Bergenia Flowers for Spring

Along our driveway a large section of granite rock gradually rises to almost four feet in height.

There in a crevice you will find the spring blooming bergenia.

I planted it many years ago.

Bergenia in a crevice in the granite rock along our driveway

Over time this tough plant has found a home in the rock.

Every spring I can depend on its purple flowers.

Its leaves are large, leathery, and thick. In the middle appear the flowers on long stems.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut’

The plant grower Monrovia now offers a bergenia called bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’

The plant description says it all. This is a ” bold, low-growing rosette of large glossy, leathery, toothy, green leaves with showy stalks of small magenta flowers that emerge in early to late spring.

“Effective in shaded foreground plantings and borders.

” Cool fall weather turns the foliage a showy reddish bronze hue. An herbaceous perennial; may remain evergreen in mild winter regions.”

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Winterglut.’ Courtesy of Monrovia

Victorian Favorite

A photo of bergenia plants appears In the book Victorian Gardens by Caroline Holmes. The setting is a garden, dating back to the nineteenth century.

In the photo several bergenia plants border a circular walkway. They are planted on each side of a cement bench that is at the center.

According to Holmes, the bergenia, popularly known as Elephant’s Ears, was one of English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll’s favorite edging plants.

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Victorians Loved Bedding Out Plants

In the Victorian era in order to create the flashy flowerbeds called carpet beds or ribbon beds, a gardener had to employ an array of colorful plants, usually annuals.

Luckily, thanks to plant hunters, there were annuals arriving from Asia, South America, and Africa to fill that need

Many of the plants you will easily recognize because they still appear in our gardens today.

English garden historian and lecturer Caroline Holmes wrote the book Victorian Gardens (below).

Her theme is, of course, Victorian gardens, but she also mentions the many plants that made up the gardens.

For example, Holmes says, “Geraniums were popular Victorian flowers in the ground, trained up conservatory walls, or in pots.”

All Victorian gardeners consulted the reference book by Robert Thompson called The Gardener’s Assistant. A Practical and Scientific Exposition of the Art of Gardening in all its Branches (1859).

Thompson listed the important bedding-out plants for that time in England.

You will certainly recognize their names.

They include petunia, verbena, fuchsia, and lobelia.

They are all annuals we still grow in our gardens today.

Though we may not create carpet beds any more, for some reason we continue to use such annuals as essential in the garden of today.

Garden Illustrations

Holmes includes many illustrations of gardens in her book.

She also demonstrates how to design and plant a ‘bedding in high summer.’

The plants she suggests for such a planting are Begonia semperflorens, Cerastium tomentosum, Lobelia ‘Chrystal Palace’ and Heliotrope ‘Marine.’

The book is filled with photographs of colorful nineteenth-century flower beds at various English country houses like Harewood House and Osborne House, and even at Hampton Court Palace garden.

Though today we do not have the time or resources for carpet bedding, we still love the bedding out of annuals.

In fact, every summer the major growers provide new varieties of an old favorite annual for the home gardener.

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New Book Traces History of American Garden

We can learn a great deal about gardening by looking at garden history.

A new book Iowa Gardens of the Past by Beth Cody takes the reader on a journey of gardening in Iowa since 1850.

In the process of looking at gardens over a century and a half the reader also learns about the changing American garden asesthetic. You see how the garden continues to be a work of art.

What was happening in Iowa was also happening around the country. The book describes the evolution of the American garden.

Landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, (1815-1852) proposed a lawn with few trees as the basis of the landscape. A flower garden could be included behind the house as well.

His designed look you might call the Romantic English park aesthetic.

Cody writes, “Only the wealthy could afford a house and landscape in the style Downing proposed.”

During the high Victorian era of the 1880s and 1890s the market for annuals, perennials,and bulbs grew with the demand of home gardeners. New bright and showy species of new plants came from Asia, Africa, and South America.

Then home owners had more leisure time to plan, grow, and maintain gardens in an ornamental style. They did so with flowers like roses and dahlias.

The images in the book are not only of mansions or large houses, but often, especially in postcards, you will see an ordinary house and garden.

The World Expositions held in 1876 in Philadelphia and 1893 in Chicago introduced American gardeners to Japanese gardens.

Americans fell in love with the Japanese style, so after 1900 even in Iowa you could find a Japanese-inspired landscape.

In the early twentieth century the next important aesthetic was the movement to include naturalistic plants in the garden.

Even during the Depression of the 1930s people gardened. Cody writes, “Despite the economic challenges of the decade, more Iowans than ever gardened enthusiastically.”

In 1930 Theodore E. Sexier, from Ames, Iowa, planted the rose called ‘New Dawn,” the first plant ever patented.

Today I grow ‘New Dawn’ in my garden and it is truly a beautiful flower.

In the 1940s during war time seventy percent of Iowa households grew Victory Gardens.

Cody writes, “During the 1950s, there was a noticeable trend of men becoming more interested in oramental gardening, not just growing vegebtables.”

Photos and Illustrations

Cody includes in the book wonderful illustrations and photos of gardens big and small. She has assembled a truly amazing collection of two hundred and fifty photos and illustrations, each filled with a bit of garden history. [belowthe back of the book]

The Back Cover of the book

After the 1950s the garden became an outside room where the family could gather to entertain.

The formal garden had disappeared and more informal flower beds and containers of plants for the deck or patio became popular.

As it evolved, the American garden aesthetic became sometimes formal and sometimes natural with on occasion a combination of the two styles.

And Beth Cody found it all in Iowa gardens.

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Darwin and Vick, Famed 19th Century Horticulturists

Who knew that one day history would link Charles Darwin and James Vick in the same memorial?

In England Charles Darwin conducted his research on plants and called it the struggle for life.

In his book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory the author James T. Costa writes about Darwin’s many experiments with plants.

Costa says, “When we observe nature we often miss the struggle, seeing only peace and harmony, and mistake this for the natural condition of the living world.”

The garden is a place where plants struggle to survive. Some make it while others do not.

Darwin studied that struggle through his research of many years on plants. [below]

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – National Portrait Gallery

In America James Vick owned an important seed business in the second half of the nineteenth century.

At one point he received three thousand letters a day from his customers, seeking seeds of course, but also his advice. To them Vick was a trusted source on all things horticultural.

Here is the photo Vick included in his seed catalog after many of his customers requested a photo. [below]

James Vick (1818-1882)

Both Darwin and Vick died in 1882.

Memorial

Last week I came across a link between the two.

In 1883 at the annual meeting of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society its President mentioned both Darwin and Vick in a speech.

He said, “I have to record the names of two men, whose labors have been largely for the benefit of farmers and horticulturists, Charles Darwin and James Vick.

“Charles Darwin, who died at the ripe age of seventy-four, was considered the greatest horticulturist of the age. He was the author of many valuable works…

“James Vick, who died at Rochester, N.Y. May 16, was aged about 64 years. At the time of his death he was at the head of one of the largest seed establishments in America, and his Floral Guide [Catalog] had a circulation of over 200,000. His success has been marvelous. His labors are finished, but the good he has done will endure forever.”

Darwin and Vick, famed 19th century horticulturists

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Archives Open A Window on American Gardening

I just finished reading a wonderful new book on the history of the American garden.

The book, Everything for the Garden, is not thick but is filled with many engrossing photos and illustrations.

The book is based on the collection of garden books, catalogues, and related ephemera in Historic New England’s Library and Archives.  The time frame is the nineteenth into the early twentieth century.

Five excellent essays by prominent garden historians, writers, archivists, and designers make up the volume.

Garden historian Judith Tankard writes about our long dependence on the written word, especially garden books.

She says, “Even though today’s information is readily available on the Internet, the old-fashioned pleasures of thumbing through catalogues and how-to-publications still exist.” There is something that still attracts us to the printed word in the form of a garden book or garden magazine. We want to hold it in our hands.

Late nineteenth century catalogues from seed companies included vegetables depicted as humans in an effort to sell their seeds.  That whimsical artwork is still fun to see.

Garden Statues

Any history of the garden must of course include statuary.  Here archivist Richard Nylander reminds the reader how different the gardener’s choice of such statuary can be, depending on the decade. He highlights three such garden ornaments.

The first garden accessory he mentions is the sculpture Bird Girl (1936) which also appeared on the cover of the 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

 I found his second statue, that of St. Francis, one that I had never thought of but certainly one that I have seen in many gardens. Francis, after all, is now the patron saint of ecology with his love of animals and nature.

 Finally, he reminds the reader of the ever-popular, ever-repulsive, Pink Flamingo craze from the 1950s. What fun.

Garden Fashion

 The idea that the garden is subject to fashion and style appears over and over in the book as the writers discuss the time and place of a particular form of the American garden. For example, the Colonial Revival movement in the early twentieth century stimulated interest in old-fashioned flowers and gardens. It was an interpretation of what people thought the Colonial garden might have looked like.

Alan Emmet includes many images of period gardens like Hunnewell’s in Wellesley, Mass. and Celia Thaxter’s off the coast of New Hampshire.  He admits the difficulty in preserving a garden. Emmet writes, “A garden is probably the most fragile, the most perishable form of art.”

The final essay by Virginia Lopez Begg presents an overview of the Garden Club movement in America.  She spells out the importance of the movement for women. The movement also changed our views of horticulture and landscape design.

The book ends with a listing on the inside of the back cover of some of the many properties, with their fabulous gardens, that Historic New England manages.  Now, as spring approaches, we need to visit these gardens and enjoy them once again in person.

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New Book Cover Arrived

Last week turned out to be extra special for me.

On Monday Ohio Unversity Press sent me the cover for my new book All about Flowers: James Vick’s Nineteenth Century Seed Company.

James Vick (1818-1882) from Rochester, New York, owned one of the largest seed companies in the country.

The book tells Vick’s story, especially his passion to teach people about flowers.

Here is the cover:

The colors jump out at you and ask you to sit down and read Vick’s Victorian-era story..

I am quite happy with the Victorian look and feel of the design. Vick’s seed catalog from 1874 is the back ground, now colored in that brilliant blue.

Don’t expect to see the book until mid to late Fall.

What do you think of the cover?

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New Book Traces Garden Club History

I just finished a wonderful book about American gardening, Everything for the Garden.

Historic New England published it. The organization, whose name before was the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, maintains dozens of historic properties in New England.

The book inlcudes a chapter by landscape historian Virginia Lopez Begg called “An Unexpected Story: Social Revolution and the Garden Club.”

In that chapter Begg details the importance of the garden club movement in America.

She writes, “The garden club movement helped to transform the landscape of America and the women of America.”

In the early twentieth century the garden club gave women a voice in gardening by encouraging women’s civic involvement through gardening.

At a time when women were struggling for their own right to vote, the garden club movement gave women a unified voice in the areas of botany and horticulture.

That voice eventually involved important national issues like highway beautification and the use of native plants.

In 1904 the national movement started with the founding of the Garden Club of Philadelphia.

The Garden Club of America, now the parent organization, published the two-volume book Gardens of Colony and State in the 1930s.

The volume lists in both word and illustration many historic gardens throughout the country, several in New England.

At the turn of the century when women were bonding in various kinds of organizations to claim a voice, it was no surprise that gardening with its emphasis on horticulture and landscape design also became the focus of one such group.

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Japanese Knotweed Jumped the Wall

Did you know that Japanese knotweed jumped the wall?

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries English gardeners hosted exotics.

They took great satisfaction in growing plants that flooded the country from Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Plant hunters then searched the globe for worthwhile garden plants.

There were various kinds of plants, including vines. One such entry was Japanese knotweed.

Unfortunately, Japanese knotweed became an unwanted invasive species.

Garden historian Stephen Harris writes about this vine in his book Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900.

Harris says, “Once an exotic plant has ‘jumped the wall’ it can have profound effects and often very difficult to control.”

The example he cites is Japanese knotweed. [below]

[Thanks to: WASHINGTON STATE
Noxious Weed Control Board
]
Polygonum Cuspidata, Japanese Knotweed

Harris says, “Japanese knotweed [is] a species which has now spread over much of the UK following the flurry of interest it aroused in the mid-nineteenth century.”

It is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world’s worst invasive species.

Botanical gardens, like Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, still search the world, especially China, for plants that will grow in US gardens.

Today we know a lot more about invasive plants than we did when Japanese knotweed first arrived in England in 1850.

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Winter Appeal of Garden Catalogs

The cold, snow, and ice sometimes get to me.

I know that feeling also makes me appreciate the garden catalog.

Right now a catalog appears in my mailbox every few days. I love them.

This week I came across a wonderful article in the English magazine The Living Age from January 3, 1914. The name of the article is “On Flower Catalogues” by Jessie Fielding Marsh.

Marsh delights in the arrival of the garden catalog at her doorstep.

Here is a seed catalog from that time. Look at the warm, rich colors on the cover. This is probably the kind of catalog that would have come to her door.

Title: Catalogue of Seeds. Source: Front Cover, Nursery catalogue, Richard Smith & Co. 1898

She writes, “Catalogues are for grey days, dark days, when our outlook on life is a sad one, when our plants lie under the earth and there seems no prospect of any return of color and warmth.”

She ends the article with a wonderful sense of hope.

Marsh writes, “Yes, in winter you read your catalogues – in summer you live them!”

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Hunnewell Pinetum: Garden as Collection

Plant collecting is nothing new.

The nineteenth century revealed an interest in both collecting and showing off plants. In the early part of the century such a hobby became the pastime of the wealthy.

By the end of the century the middle class had joined the ranks.

One method was to plant a collection of conifers.

Stephen Harris mentions that hobby in his book, Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1500-1900.

Harris says, “Gardeners, especially the wealthy with land and gardens to fill, were attracted by the landscape possibilities of conifers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.”

The Boston area included an important example of collecting conifers.

Not far from Boston, in the town of Wellesley, in 1867 Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (1810 – 1902) planted a fourteen acre pinetum, or garden of pines.

Thus he was able to display his collection of evergreens.

Hunnewell’s goal in creating this special garden appeared in his 1906 biography called Life, letters, and diary of Horatio Hollis Hunnewell.

He said  “In it will be my aim to plant every conifer, native and foreign, that will be found sufficiently hardy to thrive in our cold New England climate.” 

The Hunnewell Pinetum (1906) is located near Boston in the town of Wellesley.

 Today three hundred sixty towering conifers still grow in his pinetum, now open to the public.

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