Seed Catalogs

Burpee seed catalog

a season of catalogs

Joanna here, being topical.

My seed catalogs have arrived. This is the first sign of spring for me — not a sighting of the first robin — the sighting of the first seed catalogs. Now the truth of the matter is I don’t so much buy seeds and plant them. I live on stony, steep ground here and grow my plants in a few miserable little pots. But I dream with these catalogs. I meditate upon all the wondrous flowers and vegetables I’m growing in my mind rather than in reality.

Anyhow, this got me thinking about woman gardeners in 1800 or so. The eons’ old association of women and healing

Wenches ‘Catastrophe in the Conservatory’ by Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1816

our lady gardener is ANGRY

plants, edible garden herbs, and flowery borders made them natural gardeners. About at this time botany got an intellectual boots with the Linnaean system of plant classification. Thank heavens this was one ‘science’ considered suitable for genteel women. They began collecting plants and writing about them. We have pictures of these women carrying their watering cans — dressed in a way we’d consider problematic for gardening work — headed out to botanize.

I delight to imagine the glasshouses filled with interesting specimens and women tending and caring for them. Studying them. Learning how to grow the most troublesome of their charges. Describing the exotics. Writing, y’know, monographs and papers.

Not that it was easy for them to be taken seriously. I’m just going to mention here that the British Zoological Society and the British Entomological Society (—bugs, yipee —) admitted women in 1829 and 1833, respectively, the Linnaean Society didn't until 1904, which seems rather latish, doesn’t it?

The actual tilling of soil and sowing of seed, digging holes for the odd tree or bush, and pruning of ornamental shrubbery on an estate would fall to a band of hearty young men. The lady of the house would be in the enviable position of strolling through the aspen-studded woodland, past the ha-ha, and along the herbaceous border pointing out to Old Mr. Wenches fair florest Grim the Head Gardener where to put 250 yellow tulips. She wouldn’t so much do the work herself. It would be three or four generations past 1800 before kneeling down and weeding the bed of mangelwurzels would be considered a proper hobby for the well-to-do.

(Mangelwurzel, from German mangel ‘beet’ and wurzel ‘root’, moves into English along with the beets in about 1770. Now you know.) 

Now me, I like to get my hands in the soil and somewhat pity those distant forebearers who never had this pleasure. It's part of what I anticipate in the early days of spring. Like today.

What are you looking forward to with your plants this spring? Anything new and fun?

One lucky commenter will win a copy of one of my books — your choice    


Cb Here are Charlie and Billy with my recent books, but I'm going to be writing about somethng connected to my MIP. (A wonderfully all-encompassing term. Manuscript, masterpiece, monster-in-progress.) It illustrates the little problems that can trip us up on the way, but I'm also hoping that by some wild chance, someone reading this can help.

I enjoy gardening, and what's more, I'll soon have a garden to play with. We take possession of our ne house tomorrow. Yay! We won't move in until some work's been done, but the garden will need care, and it's only a 15 min. walk from our rental.

That's not relevant to the MIP except that when I'm writing, plants automatically fill in my vision of countryside and gardens, but they sometimes trip me up. Willow

For example, in An Unlikely Countess, Cate's brother collected exotic trees, a popular hobby in the 18th century. Among a few others, I tossed in a weeping willow, liking its connection to mourning. I think that's a weeping willow in the picture. It's gorgeous, anyway, and that's Buckingham Palace behind. (You can click on any picture to enlarge it.)

I thought I'd check how new the willow was at the time…. Whoops! It had only just begun to be imported, and specimens were regularly failing in the south of England, never mind the north!

I made lemonade out of lemons, however, and made it a dying weeping willow. How very metaphorical or something.

In the MIP, A Scandalous Countess, I wanted a plant that gives out a perfume in the evening, and the obvious choice was nicotiana, or flowering tobacco. If you've never grown it, give it a try, and if you have the space, go for the tall, leggy sort.  It's not pretty, but my goodness, the perfume in the evening is gorgeous.

Nicotiana That's what I had in mind, and from there I got a nice little word play between Georgia and Tom about tobacco, pleasures denied ladies, and other matters. But I asked myself, was flowering tobacco known at the time? And I can't find out. I found a gardener's dictionary from 1754 in Googlebooks that describes a number of nicotianas, some of them sounding like the one I mean, but no mention of perfume.

I was intrigued, even bemused, by this bit. "The two smaller Sorts of Tobacco are preserved in Botanic Gardens for Variety ; but are seldom propagated for Use. The first Sort is found growing upon Dunghills in divers Parts of England. These are both very hardy, and may be propagated by sowing their Seeds in March, upon a Bed of light Earth, where they will come up, and may be transplanted into any Part of the Garden.

The first of these Sorts is the most common in England, and is generally raised by the Gardeners near London, who supply the Markets with Pots of Plants to adorn Balconies and Shop windows in the City. This Sort, when raised early in the Spring, and planted in a rich Soil, will grow to the Height of ten or twelve Feet, provided the Plants are duly watered in dry Weather."

Ten or twelve feet! On balconies and in shop windows? I'm having trouble forming the picture, but I'd like one of those plants as a show-off specimen!

S1 cute Chiffchaff in orange tree, from Nerja flat Talking of showing off, here's another lovely bird photograph by my husband.

There are many articles about tobacco, but I've found nothing about the introduction of the ornamental sort, in my books or on line. My gut feel is that the leggy, perfumed kind did arrive early, but it'd be great to know. If anyone can come up with something definite, I'll acknowledge it in the book. Out next February.

Adding this, supplied by a reader on my yahoo chat list. "A native of Brazil, Flowering Tobacco was introduced into garden cultivation in England in 1829."

There's no source, so as it's not what I want to hear, I'm still looking. After all, a plant collector could have had some earlier, couldn't they?

If you haven't bought your copy of An Unlikely Countess yet, hurry, hurry, hurry! I'm delighted by the reviews. Readers seem to really be enjoying Cate and Prudence, and many have also picked up on the way it touches on the roles of women at all levels of society in the 18th century. I didn't plan that, but I thiAncountsmrnk it is interesting.

If you're having any trouble finding it, in print or e-form, I've put together a page of suggestions. What a complicated world we live in! 

All best wishes from sunny Devon,