The Garden Magazine

The beauty of antique plant catalogues

I just finished a late-Victorian garden design for a class. Part of my research included reading primary sources, such as William Robinson's The English Flower Garden, and digging up antique nursery catalogues to determine which plants and their varieties were available and popular in the late 1800s. 

In the RBGE library, one of my happy places on Earth, I found a catalog from the Veitch nursery. According to the Vietch Family History site, in 1771 a 19-year old Scot named John Veitch traveled to England and by 1808 had begun a nursery. John's son, James, and his son grew the nursery and purchased its Chelsea location in 1853. The dynasty carried on through the height of the Victorian plant collecting craze, with the nursery sending 23 collectors around the globe. These plant hunters returned with many of the specimens you'd recognize in a British garden today. One such treasure is the beautiful Davidia involucrata, located in China by Ernest Wilson. Despite being shipwrecked on the way home to England, Wilson managed to save the Davidia seeds. The Veitches were eventually responsible for introducing 1281 plants which were either previously unknown or newly bred varieties. Horticulture would not be the same without this impressive family. 

What impresses me just as much as their story is the beauty of their nursery catalogues, which are illustrated with detailed engravings and, in the late 1800s, very few colour images. In today's era of almost-instant digital photography and computer-aided layouts, the idea of engraving a catalogue is mind-boggling.

I am particularly drawn to these images of gardening tools, which are so beautifully composed that I'd happily hang them on my wall as art. 

I also enjoy this ad for the brand-new 'Frogmore Selected' tomato, though as I am used to growing 7-foot tall tomatoes outdoors with barely any attention at all, their meticulous indoor cultivation in Britain still strikes me as odd. The testimonials below the images are from the leading horticultural publications of the day, including Joseph Paxton and friend's 'Gardeners' Chronicle' and William Robinson's 'The Garden,' two magazines I've spent countless hours investigating during my studies at RBGE. 

This ad reminds me of one of my favorite watercolours by Eric Ravilious, 'The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes' (1935), which is now in the care of the Tate gallery. Clearly Ravilious too was moved by the beauty of full-to-bursting glasshouse.

Brand-new Iris reticulata in the Alpine House

Tuesday morning began with an in-depth tour of the Alpine department at the Botanics for our Managing Plant Collections course. The Alpine yard, which is off-limits to the public, is the closest you'll find to a secret garden at RBGE. One ducks through a small wooden door in a Clematis-draped wall and crosses the stone threshold to another world full of tiny treasures in rockwork beds, glasshouses, and cold frames. 

Early spring is the best time to visit the publicly accessible Alpine House, above, which delivers the most concentrated spot of bloom in the February garden. The color on a rare sunny day is so spirit-lifting that a visit should be prescribed by the NHS along with its recent Vitamin D recommendations

Some very special Iris are blooming in the Alpine house right now: very cool new cultivars by Canadian breeder Alan McMurtrie. I loved the mixed up browns and blues, and sea green on an Iris is mind-boggling. It's so neat to see colors one doesn't usually associate with Iris reticulata on these brand-new cultivars.

Later that night, at home, I opened my February RHS Garden magazine to find a great profile of Mr. McMurtie and profiles and photos of the very plants I'd just seen growing: 'Spot-On,' 'Sunshine,' 'Sea Breeze,' 'Eyecatcher' and several others. You can read the article on Mr. McMurtie's site here.

The display of cultivars, such as these Iris, is controversial in botanical gardens. Some argue that botanical gardens should exist to safeguard straight species, often with an eye toward educating the public about these plants' threatened habitats while at the same time performing ex situ conservation. However, a lot of dedication, time, and research goes into the science of plant breeding, and those stories are educationally valid as well. 

Regardless of which side of the species/cultivar debate is right, it is still a great feeling to be studying in a garden that has access to some of the newest and most interesting things happening in the plant world, and working relationships with breeders making scientific breakthroughs. If I weren't at the Botanics, I would have just had to enjoy those Iris through magazine photos. But to see them in person brings them to life.