Exploring Early Dahlia History

Exploring early dahlia history

Since I am interested in how we came to garden with dahlias, I set on a journey to study dahlia history.

Dahlias came from Mexico’s Aztec nation.

According to Martin Kral’s article “Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology: The Dahlia in History there is much confusion on the plant’s origin.

There is no evidence, he argues, that the dahlia was Montezuma’s favorite flower, as some have proposed, but it was part of Aztec gardens.

Kral says, “When the first dahlias were grown in Spain in 1789, the stock most likely came from [those] historic Aztec gardens.”

Thus I discovered a link to the Spanish invasion of Mexico by Hernan Cortes in the sixteenth century.

The new book I then had to read for more background was When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting That Changed History by historian Mathew Restall.

As I was reading the book, I remembered that  the name ‘dahlia’ was given to the flower after it appeared in Europe in the late 1700s. Thus I probably would not find much about dahlias in this book.

I was right.

What I did find was how difficult it was to understand the purpose of  the meeting in 1519 between Montezuma and Cortes.

Did Montezuma simply surrender to the Spanish?

That is what some history books over the centuries have claimed.

What Restall points out is that it is not as clear as history books have claimed.

He writes, “Preserving and perpetuating the Meeting as Surrender became increasingly important not just to the Mexican case, but to the entire enterprise of Spanish conquest in the Americas. It was the paramount parable of justification.”

Though I saw no reference to the dahlia, I did learn how authors have interpreted the meeting between Montezuma and Cortes from the very beginning.

Cortes did find elaborately landscaped gardens. The Aztecs cultivated island gardens for food that they grew.

An early history of the conquest does mention gardens among the Aztecs.

In 1568 Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote a biography of Cortes called The History of the Conquest of New Spain.

Diaz referred to the royal Aztec nursery at Huaxtepec as “the best I have ever seen in all my life.”

It was not, however, until two hundred years later that the dahlia appeared in Europe, first in Spain then in the early 1800s in Germany, France, and England.

By the 1830s the east coast of the United States saw a robust nursery trade in dahlias.

Kral concludes, “The dahlia arrived [in Spain] as part of the 18th century expeditionary plant collection.”

 

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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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Nineteenth Century Introduced Standardization in the Garden

Nineteenth century introduced standardization in the garden.

By the end of the nineteenth century ordinary household products became standardized.

Aunt Jemima introduced her pancakes.

Juicy Fruit gum came on the market.

Ivory Soap became the choice of many families.

Thomas Schelereth writes in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, “Department stores, mail-order firms, and other retailers contributed to the standardization of American dress.”

Not only clothing, produced in large mills that employed hundreds, but also the garden became part of the big business to offer customers the same items for sale.

Seed companies and nurseries by then, with their catalogs in the millions, were selling the same seeds and plants.  The garden went through a certain standardization. The same kind of garden with the same plants appeared from California to Maine.

Scheler writes, “More people (middle class and working class) had more money and more time to purchase more goods, mass-produced more cheaply and advertised more widely.”

In 1878 a customer asked Rochester New York seed company owner James Vick what his favorite annuals were.

Vick responded: “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. We speak of all that bloom the first season as annuals.”

1888 Rawson Seeed Company catalog

The choices Vick made continue as ‘standards’ in the garden to this day.

Proven Winners named the company’s ‘Bourdeaux’ petunia  their annual of the year. 

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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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Flower Shows Share Long Tradition

Flower Shows share long tradition

Recently I attended the Boston Flower and Garden Show.

Though it was a cold day and remnants of a recent storm of wind, rain, and snow lingered on, it was a wonderful morning.

Such shows teach gardeners about new plants and provide ideas for this summer’s garden.

I had the opportunity to see many excellent landscape designs spread throughout Boston’s World Trade Center where the show took place.

The awarding winning exhibit by Miskovsky Landscape deserved the acclaim it received. It proved the top winner with seven awards, including Best of Show. [below]

The award-winning Miskovsky exhibit at the recent Boston Flower and Garden Show

Flower Shows have been an important part of American gardening from at least the early nineteenth century.

Philadelphia seed company owner Robert Buist introduced dahlias at the Pennsvylvania Horticultural Society flower show in the mid 1830s.

Of course the Massachusetts Horticultural Society sponsored its own flower shows in what was then called Horticultural Hall on Massachusetts Avenue, right across from Symphony Hall.

Though Mass Hort has now relocated to the suburbs. the words over the building’s entry “Horticultural Hall” make it clear that this red brick structure was once home to fabulous flower shows.

The English of course have a long tradition of such shows with the annual Chelsea Flower Show in May now the grand dame of them all.

Rochester seed company owner James Vick (1818-1882) once received a letter from a reader who was traveling in England,

Vick included the letter in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in November 1878.

His reader wrote, “I went to a Flower Show the other week, at a place called Quarndon, a beautiful little village, situated on a hill, overlooking a magnificent country. The show was held in a tent in a field, and was largely attended.

“The center tables were filled with plants, loaned by several ‘Lords’ and ‘Squires,’ and were of a high order – I mean the plants.

“The side tables held the articles for competition. Dracaenas. Caladiums, and some luxurious tropical plants, were interspersed with Coleus, Ferns of all descriptions, Fuchsias, Abutilons, Balsams, Cockscombs, etc.”

He described several of these plants in great detail.

It was obvious that this flower show gave him a great deal of pleasure. He simply wanted to share that with Mr. Vick.

That’s another reason we go to a Flower Show.  It should provide a bit of pleasure for a gardener.

That only seems right especially because spring has arrived.

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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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Cottage Gardens Finally Recognized

Cottage gardens finally recognized.

Everybody loves the cottage garden. It holds a mystique of a garden, limited in space, but with plants galore, mostly flowers.

There were cottage gardens in England for centuries.  If you define the term as the garden of the worker, at the time of the monastery garden in the Middle Ages, for example, the townspeople who knew the monks probably received plants from them for their own gardens. That was a cottage garden.

During the time of the landscape revolution in eighteenth century England, it was only the garden of the aristocrat, or wealthy landowner, that was discussed in poetry, articles, and books.

The term ‘English garden’ meant at that time the landscape of the gentry.

It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that the cottage garden began to be seen as an essential form of garden.

Edward Hyams writes in his book English Cottage Gardens  that the two garden writers “John Claudius Loudon and his wife Jane can fairly be said to have created the nineteenth century suburban garden which, in the long run, influenced the shape and planting of the country cottage garden too.”

When the Loudons recognized in their writing the importance of gardens other than those owned by the wealthy, the cottage garden became an important topic in garden literature.

The Loudons opened the door to an appreciation for gardening by social classes other than the aristocracy.

Hyams says, “The Loudons, the horticultural press, and the horticultural societies brought the cottager gardener into the modern age of gardening.”

It was no surprise then that the magazine Cottage Garden began in 1848.

It was when the Loudons wrote for suburban gardeners and cottage gardeners that gardening changed forever.

Garden writers learned from all styles of gardening including the middle class and the worker.

They wrote for anybody who gardened.

Cottage gardens finally became an important topic.

 

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Connecticut’s Flower Show Included Rose Tale

Connecticut’s Flower Show Included rose tale.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York seed company owner James Vick included a letter from a customer in his Vick’s illustrated Monthly of 1878.  

The letter said, “A distinguished divine said that a Rose is the autograph of God. His signature, in the house or in the garden, is a benediction of sweetness and beauty.”

The Connecticut Flower and Garden Show, held a few days ago in Hartford, included a wonderful exhibit about the rose.

The Connecticut Rose Society created a setting for the mythical Bavarian town called Rosenburg.

The details in the exhibit, including its colorful backdrop, caught my eye. I couldn’t resist checking it out. [below]

The Connecticut Rose Society’s exhibit at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show

In the town of Rosenburg roses flourish in the best of conditions.

Baron von Herz who lives in the tall castle on the mountain grows roses for his wife.

The people in the town also cultivate many rose gardens that include climbing roses as well.

Unfortunately the Baron becomes ill and dies.

His widow, distraught over her husband’s death, turns against the town people who treasure their roses.

She sends diseases like black fungus spores and destructive insects to their roses. She holds these pests in her beatiful embroidered bag meant to deceive onlookers.

The villagers call her Baroness Dunkelherz (Baroness Darkheart).

The only recourse the townspeople have is to watch for her visit.

Thus the roses continue to bloom only with vigilance at all times.

Doesn’t that seem to be the story in cultivating any rose?

The Connecticut Rose Society told the story well.

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Photography Enters Victorian American Homes

Photography enters Victorian American homes.

By the end of the nineteenth century photography had developed a foothold in advertising but also was slowly becoming part of family life as well.

Thomas Schlereth in his book Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1918 writes, “Photography, part of American life since the work of the daguerreotypists of the 1840s, did not become an average person’s skill until the 1880s.”

Before that time a photographer would take an outdoor family photo with the family members often gathered either on the lawn or on the porch.

Here is an example of a family in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1870s captured in this photo. [below]

Notice how hard it is to see the faces of these people.  We cannot tell if they like or dislike the photo experience.

Just a few years later hand-held cameras became the sensation with the arrival of George Eastman’s  Kodak camera in the 1890s.

Then, as Schlereth writes, “Unlike the professional photographer who usually placed his subjects in front of their house, snapshot-camera buffs often favored the backyard for their settings.”

The advertising pitch for Kodak cameras remained constant well into the twentieth century.

Kodak wanted to capture that special moment of family life.  A picture would hold that memory for years to come.  That was a powerful pitch to persuade people to buy cameras. It worked.

The phrase “capturing the Kodak moment” appeared in much of the promotion for Eastman’s camera.

Thus taking family photos became an important cultural practice. An experience was not valuable unless you had photos to show it.  Photos became more precious than the experience they captured.

By the early 1900s Kodak advertised its camera with words like “At Home with the Kodak” and  “Let Kodak Keep the Story.”

The late nineteenth century seed companies and nurseries too changed with the times. Gone were the colored chromolithographs in the catalog, replaced by the ‘more realistic’ photograph of the flower or vegetable.

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