What Time Is It? Garden Time!
Floral clocks started appearing in outdoor public spaces at the turn of the twentieth century. Not to be confused with botanist Carl Linnaeus’ flower clock which laid out a variety of flowers in a clock-like design according to the hour of the day they opened and closed, the floral clocks referred to here were large-scale timepieces placed amongst richly colored and contrasting carpet plants in elaborate patterns. Some worked like sundials, dependent on the sun to mark time, while others were fully functioning timepieces.
The design for one of the earliest floral clocks, at Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, is credited to Parks Superintendent John
McHattie who arranged to have clockmakers Ritchie & Son install the necessary mechanical parts. When the clock began operating in 1903, it had only an hour hand; a minute hand was added the following year. The Princes Street Gardens’ floral clock featured a twelve-foot dial and hands created from long, shallow troughs of sheet metal planted with flowers. It was not only a work of ingenuity for masterfully combining the technology of clock making with the art of garden design, but also for the engineering it took to install the clock on a forty degree incline.
Floral clocks were regularly showcased at world’s fairs and in public spaces ranging from parks to cemeteries around the turn of the century. They were perfect for ornately planted Edwardian-era carpet beds that featured sometimes over-the-top figurative designs such as historic scenes, lettering, or coats of arms. In America there were floral clocks displayed on the slope of the Agricultural hill at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Water Works Park in Detroit Michigan featured a water powered floral clock and by 1948, America was home to the world’s largest floral clock in Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland, which still operates today.
Floral clocks have their place as a trend or fad in gardening history and are wonderful examples of the use of technology in the garden. The ability of landscape architects, gardeners, and clock makers to collaborate on such beautiful and yet demanding pieces is what makes the floral clock so special.
-Jessica Brode, Archives of American Gardens Intern, Smithsonian Gardens
Original version of this post published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.