Archive for May, 2015

The Thrill of the Grill

Farnham Garden

The Farnham family in their Mendham, New Jersey garden, 1960s. Molly Adams, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens. Note the grill in the background.

Above all else, Memorial Day is a holiday dedicated to honoring those who have lost their lives serving the United States. Unofficially, the long weekend also marks the start of grilling season. As we come together as family, friends, and neighbors to celebrate the arrival of summer and strengthen community bonds, the grill is the hearth around which we gather in backyards across the country. Barbecue and grilling have a long history in America, an ebb and flow of foodways coming together and drifting apart. Each region in America has their outdoor cooking traditions, from the vinegary pulled pork of North Carolina to bean-hole beans in Maine, to tri-tip grilled on the spit in southern California. Immigrants from as far away as Korea and Brazil have introduced new flavors and cooking methods to the American picnic table, expanding our ever-changing menu.

Our newest traveling exhibit is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services and the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the rise of outdoor living in the decades after World War II, as the suburban backyard became the setting for pool parties, barbecues, and family fun. The exhibit is currently on view at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum and travels next to the Tampa History Center in June 2015.

Just about every town in America has rows upon rows of suburban tract houses, built as housing for returning veterans after World War II. The GI Bill of Rights placed homeownerships within reach of millions of people; by 1959, thirty-one million people owned their own home. With these homes came backyards, small lots that could be transformed into outdoor living rooms with a little imagination, some elbow grease, and a subscription to Popular Mechanics.

As a garden feature though, the grill really hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, gaining popularity on the West Coast before making its way east across the country. Fire pits and permanent brick barbecues complimented the low-slung, L-shaped ranch houses gaining popularity in California. The open architecture of the ranch house seamlessly blended the indoors with the outdoors, expanding the living space of the home. Outdoor kitchens, patios, and swimming pools began to take centerstage in the western backyard.

In the years after World War II, as wartime restrictions on materials were lifted and consumers flexed their newfound buying power, novel products for outdoor living flooded the market. The Weber kettle grill was invented in 1951 by combining two metal marine buoys, and was just one of many popular options sold at department and hardware stores nationwide. Pop culture portrayed grilling as a gender-specific activity, with women preparing side dishes indoors and men toiling away outside at a smoking grill. Cliché imagery of the cave man was often invoked when describing the art of grilling, such as in this quote from a 1956 issue of Kiplinger Magazine: “Give a man a patch of yard to call his own, and soon you will see him, garbed in white hat, funny apron and asbestos gloves, solemnly practicing that most ancient of masculine arts—the cooking of raw flesh at an open fire.”

Popular Mechanics April 1960

The April 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics highlighted a number of options for building an outdoor kitchen, including plans for a permanent outdoor kitchen with storage, a serving cart, and a number of budget-friendly simple grills. An outdoor kitchen could fit any budget, small or large. Courtesy of Popular Mechanics.

Grilling was well established in the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Big brands hopped on the barbecue bandwagon as well, even those not peddling grills and ketchup. Want to be reminded of outdoor grilling season in the middle of winter? Why not choose this barbecue-themed wallpaper for your next remodeling project. From aprons to children’s toys, the barbecue motif was as hot as a burger just off the grill. In the 1957 I Love Lucy episode “Building a Bar-B-Q” Ethel and Lucy comically take on the typical suburban do-it-yourself task with humorous results (to which I am sure many homeowners could relate).

Cookbooks provided endless ideas for Jell-O salads and baked beans to accompany your grilled shish kebobs. This weekend, if you’re firing up the grill for a gathering, use it as an excuse to peak into your personal archives. Do you have a favorite family recipe from your mother, grandfather, or great-aunt? Our family recipes are our family stories, whether the ingredients came from the garden or a tin can. I leave you with two summer recipes from my grandmothers, both of whom grew up during the Depression, married veterans of World War II, and raised their families in the Maryland suburbs in the 1950s. Remember, it wouldn’t be a mid-century recipe without either pineapple or mayonnaise—or both!

Isabel's layered salad recipe

Isabel Clough’s recipe for a layered salad from her church cookbook, circa 1960s.

Jean's pineapple recipe

Jean Fox’s recipe for a cream cheese and pineapple spread, written in her own hand, circa 1960s.

-Kate Fox, curator, Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard

Do you have a favorite family recipe for barbecue, or a side dish with a story? Memories of your backyard or garden from the 1950s and 1960s? Share it with Community of Gardens, our digital archive! We are collecting stories from the public about gardens and backyards in America and building a digital archive of our shared landscape history.

May 24, 2015 at 8:00 am 1 comment

A Millionaire, a Missionary, and a Mutant Marigold

When David Burpee took over as president of the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company in 1915 he set out to find a new flower to surpass the popularity of the sweet pea. Always the progressive thinker, Burpee knew the sweet pea craze of the late 1800s was nearing its end and felt it was the perfect time for Burpee & Company to thrill the gardening world with a new “all-American” flower.

Sweet peas. Image © Stanislav Krejčík

Sweet pea blooms. Image © Stanislav Krejčík

The sweet pea had been a favorite among American gardeners for decades, but by the early twentieth century its popularity was waning. Sweet peas were temperamental and difficult to grow. While they looked beautiful in a garden, they were too delicate to use in floral arrangements.

Burpee sought a new flower that would appeal to more gardeners and developed a list of requirements. It needed to be strong and resistant to disease, easy to cultivate, and adaptable to growing conditions throughout the country. In addition, Burpee wanted a flower that had large showy blooms with all the aesthetic appeal of the sweet pea, but none of its less favorable qualities.

It was a tall order, but Burpee felt he found the right flower in the marigold. Marigolds had large, full blooms and long, sturdy stems, making them ideal for cut flower arrangements. They could also be grown throughout the U.S. They seemed perfect except for one flaw: marigold leaves have small sacs containing an oil called terpene which gives the plant a foul odor. The oil protects the plant against natural predators, but also makes it unfavorable among gardeners. Burpee decided rather than giving up on the marigold that he would just ‘fix’ it by getting rid of this unpleasant characteristic.

David Burpee in a field of marigolds. Photo courtesy of Burpee Gardens

David Burpee in a field of marigolds. Photo courtesy of Burpee Gardens

Burpee searched the globe hoping to find a terpene-free marigold variety. By 1931 he had collected hundreds of specimens and seeds. Experts at Burpee’s experimental farms grew thousands of plants from these samples, but met with no success. Every marigold had the odor-causing terpene sacs. All, including Burpee, feared the experiment would never succeed.

Then in late 1933 a letter arrived from Carter Holton, a missionary in China who had seen Burpee’s request for marigold seeds in an American magazine. Holton claimed to have found a completely odorless marigold and offered to send Burpee its seeds for $25. Skeptical, Burpee nonetheless had the requested funds wired to Holton.

Four months later a package of seeds arrived. They were planted at the company’s farm in the spring of 1934. As Burpee watched the plants struggle to grow, he remained doubtful. The Chinese marigolds bloomed late and produced unimpressive flowers. Unconcerned with the bloom, Burpee wanted to know if this variety suffered from the same odiferous curse as other marigolds.

As a test, Burpee fed foliage from the Chinese plants and other marigolds to the barnyard animals at his farm. To his delight they ate the foliage from the Chinese marigold, but ignored the others. Burpee had found his treasure! His horticultural experts immediately began crossing the Chinese marigold with other varieties to develop a plant that was robust and odor-free.

This first generation of marigold hybrids were grown at Burpee’s trial grounds under the protection of armed guards. One of the plants in the trial stood out. By definition a mutant, it bloomed early and produced a large orange flower. Most importantly, its foliage was odorless.

Burpee seed catalog from 1937 featuring the Collarette Marigold. Image from the Henry Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, National Agricultural Library

Burpee seed catalog from 1937 featuring the Collarette Marigold. Image from the Henry Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, National Agricultural Library

Burpee employees collected and planted seeds from this new hybrid. Soon dozens of Burpee’s “gift-from-God” marigolds were growing and replicating the favorable characteristics of their mutant parent. By late 1936 Burpee & Company began selling seeds for this miracle flower named the Collarette Marigold “Crown of Gold” to the public. It was even showcased on the cover of the company’s 1937 seed catalog. Just as Burpee hoped, the introduction of a scentless marigold took the gardening world by storm. The plant was the only flower to receive a gold medal at the All-America trials in 1937.

David Burpee helped create a scentless marigold which quickly became a beloved classic among American gardeners. He didn’t stop there, however. As he hinted to a reporter in 1937, “There might be marigolds in many colors—some day—perhaps!”

– Thomas Hull, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

May 22, 2015 at 8:58 am 2 comments

Flanders Field Poppies at the National Museum of American History

The poppy became an international symbol of remembrance of World War I through the efforts of an American professor from Georgia, Moina Michael. While working at the 25th Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries in New York City Michael heard a reading of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Michael was so moved by the poem that she resolved to wear a poppy in remembrance of the war and bought them for attendees of the conference on November 9, 1918. Two days later, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies thus ending the war. Michael carried on work to make the poppy a symbol for honoring the war dead as well as a way to raise funds for veterans, a symbol that endures today.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World War I, Smithsonian Gardens planted corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) outside the National Museum of American History. The seeds sown were, in part, collected from the Flanders Fields of Belgium.

Corn Poppies planted by Smithsonian Gardens outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Corn poppies planted by Smithsonian Gardens outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

To learn more about WWI, visit The Price of Freedom exhibition on the 2nd floor, East Wing of the National Museum of American History.

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, 1872 – 1918

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

May 11, 2015 at 10:34 am 1 comment

DIY: Hanging Baskets

The Smithsonian Gardens greenhouse production team creates 200 hanging baskets for display throughout our gardens each year. Baskets are produced in three sets and changed out each spring, summer, and fall season.

Production team members Joe and Jill were kind enough to share a behind-the-scenes look at how they create these popular hanging additions to our gardens.

This year Jill and Joe useed a combination of Calibrachoa Minifamous ‘Double Deep Yellow’, Lobelia erinus Laguna ‘Sky Blue’, and Sutera cordata Snowstorm ‘Giant Snowflake’  in our spring baskets. The result? An EXPLOSION of yellow, blue, and white! You can see these spectacular baskets now out in our Enid A. Haupt Garden and Kathrine Dunlin Folger Rose Garden.

Here’s a step-by-step guide showing how our pros create the baskets for our gardens. DIYers, we’re looking forward to seeing pictures of what you create!

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May 5, 2015 at 4:30 am 1 comment


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