Flora: An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower

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9781902686141: Flora: An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower

For hundreds of years, as Europe explored the world beyond its shores, intrepid adventurers, botanists and plant hunters sent back seeds and specimens of the thousands of flowers they came across on their travels. In Britain in particular, many nurserymen and aristocratic garden lovers set about experimenting with each new influx of botanical material, to create the garden flowers we know today. Flora tells the fascinating story of this evolution, drawing on the superb archive of the Royal Horticultural Society.
The illustrations within are notable not only for their historical value in charting the fascinating development of garden flowers, but also for their beauty, including works by the great names in botanical art.

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About the Author:

Brent Elliott is archivist of the Royal Horticultural Society. He is author of Victorian Gardens, The Country House Garden and Treasures of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface and Introduction

Preface

by Sir Simon Hornby
President of The Royal Horticultural Society

The passion for plant hunting, while never reaching the scale of the Gold Rush in California, has engendered manic characteristics among botanists over centuries. There have been distinct breeds of botanical adventurers: true botanists spurred on by scholarship, the thrill of the chase and breathtaking delight in the beauty of their discoveries; collectors, particularly the orchid hunters, driven by rivalry and the desire to claim a new species before anyone else; and commercial exploiters whose motive was greed -- to make money by introducing new plants to an enthusiastic and increasing band of amateur gardeners all over Europe.

Books have already been written about the plant hunters -- for much the time operating in very tough and difficult conditions -- yet this story is about the plants they brought to Europe. It is a story not only of plant discovery but also of the changing fashions in gardening that drove the demand for new introductions. From the early nineteenth-century onwards, the successful breeding of hybrids in large quantities by commercial growers added still further to the increasing number of new plants. Over the years, too, many plants have been lost in cultivation as the drive to gain commercial advantage from new introductions has intensified. Today, a study of RHS Plant Finder shows how out of hand this drive has become with some genera, but it is symptomatic of an obsession that has existed for hundreds of years.

The art of botanical drawing has a tradition of minute accuracy combined with freshness, portraying the beauty of nature in color and form of its plants. New introductions have been recorded with superb skill and artistry over the centuries, creating a signification historical record. That tradition continues today, as all over the world artists of outstanding ability record the introductions of plant breeders as well as species. In Flora, Brent Elliott uses illustrations from collections in the RHS Lindley Library to trace the introduction of plants over four and a half centuries. The combination of outstanding illustrations and fascinating text has produced a book of beauty and considerable horticultural significance.

 

Introduction

Until the 1560s, most plants grown in European gardens were native to Europe and the Mediterranean region. Reliance on western European natives did not mean, however, that the gardeners of the sixteenth century were starved of variety. Elizabethan enthusiasts collected double-flowered forms, interesting deformities, and multiple-colour varieties: double forms of cheiranthus and calendula; different colours of acanthus, aconites, achilleas (only now returning to a wide range of colours); striped aquilegias; lilies of the valley with red and pink flowers; carnations and primroses that exhibited hose-in-hose or other unusual patterns of flowering. Shakespeare commented on the fondness for variegation in The Winter's Tale, when Perdita calls striped gillyvors (gilliflowers) 'nature's bastards' because they are raised in cultivation rather than true to wild forms, and refuses to plant them in her garden. Polixenes reasons with her that the gardener simply follows nature's own methods in vegetatively propagating interesting variants:

... this is an art Which does mend nature, change it rather, but The art itself is nature. Per: So it is. Pol: Then make your garden rich in gillyvors, And do not call them bastards. Per: I'll not put The dibble in earth to set one slip of them.

The first great wave of plant introductions to reach western Europe came from the Turkish empire. From the 1560s onward, crocuses, leucojums, erythroniums, ornithogalums, cyclamens, hyacinths, lilies, fritillaries, ranunculus, and above all tulips, flowed into Europe. This influx of new flowers prompted the first organized programs for selecting and marketing flower varieties. The interest in oddities and colour variations, already evident with European plants like primulas and carnations, was reinforced by tulips, which produced new colour patterns with great ease (as a result of viral infection). Tulips were not the only flowers to excite the passions of plant enthusiasts. Hyacinths, too, became extraordinarily popular.

Not all these flowers were strictly speaking for garden use: the enthusiasts for new varieties -- 'florists', as they were then called -- were dedicated more to the show bench than to the flower garden. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, societies sprang up -- first in England, and later on the continent -- for the specific purpose of competing in the production and display of new varieties. There came to be eight accepted categories of 'florists' flowers', which had their attendant societies of competitive growers: tulips, hyacinths, auriculas, polyanthus, carnations, pinks, anemones, and ranunculus. These continued to exercise the talents of gardeners well into the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Some American plants, among them the sunflower, had already arrived in Europe before 1600, but the real flood of ornamental plants from the New World began in the 1620s and continued for almost a century, bringing tradescantias, evening primroses, American strawberries, Virginia creeper, trilliums, rudbeckias, spiraeas, and Michaelmas daisies.

Gradually the North American introductions changed in emphasis, and trees and shrubs became the primary focus. But for the flower garden the major source of new plants was the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope, and Leiden and Amsterdam became the center of introduction to Europe. Most of these plants moved straight into the new greenhouses that the wealthy were building. Here crassulas, mesembryanthemums, stapelias, and other Cape succulents were grown, along with proteas, pelargoniums, and Cape heaths, and the range of large-flowered amaryllis and crinums. Others, nerines, kniphofias, and zantedeschias, proved hardy outdoors.

Many of the popular introductions of the eighteenth century were confined to the glasshouse, and flowers grown outside fell from fashion. This was the heyday of the English landscape garden, when a pastoral scene of rolling lawn and water replaced flower beds as the means of organizing the precincts of a country house. Tree introductions were compatible with the landscape garden, but flowers were to a great extent irrelevant, and flower gardens were kept away from the principal views. This fashion spread throughout Europe from the 1770s and remained dominant in the early nineteenth century, when English gardeners began to bring back the flower garden near the house.

The eighteenth century had seen the development of the scientific expedition, with botanists and zoologists equipped to collect and bring back interesting new finds, so Australian plants began to enter cultivation even before any substantial European settlements were made. The name 'Botany Bay' indicates the importance ascribed to plant introductions from the new territory. As with South African plants, most of the Australian introductions went straight into the greenhouse and never emerged. Banksias, grevilleas, melaieucas, metrosideros, chorizemas, gompholobiums -- all flourished as part of domestic horticulture for those who could afford to grow under glass.

The greatest period in the improvement of greenhouses began in 1817, when the great horticultural authority John Claudius Loudon invented the wrought-iron glazing bar. Loudon had initially looked forward to the day when everyone could have a collection of tropical plants, but by the 1830s he had become chastened, and was recommending that 'oranges, lemons, camellias, myrtles, banksias, proteas, acacias, melaleucas, and a few other Cape and Botany Bay plants, are all that can with propriety be admitted into a small conservatory'. So, while the fashion for Australian plants faded, its legacy continued in

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