How many hybrids of one plant do we need?

I love the weigela shrub.

At the edge of our front lawn the old-fashioned weigela florida has bloomed each spring for many years.

Did you know, according to Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, there are 170 varieties of this shrub available on the market?

Most of them come from Holland and Canada.

My question is: who needs so many varieties of one plant?

In my Garden

I am happy our weigela florida shrub continues to provide color outside the front door. [below]

This Weigela grows right outside my front door. [photo by Ralph Morang]

History of the Weigela

Robert Fortune (1812–1880), the Scottish plant collector, introduced it in 1845 from China to England, where it first grew at the gardens of the Horticultural Society.

This shrub, with its reddish-pink bell-shaped flowers, was named after the German botanist Christian von Weigel.

Soon American nursery catalogs listed it as the newest exotic plant from England.

In 1848, the English garden periodical Curtis’s Botanical Magazine wrote that it grew in the Royal Gardens of Kew and other botanical gardens in Great Britain.

Weigela florida grows four to five feet high and just as wide, and is valued as a specimen or border plant.

The leaves are two to five inches long, and usually have one end narrower than the other, a pointed tip, and a notched edge. The flowers measure an inch and a half in length. The inner envelopes of the flowers are usually a white, pink, or red color.

This shrub does well in most fertile soils, but prefers a moist, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade.

It blossoms in springtime, mostly during May, April, and June.

What I like about it also is that this shrub is easy to grow and maintain.

A question

I need to ask you a question nonetheless.

How many hybrids of one plant do we need?


Reading Plants Like Late Nineteenth Century Climbing Rose

Reading plants like late nineteenth century climbing rose.

I am still filled with awe at the life and career of the nineteenth century plant hunter Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859).

He brought both science and imagination to his understanding of nature.

Andrea Wulf in her  book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World points out that Humboldt read plants.

She writes, “Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books — and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movement of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.”

Humboldt’s view of nature as one, and not divisions by various sciences, took the world of understanding plants in a new direction.

Now that I think of it, his idea of reading plants makes perfect sense.

A plant you have in your garden right now had a journey to that spot, a journey that may have been decades or centuries. It is not simply a sunflower or a lily of the valley.

They both express a time and a culture from which they originate.

I know they are beautiful in their own right, but they also reflect the history of gardening.

Take the rose as an example and one rose in particular.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ became a popular rose with gardeners in the late nineteenth century.

Tradecard for the ‘Crimson Rambler’ Rose

It was introduced to the garden market in England in the early 1890s.

It had come from Japan to a nursery, first in Scotland, then in England.

Queen Victoria traveled to the nursery to see this special rose.

The ‘Crimson Rambler’ became a popular climbing rose for the next thirty years both in Europe and America.

Eventually it was replaced by other climbing roses, less inclined to problems of disease and insects.

Thus I see more than simply a rose. It represents to me the nineteenth cenutry nursery industry. Its origin tells us it was an exotic in gardens at that time.

The Peter Henderson Seed Company from New York used this rose in its catalog of 1896 [below].

The new ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose appeared here in this 1896 Henderson seed catalog.

‘Crimson Rambler’ was not just a rose. It represented as well the influence of the Victorian garden industry on homeowners everywhere.


Victorian Dahlia ‘White Aster’ Still Shines

Victorian dahlia ‘White Aster’ still shines.

The online garden business called Old House Gardens works with twenty-one growers in fifteen states to provide it’s tubers and  bulbs.

The Sun Moon Farm in Rindge, New Hampshire supplies some of it’s dahlia tubers.

Recently I drove to Rindge to check out Sun Moon Farm, and, of course, see its dahlia field.

No fancy sign welcomes you to this CSA working farm. During the growing season the farm supplies vegetables to households in NH as well as Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At Sun Moon I found many dahlias in bloom.

The rows of dahlias seemed to go on forever. [below]

Rows of dahlias at Sun Moon Farm

A dahlia I was in search of was the dahlia ‘White Aster,’ first offered for sale in 1879.

That makes it, according to the Old House Gardens’ catalog, “the world’s oldest surviving garden dahlia.”

I was amazed at the long row of ‘White Asters’ I saw that morning. Magnificent. [below]

Sun Moon’s dahlia ‘White Aster’ filled its own row in the field with its cheery white flower.

This dahlia shines with its hundreds of small, ivory globes, making it a treasured pompon type which just might add that white color you need in a late summer bouquet.

A letter about white dahlias appeared in Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick’s magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1879.

A customer wrote, “For four years I have grown dahlias in my garden…

“Last spring I wanted a white one and mother bought me a root for twenty-five cents. When it had flowers in September, it was the prettiest thing I ever saw.

“The flowers were not half as large as my old ones, just as pretty as could be, and didn’t look much like Dahlias, but more like Asters.

“This plant was the nicest plant I had, for there were, I guess, hundreds of flowers”

In response Vick wrote the following: “There are plenty of the small Dahlias, and of all colors that can be desired, except the long sought blue.

“There are two very good white sorts White Aster and Little Snowball.

“This class of Dahlias is called Pompon or Bouquet, and bears great numbers of flowers, from one to two inches in diameter.”

Vick recommended ‘White Aster’ but also recognized the importance of dahlias for the fall garden.

He wrote, “The dahlia is our best autumn flower. We can depend upon it until frost, no matter how long delayed.”



Victorian England Imported Popular Rosa Rugosa

Victorian England imported popular rosa rugosa.

New Englanders have made rosa rugosa a favorite seaside shrub.

As you drive along the beach road, you see these shrubs everywhere.

The rosa rugosa however is native to Asia.

David Stuart wrote in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “In 1849 Robert Fortune found the now immensely popular Rosa rugosa in Shanghai.”

The plants Fortune (1812-1880) sent back to England from his journeys made him a major influence on the Victorian garden in the nineteenth century.

A plant hunter like Fortune traveled to parts of the world from where rich English horticulturists like the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth as well as nurseries and even Kew wanted to have the newest plant to display in their gardens.

Fortune played a major role in bringing plants from China back to the West.

He sometimes used the Wardian case, a recent invention, to transport the plants across the sea. The case sealed the plant and at the same time provided it moisture, thus preventing the demise of a delicate specimen.

Julia Brittain writes in her book The Plant Lover’s Companion: Plants, People and Places  the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick in London asked Fortune to find plants in China.

She says, “His annual pay was to be 100 pounds – poor recompense for three years of danger and discomfort.”

In his search for plants Fortune came across rosa rugosa.

Rosa rugosa would of course make its way to American gardens as well in the nineteenth century. [below]

Rosa rugosa, courtesy of TripAdviser

Rosa rugosa grows along this fence near the ocean. [Courtesy of TripAdviser]

Today we enjoy this rose.  We seem to accept it as if it were almost native because we have grown it for so many decades.

We owe Fortune a note of thanks for this plant and many others like the hosta and the weigela that he introduced to our gardens.

















Maple Tree Honors Scottish Plant Hunter

Maple Tree Honors Scottish Plant Hunter.

In both his catalog and monthly magazine the Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) often mentioned ‘Drummond phlox’ as an ideal annual for the garden.

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1878 Vick wrote the following: “The Phlox Drummondii was only discovered about forty years ago in Texas, by Mr. Drummond, a botanical collector sent out by the Glasgow Botanical Society, and it was one of the last plants sent home, for soon after he visited Cuba and died.”

Thomas Drummond (1793-1835) was a Scottish botanical collector.

The phlox is not the only plant named after Mr. Drummond.

Recently I visited the Allen C. Haskell Public Gardens in New Bedford, Mass., once a thriving nursery business and now a public garden, operated by the Trustees of Reservations.

Here is one of the beautiful scenes from that garden. [below]

Haskell garden

Allen C. Haskell Gardens in New Bedford, Mass.

While walking around the garden, I came across a Norway maple tree whose name is Acer platanoides ‘Drummondii’, or the Drummond maple.

It also was named after the plant collector Thomas Drummond.

Notice the cream-colored edging on the leaf which makes this tree quite distinctive. [below]

Maple tree at Haskell Garden

Maple tree Acer p. ‘Drummdii’ at the Haskell Gardens

We owe a lot to the English and Scottish plant hunters of the nineteenth century.

Many plants we take for granted in the garden today came from the exploration of such plant hunters. That exploration often involved danger, disease, and sometimes death.

At the Haskell Gardens I learned that Drummond had collected 750 species of plants and 150 specimens of birds.

The maple Drummond that stands out at the Haskell Gardens serves as one way to honor this Scottish plant hunter.


























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.



Paxton Garden Reflected Victorian Garden Fashion

Head gardener Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) sought to provide his employer the Duke of Devonshire with the latest plants.

The Duke enjoyed such botanical treasures, sometimes including Paxton in his own travels to seek out new plants.

The plant everyone wanted and everyone coveted was the large water lily named Victoria amazonica or Victoria Regia. Paxton succeeded in bringing it into flower at Chatsworth where in 1849 in order to prove the strength of the leaves of the plant, Paxton’s daughter Annie stood on one of the leaves of the plant. [below]

At Chatsworth Paxton built a special lily house for the plant.


Paxton's daugher on the water lily

‘Annie on Lily Leaf’ Illustrated London News (November 17, 1849)

Years later at his own home outside of London called Rockhills, Paxton showed that he still pursued the latest garden fashion. There he lived in an elegant Victorian house on the corner of the Crystal Palace park. 

The landscape reflected the garden style of Victorian England of that period.

On the porch climbers like wisteria, passion flowers, and jasmine ran up the trellises. A gravel walk led a visitor to the house door.  On the lawn circular beds with flowering shrubs brought color while smaller beds were filled with the newest geraniums. Carpet beds and ribbon beds, the fashion of the day, also made up the garden.

His garden illustrated the latest Victorian fashion, all of it labour intensive.

In her extraordinary biography of Paxton, A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton, Kate Colquhoun writes,”In this garden, as he had at Chatsworth, Paxton proved himself the greatest garden authority of his time.”

Thus, Paxton did not just garden, but gardened, as we all do, in the latest fashion and style for that time and place. In his case that happened to be Victorian England.


In the late 1890s Advertising Created Demand for the World’s Most Famous Rose

Before 1850 magazines survived only on sales and subscriptions.

Norma R. Fryatt wrote the book Sarah Josepha Hale: The Life and Times of a Nineteenth Century Career Woman. In the 1830s Hale had become the editor of the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, a publication filled with stories, poems, and essays, directed to women. Fryatt wrote “Publisher Louis E. Godey was walking a financial tightrope, for there were few advertisements in magazines of that day; all profits had to come from sales or subscriptions.”

By the 1890s ads appeared in national magazines like Ladies Home Journal, providing most of the money to support the publication.

It was at that time that ads in national magazines as well as ads in seed and nursery catalogs that were mailed across the country told the gardener about the new climbing rose, ‘Crimson Rambler’, imported from England in 1893.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in 1898 about this popular rose. He said, “This wonderful climbing rose is now so well known that we feel it unnecessary to comment particularly upon it. Everyone who saw a plant of it in bloom this year will not feel satisfied until he possesses one or more plants of it.”

At that time the ‘Crimson Rambler’ rose appeared in almost every garden catalog as well as in various forms of advertising like this trade card from the Charlton Nursery in Rochester,NY.  [below]

Tradecard for the Crimson Rambrle Rose

1898 Tradecard for the Crimson Rambler Rose

Advertising seeds and plants became big business by 1900, and in the process gardeners across America bought the new rose called ‘Crimson Rambler.’




Rosa Rugosa Came from China to England then to America

Along the seacoast here in the northeast you will find Rosa Rugosa, that shrub rose with the bright red flowers and round fruit.  It has in fact over many decades found its way along much of the ocean roadside.

British plant explorer Robert Fortune brought it to England from China in 1845.

Soon this rose became popular for American gardeners as well.

Newton, Mass. nurseryman William Kenrick in his 1832 catalog for his nursery plants does not list Rosa Rugosa among the dozens of roses he offered for sale.  Surely Kenrick, whose nursery some referred to at the time as the ‘largest in New England,’ would have offered Rosa Rogosa if by then it had made its way to America.

Rosa rugosa, courtesy of TripAdviser

Rosa rugosa on Cape Cod [courtesy of TripAdvisor]

In the 1885 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly Phildelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included a letter from Rose Terry Cooke. She wrote, “What is there about Rosa rugosa to make it desirable? I paid a dollar for one, on the recommendation of catalogues, and I think any of our wild roses more beautiful than this bristling, single blossomed, coarse-leaved bud.”

By then garden catalogs were selling Rosa Rugosa and gardeners, or at least some, wanted this new rose.

American Gardening magazine wrote in 1897, “And what garden is complete without a Rosa Rugosa? None. A rose garden without a representative is the play of ‘Hamlet’ without the moody Dane.”

That line says it all, don’t you think?  Every garden needed a Rosa Rugosa.


The Gardenesque Style Appeared in Victorian Gardens

In the early nineteenth century English landscape gardener and author John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) first wrote about the gardenesque style as a landscape style quite different from the prevailing picturesque view. Its signature feature included a collection of plants, isolated in the garden in groups or singly by themselves and planted so they did not touch other plants.   Thus visitors could view them as in an arboretum or public garden.

That style also became an expression of the Victorian garden.  That was a time when plant collecting forced gardeners to rethink the prevailing picturesque or natural landscape view.  Gardeners coveted plants coming from Africa, Asia, and America.  They also wanted to show off these plants in the garden.

Caroline Ikin writes in her book The Victorian Garden: “The gardenesque style was embraced by Victorian botanic gardens and arboreta where collections of plants and trees were displayed to encourage individual study and appreciation.”

In 1866  near Boston in the town of Wellesley Horatio Hollis Hunnewell opened his garden and called it a Pinetum, where he could show off his collection of evergreens. [below] One might call his garden style ‘gardnesque’ therefore.

Hunnewell purchased hundreds of trees, many from England, and assembled them in this Pinetum.

He labeled the trees as well.

Hunnewell pinetum in Wellesley, Mass. built in 1843

Hunnewell Pinetum in Wellesley, Mass., built in 1866

English garden writer William Robinson visited the Pinetum in 1870 and heaped praise on its collection of trees and shrubs.[from the book So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens.]

At a time when the two defining styles of gardening, the formal and picturesque, had dominated, Loudon introduced a new way to use plants in the landscape and called it gardnesque.  Gardeners both in England and America embraced this fashion.