Flower Gardens Followed Farming

Flower gardens followed farming.

It is spring and my thoughts turn to working in the garden.

My garden includes beds of perennials, colorful shrubs, many trees, vines, and soon several annuals that I simply must have.

It may seem that flower gardens have always been important.  That is not the case. What has always been important is survival.

In most cultures gardens filled with flowers only appeared after a long stretch of time devoted to farming that made available the food needed for the family table.

Stephen Buchmann writes in his fabulous book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives, “No cultures with agriculture develop pleasure gardens unless the collective belly is full.”

If you think about the beginning of our own country, a similar situation occurred.

Thomas Jefferson thought the whole country was to be built on the role of the farmer who worked the soil to provide for a family.

Throughout the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, there was little time for pleasure gardens, or gardens of flowers.

Most people were simply trying to survive.

Thus any working with the soil centered on agriculture.

Most early American garden magazines emphasized the progress of farming.

Certainly we know during this time gardeners grew some flowers, but that was not the focus for a home garden.

It was not until after 1850 that we saw the growth of flower gardens with the emergence of seed companies who had flower seeds to sell. Thus their customers could add a touch of beauty to the home landscape.

Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in 1878, “To any who can look back a quarter of a century, the increase of a love of flowers and their cultivation within that time seems almost marvelous.

“Twenty-five years ago a ‘laylock’ or two, a red ‘piney’ on either side of the front door, a few straggling, untrimmed rose bushes, and, perhaps, half-a-dozen bunches of the old-fashioned yellow Day Lily, constituted the floral adornments of even the most pretentious country homes.

“But, now, a day’s ride through almost any of our rural districts will reveal a succession of bright pictures upon which memory loves to linger.”

In the nineteenth century Rochester developed a thriving garden industry and the city became known as the ‘Flower City.’

Vick congratulated the seed industry for its help in bringing flowers into the home garden. He wrote, “There is no question that those same packages which, in the beginning of the year 1852, went out from ‘the flower city’ of the Empire State on their beneficent mission to all parts of the land, have had no small share in producing this happy change.”



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.



Eighteenth Century English Landscape Garden Included Flowers

Eighteenth century English landscape garden included flowers.

The modern landscape garden began its influence on the evolution of the English garden in the early eighteenth century.

Its distinctive features included views of a long extensive lawn, curved pathways, wooded areas, perhaps a deer park, classic buildings, and even a wild garden.

Flowers were also an important part of this design tradition.

Tim Richardson writes in his book  The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden, “As the landscape garden took shape, flowers continued to play an important role, either formally arrayed in those parterres retained from the old baroque style, or else included in the woodland and grove plantings in the new ‘wilder’ parts of the landscape.”

Flower gardens were not generally considered a part of the picturesque or naturalistic tradition, originating in the early eighteenth century. The sweeping lawn dominated the view.

Mark Laird

Mark Laird’s research also illustrates the importance of flowers in this early English garden.

In his book The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800  Laird makes the point that flowers were an integral part of that  eighteenth century picturesque tradition.

John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), prolific garden writer and a successor to both William Kent and Capability Brown in his role as England’s premier landscape gardener, practiced a landscape design with a picturesque look that also included flowers.

Throughout his designs, beginning at Scone in Scotland, Loudon advocated for flowerbeds in the landscape.

In the mid-nineteenth century American nurseryman and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing proposed Loudon’s landscape design, including, of course, flowers as part of the landscape.



Nurseries Made Dahlias Popular

Nurseries Made Dahlias Popular.

Plants enter our gardens usually through the portal of the green industry like seed companies, nurseries, and growers.

That was the case with the dahlia.

Originally from Mexico, the dahlias appeared in Spain in the eighteenth century.

The dahlia reached England in 1803, and America a few years later.

Boston nurseryman Charles Mason Hovey (1810-1887) became an early advocate for the dahlia. In his publication Magazine of Horticulture in 1835 he called the dahlia the “King of Flowers.”

In 1838 he wrote, “They [dahlias] have become one of the greatest and most valuable ornaments of the garden.”

Then he also said, “We believe the time is at hand when our own gardens will produce dahlias equalling the English.”

Hovey won Best in Class I for his twenty-five dissimilar dahlia blooms at the Flower Show sponsored by  the Massachusetts Horticultural Society on Saturday, October 1, 1842.

Thus his writing about the plant and also growing it, and, of course, selling it contributed to gardeners planting it in the garden.

Hovey was only one of the early nurserymen to encourage the dahlia.

Today we have a company like American Meadows which still encourages gardeners to grow dahlias.

This image [below] is from the AM company website.

American Meadows dahlia image

Dahlias  [courtesy of American Meadows]

Hovey wrote in 1840, “Some seedling dahlias have been raised, which equal the best productions of the English garden.”

American dahlia growers can stand up to the best.

Today there are 57,000 varieties of the dahlia. This flower has come a long way, with no small thanks to the American nursery business.



















Exhibit Showcases Celia Thaxter’s Salon

Exhibit Showcases Celia Thaxter’s Salon

This must be the summer of all things Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).

Earlier this summer I posted here about her biography that I had just read.

Then I wrote about the wonderful Childe Hassan (1859-1935) exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Recently I saw another exhibit about Celia in the same city.

The Salem Athenaeum is hosting a free exhibit called “Celia’s Salon: America’s First Artists’ and Writers‘ Colony.”  The exhibit runs through September 23.

This is a  beautiful collection of materials that illustrate the richness of Celia’s salon at her family’s hotel on Appledore Island, off the coast of Rye, New Hampshire.

She invited hotel guests who also happened to be artists, musicians, and writers to spend either the morning or the evening in her salon. Some would bring their art work, musicians would play, and Celia would read at times.

Childe Hassan was the leader of the American Impressionists and the most prolific and successful artist working in that style. Celia became his friend from the start of his yearly visits. Illustrations of his work also form part of this exhibit.

In the collection there is a photograph of Celia, sitting in her salon. The extremely cluttered room is filled with tables covered in doilies, pictures, drawings, china artwork, even a music stand.  There seems to be no room for anything else.

This painting at Appledore, used in the promotion of this exhibit, highlights the sea and the flowers that Celia grew in her famous garden. [below]


Scene of Appledore Island used in promotion of the Exhibit at the Salem Athenaeum.

The artist William Morris Hunt gave Celia lessons. She had taken up painting of pieces of china like cups, saucers, and flower vases, some of which appear here in a glass case.  At that time when literati and artists filled Celia’s salon, people were also writing her, requesting her china artwork.

This exhibit offers a glimpse into the life of this famous American poet and gardener from the late nineteenth century.


Victorian Flower Fascination Continues

Victorian flower fascination continues.

Victorians loved their flowers. The showier, the brighter, the better.

So argues Nicolette Scourse in her book The Victorians and their Flowers.

The basis of that devotion to flowers stems from the view that flowers express a link to the Creator.

Scourse writes, “It had been an accepted  fact ‘that the most highly adorned productions of Flora’s kingdom were called into existence’ only at the appearance of man and his intellect capable of contemplating floral beauty.”

Now that we have begun our summer adventure in the garden which, of course, includes cultivating flowers, whether perennial or annual, you see how important a role flowers play in the garden.

Victorian Flowers

Victorian Flowers from the Burpee Seed Catalog of 1887

We love our flowers today as much as the Victorians.

Scourse writes, “In some aspects we still view flowers and nature in very much the same way as the Victorians: we thrill at the exotic, the macabre and the concept of wilderness (still in the comfort of an armchair, albeit via a different medium). Sentimental renderings of rustic cottage gardens, ‘laughing streams, and flower-bedecked fields,’ harvest mice and pastel-tinted, honeysuckle hedgerows still abound, together with nostalgia for a pre-Industrial lifestyle.”

Right now garden centers and nurseries abound in colorful selections of flowers, eager to go home with us.

Flowers still impact your eyes, your nose, and even your touch.

The Victorian fascination with flowers continues.












Victorian Seedsman Taught Love of Flowers

Victorian seedsman taught love of flowers.

His magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly provided the nineteenth century seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) a chance to instruct and encourage his customers.

He often published letters from his customers both in the catalog and in his monthly magazine. A reader wrote, “Mr. Vick. I am so full of the love of flowers that I never get a number of the dear little Magazine without wanting to talk to you a bit.”

Vick was in the business of selling love of flowers.

He created a community of flower-lovers, people who would treasure a sense of floriculture. An Illinois newspaper of 1867 wrote, “All who spend a few dollars in beautifying their grounds with flowers, will find a rich reward in the enjoyment of the beauty thus added to their home.”

Chromolithograph from Vick's Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Chromolithograph from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Vick sought to instill this love of flowers for even the owner of the smallest of properties. He wrote in his magazine, “What we wish to teach the people is how to make a fair show of flowers at a comparatively small cost of labor and money…Our people have their modest homes, in the country, and in the suburbs of our cities and villages, surrounded with little patches of garden ground, which they can adorn with the choicest floral treasures.”

Another customer wrote from Ohio, “Last evening I received your beautiful Monthly Magazine. It was indeed magnificent. I thought I would write and tell you of my wonderful success with flowers.”

A gardener from Minnesota said, “Mr. Vick. I feel greatly indebted to you for teaching me how to raise flowers successfully.”

An older New York gardener wrote, “Permit an old woman, nearly seventy-five years of age, to give, at this late day, her mite of thanks for your beautiful blossoms.”

Vick also had an influence in gardeners around the world. A gardener from China wrote, “I read your books with delight. You are scattering beauty around the world and brightening homes in all lands.”

Vick himself loved growing flowers and he shared that love with his customers in his catalog and in his magazine.



Victorians Thought Weeds a Result of Adam’s Fall

Victorians Thought Weeds a Result of Adam’s Fall

You know weeds are a problem for every gardener.

The nineteenth century Victorians who considered cultivating flowers a reflection of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis had their own view of weeds.

Nicolette Scourse writes in her book The Victorians and their Flowers, “The presence of weeds and other difficulties of cultivation were directly attributable to Man’s disobedience rather than any natural cause favoring weed dispersal.”

That view seems in line with the way Victorians thought about flowers. They were signs of God’s presence among us.  Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote, “Flowers are the symbols of all that are pure and true in this life, and they teach us to hope for Life to come.”

To cultivate a flower garden therefore meant a closeness to God.

This Schegel catalog cover of 1895

This Schegel catalog cover of 1895

Vick once received a letter from one of his customers. The letter said, “Mr. Vick, you say ‘The culture of flowers teaches industry, patience, and faith and hope.’ I think you may add courage and persistency…I do feel ‘better prepared for the duties and responsibilities of life – more fitted to conquer its evils and enjoy its pleasures.”

All of that from growing a few flowers.

That is precisely the point here.

In nineteenth century Victorian times you were not just growing flowers, you were showing a sense of morality and religious sentiment.

The Boston horticulturist Marshall Wilder (1798-1886) once wrote to Vick the following, “Flowers are the very embodiment of beauty; flowers are like angel spirits, ministering to the finest sensibilities of our nature, often inspiring us with thoughts, which like the unexpressed prayer, lie too deep for utterance.”

So it was no surprise that weeds would be considered a result of rejecting God’s love.

The Victorians sought to frame gardening in such a religious context, even calling the rose ‘the curse of Adam’ since, according to Scourse, they were ‘the thornbearers.’

The nineteenth century too inherited the sentiment of an earlier Romantic period in which nature reflected the Divine within its soil, water, stone, and plant.

The idea of using religious langauge to motivate the gardener reminded me of the words of Pope Francis in his recent Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. He writes, “The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always appear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious langauge.”





Flowers Fascinated Victorian Women

In the nineteenth century growing flowers meant much more than a hobby, especially for women.

Victorian women grew flowers because it was the moral thing to do. Growing flowers, in fact, became itself a lesson in morality.

Nicolette Scourse in her book The Victorians and their Flowers says, “The Victorians inherited a tradition of flower morality originating from the Book of Genesis.”

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  often wrote that the first garden was that of Adam and Even, the Garden of Paradise. Vick saw it as his job to spread floriculture, or the love of flowers, across the country, a kind of return to the first garden.

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

Flowers in 1887 catalog of the Parker & Wood Seed Company [Mass Hort]

Scourse writes, “The presence of weeds and other difficulties of cultivation were directly attributed to Man’s disobedience rather than any natural cause favoring weed dispersal.”

John Lindley (1799-1865), famed horticulturist and a member of the Royal Horticultural Society at age 23,  once said “The love of flowers is a holy feeling, inseparable from our very nature.”

The chromolithograph [above] from the Parker and Wood seed catalog of 1887 illustrated twenty-five varieties of flowers that gardeners could grow from the company’s seeds.  As the illustration mentioned at the bottom in the words “Painted from Nature,” it reflects the importance of flowers for the middle class Victorian gardener.

At the same time as flowers provided a lesson in morality, flowers also opened the doors of science to many, including women. People could study a flower and learn about its reproductive habits.

Flowers provided lessons in biology, giving many Victorians a first hand look at how science could enable a more learned society.

In 1844 English gardener Louisa Johnson wrote the book Every lady her own flower gardener as kind of a plea for women to discover themselves in the world of flowers. And, of course, it was not long before people began to write about ‘the language of flowers.’

And to think it all rested on the humble flower.