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Understanding the History of US Horticulture

You might consider that growing flowers, designing a landscape, and installing a lawn are just pages in the history of the garden.

They are that, but much more.

People learned about what kind of garden to cultivate from those who sold seeds and plants.

After all, such businesses had a product to promote and sell.

Philadelphia nurseryman and garden writer Thomas Meehan said as much in a column in his Gardener’s Monthly magazine of February 1860.

He wrote, “To those anxious to know the rapid progress horticulture is making on the American continent, the catalogues of the nurserymen are very instructive.”

Just pick up a garden catalog from any point in the nineteenth century and you will understand what kind of gardening was going on at that time.

The David Landreth catlaog, one of the earliest, sold seeds that would produce food for the table.

Landreth started his garden business of selling seeds and plants in 1784 in Philadelphia.

Landreth’s 1883 Almanac shows a combination of vegetables, corn, and fruits.

For centuries gardening was just that: growing herbs, fruits, vegetables and grains.

People only began to cultivate a flower garden when there was leisure, and the pressure of survival did not dictate the look and content of a home garden.

At one point gardeners saw plants as important only because of their food and medicinal value.

Any decorative meaning for flowers came much later.

The size, shape and color of the flower did not mean much then. This was the case in England up til the seventeenth century.

English journalist Michael Leapman writes “Today eating tulip bulbs would be an aberration, but until the seventeenth century, botanists were concerned chiefly with the food value and curative qualities of plants rather than how to breed new and decorative forms.”

That long journey into the garden is portrayed in the ordinary garden catalog from a given place and time. Garden catalogs emerged in large numbers after 1850, following the great shift in society from the influence of industrialization.

In the 1895 book One Hundred Years of American Commerce horticulturist Alfred Henderson, son of noted New Jersey plantsman Peter Henderson, wrote, “The increase in the sales of all products of floriculture in the past fifty years has certainly kept pace with most other industries.”

Meehan had it right.

Why is it today houseplants reign supreme?

They have become popular, and thus a desirable commodity in the garden and nursery trade. Images of such plants [as above] appear everywhere.

And so they also become another page in the history of horticulture.

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