Darwin Studied Climbing Plants

Darwin studied climbing plants

English scientist Charles Darwin (1808-1882) was able to see a oneness in nature.

For many years that idea motivated both his research and his writing.

He likened climbing plants to animals according to James T. Costa’s book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory.

Costa writes: “Seemingly animal-like in their powers of movement and sense perception, climbing plants too point to the fundamental unity of plants and animals.”

In my garden I planted a vine of hops along one wall of my garden shed. Each summer the vine reaches out to spread its leaves.

Darwin saw in hops an example of movement by the plant called twining.

Here is a photo of the hop vine in my garden. [below] It is the variety by Proven Winners called ‘Summer Shandy.”

Hop Vine in my garden on the shed wall

Darwin pointed out that these plants have a certain power of movement.

He said, “It has often been vaguely asserted that plants are distinguished from animals by not having the power of movement. It should rather be said that plants acquire and display this power only when it is of some advantage to them.”

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Garden Urn at Portland’s Victoria Mansion

Garden urn at Portland’s Victoria Mansion

The Victorians loved to set an urn with plants on the front lawn.

Therese O’Malley writes in Keywords in American Landscape Design “In the context of the designed landscape, treatise writers often strongly recommended that the vase be placed on top of a pedestal or plinth so that it would be easily visible.”

Right now you can see this urn on the front lawn outside of the Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. [below]

Though it has no pedestal, it still represents Victorian garden design.

Victoria Mansion, Portland, Maine

Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s mid nineteenth century’s most important landscape designer, recommended that a single urn be placed on the lawn.

A bit later Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) proposed in his garden magazine that the urn include three kinds of plants.

You needed a tall center plant like a canna or a yucca.

Then you included a plant that filled the middle section like a geranium.

Finally you introduced a plant trailing down, but not touching the ground.

Vick included this image in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly. [below]

Notice the choice in each plant to give that special look that a garden urn on the lawn needed.

In his business Vick promoted flowers for the garden, and the urn was one of the places to introduce such flowers.

Collector Barbara Israel wrote the book about landscape ornaments called Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste.”

She says.”In the minds of even the most fervent proponent of naturalistic design (in which the [garden] ornament was severely limited), the urn was admired as an object of taste and refinement.”

However, O’Malley, reflecting Downing’s writing in 1849, cautioned that “ornamental vases were often regarded as works of art…and should not be reduced to the level of ‘a mere garden flower-pot.’ “

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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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Victorians Suffered Orchid Mania

Victorians suffered orchid mania

You have heard about tulip mania in the seventeenth century and perhaps even dahlia mania in the early nineteenth century.

In 1894 the London magazine Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art published an article entitled “The Romance of Orchid Collecting” about the sickness called orchid mania in late Victorian England.

Collectors were going crazy over the newest and latest orchids, in spite of the many dangers involved in hunting for orchids.

Earlier in the century Charles Darwin had done research on orchids. Historian James T. Costa mentions the mania in his book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory. He writes, “Victorian orchid collectors suffered this form of madness.”

The Chambers’s article discussed the trials, tribulations, murder and mayhem that resulted from the hunt for orchids.

“A plant no bigger than a tulip bulb has been sold for many times its weight in gold.”

That someone could become so obsessed with a particular plant is probably not surprising if you consider plant collecting as both a hobby and current fashion.

Darwin, however, was interested in orchids because they cross pollinated.

His interest was scientific.

In the course of Darwin’s investigation into flower structure and pollination, he started a line of orchid research in the 1840s.

Costa does not, however, make any mention of Darwin suffering from orchid mania, probably because that ‘illness’ came later in the century.

Darwin, too, was more interested in plant experiments than plant collecting.

And so, you might say, the orchid mania bug never bit him.

Photo from my Florida trip. You can see orchids on this tree in the front yard. [Thanks to FNGLA garden tour.]
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Victorian Seed Company Believed in Advertising

Victorian seed company believed in advertising

Recently from the New York Botanical Garden’s Mertz Digital Nursery and Seed Catalog site I learned a bit about the relationship between seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) and J. Walter Thompson, the great American advertiser at the turn of the twentieth century.

Here is what the article said about Vick and Thompson,

 “James Vick of Rochester, NY spent about $100,000 a year, an enormous sum of money in those times, in advertising, all with the J. Walter Thompson agency.  When Vick died (1882) the management of the business was taken over by his son James Vick, Jr. 

” Vick promptly told Thompson that he had all the business he could expect to get and decided to quit advertising and add $100,000 a year to his profit.  Thompson cautioned Vick by saying ‘Vick you are crazy; it will only be a question of time until you are bankrupt.’

  “Soon thereafter the Vick family’s diminished finances forced Vick’s daughter to become a governess for one of his Pittsburgh clients.”

""

J. Walter Thompson, important advertising executive in late ninetheenth century America. [Courtesy of NY Botanical Garden, Mertz Catalog Collection]

I thought what a sad story this is turning out to be.

Here is an early Vick catalog from the same site [below]:

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Vick seed catalog from 1876.[Courtesy of NY Botanical Garden, Mertz Catalog Collection]

The Mertz commentary concludes with these words, “Thompson’s story may have been more a case of resentment about losing the Vick account than an unbiased evaluation of the Vick’s business prospects. The James Vick and Sons nursery business continued operations until the 1930’s when it was sold to Burpee. “

That Vick spent a great deal of money on advertising probably contributed to his popularity in the late ninteenth century. His reputation as an honest peddler of seeds spread across the country.

It was, I believe, his sincere interest in his customer that sealed the deal and made the company a success.

He wrote “I have labored to teach the people to love and cultivate flowers, for it is one of the few pleasures thst improves alike the mind and the heart, and makes every true lover of these beautiful creations of Infinite Love wiser and purer and nobler.”

There is no dubt that advertising for the James Vick Company could have first introduced a potential customer to Vick and his seeds.

It was, however, his warm relationship with his customers, mainly in his writing, that kept them coming back for more seeds.

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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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Darwin Wrote about Plant Struggle for Survival

Darwin wrote about plant struggle for survival

This past June here in the NE provided a great deal of rain. It kept pouring down for what seemed days and days. Little sun appeared.

What grew in the garden, without bounds it seems, were weeds.

I have never seen such a vast number of weeds which took over so much of my garden. I spent what seemed several weeks just weeding.

Dealing with weeds is an important way to understand not only gardening but ecology as well.

In the 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.

Weeds like all plants are trying to survive. We humans call these plants ‘weeds’ which legitimizes and encourages treating them like an enemy that must be crushed.

Costa writes, “What seems an exuberance of vegetation with its flitting and creepy-crawly denizens, unruly enough to strike terror into the heart of gardeners whose taste favor the manicured has in fact a certain order or underlying structure in Darwin’s eyes.”

This ‘struggle for existence’ that Darwin explored in his work could well be the story of the weed.

Costa writes, “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.”

Perhaps that is a lesson that gardeners learn only too quickly. The peace and harmony we search for in the garden is really a state we impose on the garden.

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

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We Still Grow Victorian Annuals

We still grow Victorian annuals

In 1890 the garden writer, poet, and song writer from Wisconsin Eben E. Rexford [below] wrote a book called Home Floriculture.

Eben E. Rexford (1888-1900)

The James Vick Seed Company in Rochester, New York published the book.

Rexford was a rather well-known writer in that Victorian period. It is not suprising that Vick agreed to publish the book.

Ads for the book appeared in the Vick seed catalog. Thus the company promoted the book as well.

Here is a chromolithograph of flowers that appeared in Vick’s seed catalog. [below] Many familiar annuals made up the mix.

Vick’s chromo of 1871 [courtesy of Millicent W. Coggon]

Rexford included a chapter in his book called “The Best Annuals.”

He recommended five annuals “for massing and making a brilliant show.” The Petunia, Phlox, Nasturtium, Calliopsis, and Aster made up the list.

The Vick Seed Company had been selling these flowers for many years. They are also quite familiar to gardeners today. They are among our favorite annuals.

The Victorian period gave us the annuals we still grow in the garden. We treasure them today, much like the Victorians at the end of the nineteenth century.

Through his book Home Floriculture Rexford became a source for what annuals to grow in the garden both yesterday and today.

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Gamble House’s Pollinator Garden

Gamble House’s pollinator garden

Today there is much interest in including a pollinator garden in every landscape.

Scientists tell us there is a shortage of bees and other insects to pollinate. Much of our food crop depends on such pollinators.

The USDA Forest Service encourages gardeners everywhere to include a pollinator garden.

A national program emerged recently called the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Its lofty goal is to spread pollinator gardens across the country.

Gamble Garden

A wonderful California garden I recently visited now includes a pollinator garden.

In Palo Alto, California the grand Elizabeth F. Gamble Historic Home built in 1902 still stands. The house and garden are now open to the public.

The Edwardian revival Gamble House was built by Edwin Gamble, son of Proctor & Gamble founder James Gamble.

A sign that welcomes you to the property in a residential neighborhood.

I walked around quite a bit and found many beautiful, smaller garden areas, including this walkway edged in the short boxwood shrubs. [below]

Walkway at the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden

The Palo Alto Garden Club offered a grant to install a new pollinator garden at the Gamble garden.

Here is the sign that greets the visitor to the new pollinator garden.

New Pollinator Garden at the Gamble House

The Elizabeth F. Gamble garden now serves as an example of the importance of encouraging pollinator gardens everywhere.

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Any Old-Fashioned Dahlias?

Any old-fashioned dahlias?

The problem with the expression ‘old-fashioned’ is that it lacks a specific time.

The reader can simply fill in a time frame.

When it comes to old-fashioned dahlias, it might be appropriate to say the nineteenth century. It was at that time that they began to appear in American gardens.

By the end of the nineteenth century dahlias had become a garden favorite.

Here is the cover of the 1888 seed catalog from the Childs Company in Long Island, New York. [below] In the image colorful dahlias fill the blue and gold vase.

[Thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.]

A blog called Gardenista from Meadowburn Farm in New Jersey included an article about old dahlias. The title of the article says it all: “Dahlia Detectives: 7 Mysterious Heirlooms from an Earlier Century”

The article takes the definition of ‘old-fashioned’ to mean the early 1900s when the book by Helena Rutherford Ely appeared, A Woman’s Hardy Garden.

Today Meadowburn Farm, just ninety miles from New York, continues the tradition of Ely as an historic garden and working farm. Lots of dahlias appear in the garden each summer.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

Bill McClaren wrote about the dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ (1927) in his great book Encyclopedia of Dahlias.

McClaren said that the ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia was “one of the oldest dahlias still being grown and shown and often the jewel of the garden.” This dahlia seems to have it all: old-fashioned and still popular today.

A problem with dahlias is that hundreds of varieties have appeared since the mid nineteenth century. Most of them are long gone, replaced by ever newer varieties.

Maybe one of the reasons we love dahlias is because there are so many newer varieties always available on the market.

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