Archive for March, 2013

Victorian Love of Nature, Ornament and Decoration on Display

Plant stand

OH.1985.32, Plant Stand, c. 1850-1900, Cast-iron, 44” x 25.5”

Plant stands such as this, from the Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection, were the perfect tool to combine a love of nature with a taste for ornament and decoration in the Victorian Era. Named for Queen Victoria of Great Britain, the Victorian Era classifies the period of society and the fine and applied arts during her reign from 1837 to 1901.The cultivation of plants was a widely popular pastime for the Victorians in all levels of society, and their toils were proudly displayed in homes and gardens. Plant stands became an essential item for the exhibit and storage of flowers and foliage. Their practical and decorative benefits were amplified by the link they provided between the domestic interior and the natural world that had gone missing due to the Industrial Revolution.

Plant stands were manufactured in England, America, and France, and came in a variety of forms and materials. Cast- and wrought-iron were the most common materials for garden ornaments such as this; however, they also came in wood, wicker, glass, and ceramic versions and were usually painted white, black, brown, or green.  Circular, semi-circular, or squared structures could be positioned against a wall or in the center of a space. Single level and tiered versions were popular, in addition to the plant stand we see here that has multiple appendages.

This type of plant stand was made using separately cast arms attached to a central axis rod. The arms could be rotated and moved vertically along the pole to display plant specimens of various sizes. The cup at the end of each arm would hold a small flower or foliate, which were often in their own removable liner so they could be changed out seasonally.

 Plant stands are still a popular indoor and outdoor garden accessory for displaying plants. Just as they did during the Victorian Era, they showcase a selection of seasonal varieties to beautify the home and bring nature within reach.

 Further Reading:
Israel, Barbara. Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999.

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

March 25, 2013 at 9:00 am 1 comment

Outstanding in the Field

Outstanding in the Field Dinner at NMAH

On October 1st, Smithsonian Gardens’ Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) was the pre-dinner reception site for attendees to an Outstanding in the Field (OITF) event which benefited NMAH’s upcoming exhibit, Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.

Joe Brunetti of Smithsonian Gardens gave opening remarks and was ‘Host Farmer’ for the program. Organic produce from the Victory Garden was provided to the OITF chef to use in the main event, dinner on NMAH’s rooftop. Joe and his SG colleague Erin Clark gave tours of the Victory Garden and answered gardening questions from some of the 150 attendees. Outstanding in the Field’s mission is to re-connect diners to the land and the origins of their food, and to honor the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it.

Outstanding in the Field Dinner at NMAHThe beauty of this event went beyond just lapping up the good food. Some of the magic arose from the conversations with complete strangers, the handshakes welcoming each other, and the cohesive celebration for the nourishment on the table. Even though attendees came from all parts of the country, we were all coming together with the same passion for land, food and drink. This movement of reconnecting to our land is happening on many different fronts. People are interested in where their food is coming from, how it is being grown, and who it is supporting. It seems a simple idea, but an idea we have removed ourselves so far from. With the increasing number of farmers’ markets and the re-evolving lifestyle of being a locavore, we can hold our glass up high and say ‘cheers.’

In the words of Julia Child, ‘Bon appétit’!

-Joe Brunetti, Horticulturist, Victory Heirloom Gardens at the National Museum of American History

March 18, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Hellebores: Jewels of Winter, Part II

Last week Smithsonian gardens Horticulturist Janet Draper introduced us to some of the most beautiful of the winter flowering plants, Hellebores. Here are a few more of her favorite picks for your home garden:

Helleborus niger 

One of the new cultivars that I have been most impressed with are new varieties of Helleborus niger,  a.k.a the ‘Christmas Rose.’  I had never been impressed with Helleborus niger in the past, but the selection ‘Joseph Lemper’ has really changed my opinion.  It is marketed as part of the Helleborus Gold Collection (HGC) from Heuger nurseries in Germany.  The Joseph Lemper in the Ripley Garden started producing numerous 2-2 1/2” flowers on sturdy tall stems held well above the foliage in late NOVEMBER and it is still producing new flowers in late February!   I am not sure if this form is sterile or not, but either way this cultivar is a showstopper for the winter garden.

Hellebore 'Pink Frost'

Helleborus x ballardie ‘Pink Frost’

Helleborus  x ballardiae ‘Pink Frost’

Another member of the HGC series is Helleborus  x ballardiae ‘Pink Frost’.  This beauty starts blooming in February and will continue for at least a month.  It has lovely upward-facing pink flowers which turn a deeper shade of pink as they age.  The foliage is gorgeous, with lovely white veining and red stems.   My plants are still young, but I am really impressed with what is showing so far!

There are many other exciting new cultivars hitting the market, including some from local breeders like David Culp in Pennsylvania, Barry Glick in West Virginia and Judith and Dick Tyler in Southern Virginia.  There are new selections which are double flowered, or possess dramatic markings, enlarged nectarines, upward facing flowers… oh the madness!

I have been slowly adding more and more of these winter gems to the Ripley Garden and currently have nineteen different varieties.  Some are still quite small and will not bloom for a year or two since they take some time to get established, but all are worth the investment of time and money to brighten your winter garden.

-Janet Draper, Horticulturist

March 11, 2013 at 9:00 am 1 comment

Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouses Welcome Bluebirds

I am not sure.

The installed nesting boxes on the Eastern Bluebird Habitat Trail.

Working in collaboration with Richard E. Gies, lead volunteer of the Longwood Gardens Bluebird Project, Smithsonian Gardens established an Eastern Bluebird Habitat trail around the perimeter of the Greenhouse facility in Suitland MD.

Eastern Bluebird. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dave Menke, photographer.

Eastern Bluebird. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dave Menke, photographer.

Why Bluebirds?

A native songbird, the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) is a member of the thrush family (Turdidae). They eat insects and berries and require open grassy areas and meadows with low groundcover for feeding. These beautiful birds breed in all eastern states from Maine to Florida. They are considered to be secondary cavity nesters in that they traditionally nest in holes made by woodpeckers and other birds.

The nesting boxes were installed to benefit an existing population of Bluebirds as well as to encourage more bluebirds to nest on site. Eastern Bluebird populations are on the rise thanks, in part, to efforts like this one. The lack of suitable nesting cavities caused by changing land use patterns, increasing urbanization, and competition from introduced European starlings and house sparrows has been responsible for the decline of Eastern Bluebirds populations in the past.

Tree Swallow. Image courtesy of the

Tree Swallow. Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. James C. Leupold, photographer.

When is a pair of nesting boxes better than one?

In areas where Eastern Bluebirds coexist with Tree Swallows (like Maryland) it is recommended that two boxes be placed 15-20 feet apart. Tree swallows will select one box for nesting and defend the other against use by other swallows thereby allowing Bluebirds to claim it.

Green roof nesting boxes waiting to be installed at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses in Suitland, Maryland earlier this winter.

Green roof nesting boxes waiting to be installed at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses in Suitland, Maryland earlier this winter.

A Green Roof: for style and comfort.

The roofs on these nesting boxes have been planted with a variety of stonecrop (sedum) plants. The purpose of the “green roof” is to help keep the interior of the boxes cool during the hot summer months.

The temperature inside these nesting boxes will be monitored in an effort to ensure the safety of the fledglings (baby birds).

The green roof nesting boxes were designed Richard Gies for Longwood Gardens. You can download a PDF of his instructions here:

Green Roof Eastern Bluebird nesting boxes

March 7, 2013 at 8:30 am 2 comments

Hellebores: Jewels of Winter, Part I

Most people think that winter is a “dead time” in the garden, but they could not be more wrong. In a climate as mild as Washington DC (officially a zone 7b, but Mother Nature doesn’t seem to like being pigeonholed), little signs of spring start to appear as early as January.

I’d like to share my love affair with the jewels of the winter—Helleborus.  Hellebores are members of the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), and are shade loving, evergreen plants which bloom during the winter months. Wait—it gets even better—deer don’t find them to be particularly tasty!

It used to be that the most commonly found hellebores in nurseries were the Christmas rose, (Helleborus niger) and the Lenten rose (Helleborus hybridus).  Other species were available but sorely under appreciated  Times have changed, and thanks to breeders, the diversity of Hellebores on the market is quite amazing,

Here are a few of my favorite Hellebores growing in the Smithsonian Mary Livingston Ripley Garden:

Helleborus foetidus

A long time favorite of mine has always been Helleborus foetidus, or the Stinking Hellebore. What a cruel name for a gorgeous plant! Helleborus foetidus has finely-cut fingerlike evergreen foliage which thrives in shady conditions. The real show begins in October when chartreuse flower stalks start emerging above the foliage, taunting you with the promise of flowers. The small lime green bells finally unfurl in late January or February, demure clusters of little green bells edged in raspberry.

One interesting fact about Hellebores is that the flower ‘petals’ are actually modified leaves so even after the flower starts seed production, these ‘petals’ remain attractive for two to three months.

The only maintenance required for this hellebore is to cutting off the flower stems once they start to look tatty. Or, if you have enough plants, cut off the flowering stems before the seed pods ripen, otherwise they will self sow to produce a large colony.

Corsican Hellebore

Helleborus argutifolis, ‘Corsican Hellebore’

Helleborus argutifolius

Another favorite species of mine is Helleborus argutifolius, or the Corsican hellebore. It also produces lovely chartreuse flowers, which are striking against its coarsely-toothed blue-grey foliage. The flower opens entirely and is outward facing to display the prominent yellow stamens very clearly. The one challenge I have with the Corsican Hellebore is that the two-foot stems flop, leaving a gaping bald spot in the center of the clump—nothing a little discrete staking can’t hide. Like Helleborus foetidus, the Corsican hellebore is caulescent (flowers are produced on the same stem as the foliage) so once the flowers begin to look tatty or you don’t want any more plants, remove this entire stem down to the ground, and any other stems that look rough after the winter.

Hellebore 'Lenten Rose'

Hellebore x hybridus, ‘Lenten Rose’

Helleborus x hybridus

One of the classic hellebores on the market is Helleborus x hybridus, the Lenten rose, with blooms ranging from white to pink. Due to the seed grown variability it is always best to purchase plants in flower if you want to know what you’re getting. Otherwise, enjoy the surprise!

-Janet Draper, Horticulturist

March 5, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Never Enough Time

Chestnut Hill Gardens, Litchfield, Connecticut, 2010. Collection of the Archives of American Gardens.

Chestnut Hill Gardens, Litchfield, Connecticut, 2010. Collection of the Archives of American Gardens.

I am waiting – waiting patiently for blustery, winter weather to begin. Gardening books are neatly stacked by the couch, magazines are piled by the bed and I have even book marked several websites to explore. I have a folder of plant lists I collected during symposiums and lectures I attended. I want to research the plants that caught my eye and determine if they are as outstanding as promised or just a one shot pretty-boy? I bought a packet of graph paper, colored pencils and an architect’s ruler; I am ready to draw a detailed design for my backyard redo. I wanted to do all these jobs this summer, but I never seemed to have enough time. So, the books piled up, the websites were left unexplored and the plants are sitting in pots waiting for me to draw a proper design.

Oh, I accomplished a lot this summer – every day was filled with weeding sessions, I developed numerous lectures, and occasionally I even read sections of chosen books. But there was never enough time to be as organized or thorough as I wanted to be. I cut corners everywhere. I installed plants without researching growth habits, let weeds go to seed, missed the second pruning of the espaliered fruit trees and sometimes the lectures I gave were not as snazzy as I wanted them to be.

But during the busy growing season I didn’t despair – at least not too much. I knew disagreeable winter weather would eventually come and I would be forced to stay inside. As the wind howled and the temperatures dropped outside, I would bundle in a blanket and take the time to read, research and draw.

Winston Garden, Far Hills, New Jersey, circa 1965. Collection of the Archives of American Gardens.

Winston Garden, Far Hills, New Jersey, circa 1965. Collection of the Archives of American Gardens.

Okay, winter is here! Now I’ll stay inside and start one of those saved projects. Although, I hope I have more diligence than I did last year. Every time I would sit down to read a book my dog would prod and whine and try to convince me that the weather really wasn’t all that bad. Couldn’t we please go take a walk? So I would put the book down and brave the cold weather. Another day I’d go outside to take measurements for the garden’s new design and notice all the winter weeds. The tape measure would slide back into my pocket and I would spend the afternoon pulling weeds in the brisk air. If I sat at the computer to do some cyber-surfing, I would remember all the outdoor chores that just could not wait for another day.

Do you notice a trend? The piles of books that I never have time to read didn’t accumulate overnight. I really do want to read them, but they sit undisturbed (or barely ruffled) because no matter what the weather is like I would rather be outside than inside. That’s probably why I am a gardener instead of a movie star (okay, maybe there are a couple of other reasons). Writing deadlines keep me in, pouring rain keeps me in – but for the most part, you’ll find me outside; playing in the dirt, walking the dog or drinking a glass of wine and staring at the garden beds imagining what could be.

Sometimes I feel guilty ignoring my indoor activities, but I really shouldn’t. I may not be reading about other people’s gardening experiences, but I am accumulating plenty of my own. The winter walks may keep me away from the computer, but they help me notice nature’s nuances. I become a more sensitive gardener when I am aware of the subtleties that unfold throughout the seasons. When I sit on the deck relaxing with a glass of wine, I may not be physically sketching ideas, but I am daydreaming, developing my “perfect” garden design – no eraser needed.

So I am not totally resigned from completing my noble plans; I’ll keep stacking books, piling magazines and book marking websites. I don’t think my behavior will change this year, but who knows? In the meantime, I’ll keep waiting for a string of bad weather.

See you in the garden -maybe even if it is raining.

-Cynthia Brown, Horticulture Collections Management & Education Manager

March 4, 2013 at 9:00 am 3 comments


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