Nineteenth Century American Garden Catalogs Offered Native Plants

The argument that it is essential to use native plants in the garden has a long history in this country.

In the nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the July 1875 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly: “It has been the habit to overlook our beautiful native plants, until some European florist told us they were beautiful, when we would send to Europe for seeds of our own productions.  This is being changed.  Our own seedsmen get them for us direct from their native places.  Vick’s catalogue offers many rare California beauties for the first time.”

Meehan recognized Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick’s offerings in his catalog as a step toward making native plants available to the American gardener.

It would not be the last time we would hear the need to grow our native plants.

Certainly early on Philadelphia naturalist John Bartram (1699-1777) saw native plants as essential for the American garden because of their ease of care and beauty, but especially because they were available.

Charlotte Adelman and Bernard L. Schwartz have written a new book called The Midwestern Native Garden that repeats the argument: grow native plants.

Why is it people keep singing the same song?

Maybe we need to hear it over and over again so that it becomes familiar, a message that will motivate us in our gardens.


The English Sold Plants for the Nineteenth Century American Garden

Since American gardening in the nineteenth century was closely linked to garden fashion in England, it ought be no surprise that the English sold American seedsmen and nurserymen new plants.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine of 1875 Gardener’s Monthly: “Most of the new plants described are of English introduction.  It is, however, so easy in these days of fast steamships to get plants from Europe that the magazine in making notes of new things hardly thinks it worth while to make any distinction; moreover it is not necessary, as American florists and nurserymen soon get anything good that is noticed in our pages.”

English plants fit easily into American gardens.

Clematis Jackmanii, probably the most famous 19th century variety of clematis, came from Japan to England. Photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

In a later issue of the magazine that same year, Meehan singled out the Clematis vine from England.  He wrote: “The most popular plant in England just now appears to be the Clematis. Large numbers of hybrids have been introduced, and they are employed for bedding purposes, as well as for numberless forms of ornamental work.”

It would not be long before varieties ot Clematis, including Clematis Jackmanii, a species from Japan first introduced to English gardens in 1863, would also be advertised in American seed and nursery catalogs.

According to the website AboutClematis Clematis Jackmanii remains today the most popular variety of clematis in the American garden.

Not too far from my house that same clematis variety that started out long ago in the English garden climbs up the lamppost in front of a two-story brick home.  The flowers cover the post in summer with their blue color.


Victorian Gardeners Spoke the Language of Flowers

Nineteenth century Victorians had a connection with flowers unlike any period before them.  Some referred to this phenomenon as an expression of sentimentalism.  American gardeners of that time shared the same passion for flowers.

In her new book A Victorian Flower Dictionary Mandy Kirkby gives us a list of familiar flowers with a short history of each while noting the characteristic Victorians attributed to a particular flower.

For example, the Dahlia’s meaning is that of dignity.  It became a coveted flower for Victorians, especially in its now familiar ball shape.  Kirby writes that “an upright bloom with a tightly packed sphere of petals, sitting straight and composed on its sturdy stem-the perfect flower representation of dignity.”

Each discussion of the book’s fifty flowers begins with a drawing of the flower in bright colors and perfect form.

Kirby is careful to present the historical context for each flower, highlighting when it first arrived in England from Asia, Africa, or South America.

The few pages devoted to each flower read  in an easy style that captures the importance of a particular flower for the nineteenth century Victorian period.  Kirby includes verses of poetry and song of that time that only strengthen the flower’s cultural importance.

A bonus to the book is the Foreword by Vanessa Diffenbaugh whose debut novel The Language of Flowers has now appeared in over thirty countries.

We still love flowers today of course for special occasions, holidays, and celebrations. Kirby presents a book that  enlightens this ongoing fascination with flowers.

Read this book. You are sure to find your favorite flower.



Nineteenth Century Seed Companies and Nurseries Encouraged Indoor Plants for the Winter

During the Victorian influence in late nineteenth century America, it was important to keep plants in the house in the winter to give the sense of garden even to the indoors.  Plants like hibiscus, abutilons, and palms became quite common for house plants.

Seed company and nursery owners made sure their customers learned how important such plants were for the gardener.

Illustration of indoor plants, including vines, from Catherine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's book The American Woman's Home, 1869.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine of 1881 Gardener’s Monthly: “The love for window flowers or for plant cabinets attached to dwelling rooms seems to be increasing in popularity from year to year.”

L. Templin & Sons said in the 1886 annual company catalog: “While we are admiring our beautiful gardens, we should not forget to make some preparations for beautifying our homes during the long dreary winter months. Nothing can do more towards making the house cheerful in winter than a few pots of choice flowers in bloom.” The catalog then proposed hardy bulbs and winter-blooming plants that the reader could grow in the house.

Amaryllis 'Hercules'. Courtesy of Logee's Greenhouse.

Maybe the reason the Amaryllis bulb appears today in every garden center and chain store during the Christmas season is so that we too can have a little bit of the garden in the house when the cold of winter takes its stand.

Since the late nineteenth century we have enjoyed plants indoors with the encouragement of the seed and nursery catalogs.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick wrote in his catalog of 1874: “Keep the plants clean and comfortable, with thermometer not over seventy or seventy-five in the day, and not more than fifty or sixty in the night.”


Immigrant English Gardeners Impact American Gardening in the19th Century

English gardeners came to America in the nineteenth century, much like other immigrants, to seek a better life.

The way to that goal for such gardeners sometimes  turned out to be owning a seed business or nursery.

But there was always an allegiance to English garden style.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) immigrated from England.

Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) came to seek his fortune in America after he had studied and worked as a gardener in England.  He started a successful nursery in Philadelphia.  Soon after that, because of his writing skill, he launched a magazine called Gardener’s Monthly that ran for decades.

In the late 1870s he returned to visit England after forty years in America.

He wrote about that trip in GM in 1877, “It is the genius of selection, the art to collect and the taste to arrange, the tact to suit foreign matters to native circumstances, that has given England the gardening fame which she everywhere enjoys.  I see clearly that one weakness has been a close copying of other nations. The weakness is only natural, as our literature and all our associatons are founded on theirs.”

The horticultural societies, garden books and magazines, and even plant choices in this country, Meehan argued, depended on the English garden style.




Trumpet Vine Comes Home to America

At the August Garden Writers Associaton annual meeting, held this year in Indianapolis,  I took a short walk around the hotel.

On that excursion I noticed in a courtyard the trumpet vine, hanging off a trellis a half-city block long.

The trumpet vine, or Campsis radicans, once draped the walls of the greenhouse of English plant collector Peter Collinson in the eighteenth-century.

The Trumpet Vine hangs near a downtown hotel in Indianopolis

English gardener and explorer John Tradescant, the younger, had introduced this vine, with its bright, cone-shaped orange flowers, in 1656.  Andrea Wulf in her book The Brother Gardeners wrote “In the next century it became one of the most popular plants for the English garden”.

The trumpet vine illustrates how the English, who had become serious plant collectors, coveted American plants.

Though English explorers returned with plants from America as early as the late 1500s, it was not until well into the nineteenth century that American gardeners themselves considered native species as important ornamental plants.

Many of the plants the English used they referred to as “exotics,” a name to indicate a plant that was suitable for the garden but came from another part of the world, often America.

And so it was with the trumpet vine.

Joel Fry, the Bartram garden historian, wrote that John Bartram listed the Campsis radicans in his catalog of 1783,  an American plant that eventually came back to American gardens but only after the English had cultivated it for over a century in their own gardens.

And so you might say that the simple trumpet vine serves as an early example of both the battle of native vs exotic and the American desire to reflect the English garden.



Nineteenth Century Landscaper Featured Star-shaped Flowerbeds

The Victorian period in the nineteenth century included carpet beds and ribbon beds, made up of colorful annuals,  which often appeared on the lawn in various shapes.

William Webster was a popular Rochester,New York  landscape gardener or designer.  In the 1875 issue of Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s Gardener’s Monthly, these words appear about Webster: “He has already achieved considerable eminence in his profession, and is known in connection with some of the famous gardens of our country.”

Five point star-shaped flower beds appeared on the lawn in this plan of 1875.

In the same issue of GM appeared a landscape plan by Webster for a property in Skeneaies, New York. Notice the star shaped flower beds in the plan in the upper right section.

Of course annuals, many from  tropical climates, made up many of the plant choices in the beds.

Denise Otis too in Grounds for Pleasure writes about the star design on the lawn: “By the 1880s circles or stars packed with precise rows of brightly colored blossoms for foliage–coleus and alternanthera were great favorites–decorated the front yards of farmhouses and city bungalows and erupted from the lawns of the private estates and public parks.”

American readers, who followed the recommendations of nurseryman Meehan and landscape designer Webster, would garden in  the popular English style of Victorian design which lasted almost til the end of the century.



Native Plant Comes Back to America from England

English gardeners began collecting American plants as early as the fifteenth century, according to  Eleanour Sinclair Rohde’s book The Old English Herbals.

Sometimes a native American plant would come back home and find a place in our gardens only after the English had cultivated it  for decades.

The following story by F. Parkman from Boston about a  tall plant with yellow flowers appeared in Philadelphia seedsman Thomas Meehan’s journal Gardener’s Monthly of 1875: “As I write, a mass of golden yellow, 6 to 8 feet in width, and as many feet above the ground, rises in the herbaceous garden against the green wall and trees beyond.

“Two years ago, I imported from England an insignificant looking plant in a four-inch pot, a native, I believe, of this

Yellow coneflower, rudbeckia nitida

country, emigrating to the old world, where his merits found a recognition, which they had never found at home. Having thus reclaimed him, I planted him in a good soil at the back of a wide bed of perennials, where, this year, he made the display described above. Rudbeckia nitida is the name of the plant; and where a grand blaze of yellow is wanted on the lawn, or at the edge of the shrubbery, it would be hard to find its equal”.

The tall mass of yellow flowers turned out to be our popular Rudbeckia.

The argument for the use of native plants in the landscape has a long history in America, dating back to the period when English plant collectors came for our seeds and plants and sent them across the ocean for the English garden.

In the nineteenth century a native plant had value only after English gardeners sang its praise.  Only then would the plant appear in American seed and nursery catalogs.

Today we treasure the Rudbeckia nitida, which has now returned home to our gardens.

Do you have it in your garden?




Hovey Sought English Plants for American Gardens

Since the English garden provided the model for nineteenth century American gardening, it is no surprise that American seedsmen and nuserymen looked to England for new plants.

C. M. Hovey,nurseryman and writer, from Cambridge, Mass. said the new coleus from England would eventually find a spot in American gardens.

C. M. Hovey's Magazine of Horticulture, one of the longest running 19th century garden publications

He wrote in his Magazine of Horticulture of 1868 about the new hybrid coleus: “Since the introduction of Coleus Vershaffeltii, with its rich deep colored foliage, it has formed a prominent object for bedding purposes, especially in England, where the style of ribbon borders has extensively prevailed.  The introduction of another kind, called C. Veitchii, increased the taste of rich foliaged plants, and by the skill of the hybridizer, a great number of new sorts have been raised between these two, which seem to have attracted unusual attention, amounting almost to a furor for these plants. The successful grower of these hybrids was M. Bause, of the Chiswick garden, who has raised twelve of these seedlings… All of these, or a portion of them, will no doubt find their way into American collections.”

Nurserymen like Hovey recommended and sold English plants to their customers because the flower or leaf color of the plant variety were important for the English garden.

The same plants, they thought, would perform as well in an American garden.


Plant Collectors Still Travel to China

I just returned from the annual Garden Writers Associaton conference, which this year took place in Indianapolis.

At this event GWA recognized outstanding examples of garden writing, garden photography, as well as garden social media with either a Gold or  Silver Award. The award winners, about 30, had their material on display during the three days of the convention. The awards were presented at the banquet on the last night.

GWA presented a Silver Award for this issue of Arnoldia, Vol. 68, No2, 2010.

Boston’s Arnold Arboretum‘s publication Arnoldia won a Silver Award for Achievement for its Volume 68, Number 2, which focused on the 20th anniversary of the North American-Chinese Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC).

Over the last 20 years members of the Arnold Arboretum and several other botanical gardens, mostly in the US, have traveled to China for plants that would be adaptable to our growing conditions.  Since the founding of NACPEC  a dozen expeditions have provided over 1300 plant varieties, now in test gardens in nine universities and botanical gardens. A plant undergoes evaluation for ornamental merit, resistance to pests, medicinal uses, and possible invasiveness.

Our popular plant, the Canadian hemlock, has in recent years suffered from the woolly adelgid (HWA).  China grows a hemlock, Tsuga chinensis, currently under evaluation in this country, that does not succomb to the disease.  It is one plant that certainly would be a welcome addition to the landscape in the US.

The GWA recognized the importance of the work of NACPEC, covered in several articles in this issue of Arnoldia.

The long tradition of hunting for plants in Asia, which  the English fostered for centuries, still continues.  The focus now however,  as the articles of the Arnoldia issue confirm, is first, the scientific documentation of botantical diversity, and then, potential use as a landscape plant.