Victorian Garden Plants 1: Flowers

This article is appended to, and based on, The Garden Triumphant – The Victorian Legacy, now available for Kindle and PC at 3.99dollars or UK equivalent from Amazon.  The book has long sections on Victorian trees, shrubs, garden layouts, the lived that gardeners lived, the first women garden stars, and much, much more!

Good late Regency and Victorian flowers are legion, however, every selection must include some of the following; agapanthuses, hollyhocks, Amaranthus, Anemone hupehensis, antirrhinums, Aster, calceolarias, campanulas (especially Campanula lactiflora and C. pyramidalis), chrysanthemum, dahlias, some sorts of Delphinium, Dianthus, the most attractive sort of Dicentra, Galanthus, hyacinths, irises, Kniphofia, Lathyrus, lilies, lobelias, various sorts of Narcissus, paeonies (especially Paeonia lactiflora hybrids), poppies, especially the oriental sort, Pelargonium, penstemons and petunias, Salvia (the tender species), tulips, verbenas and, most important of all, pansies and violas.

Rose breeding really began in the early nineteenth century, and soon there were hundreds of gorgeous new hybrids. Consequently, the garden devoted to roses (once called a ‘rosary’ or a ‘rosarium’) is almost a late Georgian invention, and one that is still immensely popular. Regency and Victorian rose beds could be of almost any shape, though a group of wedge-shaped beds making a circle was always popular. The roses were all of types that did not need pruning in the may that modern ones do, so the final effect was rather attractive. Some of the varieties with floppy stems were grown in circular beds edged with wirework, and had their stems pinned ot the ground so that they made a sort of bouquet of flowers.

There are innumerable roses from this period, many of them of the utmost loveliness. The ones we like best include: ‘Belle de Crecy’, ‘Madame Legras de St.Germain’, ‘Madame Plantier’, ‘Comte de Chambord’, ‘La Ville de Bruxelles’, ‘Madame Hardy’, ‘Fantin Latour’, ‘Tour de Malakoff’, ‘William Lobb’, ‘Boule de Neige’, ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’, ‘Madame Pierre Oger’, ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’ and so on; there are dozens of equally lovely things to choose from.

Vast numbers of attractive shrubs were introduced during the period, and soon became widely grown, including species of Abelia, Arundinaria and other lovely bamboos, Aucuba, azaleas (try the Ghent hybrids), Buddleia, camellias in all colours, though still in conservatories or camellia houses (try C. reticulata ‘Captain Rawes’), ceanothuses from the western states of America, Cotoneaster, escallonias, forsythias, fuchsias, hebes, all sorts of hydrangeas, jasmines (incuding the winter flowering sort), magnolias, olearias, Osmanthus, many hybrids of Philadelphus, Pieris, many luscious hybrid sorts of lilac, rhododendrons in abundance, Ribes, skimmias, spiraeas, viburnums.

Trees include many sorts of Abies, many maples, the famous Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria imbricata, Cedrus atlantica and C. deodara, the infamous Lawsons cypress, many sorts of juniper, spruces, larches, and various oriental species of Prunus.

Amongst the climbers, try Actinidia kolomitka, Akebia quinata, many sorts of clematis (and most especially the Jackman hybrids, as well as C. montana and C. tangutica), many sorts of ivy, Hydrangea petiolaris, Lonicera japonica, the prodigious Russian vine (Polygonum baldschuanicum), the lovely Vitis called ‘Brandt’, and most of the wisterias.

Garden Styles

So much happened to gardening in this century that it is difficult to condense. Gardens were seen again as explicitly contrived works of art, and heavily formal geometric layouts became the ruling passion for all classes of garden. By the mid-nineteenth century, the characteristic grand garden was a French or Italianate parterre, with fountains, flower beds, terraces, sculpture and evergreen planting. Small gardens just as heavily formal, crammed with with as many elements of grand gardens as they could hold. Bedding schemes, perhaps the dominant planting mode of the whole century, began around the late 1820’s, the beds shaped like crescents, stars, or the clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds of playing cards. The most popular of all, because it was thought to be the most pure geometric shape, was the circle. Some flower gardens consisted of tight junmbles of circular beds, though these cannot have looked especially inviting.

High-Victorian gardens resorted to dense planting, though in numerous variations. We cannot deal fully with them here, but the main types were: ribbon bedding, often used in long borders; plain bedding and carpet bedding. The first of these consisted of l ong stripes of colour, as in a ribbon, or fancy linear patterns (scrolls or the ancient Greek key-pattern were especially popular). The main area was kept low, with plants either being trimmed or pegged to the ground as they grew, while a background was made using roses on trelllis, or dahlias and hollyhocks. The parterre, or the more usual cut-out beds, were filled in the same manner, with stripes of colour surrounding a central ground (this ground itself was sometimes a mix of two or more contrasting species, surrounding a single ‘dot’ plant, perhaps a cordyline or a canna lily).

Plain bedding was rather earlier than the fancy sort, though remained popular in humbler gardens. It was quite often carried out with hardy annuals, sometimes a mix of two species to give a more interesting look.

Carpet bedding is a phrase now used for all sorts of bedding, but in the nineteenth century, it was only used for quite specialised schemes using foliage plants. All sorts of plants were used, from echeverias and sempervivums to fancy grasses and geraniums, but whatever went into it, the flowers were always suppressed. The colours of the leaves provided the very subtlest schemes, entirely comparable to the oriental carpets on which the designs were often based. Not only could owners pride themselves on their superior taste, but the design was weatherproof, whereas the often garish schemes carried out in verbenas and calceolarias could be wrecked for weeks by an untimely storm.

In the nineteenth century, the old ‘wilderness’ once again reappeared, this time as the shrubbery. This was used in a rather functional way, often to screen the kitchen quarters from the garden or, in smaller gardens, to act as the external boundary itself. We are still left with the remains of these shrubberies, and almost every gardeners will know what they look like. However, early and mid Victorian ones often looked completely unnatural; shrubs were widely spaced, and the whole bed often had a narrow outer band of brightly coloured bedding plants. The earth between the shrubs was carefuly dug over every few months. Late Victorian shrubberies looked somewhat more natural, with the earth veiled with ivy, periwinkles or lungworts.

A sea-change began to come over gardens in the last quarter of the century. Hardy herbaceous plants, rather neglected in gardens in the later eighteenth century, and disregarded for much of the nineteenth, began to come back into prominence. This was certainly due in part to a quite strong reaction against the bedding vogue, starting in the 1850’s and taken up with pasion by William Robinson. Bedding schemes, however, didn’t disappear quickly; in many gardens they co-existed with herbaceous borders, which themselves became grander and more accomplished as nurserymen and gardeners devoted their energies to the breeding and improvemnt of herbaceous flowers. By late in the century, in grand establishments, there were often gravel walks with borders on each side fifteen feet deep and several hundred feet long; examples of ostentation just as extreme as those of earlier bedding schemes.

New influences were al so felt in design, as a strongly historicist movement got under way. There were ‘Dutch’ gardens, with an emphasis on topiary, and ‘Queen Anne’ gardens complete with standard rose bushes and old fashioned flowers. Architects like Thomas Mawson designed enormous and expensively detailed formal gardens, with wonderful pergolas, pools, elaborately paved terraces, and clipped hedges.

The workof Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll combined the best of both architecture and planting. Though most of their schemes were for wealthy garden owners, many of the principles can be adapated for rather less glamorous circumstances. The layout should be formal, with small spaces centred perhaps on a tank of water, a sunken pool, or an attractive sundial. Paths need to be of carefullly laid brick, tile, or cut stone (or a judicious combination of all these). Changes in level need to be accomplished by terraces, perhaps with drystone walls to retain the soil, linked by generously scaled flights of steps. Both steps, pool edges and wall heads need to be decorated with terracotta pots, filled with pelargoniums, bridal wreath (Francoa sonchifolia), and white lilies or hostas. Planting must be carefully thought out in terms of foliage and colour. For the first time, gardens may have a colour theme; try ones predominantly in grey, white, lilac, gold and green.

12 Responses to Victorian Garden Plants 1: Flowers

  1. Andrew Sinden says:

    Hi David I am so glad to find information about old garden periods, I understand you have published a number of books(on my christmas list) and owned a nursery. I would love to share some ideas about a book of garden history and plants of course. I have been a gardener with a few show awards and a decent c.v. but am not working due to a slipped disc for nearly a year. I have been writing and studying and am really excited about some of the plants used as far back as the 1700’s as I have used wildflowers since the start of my gardening career. I know you must be very busy but would really appreciate any time to chat about further research and planting. Yours, Andrew

  2. Wonderful site. Lots of helpful information here. I’m sending it to some buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks for your sweat!

  3. Pingback: Grapevine: Red Beach, Hot Lips, Queen Matrona, Purple Hyacinth, Espalier, Poison Garden, Poisonous Fables, Victorian Flowers, Victorian Vegetables, Expensive Vegetable, Probiotic Soil « My Education of a Gardener

  4. renee says:

    Hi. I went to Strawberry Banke Museum recently & was given a ” Lizzy Ann Thus”. it came from a tall, woody? stalk. The white blossom looked like a simple rose, (no fragrance) the dark purple was less ruffled. I was told it is an annual. What is the flower and can I get some for my garden? Thank you

    • david stuart says:

      Hi there. The flower you have is a Lisianthus – a distant relatived of the gentians. Annual. Central Americas, probably just scrapes in as a Victorian flower, though I don’t know when it was first commercialised. Now hugely popular as a florists flower as they last for ages when cut. Seed is easily available – look for ‘Lisianthus’ or Eustoma, which is its correct Latin name. Various colours from white, through pink, to deep violet. Google to find a supplier. Easy to grow in mild to warm gardens.

  5. Samantha Reynolds says:

    Hello, we recently purchased a 100 year old Victorian house in Michigan. Right now the grounds are covered by 100 year old trees both pines and oak trees. I am trying to restore the house both inside and out. I would love some ideas for the grounds. Needless to say it is well shaded. Can you give me some ideas on what flowers/plants I could use to bring the grounds to its prior glory? I know it will take some time, the previous tenants removed all flowers and plants from around the house. When purchasing the home we purchased it with a respect for the years and the history behind the home. Thanks for any help you can give us.

    • david stuart says:

      hi there… well, it depends on what you need. If you go to, two books of mine might interest you. ‘The Garden Triumphant’, about all aspects of Victorian gardening, and ‘Old Fashioned Flowers’, which has a lot about the period you are interested in. There are also some relevant antiquarian books listed.
      However, if you need more specific advisory work, I am happy to discuss how that might work.

  6. Jim Inskip says:

    Dear David

    I am a collector of Ghent and old Knaphill Azaleas, as there were as many as 1000 Ghent Azaleas by 1900 and we have probably now have 160 there are lots more to find, I was just wondering if in your travels you have come accross any collections in private gardens or schools /hotels that we may not be aware of? We have spent 25years so we know most of the public gardens with collections.

  7. Mrs Sylvia Steed says:

    I have your Plants from the Past and as I write editorials on plants etc I am wondering whether you would permit me to use your picture on Page 80 – Dianthus William Brownhill – as I have not been able to find any dianthus of the 19th century that covers the 19thC Working Class and the start of horticultural clubs. Any work I have gleamed from authors have always been included in the bibliography of my editorials. Many thanks Mrs Steed

    • david stuart says:

      Glad you found the book useful. There is an e-version on kindle which I called ‘Old Fashioned Flowers’. I’m not sure whether that dianthus is included, but, handsome, it probably is. How much of a hurry are you in? I’m fairly frantically working for a one-man show of my botanical paintings, prints, that opens in May, or I would volunteer to find the transparency and scan it for you. If you are in a rush, then by all means copy it from the book.
      david stuart

  8. How lovely to stumble across you again! In my early gardening days, I would have camped out at Plants from the Past in Belhaven…Just mentioned a rose that I think I originally bought from you , ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ in my blog Best wishes!

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