Archive for January, 2013

It’s Not Just About Plants

Gothic Settee, Kramer Brothers Foundry Company, circa 1880-1900. Garden Furnishings Collection, Smithsonian Gardens.

Gothic Settee, Kramer Brothers Foundry Company, circa 1880-1900. Garden Furnishings Collection, Smithsonian Gardens.

In 1973, just a year after it was established, Smithsonian Gardens acquired its first antique garden furnishing for display on the Smithsonian campus in Washington, D.C. Since then, over 2,000 garden furnishings and horticultural artifacts have been collected by Smithsonian Gardens ranging from delicate bouquet holders to towering fountains. While most of the pieces date from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, all help to document important facets of our garden heritage.

The Garden Furnishings Collection includes hundreds of cast iron pieces such as settees, chairs, urns and wickets. Dozens of these furnishings are currently on display throughout a number of the Smithsonian gardens. They are a particularly appropriate complement to the ornate architecture of the Smithsonian Castle and the Arts and Industries Building.

While not much is known about the origins of many specific pieces in the collection, Smithsonian Gardens staff and interns have gleaned general information about some cast iron furnishings from historic trade catalogs that document the wares of numerous foundries operating in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fortunately, one settee on display in the Ripley Garden features a maker’s mark that indicates where it was manufactured and by whom.

With the rise of the middle class in the mid-nineteenth century, many objects made for utilitarian use, such as garden furnishings, saw a dramatic change in the way they were designed and manufactured. Victorian furniture is characterized by a jumbling of styles, often incorporating design elements from previous eras, from High Renaissance to Gothic to Rococo. Makers and buyers would simply pick elements they found pleasing and incorporate them into a piece with no regard to purity of the original designs.

For example, this Smithsonian Gardens’ settee incorporates both Gothic and Rococo design elements at the same time, something that would hardly have ever been done prior to the Victorian era (1837-1901). Overall, the settee is extremely Rococo in its form and design. Characteristics of the Rococo period can be seen in the fluid curl of the cabriole legs and in the “c” scrolls that make up the arms. These two elements are characteristic of the asymmetry and playfulness of the Rococo period of the late 18th century, and would not have been combined with the structure and orderliness favored during the Gothic period (12th-16th centuries).

Interestingly, this settee features more Rococo elements in its design than it does Gothic, which was the name given to the pattern by the manufacturer, the Kramer Brothers Foundry Company of Dayton, Ohio. The only distinctly Gothic element is the back of the settee, which is comprised of four rows of repeating arches. It is this combination of characteristics from different styles that makes this piece unique and interesting, much like countless other objects from the late Victorian period. In pieces like this settee, it is easy to see why the period—which was overwhelmingly influenced by the large variety of revival styles—has been called Victorian Eclecticism.

-Brittany Spencer-King, Research Assistant

January 30, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

2013 Orchids of Latin America Exhibition

Coryanthes vasquezii orchid

Coryanthes vasquezii orchid

At Orchids of Latin America, the 2013 annual Orchid Exhibition, you can explore the rich crossroads where orchid botany, horticulture, and Latin American cultures meet. Learn about the importance of orchids in Latin American folklore and cultural traditions, see how the region is a hotbed for scientific research on orchid biology and evolution, and discover conservation efforts to preserve orchids and their habitats for future generations. And, of course, enjoy the beautiful orchids from the Smithsonian Gardens and the U.S. Botanic Garden Orchid Collections.

On Saturday, February 23, 2013, join us for ¡Fiesta de las Or-KID-ias! a free family festival celebrating Orchids of Latin America.   At the fiesta, you can help make a beautiful orchid mosaic and paper orchid garlands, pot your own orchid to take home, and talk with experts about a display of unique plants from our collection.  Other fun activities include face painting and temporary tattoos!

Orchids of Latin America is hosted by Smithsonian Gardens, the National Museum of Natural History, and the United States Botanic Garden with support from the Smithsonian Latino Center.  The exhibit will run from January 26th through April 21st at the National Museum of Natural History.

-Sarah Watling, Education Intern

January 26, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

A Gardener’s Resolutions

Tulips and other spring flowers at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum and Gardens, circa 1930. Collection of the Archives of American Gardens.

Tulips and other spring flowers at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum and Gardens, circa 1930. Collection of the Archives of American Gardens.

When the ball dropped in Times Square this January did you make a New Year’s Resolution? Shedding excess weight, increasing physical activity, and expanding intellectual awareness are popular choices.  Noble resolutions, but my favorite resolutions usually center around garden improvements. Coincidentally, while I am improving the garden I am also increasing my physical activity, shedding winter-gained pounds and increasing cerebral activity – and loving every minute.

Resolution #1: This year my garden will be perfect so I will stop apologizing when friends visit. My perfect garden is designed while daydreaming. Daydream designing is a simple pastime with outstanding results. All changes and improvements are given consideration. I can move shrubs, rearrange paths, and add ponds, sheds, and arbors repeatedly without sweating or reaching for Ben-gay. I can rethink combinations and add new plants and I don’t have to worry if the plant is accessible or expensive. Outlandish ideas that seem impossible usually develop into stunning features. The design process would be aided with photographs and complete records, but that is…

Resolution #2: I will photograph my garden during all seasons so I can remember highlights, mistakes and colors. On one side of the steps leading to my front door I planted exquisite, apricot-colored species tulips. I would like to add more, but I don’t know the cultivar and I can’t remember exactly where they are located.  To rectify this, all I would have to do is take a picture while they are blooming. I planted them 8 years ago; so far I haven’t made any new additions.

Resolution #3: I will visit _______ garden. They have the best examples of ______ and it would be fun to see how they _____ . Fill in the blanks. I have a list of gardens a mile long that I want to visit, meet the staff, and borrow ideas. I know it is important to keep your garden maintained, spend time with the family and occasionally go grocery shopping, but I also must satisfy my curiosity and see what other gardeners are creating. Besides, I may discover the name of my cute little apricot tulip.

Resolution #4: I will continue my quest for gardening trivia. Conversing at cocktail parties used to be so difficult. But since I started collecting interesting gardening facts I can talk all night. You would be surprised how many people are curious about the sex lives of aphids or how an amorphophallus is pollinated. You can acquire an amazing amount of trivia by attending lectures, subscribing to numerous journals, and reading horticultural books. Of course you’ll also improve your gardening skills, but that is a bonus.

Four resolutions, not too overwhelming; Happy New Year!

-Cynthia Brown, Horticulture Collections Management & Education Manager

January 22, 2013 at 9:00 am 1 comment

January is National Mail Order Gardening Month

Images from the 1902 W. Atlee Burpee & Company Farm Annual. W. Atlee Bupee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

Images from the 1902 W. Atlee Burpee & Company Farm Annual. W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

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.

Fish Pepper, Capsicum annuum ‘Fish’

Fish Pepper, Capsicum annuum ‘Fish’

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!

Cool & Unusual:

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

January 14, 2013 at 9:00 am 2 comments

Over Sea and Land … and into the Victorian Parlor

Wardian case

OH.GF.1980.11, Wardian case – Miniature Church, 20th century, Wood, Glass, 27” x 16.5” x 12.5”

Often referred to as the Victorian Era, the nineteenth century was characterized by a growing interest in the collection, preservation, and identification of botanical specimens. New species of plants were carefully imported to England and America from all over the world, and cultivation of these exotics became a popular pastime. This interest was not met without challenges. The soot and pollution from the factories of the Industrial Revolution made it difficult for new plant species to survive. A London surgeon and amateur naturalist, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868) stumbled upon a solution one day when he noticed that a bulb he had moved to a glass jar, and then forgotten, was thriving in this little habitat. Soon after this discovery, he began making ‘closely glazed cases’ (sic) for growing and extending the life of plants. These glass plant cases, renamed Wardian cases in homage to their inventor, were like tiny greenhouses that were sealed but not airtight. They provided an atmosphere free of pollution with ample light, heat, and moisture ideal for the cultivation of exotics. 

The invention of the Wardian case also allowed for new possibilities for transporting plants across long distances. Shipping during the nineteenth century is not what we know today: no priority mail or next-day air delivery options. Railroads, carriages and ships took weeks to deliver plants to a location. Inside a Wardian case the survival rate was considerably higher, as plants were able to travel in a protective environment that provided for their every need.

Despite contributions to the study of botany and improvements to the transportation of plants, the Wardian case is typically associated with household décor rather than invention. Their small size made them accessible to a larger portion of society who could not afford to own greenhouses. Because of their ability to preserve plants indoors, Wardian cases were brought into the parlors and drawing rooms of the Victorian household. This was in large part due to the encouragement of growing and tending to plants as a suitable hobby for young ladies. To suit the Victorian taste for decoration, cases were made to look like miniature buildings such as churches and famous houses. Comprised of a variety of materials that were suited to any price range, they were made in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Their popularity and availability made them a staple of fashionable drawing rooms.

This Wardian case in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection is an example of a nineteenth century innovation and a characteristic feature of the Victorian-era domestic interior in both Britain and America.

 Further Reading:
Allen, David Elliston.  The Victorian Fern Craze: A History of Pteridomania. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1969.
Whittingham, Sarah. The Victorian Fern Craze. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd., 2009.

 –Janie R Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates/George Mason University


January 4, 2013 at 10:15 am Leave a comment

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