1876 Centennial Exhibition Featured Conservatories

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition featured conservatories.

The Victorian gardener in the late nineteenth century sought exotic plants that displayed color and form whether in the garden or in the house.

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia showcased the love of such plants, especially in the windows of the house and in the glass houses or conservatories that many homes could then afford.

Schlereth Victorian AmericaThomas J. Schlereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “The horticultural hall [at the Exhibition in Philadelphia] represented the Victorian love of exotic gardens in glass conservatories.”

The Victorian conservatory became an extension of the house.

Such greenhouses served an important role in the life and work of the nineteenth century gardener.

When glass became less expensive in the late 1830s, the middle class plant lover could afford to have such a conservatory or greenhouse.

In 1892 the Parker and Wood Seed Company in Boston issued a seed catalog with a black and white drawing of an upper middle class house. Two men and two women were playing badminton on the front lawn. (below)

You also can see  a large conservatory attached to the house at the left. The conservatory provided a setting for tropical plants that the owner could cultivate and perhaps during the warm months position outdoors so the plant could enjoy the season’s warmth and rain.

A potted plant like a palm or lemon tree also added an exotic touch to the garden.

Conservatory as part of the house in this 1892 Parker and Wood Seed Catalog

Attached conservatory in Parker and Wood Seed Catalog of 1892 [Mass Hort]

The Victorian conservatory, attached to the house, appeared both in England and America, assuring hours of gardening pleasure for its owner.

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We All Garden for Different Reasons

We all garden for different reasons.

As you know, people garden for various reasons.

Every gardener you ask would probably give a different answer.

Recently I came across a letter from one of the readers of the nineteenth century garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, published by Rochester, New York seed company owner, James Vick (1818-1882).

 Every issue of the magazine included letters from his audience of readers, spread around the country.

 In the August 1878 issue of the magazine one reader wrote, “Thousands of people grow flowers and derive no happiness from their culture, and often a good deal of pain. They grow flowers for the same reason that they build costly houses and dress extravagantly – to excel their neighbors, for display and ostentation.”

Vick’s Flower Chromo E, 1874

Gardening to such a person, according to the writer, meant keeping up with the latest garden fashion.

It was important to such a gardener to display that fashion as well.

The writer makes the point that there was “a good deal of pain” in this type of gardening.

Perhaps because it was done not for the joy of it, but for the display it provided for one’s neighbors.

For many gardeners there is a physical, emotional, and even spiritual joy that comes from spending time in the garden with plants, water, earth, and stone.

Perhaps that is one reason today we read about the focus on meditation and contemplation associated with gardening.

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Newport Mansions Feature Christmas Poinsettias

Newport mansions feature Christmas poinsettias.

Everyone knows that Newport, Rhode Island is home to the grand mansions of America’s Gilded Age.

Right now three of the mansions have taken on a festive holiday look.

Until January 1 you can visit these three Newport mansions, The Breakers, Elms, and Marble House, decked out in lights and the holiday colors of red, green, and gold. The Preservation Society of Newport County, the group that oversees eleven historical properties in Newport, has made this holiday display at the mansions available to visitors for more than twenty-five years.

Decorated Christmas trees dot the rooms of the mansions. The trees sometimes surprise you when you turn a corner and see a tall evergreen decked in gold and red as in the Gothic Room of Marble House.

The dining room tables are set with period silver and china, and individual white candles illuminate the windows. Christmas wreaths and evergreens decorate walls.

Three thousand poinsettias add color to the rooms of the three houses. The plants, grown in the Preservation Society’s own greenhouse,

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

Pointsettias in the Greenhouse at The Breakers

are removed and replaced several times during the six-week holiday season to ensure the displays remain fresh.

The poinsettias at The Breakers really stole the show for me.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, built in 1895, for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad.

Its interior includes rich marbles and gilded rooms, mosaic tile floors and ceilings, and open-air terraces with magnificent ocean views.

In the Grand Hall of The Breakers stands a 15-foot tree made of red poinsettias. The room with its walls of yellow stone and a 50-foot high ceiling that seems to go up forever shines with the red color of the poinsettia.

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas Tree to the left

The Grand Hall at The Breakers with its fifteen foot Christmas tree, made of poinsettias, to the left

When The Breakers was built, the poinsettia, originally from Mexico, had become popular throughout the country.

Nineteenth century Philadelphia nurseryman Robert Buist, who introduced the poinsettia to the garden industry, once said that it was “truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen.”

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876.

Meehan said that this plant “has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

And that is truly what you find at The Breakers. The blossoms of the poinsettias brighten up the mansion in a holiday spirit.

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Early Monasteries Encouraged Flowers

Early monasteries encouraged flowers.

The early monasteries of Europe like that of St. Benedict, founded in the sixth century, included walled gardens.

Benedict is recognized as the founder of Christian monasticism. Today the Benedictine order is one of the largest in the Catholic Church.

Monastery hallway [Thanks to Pexels]

The early monasteries of that period also cultivated flowers for religious decoration.

Jack Goody says in his book The Culture of Flowers, “It was mainly the monastic branch of the church that came to advance horticulture and eventually nourished their production and use.

“Monastic gardens harbored not only fruit, vegetable and shade trees, but plants later to be destined for the decoration of altars on holy days. Many of the early monastic gardens concentrated on flowers for their medicinal properties and the related culinary ones.

“That was a slow process that covered some thousand years.”

Eventually it would become second nature for churches to use flower decorations and displays with other plants like cuttings of evergreens.

The practice of decorating the altar and the sanctuary along with the outside of the church is now an accepted custom.

Now it’s that time of year when churches decorate for Christmas. 

A reader wrote to New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) in 1879 and said,  “We have for years trimmed our church for Christmas, using about twelve hundred feet of Hemlock wreathing.”

During this Christmas season we think nothing of using poinsettias to brighten the church sanctuary.

The poinsettia, introduced in the mid-ninetenth century to the nursery trade, is now a staple of Christmas church decoration.

The Benedictine nun St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) encouraged the well-being of soul, body, and mind with the flowers and herbs she grew in her monastery garden.

When you think about it, the accepted practice of cultivating flowers in the garden owes a bit of thanks to these early monasteries of Europe.  

They encouraged flower gardening at a time when many cultures shunned it.

Goody says, “Gradually, through the course of the Middle Ages, Europe experienced a revival of the garden and the garland, as well as of botany and of gardening.”

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Pompeii Treasured Flowers

Pompeii Treasured Flowers

Among the ruins of the city of Pompeii, near Naples, I was impressed with evidence of how people cultivated trees, shrubs, and flowers.

Here is a photo from my visit to Pompeii. [below]

The streets of Pompeii today

What amazed me was that Pompeii, a colony of Rome by the time of its destruction in A. D. 79,  knew and appreciated horticulture quite early.

It was a time when many other cultures avoided even depicting something as simple as a flower because that was what pagans did, they claimed, especially in their rites of idolatry.  Muslims, Christians, and Jews avoided any link to pagan practices.

That seems strange because eventually Christianity adapted pagan rituals and holidays, reinterpreting them for the spread of the faith.  The celebration of Christmas is a good example.

Jack Goody writes in his book The Culture of Flowers: “In antiquity flowers were grown in Pompeii for two main reasons: for garlands (coronae) and for perfume (odor).”

The streets of Pompeii are still there, as well as images of plants in frescoes that I saw in some of the homes.

Plants, including flowers, were important to the various classes of the people of Pompeii

Goody writes, “Cultivated flowers are essentially products of advanced agriculture, of gardening, so we rarely find them under simple hoe agriculture…The growth of the culture of flowers represents a growth of the standard of living of the rich.”

Flowers in Pompeii provided the color in garlands worn on the head, and the scent of perfume for the body.

Cultures over the centuries have used flowers according to the tenets of their moral principles. The Roman use of flowers, as at Pompeii, differed from other contemporary cultures both in the East and the West.

 

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Walled Garden Origin Spands Centuries

Walled garden origin spands centuries.

Recently I have been reading about the connection between culture and flowers.

What I have discovered is that flowers have played a different role in cultures around the world over the centuries.

Some countires, like Africa, once had little little interest in flowers, probably because their main concern about plants centered on agriculture for such a long time.

In the process I also discovered a history of the walled garden, which developed over centuries and contact with various cultures.

My source has been Jack Goody’s book simply called The Culture of Flowers.

 

Goody writes, “The enclosed garden or hortus conclusus of twelfth-century Europe looked back to Biblical sources but was modeled in part upon Eastern, and ultimately Persian, examples revealed to the West during the Crusades as well as travelers in Sicily, North Africa, and Spain.”

When I visited the historic gardens of England, like Rousham from the 18th century, I saw an enclosed garden. [below]

 

Rousham’s Walled Garden

When I was in the walled garden, I felt like I was in another age and time.  The enclosed feeling meant relief and escape, as well as privacy.

Goody writes, “While the walled garden of Europe had other roots, Islamic models in southern Spain, Sicily and the Mediterranean were important for the revival of the culture of flowers in its form, its contents and in its attitudes towards their use.”

Many classical English gardens built such a walled garden, often to grow vegetables and herbs.  Flowers were eventually added to this garden as well.

Even George Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, included a walled garden.

Washington admired the modern English garden, often featuring a walled garden, long a tradition by then.

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We Still Grow Popular Nineteenth Century Annuals

We still grow popular nineteenth century annuals.

In 1878 a customer wrote Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick, asking him to name his six favorite annuals.

Vick responded in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly with these words,  “We hardly know what to recommend for six Annuals. Phlox, Striped Petunia, Double Portulaca, Pansy, Aster. Now we have only one more to select: Verbena, Mignonette, Dianthus, Morning Glory, Stock.

“Our readers had better select the last one for themselves, for we can’t find it in our heart to exclude so many good things from our list of six, and perhaps make hard feeling among our favorite flowers.”

The annuals that  Vick listed are the same plants we grow today. The cultivar or hybrid may have changed but the same flowers continue to shine in our gardens.

Today they are the same flowers that appear in the spring at box stores and garden centers around the country.

Chromolithograph from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Vick grew hundreds of dahlias, including new varieties, in his fields of display gardens both at his home and in his trial farm outside the city.

He was always in seach of a new dahlia hybrid. By the 1870s there were probably hundreds.

Noel Kingsbury writes in his book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, “”New versions of familiar plants sell well.”

The marketing of garden plants depends on what the gardener knows about plants.  Old familiar varities attract a customer. Thus we see the same annuals in the garden year after year.

Take as an example, the supertunia, which is the number one annual for Proven Winners.

Vick spent a great deal of time hybridizing the petunia because he considered it a popular annual.

Kingsbury gets the credit as well for this wonderful quote from garden historian Richard Gorer in writing about garden plants. Gorer says, “The hybridizers appear to have gone on breeding the same plants that have been popular for so long…they seem to lack enterprise.”

Kingsbury makes the point too when he says that the hybridizing choices were linked to familiar plants both to the nursery and the gardener.

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Victorian Seed Industry Launched Hybrid Search

Victorian seed Industry launched hybrid search.

At the moment I am reading about the nineteenth century history of garden annuals.

Hybridizing has become an important topic to examine during this period.

Richard Gorer writes in The Development of Garden Flowers that hybridizing was not extensively practiced until the early nineteenth century.

You will find a history of hybridizing in Noel Kingsbury’s book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding.

Though he covers farming, especially corn, which is so dependent on hybrids to increase the yield quality and stamina, Kingsbury also addresses horticulture and gardening.

When Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) in the 1870s hybridized the petunia by crossing two varieties, he came up with his own double cultivar called ‘Vick’s double fringed.’

In his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Vick gives an account of how he crossed the petunias.

He filled a room in his greenhouse with single-flowering plants while nearby he filled another room with plants bearing double flowers. He then took a basket of double flowers to the area containing the single petunias. Next he shredded the double flowers in search of pollen and collected it with a camel’s hair brush. This pollen was transferred to the pistils of the single flowers.

This was an expensive way to generate seeds. It was however from this method that Vick added his own petunia cultivar called ‘Vick’s New Fringed.’

Vick joined a long line of nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries who experimented with hybridizing.

The potential of hybridizing for even more new garden plants expanded in the early twentieth century, as Kingsbury notes, with the work of L. H. Bailey in New York and Luther Burbank in California.

Kingsbury recognizes the work of seedsmen like Vick. He writes, “Commercial seedsmen were quite important in the development of many vegetables and flower varieties.”

 

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Crane Estate Restores Italian Garden

Crane Estate restores Italian garden

Since for several months I had heard about the beautiful restored Italian garden at the Crane Estate, I had to visit.

The non-profit Trustees of Reservations owns the property called Castle Hill and its Crane Estate, right along the ocean on Boston’s north shore in the town of Ipswich.

Today Castle Hill remains a 165-acre National Historic Landmark.

When Chicago industrialist Richard Crane bought the property as a summer home for his family in 1910, he built an Italian villa.

In 1928 he replaced it with a 59-room English-style mansion. [below]  A gravel drive welcomes a visitor to  the house.

The Crane Estate mansion on Castle Hill in Ipswich, built in 1928

The house, high on a hill, is situated quite close to the waters of the Atlantic.

That day I saw this beautiful view of the ocean from the terrace outside the house. [below]

View of the water from the mansion at the Crane Estate

The Italian garden was the first and most elaborate of the gardens created by the Cranes.

They chose the Olmsted firm in Brookline to design the garden. The garden, to which you descend as you walk from the house, includes remarkable stonework in archways, terraces, and statues.  Its fountain stands at the center, along the front wall. 

In this picture of the garden you get a sense of how low it is. The house is in the background to the left. [below]

The restored Italian garden of the Crane Estate

Many of the perennials that make up the garden beds would be familiar to any gardener.

They include sedum, phlox, echinacea, and monarda.

In the early 1900s perennial beds were the fashion. So was the Italian garden.

After all, that was the time that popular garden books included Charles Platt’s Italian Gardens (1894) and Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens.

The four-mile, white-sand Crane Beach, which I have visited many times over the years, is located just beyond the entrance to the road that takes you to the house.  The beach has become a wonderful summer attraction for many on the north shore.

This garden at the Crane Estate, restored in the last year or so, certainly reflects the period of the house along with its owners’ love of the Italian garden.

 

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New England Hosts America in Bloom Conference

New England hosts America in Bloom conference.

Last month I spent an afternoon in Holliston, Massachusetts, touring the many flowers, shrubs, and grasses planted in public areas around the town of 15,000.

That day Holliston hosted the national conference of America in Bloom.  AIB encourages town and city plantings to improve community and encourage local historical preservation.

New Englanders first settled Holliston in 1659, and incorporated the town in 1724.

Almost two hundred attendees enjoyed a luncheon that sunny day in a tent in Holliston’s Goodwill Park.  The group represented thirty-nine cities and towns across the country.

The middle school band played and singers entertained while the guests enjoyed New England clam chowder and lobster rolls.

It was, however, the community’s long-standing effort to beautify the town that made the day.

Over the last five years Holliston has won three awards from AIB.

A tour of Holliston following the luncheon provided a chance to see the results of the town’s work.

In the center of Holliston this border of hydrangeas, mums, and marigolds welcomed the visitor. [below]

The center of town featured these  plantings of the volunteer group called Holliston in Bloom.

A short time after I took the photo you could see AIB conference attendees admiring the same border of plants. [below]

Conference attendees admire the work of HIB. [America in Bloom – courtesy photo]

To host this national meeting speaks to Holliston’s long-standing effort to beautify the town.

Several years ago town members formed a local group called Holliston in Bloom.  Today two hundred volunteers, including some local businesses, support the program.

Many benefits flow from improving a town’s landscape. Mark Ahronian, a selectman and co-chair of HIB, said, “By keeping your town looking good, it increases local economy.”

The Holliston volunteers planted seven hundred mums throughout the town. I saw many of these fall flowers on our bus tour that afternoon.

Last year when I first heard of this national meeting in Holliston, I knew immediately I wanted to attend to see what made Holliston so important to America in Bloom.

Any visitor could see that hosting the national conference here was an honor that Holliston rightly deserved.

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