Posts filed under ‘Archives of American Gardens’
Have you ever caught a glimpse of a bottle tree shimmering in the sunlight of your neighborhood? Made from brightly colored bottles placed over the branches of a tree (or in more recent years a metal frame), these garden sculptures catch attention in any space, such as the one pictured below in the Gibson Garden in Dallas, Texas. Although they are not a particularly common sight, they have a long history as an element of spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic significance in American history and garden design.Folklore and written sources from as early as 1776 indicate that this centuries-old custom originated in the kingdom of Kongo on the West African coast, where vessels were combined with tree branches. When Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, some were able to continue this practice, using whatever resources they had available. Variations appeared on islands in the Caribbean. The more familiar bottle trees we recognize today were likely a Creole invention, becoming particularly prominent in the southern United States from eastern Texas to South Carolina, where bottles were often placed on the branches of crape-myrtle trees.
While the meaning of bottle trees continues to evolve as it has for centuries, one of the more common interpretations is that they protect the home and garden by catching evil spirits, which some say are attracted to the bottles by their bright colors (sometimes made by swirling paint on the inside of a clear bottle). Once inside, the sunlight destroys the spirit. Other interpretations suggest the spirits are trapped inside the bottles in the evening. Then, the morning sunlight destroys them. If you pass by and happen to hear the wind blowing across the bottles, it is thought to be the sound of the spirits trapped inside. Bottle trees have also been thought to bring rain, luck, and to make trees bloom.
Writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) took the bottle tree from the landscape onto the pages of American literature in her short story “Livvie,” giving her work a distinct sense of place in the American south. As she described the scene,
Coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue. There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house…Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house…
This story, as Welty said in a 1987 interview, was inspired by bottle trees she saw and photographed in rural Mississippi during the 1930s and ’40s: “it was the place, really. And it was the bottle tree that made me write it.” In the same interview, she lamented that “there are hardly any anymore because of the highways. You know, the interstates have come through….They have vanished now, and the roads have come in…But there probably still are some away back in somewhere.”
Although they continue to take on varied forms and uses today, bottle trees still have a presence in gardens and cultural landscapes across the United States, such as those photographed by Vaughn Sills and in the Gibson’s garden in Dallas. Through a long journey encompassing slavery and freedom, and into the Archives of American Gardens, the bottle tree continues to be a garden feature with an American story to tell.
- Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow
“Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet.
And so are you.”
The sweet and playful lyrics of this poem are found among the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose and often make their way into the sentiments of Valentine’s Day cards.
Is there more to this sweet refrain? Attaching meaning to certain flowers has occurred throughout history, but during the Victorian era the ‘language of flowers’ was turned into a studied exercise. This was a code that attached characteristics and expressions to all types of flora. Entire dictionaries were also published to pair each flower and its color to a specific meaning.
When we consider the verse again using the language of flowers as our guide, the words of the familiar poem have a renewed sense of purpose.
Roses are red: The meaning of roses varies according to their color; the red rose is one of the flowers most associated with Valentine’s Day because of its connotations of love, passion, desire, and beauty. To give a red rose is to say, “I love you.”
Violets are blue: Though we see violets used less frequently than roses in a valentine bouquet, they are forever associated with one another in these verses. Meanings of modesty, faithfulness, humility, and simplicity are embodied in the delicate violet, and it holds the answer to the bold statement of the red rose. To give a violet is to reply, “I return your love.”
Reconsidering this simple rhyme with the meaning of the red rose and its companion the blue violet, the words and the flowers they invoke reinvigorate the quaint nursery rhyme, and reveal truly romantic sentiments to be combined in the perfect bouquet on Valentine’s Day.
-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative ArtsThe Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University
As we enter the deepest winter months, thick tomes of eye candy for gardeners are beginning to arrive in mailboxes across the country, a small reminder that spring is just around the corner. ‘Mortgage Lifter’ or ‘Tasty Evergreen’ tomatoes this year? ‘Tennis Ball’ Lettuce anyone? And peppers that come in every color of the rainbow with names like ‘Purple Glow in the Dark’? Thick with gorgeous pictures, mail order seed catalogs offer a seemingly infinite variety of choices. It’s no wonder that a gardener could easily order more seeds than they have plot to plant.
Mail order seed companies have a long history in the United States. When you order from a seed catalog, you’re engaging in a time-honored winter ritual. One of the most recognizable names in the mail order business, W. Atlee Burpee & Company, was founded in 1876 in Philadelphia. In addition to flower and vegetable seeds, the company also sold livestock and poultry. W. Atlee Burpee sought the best seeds from the United States and Europe, following leads to strange and faraway places, and his mail order business quickly grew to a national level. He founded Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to develop hybrid plants and test new varieties, ensuring only the best seeds were mailed to consumers.
With the introduction of the Rural Free Delivery Service in the 1890’s, the company took advantage of the service to widen their audience for their yearly catalog. By that time Burpee was the largest seed company in the United States. Some of the varieties made famous during the company’s early years are still known and loved today. ‘Iceberg’ lettuce was introduced in 1894 and ‘Golden Bantam’ corn in 1902. Both remain favorites with gardeners today. The lush watercolor illustrations of the early catalogs gave way to color photography, and now it’s just as easy to visit the website as it is to browse the catalog.
The W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection at the Archives of American Gardens contains business records, catalogs, diaries, and other company materials spanning the years 1873-1978. You can read more about the collection here:
If you are looking for new ideas for your own garden, Joe Brunetti , Horticulturist at the Victory and Heirloom gardens at the National Museum of American History, has a few suggestions:
Tried and True!
- Tennis Ball Lettuce
- Pepper ‘Sweet Banana’
- Tomato ‘Djena Lee’s Golden Girl’
- Tomato ‘Wins All’
- Fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’
- Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena)
Cool & Unusual:
- Holy Basil (Tulsi)
- Stevia ‘Sweet Leaf’
- Toothache Plant (Spilanthes acmella)
- Red Malabar Spinach
- Pepper ‘Fish’
- Pepper ‘Purple Glow in the Dark’
- Zinnia ‘Burpee Rose Giant Cactus’
-Kate Fox, Museum Educator
Thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund and just in time for its 25th anniversary, the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) recently completed a project to digitize nearly 3,500 historic glass lantern slides dating from the 1920s and 1930s in the Garden Club of America Collection. These images are some of the most popular ones in the archives and document a wide range of gardens throughout the U.S., many of which no longer exist.
Glass lantern slides were projected on a screen with a ‘magic lantern’ to illustrate lectures. (You might think of them together as the precursor to the now-rare slide carousel.) No two slides were alike as each was hand-tinted, sometimes with colors that weren’t historically (or botanically) accurate. Given the garden owner’s wishes or the colorist’s artistic license, a batch of flowers may have been transformed from their actual yellow tint to a livelier red with the stroke of a paintbrush. In spite of their fragile nature (and any capricious colors), the glass slides are sometimes the only evidence left of a once opulent and fastidiously maintained garden. Without these handsome artifacts, important components of America’s garden heritage would go missing.
High resolution scans of all of AAG’s glass lantern slides—as well as thousands of other historic and contemporary garden images–are readily available on the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center at www.siris.si.edu . The images provide an invaluable resource for landscape designers, historians, preservationists, scholars, students and garden enthusiasts engaged in the study and appreciation of gardens and garden design. By capturing the changing uses, trends, fads and popular traditions embodied in gardens, AAG holdings foster a better understanding of gardening’s far-reaching contributions to America’s social and cultural history.
By the time Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2062, who knows what current image format will be considered as fragile—and as valuable in terms of the lost information it holds—as the glass lantern slide?
-Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist
Garden trends seem to be forever changing. Some develop because even gardeners who stick with a roster of proven reliable plants like a change now and then. There are, however, numerous trends that last. For example, Penjing, or the art of depicting landscapes in miniature, is an ancient pastime that developed in China and is still seen by the use today of bonsai plants. One interesting trend currently emerging out of these gardens in miniature is what’s known as a “fairy garden.”
Lemon Hill’s fairy garden is composed of young plants, diminutive trees and bonsai that are in scale with its miniature castle and houses, fountain, stone walls, gates and furniture, and fairy figurines. The Fairy Garden takes its name from the Meyer lemon trees grown in the vicinity. Its design was inspired by miniature gardens found in Ireland and in books. It is visited often by school and scout groups.
Though gardens can reflect many things, such as taste and style, they can also reflect function, such as creating a special place for children and grandchildren. Just look at the Fairy Garden on Lemon Hill. Lemon Hill was a special project for the owner and her grandchildren. Her own daughter helped her build the garden and she implemented suggestions from her other three daughters as well as her 13 granddaughters. She created the garden with all her girls in mind.
Building a fairy garden can be a project that you enjoy with your children or grandchildren that can get them excited and participating in the art and act of gardening. They can be found in any number of small spaces, such as bird baths, pots, or large plant saucers.
Images from the Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens.
By Jessica Short
Archives of American Gardens Intern
October is a month of changing colors, cooler temperatures, and candy for many, but for archivists and history buffs alike, the month is also an opportunity to reflect on the value and meaning of what we document, preserve, and collect in our personal and professional archives for American Archives Month. When looking back at the history of plants, gardens, and design, photographs and other images can be compelling windows into the past for telling stories about (and remembering) the history and meaning of places.
What a photographer chooses to photograph, as well as the way they frame their image, deciding what to include and exclude, influences what we can know and learn from a collection of photographs. New technology and cultural preferences also contribute to the meaning of photographs.
For example, The Garden Club of America frequently used glass lantern slides, a technology that allowed them to present images to large audiences long before the days of Power Point. Particularly well suited to the social atmosphere of garden clubs, these slides were often hand-painted with vivid colors to bring the spaces to life for viewers. This allowed club members to come together to share and preserve the stories of these gardens and their work through visual culture. Due to the foresight of Garden Club of America members, Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens (AAG) has over 3,000 of these slides, used during the 1920s and 1930s. They primarily focus on gardens that tend to be more formal, such as the one of Thornewood, a garden in Tacoma, Washington pictured below.
While our technology for documenting, displaying, and sharing images is different today, photography continues to be an ever-important means of pro-actively preserving the past, even as the types of gardens and landscapes we value as a part of our archives and history grows.
For example, the more recent images below of Schuylkill River Park Community Garden in Philadelphia from the Archives of American Gardens represent a more informal community garden, compared to the private, formal garden of Thornewood. These two images also illustrate how, even in an age where digital photography encourages multiplicity, quality and focus remain important to preserve the kind of documentation that allows people down the road a window into the stories of the past.
In the first image, the photographer focuses on a specific bed within the garden (with more in the background) to give viewers an understanding of the components that make up the overall design of this space. From this photograph, researchers can begin to understand how the garden itself was used and what was grown. The repetition of beds implies that community members each have designated spaces.
The second image compliments the first, making the archival record more complete. Because the photographer chose a broad view that presents the context of the garden as a component of the larger urban landscape, researchers looking back will be better equipped to understand and imagine how residents negotiated their ways of life as gardeners between the sight and sounds railroad tracks, expressways, and the built environment of Philadelphia.
Both Thornewood and Schuylkill River Park Community Garden are important parts of the Archive of American Gardens. Not only do they tell the stories of changing technology, photographic perspectives, as well as evolving trends in garden design and meaning, but these examples also help to illustrate how archives are not only about the past and present, but also about the future as they continue to grow, evolve, and adapt in order to remain relevant into the future.
- Joe Cialdella, Haupt Fellow, Smithsonian Gardens
Back in the warmer days of August, I had the opportunity to attend the Detroit Agriculture Network’s 15th Annual urban garden tour in Detroit, Michigan. Hundreds of people gathered in the late afternoon at Eastern Market to board buses or take off on bikes to visit gardens and hear from gardeners on the east, west, and central areas of the city. Above all, it was an occasion to hear from passionate individuals and view the city from the ground up.
Even though my first experience seeing and volunteering with urban gardens in Detroit was in 2004, looking at the gardens in Detroit’s landscape – a compelling assortment of open space, roads, and buildings (many still inhabited and, yes, many long abandoned) – continues to be at once jarring and inspiring; a poignant and thought-provoking place because of the layers of time and meanings collected here. As garden historian Kenneth Helphand writes,
“When we see an improbable garden, we experience a shock of recognition of the garden’s form and elements, but also a renewed appreciation of the garden’s transformative power to beautify, comfort, and convey meaning despite the incongruity of its surroundings. Gardens are defined by their context, and perhaps the further the context from our expectations, the deeper the meaning the garden holds for us.”
As a historian, the context I look to when I see these gardens is often that of the past. How did social, political, economic, environmental and cultural conditions shape transform these spaces? The seeming improbability of gardens as a part of post-industrial landscape challenged my expectations, and sparked my interest in learning what deeper meanings, and histories, gardening in Detroit might have.
Through this experience with a place, the landscape itself becomes an inspiration and an archive. A record of changing tastes, values, style, and use, for example, is captured by looking closely at the location, age, and size of buildings. Natural features, such as rivers and waterways often mark the original contribution to the archive of a landscape.
Yet in a place like Detroit, where seemingly endless redevelopment and decline are starkly juxtaposed, you cannot help but wonder what is missing from the landscape today. This can be particularly problematic when digging deeper into the history of such fleeting spaces as small scale community-minded gardens in a constantly changing urban environment.
Gone from Detroit’s landscape is the rich tradition of gardening culture that came before the contemporary movement. For example, during the 1890s, Mayor Hazen S. Pingree started a municipally-supported gardening plan to feed unemployed workers (many of whom were Polish and German immigrants). The Garden Club of Michigan was one of the 12 founding members of the Garden Club of America in 1913. During the Great Migration, African Americans moving to Detroit used gardens as a means of providing food and improving the appearance and value of their neighborhoods. And in the 1930s, thrift gardens again provided sustenance to many of those left unemployed by the Great Depression.
As the Haupt Fellow at Smithsonian Gardens, I’m in the process of digging up the details of these gardens using more traditional archives to better understand the history of what it means for people to contribute to an urban-industrial landscape by gardening. This can be a difficult task since the spaces themselves are often fleeting and records of them scarce, unlike many of the design plans and photographs of more famous landscapes. Looking back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, sociological surveys, government reports, meeting minutes, scrapbooks, maps, newspapers, magazines, and photographs are often surprisingly detailed documents that provide us with a way to re-imagine what these types of gardens looked like, their contexts, and how they were used in the past.
Together, the actual landscape and the two-dimensional records of experiences long removed from the land lend themselves to a fuller garden history that contributes not only to understanding gardens themselves, but also how gardens can reflect changing social, political, economic, environmental, and cultural contexts that give more people a way to consider the role of gardens and landscapes in their own lives.
The fleeting, seasonal nature of gardens also points to the importance of documenting garden spaces today. While we all hope they will last forever, proactively considering how you can preserve a garden or landscape’s history for your family, community, or organization provides an opportunity for reflection and sharing of information between one another that can often help to create connections and networks of support that will help these spaces exist into the future. One way of doing this is through creating a collection of photographs, such as those found in Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens. Look for more on this in my next post.
- Joe Cialdella, Haupt Fellow, Smithsonian Gardens
For more information on being a part of preserving garden history or beginning your own research, check out the resources below.
Take 10 minutes to “tag” an image form the Archives of American Gardens to help make their extensive collections more accessible to the public, researchers, and landscape designers!
These websites offer good tips and instructions for beginning your own archival adventure into the history of a garden or landscape near you:
 Kenneth Helphand. Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime, 2006, pg. 9.
As part of the American Archives Month celebration, the Archives of American Gardens is encouraging the public to ‘tag’ their online records in the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center. A little over a year ago, the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center quietly turned on the tagging feature for records of participating Smithsonian archives, libraries and museums and now the Archives of American Gardens is hoping to use American Archives Month to promote this feature. The Archives is reaching out to Facebook followers of Smithsonian Gardens, universities with library and information science programs as well as horticulture programs to to contribute descriptive terms, keywords, or short phrases, to an item’s record to enhance searching on its records. If a user describes an item in the same way that they would search for it, the presumption is that these new terms will help with the retrievability of the records. For each tag that is added, that item has another access point – another way for other users to discover that item.
Although public tagging is not perfect and many questions remain about how folksonomy might function in the museum, a summary in a 2009 report by the Steve Project finds that, “Tags offer another layer that supplements and complements the documentation provided by professional museum cataloguers.” So while tagging is not meant to be a replacement for established cataloging methods, it may complement the catalog with a helpful element of user engagement and interaction.
Get Tagging! Visit the Archives of American Gardens Virtual Volunteer page to get started on tagging images.
Jessica Short, Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.
This summer Smithsonian Gardens (SG) joined the National Museum of Natural History and the National Zoo in an outreach program designed for high school students. Youth Engagement through Science (YES!) connected students to Smithsonian collections, experts, and training in an effort to provide them with practical experience, inspiration and encouragement to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. The program also equipped the students with resources to help them in their next step of attending college to pursue their career interests.
Students who participated in YES! worked side by side with SG horticulturists and educators in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Greenhouse, Victory Garden and Heirloom Garden. The mentors, Tom Mirenda, Joe Brunetti and Erin Clark, worked with three students, Damani Eubanks, Kumar Madhav and Dion Anderson, from various high schools in the D.C. metropolitan area. Each mentor designed a project highlighting subjects in their area of expertise. The students worked with the mentors to complete the projects, keep a field journal and produce a poster for a special open-session presentation at National Museum of Natural History.
A special tour of the SG Greenhouse gave SG YES! students, Kumar and Damani, a chance to share their project with all 25 YES! students. Kumar and Damani demonstrated their newly gained knowledge when they explained how they measured and recorded various parts of blooming orchids.
This fall, when the students return to school, they are required to take a leadership role among their peers and promote the YES! program in a community outreach project. The students will be ombudsmen for Smithsonian Gardens!
YES! was a positive experience for both the mentors and the students. Smithsonian Gardens is looking forward to participating in next year’s programs with the new projects for new students.
In the early twentieth century, gardens were predominantly documented by hand-painted glass lantern slides. The painting process was a meticulous one as it involved the painstaking application of color to the flowers and foliage captured on the black and white positive. Not surprisingly, colorists (who were not horticulturists) often applied the wrong colors; purple irises were painted pink, and orange tiger lilies were painted yellow. Garden enthusiasts yearned to have photographs that not only depicted their gardens beautifully, but accurately.
The earliest color photography, the autochrome process was developed by the pioneer fimmakers, the Lumière brothers. As Sam Watters writes in his book, Gardens for a Beautiful America, Frances Benjamin Johnston, the famous garden photographer, was one of the first in her business to experiment with this new additive color process. An autochrome plate consisted of a a glass plate coated on one side with microscopic grains of red-orange, green and blue-violet potato starch. Lampblack filled the space between grains and the top layer was coated wtih a black-and white panchromatic silver halide emulsion. Once the camera’s shutter was opened light went through two crucial steps; first, it would pass through an orange-yellow filter on the camera (which corrected the emulsion’s ultra sensitivity to violet and blue light); second, the light would penetrate the glass plate of colored potato starch before finally reaching the emulsion.
The plate was reversal-processed into a positive transparency and at normal viewing distances, the individual grains of colored potato starch blended together in the eye, reconstructing the captured scene. Autochrome glass plates continued to be produced into the 1930s, falling out of style with the introduction of Lumière Filmcolor sheet film in 1931, then Lumicolor roll film in 1933. Sprinkled throughout the Archives of American Gardens’ collection, autochrome photographs not only beautifully and faithfully depict their subjects, but also testify to the intersection of garden design and photographic history.
Kristina Borrman, Katzenberger Art History Intern