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Joseph Breck and His Flowers: Time Changes, Gardening Doesn’t



Surely Breck enjoyed the fan-play of hyacinth foliage…


They don’t write books like they used to.

  “Let us learn another lesson from the lily of the field. How small a portion of its exquisite beauty is within the reach of our vision. Look with a true heart and a loving spirit, study its wondrous mechanism, its faultless form, seek for the secret of its ‘tender grace,’ and when you have read all that eye can see, and have felt all that heart can receive, remember that you know but in part, that you see the beauty of this flower only through a glass darkly. It has a wealth of beauty that to you is entirely imperceptible.” 


…and the first violets poking through snow and leaves 

 That’s from Breck’s New Book of Flowers, written in 1866, when Joseph Breck was 70.  Not only does he take some pages to discuss the spiritual value of flowers, he takes even more to describe how every child will benefit from growing flowers, and how, for a person in declining years, gardening is the perfect exercise.

He goes on to paint a portrait of his dead mother:  how she grew, gathered, and had flowers around the house. “With tender emotions do I remember the old white rose-bush, trained up to the top of the house by the hand of a dear mother, the abundant and fragrant flowers of which gave delight to all the household as well as to the neighbors, who received them as expresions of neighborly friendship and good-will.” (If you’d like to read the full text, you can find it at google books.


As the founder of one of our most famous U.S. bulb catalogues, Breck must have enjoyed the unfurling of a tulip bud as much as I (although the bud, and the tulip, would have been smaller than this one)



While no one would write in such a florid style now, many gardening books and articles include childhood garden inspirations, and descriptions of the generous spirit plants often seem to nurture in gardeners. (I can’t help wondering what that fragrant white rose would have been, though. Perhaps a white damask of some type? Or maybe it was an alba, which would be appropriate.)


 What interests me is that, these days, the memoir and the paeon to the joys of plants would probably not be in a book of practical instruction. Or at least it wouldn’t take the first few chapters, and be interlarded with the practical instruction that followed. I’m not sure this means we’ve gone forward in the world of garden writing; I think it’s more a case of pressing forward in the world of book marketing.


The incredibly fragrant ‘Painted Lady’ sweet pea was known in England in the late 1700s, so Breck would have been familiar with it 


  And, speaking of marketing, by the time Breck was writing, he was living in the same breathless pace of plant fashion we know today. “Time makes great changes in all the pursuits of life, and in none more than it has in Floriculture in the last 15 years..” he says, giving the reason why he’s writing the new edition, and not even bothering to amend his old flower book. Which is to say a lot of new plants had come into style, and a lot of old ones had been relegated to the back of the catalogue, or been cut out of it entirely. 

“There is a fashion among amateurs of the floral kingdom…thus, when  new flower of fancied merit is introduced, it becomes all the rage, for the time being,” Breck writes knowingly. 


Species nicotiana were popular Victorian flowers. The species names were different, though. The Nicotiana longiflora in Breck’s book is probably N. sylvestris. The flower above is N. alata. 


Ignorance is another gardening trait which hasn’t changed over the years. In the section where he discusses seed vitality, Breck tells a story about a Maine farmer who sent him a potato which, he insisted, had grown on the roots of a Gilly-Flower (carnation, or pink; it’s a corruption of “July-flower”). Breck feels called upon to tell this story because, despite all Breck’s careful explanations, the farmer was firmly convinced that a potato could be bred with a Gilly-flower, and he wouldn’t budge from his story.  (Of course these days that farmer could breed a potato with a fish, if he were talented at genetics.)

  Are there still people out there who believe a potato could grow from carnation roots? Well, judging by the ads for Giant Tomato Trees and Giant Bluberries, which I’ve been seeing for the last 20 years, credulity still seems to be a part of horticultural life.

  And judging by location-establishing shots that have roses blooming all year round in Washington, D.C.  (a popular TV show which shall remain nameless), we are probably no better educated than Breck’s farmer audiences. Possibly less: most of us don’t have the daily experience of nature and its vagaries firshand. 

  Really, gardener’s concerns don’t seem to have changed much since 1866. Neither have our human concerns. After pointing out that Floriculture demanded he do the rewrite, Joseph Breck noted, “…the book in question had become antiquated like the author, and needed revision, which I hope he does not, extensively.”   


The double ‘Chestnut Flower’ hyacinth is really past Breck’s time: it came out in 1880,  fourteen years after his revised book 

{ 8 comments… add one }

  • lostlandscape (James) November 23, 2010, 10:36 pm

    I love your sampling of quotes. They really do call to mind one of the headier periods in horticulture. I enjoy seeing how the language has change but the plant lists have not.

  • catmint November 26, 2010, 11:09 am

    Hi Pomona, such a stimulating post. I think there is a genre of garden writing that combines the practical with the personal, and that is good literature as well as instructive. Like Breck, that sort of writing won’t really date. When I look back into garden writing or garden history there is so much that is the same and so much that is different. We are still human but the context has changed so much, especially our technological capacities. For good and / or evil.

    It’s good to be back visiting each other’s blogs. You will be pleased to know the smoke bushes are happy and healthy and send their best wishes.

    cheers, catmint

  • Pomona Belvedere November 27, 2010, 1:30 pm

    James, when I read garden lit from that era I can just feel the excitement: “heady” is not too strong a word.

    Catmint, happy to hear about the smoke bushes! and I agree that the timeless garden lit combines the practical with the personal.

  • Patty November 27, 2010, 2:17 pm

    Breck’s words sound to me like someone speaking of someone else they love. His experience, his fascination and perhaps adoration for the flower shines through.

  • Pomona Belvedere November 28, 2010, 10:10 pm

    I think you’re right. Maybe people in that age were less shy about showing their feelings?

  • Daffodil Planter November 30, 2010, 8:54 am

    Thank you for the charming look back. The personal voice still makes really compelling garden writing. And today is a red-letter day: I now know what Gilly flower means!

  • Steve December 26, 2010, 5:33 pm

    The opening quote is wonderful. I identify with Beck and, therefore you, somewhat. His florid style seems very much from the heart and I suggest your work and mine come from similar origins. I know you a little, lol.

  • Orlando Garden Design November 13, 2012, 3:55 pm

    I also love the opening quote. When we connect with other living things the world opens up.

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