Thursday, March 13, 2014

War and the garden - a century of nursery catalogues

I spent a productive day in the library at Wisley a few weeks ago, looking at old nursery catalogues. Having run a nursery myself many years ago, old catalogues have always fascinated me. They are also a very good way of mapping something which has also always interested me - how garden fashion has changed over time.
This particular rummage was aimed at getting an overview of what perennials were available from the late 19th century onwards. I did not know quite what to expect and was in fact rather surprised.
The pic above is from one of the most important perennial breeders of the early 20th century, Amos Perry.
A 1910 listing of grasses, from Perry's catalogue.

I was aware that a lot of early 20th century cultivars have been lost and a few species too. I remember looking through a book by Ernst Graf Silva Tarouca which belonged to my friend Sabine Plenk in Vienna (published 1913?, in Austria-Hungary, just a few years before that political unit was consigned to the dustbin of history by some shots fired in Sarajevo). There was Aster puniceus, no longer in cultivation, but something I had collected seed from, a few years previously, from a swamp in the Catskills in NY state. And now seeding all over my garden, which only goes to show how even vigorously spreading plants can vanish.

I did not realise however just how much we lost and have only recently re-gained. Not because of the First World War but because of the Second. I write this as Britain is about to start on a veritable orgy of commemoration for the 1914 war – about which I feel distinctly unenthusiastic. It was such an unspeakable disaster that led directly to the unmitigated horrors of the 20th century, and in Britain was conducted with such an orgy of hysterical nationalism and war-mongering that I feel I would rather draw a veil over the whole shameful episode. The only heroes for me are the conscientious objectors on both sides.

Anyway, back to the herbaceous border. Trench warfare left the combatants' gardens (and their cities) largely untouched. Nurseries, in Britain and Germany, held similar ranges before and after the war. Although one does have to make allowances for the all pre-war German names being changed to English ones in Britain, and (I suspect but am not sure) the other way round in Germany. The British royal family had to change their (German) name too, so the plants were in good company.

Looking through catalogues from around 1890 to the 1930s, the range is truly extraordinary. There is that feeling that 'there is nothing new under the sun'. So many of the perennials and even grasses, we think of as 'new' were then available. I was interested to see Baptisia, Vernonia and Astrantia, all listed, all of which I thought of as post-1970s plants. However catalogues of the time, particularly pre-First World War ones, are dominated by a small group of perennials of which a great many varieties were available: Michelmas daisies (Aster novae-angliae), Penstemon and Delphinium for example. All of these are what we think of as high-maintenance plants today. At the back of the catalogues of the larger companies, like Amos Perry and Kelways, are the 'Miscellaneous Herbaceous Perennials'. This was clearly a minority interest, but the range of plants looks almost entirely 'modern'. What is missing is the range of cultivars we have now of many of these.

Turning to the 1950s and 1960s, the range has hugely diminished. It was not until the new generation of nurseries that got going in the 1970s and 1980s (Beth Chatto, Elizabeth Strangman in England etc.) do things begin to look up. What happened?

The answer has to be the Second World War, but also its aftermath. I remember the German garden maker and nurseryman Peter Janke saying to me that he thought that German gardening had never recovered from the war. Looking back at the catalogues, books and magazines of even 1930s Germany, as the country staggered into its apocalyptic crises, the health and vibrancy of the gardening scene is very vivid. What struck me though, looking through the British catalogues of the post-war era, was that perhaps British gardening had suffered just as much.

Promoting British nurseries is nothing new - 1922 from Kelways.

Much of the German garden heritage turned to ashes, the British to compost. Saturation bombing of Germany by the Allies must have done much damage. In Britain however, the commercial growing of ornamental plants was banned early on (earlier than in Germany, I believe), wih prison sentences being handed on to anyone selling flowers. 'Digging for Victory' saw many ornamentals cast onto the compost heap or ploughed under.

The Second World War was followed by the fifties, which by all accounts was a grey and dreary decade, one of recovery and reconstruction, with little fun or luxury. A particular aspect of the fifties in Europe was the idea of public planning and public welfare, good progressive aspects in which the running was often made by social democratic parties. The downside of this was a rejection of heritage (think of all the country houses demolished in Britain during this period) and a kind of what we would now call dumbing-down – egalitarianism, not as equality of self-expression, but as a lowest common denominator lifestyle forced onto everyone. The decade of grey concrete, of philistine local government and a desire to create a brave new world by denying any merit in the past, was followed by more destruction of heritage in the 1960s.

This came across strongly when talking to a Swedish colleague recently – Sweden of course exemplified the ideal of social democracy and community thinking particularly strongly. Planting was, she said, “reduced to a very functional style”. A time of major urban development saw a strongly collectivist ethos prevail with landscape architects working on public housing projects, parks and children's play areas using only a limited range of plants; private gardening simply went out of fashion, and designers lost interest in the domestic garden. Many nurseries often stocked little more than conifers.

In Britain, the need for physical reconstruction may have been much less than in Germany, but garden culture was very unambitious. My recent post about the 1950s Adam the Gardener series shows how widespread knowledge of garden craft may have been, but there seems to have been relatively little interest in new plants or conservation of garden heritage. Many great gardens, even if their houses were not demolished, sank into weed abandon. I remember my parents buying a disused walled kitchen garden in 1962, where they built a house. It had been part of the grounds of Shernfold Park in Sussex, the house had been turned into offices and the garden a wilderness of vast rhododendrons, magnolias and unkempt grass.

1957 saw the birth of the Hardy Plant Society (as well as myself!). Looking back at a book about perennials, written by one of its key founders, Alan Bloom, in that year, it is possible to see that much of the pre-war plant selection existed, but hardly anyone was actively propagating and selling it. It was not until Beth Chatto and Alan Bloom started to ride the consumer boom of the 1960s that gardening started to become interesting again. Margery Fish and Vita Sackville West played a great part too in encouraging more enlightened and ambitious thinking. Shrubs recovered their diversity quicker than perennials. When I started getting involved with gardening professionally, in the late 1980s, perennials were limited in variety and generally only from specialist nurseries. Much of the remarkable growth in our nursery sector dates from this period and can be seen (in hindsight at least) as the rebuilding of the range of perennials that were available pre-1939.

What was lost, and are perhaps unmourned, are the huge numbers of cultivars which early 20th century catalogues listed. Mostly of labour-intensive plants, which do not appeal to us much these days. The genepools are still in cultivation of course, and in most cases massive genepools exist in the wild, so if we did want to bring back hundreds of penstemon/delphinium/etc we could do so.


If you like my blog, why not check out my e-books, which are round-ups of some writing I did for Hortus magazine back in the early 2000s, along with an interview with the amazing Beth Chatto. You can read them on Kindle, or Kindle packages for smartphones or the computer. You can find them on my Amazon page here. You will also find my soap opera for gardeners - currently running at eight episodes.


College Gardener said...

Thank you for this fantastic post! This was not something I had ever really considered but it makes a lot of sense.

Unknown said...

Hallo Noel, I think you can read a little bit Dutch. There is a very good book on the history of the Dutch bulb cultivating company van Tubergen "the bulbs are best again" written by Kees Hoog a member of the van Tubergen clan. In the book you can find large export numbers of bulbs to the UK. Also a story on relations between Miss Ellen Ann Wilmot and the firm.
isbn 978-90-8704-3780

Helen said...

I enjoyed this post very much. I too assumed that many of the perennials I enjoy growing were mid 20th century introductions which in hindsight makes little sense given the Victorians plant hunting and horticultural prowess

Claire Austin said...

An article after my own heart. The loss of varieties is nothing new, they are still being lost today, mainly because of PBR rights limiting the nurseries who can propagate them.

Claire Austin said...

An article after my own heart. The loss of varieties is nothing new, they are still being lost today, mainly because of PBR rights limiting the nurseries who can propagate them.

Thomas Rainer said...

A great history, thank you. Alarming how much horticultural knowledge that we've lost.

ProfessorRoush said...

A great history lesson Noel! I had no idea.

Alain said...

It is indeed surprising that there were so many grasses. I thought the fashion for grasses was modern. Fashion is plants is always interesting. I remember reading that here in Ontario, around 1914 there were over 100 varieties of verbenas (the bedding plants)! Or that in the 30s and 40s in Britain, ordinary geraniums (pelargonium) were not popular!

Amy Murphy said...

The main reason so many nurseries and consequently their stock of perennials were lost during WWII was because of food shortages. People needed to grow their own food. Garden history is full of stories of fields of perennials being plowed under to make room for growing vegetables. Many peonies especially were lost to history this way, not yet rediscovered.
WWI, as you mentioned, was not fought on the home front and so agricultural and horticulture in UK were not dramatically affected, although this is not true in Belgium and France were the majority of the fighting too place. One very interesting piece of garden history from WWI is the creation of trench gardens.

Helen Champion said...

Really enjoyed your article, Noel. It was interesting to see Vita Sackville-West get a mention. Although she never claimed to be a professional horticulturalist, she was massively influential in the gardening world particularly after the Second World War. Her lavish planting style at Sissinghurst and her column in the Observer encouraged the public to try new plants and to be bolder and more creative in their own gardens. Hopefully, Sissinghurst is still achieving that today. Helen (gardener, Sissinghurst)

Andrés said...

I had the same concerns some days ago and I found this 1900 american catalogue: (there are some more in

I also was surprised of how many grasses they did already grow, some of them I had never heard of before...

Reading your post was a nice serendipity.

Marcus said...

Hi, I found this piece very interesting. I am writing from Australia where currently the main drivers in the loss of garden plant diversity are biosecurity agencies who on "full cost recovery" mode have priced nearly all small specialist nurseries out of the market and doing so have handed that trade to large vertically integrated companies who flog overseas PBR imports for a season, then on to the next "big thing".

Cheers, Marcus