Alexander von Humboldt Influenced Early Ecologists

Alexander von Humboldt influenced early ecologists.

Nineteenth century German scientist, plant hunter, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) laid the groundwork for what we now call ecology.

He saw nature as united and interconnected. When one element changes, the entirety feels the impact.

He also influenced others, including some Americans, to think of nature in that way as well.

Andrea Wulf writes in her book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World  that German scientist Ernst Heckel (1834-1919) mentioned Humboldt’s view of ecology in his own book Generelle Morphologie.  Heckel wrote, “All the earth’s organisms belonged together like a family occupying a dwelling; and like members of a household they could conflict with, or assist, one another.”

Heckel wrote, according to Wulf, that ecology was the ‘science’ of the relationship of an organism with its environment.

Wulf credits Humboldt with influencing also the work of American naturalists Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

Little did I know as I set out to read Humboldt’s biography that I would come to see his writing as the foundation for modern ecology.

My motivation in reading about him was that  I wanted to see how he played out his role as plant hunter. He traveled in Latin America for five years to study its flora and fauna.  In the midst of that process he was also expected to find and bring back plants for European gardens.  At that time plant hunters traveled the world to enrich the gardens, mostly of the wealthy, with new ornamental plants.

Alexander von Humboldt however became much more than a plant hunter. He redefined nature for us.

As Wulf argues so well in her great book, we need to credit Humboldt with initiating a way of thinking about nature that has deep implications to this very day.

 

 

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Exotic Vine Once Considered Ornamental, Now Invasive

Exotic Vine Once Considered Ornamental, Now Invasive

Recently I noticed what appeared to be an invasive vine in my garden.

The vine Celastrus orbiculatus, or Oriental bittersweet, had climbed up a lovely white birch tree, practically strangling it. [below]

 Oriental bittersweet [ New England Wild Flower Society]

I cut and pulled as much of the vine off the tree as I could. I was not able to reach the top of the tree, but I can now see the leaves, cut from their stem, drying up.

Oriental bittersweet came to the US in 1886 from Japan as an ornamental vine for the home landscape. That year it was first offered in the New York Kissena Nurseries catalog.

According to Peter del Tredici’s 2014 article “Untangling the twisted tale of oriental bittersweet” in Arnoldia magazine it was the Arnold Arboretum in Boston that popularised this vine for American gardens.

Today it is considered invasive here in the Northeast.

In the New Hampshire Landscape Association Newsletter horticulturist Michael Bald calls it a “most-alarming terrestrial plant species” in his article “Three Invasive Plant Species to Really Watch Out For.”

Climbers were coveted in the late nineteenth century Victorian garden.

Rochester, New York seed coompany owner James Vick (1818-1882) praised such vines in his catalog of 1874. He wrote, “The climbers furnish us with nature’s drapery, and nothing produced by art can equal their elegant grace. As the Lilies surpass in beauty all that wealth or power can procure, or man produce, so these tender Climbers surpass all the producing of the decorator’s skill.”

Vick included the native bittersweet, Celastrus scandens, in the section of his 1889 catalog called ‘Climbers.’

By 1893 imported bittersweet Celastrus orbiculatus was found in many gardens in the United States, according to del Tredici.

Michael Dirr writes in his useful reference book for gardeners Manual of Woody Landscape Plants that today Celastrus scandens has hybridized with C. orbiculatus and so can also be considered an invasive vine.

It may seem hard to imagine that what was once considered a desirable ornamental plant is anything but that for today’s garden.

Celastrus orbiculatus is only one among many exotics that have now become invasive.

Can you name others?

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Late Nineteenth Century Gardens Included Perennials

Late nineteenth century gardens included perennials –

Last week I visited the Moffatt-Ladd House and Garden on Market Street in the seacoast city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Portsmouth is home to several historic gardens in the downtown area. Because of its long tradition as an important early American seacoast city Portsmouth includes Colonial, Georgian, and Victorian styles of architecture and landscape.

In 1912 the National Society of the Colonial Dames acquired the Moffatt-Ladd House. Built in the late 1700s, the house once belonged to William Whipple, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The landscape includes an elaborate garden which, in its present form dates to the second half of the nineteenth century when Alexander Hamilton Ladd (1815-1900) owned the property.

Ladd kept a journal of what he planted in the garden. The journal, simply called Alexander H. Ladd Garden Book 1888-1895: A 19th Century View of Portsmouth was discovered only a few years ago and is now available for anyone to read. It provides a wonferful glimpse of American garden history.

In the book Ladd carefully lays out his work in the garden. At one point he planted 60,000 tulips.  Plants were his true love.

He also wrote about his beds and borders of perennials, which, by the late nineteenth century, had become a popular form of gardening, replacing the use of annuals. By the 1870s English garden celebrities writer William Robinson and landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll were encouraging perennial borders.

Rochester, New York nurseryman George Ellwanger (1816-1906) wrote a book called The Garden’s Story in 1889. He  argued against both the stiff formal garden and carpet, or ribbon, beds. He noted that “the objectionable forms of gardening are being superseded by a more natural style–a revival of the old-fashioned hardy flower borders, masses of stately perennials.”

Today you can still see that garden fashion in the garden at the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth. Beds of stately perennials instead of the dreaded carpet beds and ribbon beds of annuals fill the garden. [below]

Perennials in the garden at the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Though it was a very hot day when I visited, I enjoyed this reveal of garden history.

Thanks to all the volunteers who work in the garden to keep it in the style Ladd first laid out in the late nineteenth century.

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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.

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Strawflower Became Victorian Favorite

Strawflower became Victorian favorite

Lately I have devoted some time to consider what annuals I want to plant whether in containers or beds.

For that research I visited a local big box store.

In the large greenhouse area there I found the Licorice plant or Helichrysum petiolare, a low silvery green trailing plant with heart-shaped leaves. It is a native of South Africa.  You grow it more for its leaves than its flower.

Helichrysum is a genus that contains five hundred species of annuals, perennials, and shrubs.

What surprised me was that in the genus you once found the old-fashioned annual called strawflower, Helichrysum bracteatum. Today the strawflower however is listed as Xerochrysum bracteatum, formerly Bracteantha bracteata. [below]

Strawflowers [Courtesy of Selkie Island]

The strawflower was a favorite in Victorian times.

Ippolito Pizzetti and Henry Cocker write in their wonderfully helpful two-volume garden book Flowers: A Guide for Your Garden, “They are the classic Victorian everlasting flowers, used frequently during that period to make wreaths for cemeteries – an arrangement of the dried flowers often protected under glass. They were also used for decoration inside during the winter.”

A comment from the authors about the flower itself caught my eye. They write that the strawflower was an annual “whose flowers have the dubious distinction of being equally attractive dead or alive.”

James Vick (1818-1882) who owned a sizable seed company in Rochester, New York in the late nineteenth century included in his catalog of 1880 a section called “Everlastings.”

He said “The Everlastings, or Eternal Flowers, as they are sometimes called, have of late attracted a good deal of attention in all parts of the world.

“They  retain both form and color for years, and make excellent bouquets, wreaths, and every other desirable winter ornaments, and there is no prettier work.”

In the section he offered Helichrysum in colors of white, yellow, and red “of very many brownish shades.” Then he concluded it was “one of the best Everlastings.”

Vick was both echoing the importance of this flower and at the same creating it as a necessary part of every truly Victorian garden.

 

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Flowers – Companions on Life’s Journey

Flowers – companions on life’s journey.

This spring brought to my attention a book called The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives.

I never really thought about the role that flowers play in our daily lives.

The author scientist Stephen Buchmann writes, “With their beauty, flowers comfort us; they make us smile and ease our grief.”

In that simple statement he sums why, for centuries, people have treasured flowers.

Flowers are our companions on the journey of life.

Here is an illustration of flowers from the Parker and Wood Seed Company catalog of 1887. [below]

Flowers in 1887 catalog of the Parker & Wood Seed Company, Boston

That year’s marketing artwork represented the high Victorian period here in America. Such colorful flowers as carnations, pansies, mums, the sweet pea vine, and petunias added so much color to the home, the garden, celebrations, and even the sick bed.

Buchmann writes, “We garden with flowers and they soothe our minds and bodies. They inspire us.”

He says, “Flowers and people need and depend upon one another for mutual survival.”

His book opened up so many ways to understand and appreciate flowers in our everyday lives.  We plant and care for them for sure, but they give us so much back.

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Late Nineteenth Century Increased Marketing Images

Late nineteenth century increased marketing images.

Today we think nothing of the images for products and services that come before our eyes daily.

Most of the time they appear uninvited as advertising or emails selling something.

To think of a time when illustrations for products and services first began to appear is not an easy thing to imagine, but they had to start some time.

In the late nineteenth century newer technologies in printing appeared along with a decrease in the price of paper.

In that kind of situation the country also witnessed an increase in colored marketing illustrations.

Such images sold everything from needles to buggies.

Thomas Schelereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “In 1884 Charles Congdon, writing in the North American Review, called his age one of ‘over-illustrations,’ so filled was it with visual stimuli.”

By then chromolithographs appeared in advertising. The art form provided a lithograph “printed in colors using two or more lithograph printing stones” as Schelereth describes the process.

At the same time dahlias were experiencing an upsurge of interest among gardeners, as Ms. Lippencourt recognized in her seed company catalog in 1902. She said, “Within the past two years interest has been revived in these beautiful flowers. We offer a small selection of the very best out of a collection of 600 sorts, embracing all sorts in commerce.”

Perhaps the interest in dahlias was revived because of the stunning illustrations of dahlias that appeared on the covers of the catalog that came from seed companies and nurseries of that time.

Here is the cover on the 1894 catalog from the Maule Seed Company in Philadelphia. The pink and white of these dahlias said it all. [below]. Product illustrations in color could sell anything.

 

Here are two other catalog covers of that same time period, another from Maule and the other from Dreer who also sold dahlias with stunning illustrations. [below]

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Victorians Flocked to Summer Resorts

Victorians flocked to summer resorts.

In the late nineteenth century hotels along the water or in the mountains became a popular escape in the summer.

Thomas Schlereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915,  “Victorian resort hotels featured grand verandas, places for viewing, and being viewed”

The resorts became famous sometimes for their gardens and landscape as well.

The Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort near Milwaukee, Wisconsin was one such resort.

Captain Fred Pabst, owner of the world’s largest brewery at that time, built the resort in 1889 on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The pavilion was a wooden structure “built in the resort mode of the day.” The Resort became “famous for its planked whitefish dinners and fine music.”

Words from the dedication of the new resort with its park-like atmosphere claimed that “the north shore area of Milwaukee is indeed the original garden of Eden.”

Whitefish Bay Resort [Thanks to David Zach, Milwaukee]

Harry H. Anderson and Frederick I. Olson wrote in Milwaukee: At the Gathering of the Waters that “Whitefish Bay was incorporated as a village in 1892.

“Its growth was enormously benefited by Captain Fred Pabst’s Whitefish Bay resort, which flourished from 1889 to 1914 by attracting Milwaukeeans escaping from the bustling city.”

The landscape of the Pabst resort which overlooked the bay of Lake Michigan included lawns, special flower beds, trees, and shrubs to make the atmosphere comfortable for a visitor.

Spacious grounds provided the visitors who flocked to the resort especially on Sunday ample room for a stroll along the lake shore.

There were ample seating areas spread throughout the property.

The resort featured both a hotel, a large pavilion, and many tables for eating and drinking outside.

Parks and resorts owned by breweries certainly also helped the business.

The Milwaukee Sentinel wrote in 1887, “The advantage of owning parks is considerable to a brewing company, as then no other beer but its own is brought to tap on the premises.”

While enjoying a Pabst beer, the Victorians who visited the Pabst Whitefish Bay resort, could also relish a wonderful landscape.

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When Cottage Gardens Became Fashion

When cottage gardens became fashion, thanks to Gertrude Jekyll.

In the early nineteenth century English garden writer John Claudius Loudon first recognized the cottage garden as an important form of gardening.

He was attempting to reach gardeners wherever they were.

It was not until English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) appeared on the scene however that we had people replicating the cottage garden in what was then called the ‘stylized’ cottage garden.

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens, “From the old cottage garden Gertrude Jekyll borrowed the charm of natural simplicity and from it she produced a garden style. The deliberate practice of ‘natural’ simplicity in gardening, including rock gardening, at last made the cottage garden self-conscious.”

What is important here is that Jekyll became the artist who gave form to a garden she called the cottage garden.

it was her interpretation of the cottage garden for the middle class.

Thus the cottage garden became a ‘style’ of gardening, or as Hyams writes, a stylized garden.

Welford on Avon, Warwickshire

Hyams writes, “The designer of a stylized cottage garden in the old manner must begin by putting aside curvilinear layout – derived at many removes from the serpentine designs of Capability Brown – in the shaping of paths, lawn-edges and the edges of borders, and go back to straight-line geometry and hard edges.”

The style was anything but the long flowing lawns of Brown that had distinguished the English garden in the later part of the eighteenth century.

This much smaller garden included climbers like clematis and roses, perennials like lily of the valley and phlox, lavender as hedges, annuals, peonies, and roses like ‘York and Lancaster.’

We witness here the birth of a garden fashion.

It has lasted to this day.

We still think of the cottage garden as an old familiar relative.

We know it well. It seems to have been around forever.

It is in reality the interpretation of Gertrude Jekyll that we share in its ‘stylized’ form.

Hyams writes, “The great gardener, borrowing sweet disorder from the cottager’s garden, returned it to him enriched with new plants, but stylized.”

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Cordylines Fill Fort Lauderdale Garden Center

Cordylines fill Fort Lauderdale garden center.

On a recent visit to Fort Lauderdale I could not resist a visit to a nursery called Living Color Garden Center.  I passed it regularly on the road to the hotel where I was staying.

The colorful plants behind the large fence that surrounded the property caught my eye.

The plant I noticed as I walked around inside had to be the tropical plant called cordyline.

Here is a short video compiled from photos I took during my visit.  You can see the cordyline varieties in both red and yellow.[below]

Here is a photo of a few Rhapsis palms, with their yellow and green colors. [below]

This is a red cordyline called ‘Dr. Frank Brown’ from the same nursery. [below]

I also found another red called ‘Chilli Pepper’.

A showy cordyline offers a bit of a Victorian look to the garden in the summer.

Introduced into Europe in the early 1800s, the cordyline became important during the  Victorian period.

English garden writer David Stuart writes in his book The Garden Triumphant: The Victorian Legacy that during Victorian times the cordyline became the ‘dot’ plant which was surrounded by many other flowering plants, whether in a container or in a flower bed.

Today a gardener can choose from among several varieties of the cordyline for a bit of that Victorian look.

You can find the species cordyline fruticosa or Hawaian Ti at both box stores and some nurseries in a gallon and a half container. You may have to look in the indoor plant section of the store. This cordyline is much taller and wider than the popular cordyline australis  ‘Red Star.’ In the pot it stands almost two feet high and more than a foot wide. It can easily fill a large container by itself.

In warmer areas of the country like Florida cordyline grows outdoors all year. The plant originates in tropical Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.

What is amazing about the cordyline is its long showy, stiff colorful foliage. It is the perfect plant choice to add that lush tropical color to any outdoor summer environment. Easy to care for, it is tolerant of both over and under watering.

Though the cordyline is a tropical plant, once popular in the Victorian garden, it certainly can still add both color and structure to the summer garden in areas with a warm summer.

 

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