reproduce a Plant

Annuals play an important role in the summer garden.

How do so many annuals make it to your garden center in the spring?

The major methods to reproduce a plant are through a seed or a cutting.

The new plants you see at the garden center probably came there as a cutting.

This is how it works.

A cutting is planted in a small container of soil or medium. Growers call that small container a plug.

Richard Craig, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, wrote the article “Creating a More Beautiful World: A Century of Progress in the Breeding of Floral and Nursery Plants.”

The article appeared in the scientific journal HortScience.

Craig recognizes the importance of the plug in the business of propagation.

He says, “I believe that the development of plug-culture technology was one of the most important developments of the century.”

Pleasant View Garden

Pleasant View Garden in Loudon, New Hampshire grows thousands of plants each year for Proven Winners.

Not too long ago I wrote a post here in which I mentioned Pleasant View uses cuttings extensively for its annuals.

The cutting as a plug is then sold to garden centers.

Here is a greenhouse at Pleasant View Garden with hundreds of plugs waiting to find a home in some garden center or nursery. There they will be potted and cared for in hopes in the spring customers will buy them.

Pleasant View Garden, Loudon, New Hampshire.

Stephen Harris in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900 also recognizes the importance of cuttings for the garden industry.

He writes, “Traditionally, gardeners have two basic approaches to multiplying the number of a plant: sexual propagation using seed or clonal propagation using some form of cutting.”

It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that through new grower technology cuttings for plugs became the major form of propagation for the garden industry.

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Boston Flower Show Abruptly Ends

Saturday’s Boston Globe had a story about the annual Boston Flower and Garden Show, set for five days this past week.

The headline of the story read, “Spring flower show closing two days early following state ban on gatherings.”

The threat of coronavirus caused Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to ban any gatherings of 250 or more people.

That, of course, meant the Flower Show might have to close.

Luckily I was able to get there Friday morning. I had volunteered to help out at the New England Hosta Society exhibit for a couple of hours.

There were very few people which meant the exhibits would not have crowds gathering around them.

I arrived about 10 a.m., the opening time, and entered with just a few other people. I walked around to take a look at the splendid displays of flowers everywhere.

This exhibit by Proven Winners highlighted PW’s new plants for the spring. [below]

Boston Flower Show 2020

Included in the arrangement were the new Caladiums that PW now offers. The colors, in a series called ‘Heart to Heart,’ were combinations of bright red, pink, green and white. One seemed more beautiful than the next.

Though the Show closed early, I was glad I got to see at least a bit of the Boston Flower and Garden Show, and one of my favorites, Caladium.

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Halloween Pumpkins Filled with Succulents

Halloween pumpkins filled with succulents

A few days ago I visited the nursery Avant Gardens in the southeastern Massachusetts town of North Dartmouth, near Fall River.

In the greenhouse there I found this beautiful succulent called Kalanshoe thyrsiflora. [below] It seemed like succulents were surrounding me no matter where I turned.

Then I understood why.

A short distance in another greenhouse I saw a group of people filling pumpkins with succulent cuttings. An instructor walked around to guide them through the task.

I discovered that this happened to be a workshop offered that afternoon.

Here is one of the pumpkins. [below]

I thought what a beautiful way to feature a pumpkin on your table.

Since the pumpkin is filled with moss on top along with the cuttings of succculents, the pumpkin offers a wonderful seasonal blend of color, texture, and structure.

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In Search of a Blue Dahlia

In search of a blue dahlia –

I have often heard that there is no blue dahlia.

Last year I planted a blue dahlia I bought at the market Stop and Shop. The bright photo on the front of the box depicted a very blue colored dahlia. The name of the variety was ‘Blue Bell.’ I had to buy it.

On the website Gardenia.net I read a bit about this dahlia.

The site said, “Produces truly beautiful purple-blue flowers adorned with broad petals that fade to lavender-blue.

“The fully double flowers, up to 4-6 inches…are normally large and the plants easily top 40 inches tall, although there are even taller varieties.”

I thought what a find this was to come across a blue dahlia in a local supermarket.

It did not bloom last year, but I still packed it up to store for the winter.

It bloomed this year. As you can see, it is not really a pure blue look.

It looks more like a purple. [below]

Dahlia ‘Blue Bell’

Dahlia expert and writer Bill McClaren wrote the book Encyclopedia of Dahlias.

He says, “If a bloom in the red class has the least hint of blue in it, it is classified as purple.”

Other dahlias in my garden

I planted several dahlias this summer.

When I was walking around the garden last week, I realized that the front door was framed with dahlias.

There I saw on the right the tall red ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and on the left in the back the yellow ‘Sunburst Nelson.’

This photo of the front steps highlights the colors of both yellow and red in these two dahlias. [below].

Dahlias frame this view on my front steps.

It was fun to experiment with a blue dahlia, but these two faithful varieties work just fine for me.

James Vick (1818-1882), seed company owner from Rochester, New York, loved dahlias. No surprise that he wrote in 1878, “The dahlia is ouir best autumn flower. We can depend upon it until frost, no matter how long delayed.”

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Coleus Varieties Still Abound

The battle between perennial advocates and those who loved to plant annuals stretched into the twentieth century both in England and America.

In 1905 Helena Rutherford Ely wrote in her book Another Hardy Garden Book, “Would that the Coleus might vanish from the land.”

Annuals, like the coleus, had been a major part of the garden since the 1850s.

So annuals were not going to go away without a fight. Even today that is the case. There are more beautiful coleus on the market than ever.

In its catalog of 1895 the seed company W. R. Shelmire from Avondale, Chester Co., Pa. boasted that the company offered seventy-five or more varieties of coleus.

In a speech to an international horticultural group In 1892 in Ontario the Cornell botanist and writer L. H. Bailey cautioned about the drive to increase newer varieties of plants. He questioned their relevance.

Bailey said, “There are more varieties of all plants in cultivation now than at any previous time.”

Then he said, “The question which you all desire to ask me is whether all this increase represents progress. Many poor varieties have been introduced.”

In other words, how many coleus do we need?

Rosy Dawn Gardens, a coleus growing specialist, says today there are hundreds of varieties of coleus, many of them on the market.

I personally like the coleus and always include it in my garden.

Here is a container of coleus on my deck this summer. [below] Loved the lime, yellow, and green combination from the first moment I saw this plant at a local Home Depot. It’s name is ‘Main Street River Walk’.

Coleus ‘Main Street River Walk’ on my deck right now.

So what can we make of the situation?

Proven Winners, a major grower of annuals, shrubs and perennials, offers twenty-eight varieties of coleus on its website.

Breeders continue to offer newer varieties and we choose the ones that work for us.

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Commercial Grower Prefers Cuttings for New Plants

Commercial grower prefers cuttings for new plants

Recently I visited Pleasant View Gardens in Loudon, New Hampshire, a major grower for the plant brand known as Proven Winners.

What amazed me is each year from December to March the amount of small plants, called liners, that Pleasant View grows from vegetative cuttings.

The liners or small plants are then shipped out to garden centers that repot them and grow them til the spring for sale at the nursery.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) advised the use of cuttings for new plants in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

Vick proposed the use of a bell glass for small pots, each holding a number of cuttings. [below]

Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, 1879

The glass jar of course controlled light, moisture and temperature for the young plants as they grew.

Pleasant View devotes 700,000 square feet to the many trays of plants in special greenhouses which afford ample control of heat, light, and moisure.

In this way Pleasant View grows millions of young plants to ship out in the spring to garden centers and nurseries, mostly on the east coast.

Here is a photo I took of trays of cells, each of which contains a small plant. Notice how many plants there are in just this small space in one greenhouse. [below]

Small plants in cells, inside a tray, await shipment to a garden center near you.

Vick understood the science of this process of growing plants through vegetative cuttings.

In 1879 he wrote, “The florist and the nurseryman construct propagating houses, with beds heated by pipes with hot water flowing through them, to keep up a steady heat to encourage the production of roots in advance of the growth of the stem.”

Vick knew the importance of vegetative cuttings to reproduce certain plants like many annuals.

Today, Pleasant View does ninety percent of its propagation for Proven Winners with vegetative cuttings which, in this case, are flown in from Central America.

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Old Medical Journal Encouraged Retired Nurses to Garden

Old medical journal encouraged retired nurses to garden. 

Recently I came across an article in an old professional journal for nurses from 1911 called The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review.

The article “Floriculture as an Occupation for Retired Nurses” encouraged retired nurses to take up gardening.

The journal noted the author simply as “A Retired Nurse.”

The author wrote the article for “the retired nurse or nurses about to retire who are in quest of some employment that will be productive of an income.”

Such garden work would “at the same time be conducive to the recuperation of tired bodies and wornout nerves.”

The purpose for the gardening, she admitted, ultimately was to sell the flowers to make some money. 

Annuals

Annuals like pansies, asters, and verbenas might be a good start.

The author herself grew five thousand pansies in frames and hot-beds.

She also planted  hundreds of verbenas  and petunias along with a good selection of vegetable plants.

Advertising helped spread the word that created a great demand for her plants.

After July 1 the author recommended growing cut flowers like dahlias to meet the buyer’s needs.

She mentioned how English nurses have taken up growing flowers and vegetables quite successfully.

She wrote, “The growing of flowers as an occupation is said to have become exceeding popular with our English sisters.”

Asters

On this trade card also from the early 1900s the James Vick’s Sons Seed Company in Rochester, New York featured a field of asters. [below] 

As this retired nurse wrote, the aster was a very popular annual at that time.

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