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Nineteenth Century California Nursery Appealed to Plant Collectors

Garden historian Thomas A.Brown published a wonderful collection of California nurseries from the nineteenth century .

The seed and nusery business began on the West Coast right after  California joined  the United States in 1850 .

To meet the increase in population that now wanted a garden, the San Jose Nursery published the first nursery catalog in 1853.

I spent a year at the Smithsonian, researching my book Seduction of the English Garden, and while there, came across a bibliography of the seed and nursery industry, which is now online [image below].  Though there were few women in the business. the collection includes California nuserywoman  Theodosia B. Shepherd.

The following is from the SI Bibliography on Shepherd: “Mrs. Shepherd was born in Keosauqua, Iowa.  She married W. E. Shepherd of Oskaloosa, Iowa, on September 9, 1866.  They had four children, a son and three daughters.  The family moved to California for Mrs. Shepherd’s health in 1873.  For financial reasons, she began to sell objects she had collected in the California woods, including sea mosses, shells, birds, etc.  In 1881, she sent a package of curiosities to the seedsman Peter Henderson.  He encouraged her to start growing some seeds, because he saw California as a great seed and bulb growing area.  In 1884 Mrs. Shepherd began her career as a professional seed and bulb grower.  In 1892, she had eight acres under cultivation.  Her chief customers were Eastern seedsmen.  Some of her specialties were begonias, Smilax, Calla lilies, Cobaea scandans, Mexican orchids, and cacti.  In 1902, she incorporated her business.  She died on September 6, 1906 at age sixty one.”

She consulted with a famous East coast seedsman Peter Henderson.

In her catalog of 1885 Theodosia wrote: “To all flower lovers who may receive this catalogue I send greeting, with the hope that they may find in its pages many things they desire to add to their collections.

I have greatly increased my stock of Cacti and Rare Succulent Plants.”

Notice she referred to gardeners  as collectors.  Like the English had done for decades, nineteenth century American gardeners too collected plants.  The newer, the better.

Not much has changed today.  When I visit a garden, new plants often take center stage as I walk around the garden.

Though California developed an impressive seed and plant industry in the nineteenth century. the model for the business was based on what owners of seed companies and nurseries did on the  East coast. The catalog became the salesman. The hunt for newer plants went on in every company whether located on the Atlantic or the Pacific.

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