Two Typical Victorian Flowers

Everyone can easily list two important Victorian flowers.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor hesitates not one moment and presents his two typical Victorian flowers.

He writes, “The hollyhock and the scarlet geranium are what one thinks of as typical Victorian flowers.”

Taylor then explains why he includes the hollyhock. He says, “The hollyhock almost qualifies as a true florists’ flower.”

He gives the history of the hollyhock which I did not know. It seems that a shoemaker from Saffron Walden named Charles Baron introduced it to England from the Grand Orient in the sixteenth century.

Another choice

I guess we are all entitled to an opinion here.

My first choice for the most important Victorian flower would have to be the dahlia. The dahlia is both big and showy. Those are qualities one thinks of when you think of the Victorian era, especilly the 1890s.

This 1888 catalog cover from the John Lewis Childs Seed Company in New York says it all. [below]

Childs catalog cover of 1888 bursts in dahlias.

I could live with the geranium as the other top choice for that period of the nineteenth century. Everyone grew geraniums.

What are your top two Victorian flowers?

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Nineteenth Century Introduced Flower Gardens

Nineteenth century introduced flower gardens

In the eighteenth century the classic English garden took the form of an extensive lawn, a lake, a deer park, and trees to line the property. There was little room for a flower garden.

The famous royal gardener Lancelot Capability Brown (1715-1783) designed his many contracted landscapes around the country in that style.

In his book The Victorian Flower Garden garden historian Geoffrey Taylor tells the story of how the flower garden assumed its important role.

He writes that the landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) became a lone voice, encouraging the planting of flowers in the landscape.

Taylor says, “Humphry Repton’s evident, though subordinate, interest in flowers and flower gardens marks the beginning of a change in taste.”

Flowers began to take on a small, but significant role, in the landscape.

Taylor says, “The eighteenth century was flower-conscious in its gardening, but very far from exclusively so. The flower garden, generally speaking, took up only a very small proportion of the total garden area, and was secluded from the house.”

Repton however encouaged flowers in the landscape. Early in the nineteenth century he painted a scene of a garden of roses that he simply called ‘The Rosarium.’

His painting represents an entire garden area dedicated to the beautiful and now essential rose.

This is his painting:

Humphry Repton’s Rosarium (1813)

Today we take flower gardens for granted. We assume they have been around forever.

As Taylor points out, there was a gradual development of interest in flower gardens. Eventually, especially by the late Victorian period, such gardens would become essential.

It was the nineteenth century however that introduced flower gardens.

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Garden Flowers Familiar to Generations

Garden flowers familiar to generations

We all love garden annuals like lobelia and asters in the summer garden.

Such annuals, and many like them, have been part of our flower gardens for centuries.

Why is it that every garden center in the spring sells the same flowers like carnations, impatiens, and petunias? Because they are familiar.

We garden with plants that have been part of the garden world for decades and even centuries. The varieties may change because we have so many hybrids, but the plants are familiar.

Garden historian Geoffrey Taylor writes in his book The Victorian Flower Garden, “It is The Gardener’s Dictionary and its author [Philip Miller] that must occupy the most honorably prominent place in any account of the background to the Victorian garden.”

Catalog cover of familiar flowers in 1882
[D. M. Ferry & Co.]

He argues that the Victorian garden has roots, literally, in the gardens of earlier decades, especially the 1700s when plants were arriving in England from around the world. It was then that botanist Miller (1691-1771) supervised the Chelsea Physic Garden and wrote about the garden.

Some of the flowers Miller mentions include the crocus, the snowdrop,hyacinth, and narcissus for spring.

The list also includes anemone, stock, the rose, tulip,carnation, phlox, and coreopsis, mostly for summer.

So our flower choices are familiar because we have been growing them for decades and even centuries.

Perhaps that is why it is difficult for gardeners to try new plants when spring appears.

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Formal vs Natural Garden Design

Formal vs natural garden design

There has long been a battle with various levels of passion between those who love formal garden design and those who don’t.

Some prefer the ‘natural’ design as the English proposed it in the early eighteenth century. It became the style of garden for decades and still persists.

Landscape designer and nurseryman from Pennsylvania and later California J. Wilkinson Elliott (1858-1939) ranted about the absurdity of the formal garden in his book Adventures of a Horticulturist (1935).

J. Wilkinson Elliott

Elliott said, “I do not like formal gardens. I consider them an abomination and a thorn in the flesh.”

He was pretty clear where he stood on the issue.

Then he gave his reasons.

He wrote, “The first rule to be observed in making a good garden is to make it as natural as possible, and that does not mean that design is not necessary.”

Even though the garden looks more natural, it still takes the art of design to realize it.

Eliott concluded, “The best-designed garden is one that looks as though it had not been designed.”

He wrote that in 1935.

Today we still make a distinction between natural and formal. Some gardens showcase a bit of each type of design.

Wonder what Elliott would think of that?

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When People Hated Dahlias

When people hated dahlias

There was a time when gardeners found little pleasure in growing dahlias.

In 1866 American botanist Edward Sprague Rand, Jr. wrote in his book Garden Flowers: How to Cultivate Them , “In this country, the plant [dahlia] is falling out of favor, and is by no means as extensively grown as formerly.”

Then he wrote that gardeners are now paying more attention to the Hollyhock and Gladiolus.

Dahlias fell out of fashion. Simple as that.

He presented his reasons why that happened.

First and foremost, dahlias, he claimed, gave off an odor in the garden.

Who would ever think this beautiful dahlia called ‘Blue Bell’ would repulse gardeners because of its smell?

Dahlia ‘Blue bell’ in my garden this summer

He called the dahlia “a rank smelling thing.”

Rand wrote, “The florists’ varieties have been obtained by years of crossing and seed saving, from D. variabilis.”

Cobsequently, there are many varieties that look alike.

“In a small garden” he wrote ” a hundred flowers can be found any one of which will well fill it’s place.”

Eventually dahlias came back into fashion. Today there seems to be plenty of interest once again in dahlias.

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Book Contract in the Mail

Book contract in the mail –

I received some wonderful news this week.

Ohio University Press offered me a contract to publish my new book All about Flowers: James Vick’s Nineteenth Century Seed Company.

I want to thank the people who read earlier versions of this book and gave me advice on how to make it clearer and more enjoyable.

Many people do not know James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, New York who owned one of the largest seed companies in the country.

The main idea behind the book is that Vick sold Victorian flowers for the garden that we still love today, a century and a half later. He promoted the kind of Victorian garden that we all love.

What was so fascinating about him was the way he conducted his business.

His goal was to spread the love of floriculture.

Letters from customers he included in his catlaog and magazine testify to his great passion for flowers and his love for his customers.

I think that’s what amazed me most, his relationship with his customers, spread around the country.

Publication Date

At this point I have no idea when the book will actually come out but certainly not before the fall of 2020.

An academic press like OUP enlists reviewers to read the manuscript. The author does not know who they are.

One such reviewer said,  “Historians have previously overlooked plantsman James Vick and his significance to 19th c. ornamental horticulture. Thomas Mickey’s book makes an indispensable contribution to the field of U.S. ornamental horticultural history. “

James Vick (1818-1882)

Here is an image of the kind of flower chromolithograph that Vick made available to his customers. They would hang it up in the living room as decoractive art.

Vick’s chromo [couretsy of Millicent W. Coggon, a Vick descendant]

I am happy to report that the book includes several colorful illustrations from both Vick’s catalog and his magazine, Vick’s Illustrated Monthly.

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Nineteenth Century Petunia Continues Its Popularity

Nineteenth century petunia continues its popularity

The petunia, first brought from Argentina to England in 1831, provides a powerful example of the importance of hybridizing in the garden industry.

We continue to grow petunias, and, in fact, they are among the top sellers for such prominent growers as Proven Winners.

It is the same petunia from the nineteenth century, but hybridizers have had a field day with this flower.

In 1894 Boston seed company owner W. W. Rawson wrote about the petunia in his catalog.

Rawson wrote, “The brilliancy and variety of their colors, combined with the duration of their blooming period, render them invaluable.”

Today the petunia comes in many colors, and the flowers are either single and funnel shaped, ruffled, or doubled.

Since the Wave petunia first appeared on the market in 1995, the petunia world has not been the same since.

Wave petunia

According to Wave’s blog, a Japanese brewery bred the first Wave petunia.

“Beer and wine companies often employ horticulturists who grow plants for the many flavors and components that go into making their products. Back in the 1990s, this particular company was exploring opportunities for wine-grape breeding when it uncovered a vigorous spreading petunia growing wild like a weed. “

And so the Wave petunia was born.

The little white flower from South America took the English garden world of the nineteenth century by storm

It continues to do so to this day.

Rawson once said, “It was only a few years ago that they were comparatively unknown, and now no garden is considered complete without them.”

Here is a petunia called Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ from Proven Winners in my backyard. [below]

Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’ on the table in my back yard

How many petunias did you grow this summer?

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Jane Loudon Encouraged Women Gardeners

Jane Loudon encouraged women gardeners

In the first part of the nineteenth century John Claudius Loudon became the voice for the gardener. He wrote several books, edited a magazine Gardener’s Monthly, painted, and also designed landscapes.

John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843)

When he wrote something about gardening, everyone took it seriously.

He married author Jane Weber, age 23, when he was 47.

Jane, a writer herself, helped him with his garden writing, but first she had to learn about gardening. She was a novice in gardening.

Her husband became the teacher, though not always with the greatest of patience, as Geoffrey Taylor writes in his book Some Ninteeth Century Gardeners.

Jane Loudon (1807-1853)

After he died, Jane continued her own garden writing career, publishing several books.

Above all, she supported women working in the garden.

In her book The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden she encouraged women to garden.

She wrote, “I should recommend all persons fond of gardening, and especially ladies, who have sufficient leisure, to manage their gardens themselves, with the assistance of a man to perform the more laborious operations.”

Men could help where needed. She said, “It sometimes happens that a man-servant in the family, who is not overburdened with indoor duties, will answer the purpose; but it is generally preferred to employ a man who has been brought up as a gardener.”

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Jane Loudon Lists Familiar Flowers

Jane Loudon lists familiar flowers

Recently I came across a nineteenth century book on gardening by writer and gardener Jane Loudon (1807-1858).

Loudon (or ‘Mrs. Loudon’ as the book’s title page lists her) wrote the book The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden to show that women could venture into the world of gardening with many benefits. They would profit from physical exercise and at the same time learn about the world of plants.

This is the title page of the book. [below]

Courtesy of State Library of South Australia – Library number: 635.9 L886.7

The book, edited like a dictionary or encyclopedia, lists various plants and garden topics.

What I found most fascinating is that this book from 1846 lists annuals for the garden that we still grow today.  

The same plants appeared in the seed catalogs of Rochester, New York’s James Vick (1812-1882) from the 1860s.

Vick did not search out new plants, but accepted the traditional varieties that people were already growing.

One example is the petunia, brought to England from Brazil in 1832.

Loudon writes, “Perhaps no plants have made a greater revolution in floriculture than the Petunias. Only a few years ago they were comparatively unknown, and now there is not a garden, or even a window, that can boast of flowers at all, without one.”

The petunia took a slot in the top five of Vick’s favorite annuals.

To this day the petunia assumes a central spot in the garden.

Proven Winners recently listed their most popular annuals for 2019.  The petunia, in the form of their current hybrid called ‘supertunia,’ became the grower’s best seller.

Loudon also writes about other familar annuals. The morning glory, the nasturtium, sweet pea, and geranium all appear in her book.

It seems that the nursery business keeps offering the same plants that have been part of the garden for decades. The only difference, of course, is the constant search they undertake to find the latest hybrid.

Jane Loudon did more than simply alert the gardener to what plants are important. She was creating the gardener’s palette.

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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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