Flowers Victorians loved, and which stood the test of time

By Lynette L. Walther | Apr 29, 2021
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther With flowers said to resemble a face, pansies have captivated gardeners and gardens since Victorian times.

When it came to their gardens, Victorians were anything but shy, retiring, stuffy or conservative. In fact, they were quite the opposite with colorful, flamboyant and outrageous as their guides to creating eccentric displays to go along with colorful and fantastical homes.

We have to remember that during Victorian times, the entire world was opening up to travelers, and in particular to plant explorers who combed the world for new and unusual plants. Those intrepid travelers brought back wild and outlandish specimens for gardeners to add to their own gardens. The plant hunters were answering a new call for new and exotic plants at a time when flower gardening was beginning to take off.

Before that era, to many a garden meant growing food to put on the table. As times changed and populations migrated from the farms to the cities and people began having more free time,

Many of those other-worldly discoveries became prestige symbols for status-conscious Victorians. Big blooming lilies, exotic colorful foliage and strange combinations went together in their showy gardens. No simple cottage gardens for those folks. No, sir.

It was a time when seed catalogs began to flourish offering unique selections for those Victorian flower gardens.

One of the first in this country was seed entrepreneur James Vick (1818-1882), seed company owner from Rochester, N.Y. He opened his business in the early 1860s. Vick’s customers wanted to plant flower gardens. His company became one of the largest in the country, according to the National Garden Bureau and author Thomas Mickey (NGB).

Vick found that he needed to travel to Europe to get more and different flower seeds. There was not enough of a quality seed variety available in America at that time.

His catalog, like that of his contemporaries in the business, offered seeds from the traditional English garden. They were flowers that were part of the English flower garden for decades, but also included exotics from Africa, Asia and South America. England sent plant hunters around the world in search of flowers that would grow in the English climate.

Many of them became part of the home flower garden. At that time Great Britain was the center, the world capital of gardening, especially flower gardening. So that influence was great here as well.

Victorian garden favorites still grown today:

• Dahlias from Mexico to Spain in the 16th century. Later, they appeared in the gardens of 18th century England. Today dahlias are indispensable flowers for the fall garden, and there are more than 57,000 varieties of this flower.

• Geraniums were some of the most popular Victorian flowers, and they are still popular today.

The many varieties of these tender perennials provided color in beds and containers.

Phlox, verbena and sweet pea were also essential Victorian flowers. Many varieties of the trailing sweet pea provided color on fences and trellises.

• Petunias came to England from Peru in 1831. By the mid-19th century, they were an important part of the American flower garden. Today petunias remain one of the top sellers for the garden industry.

• Begonias with their lush tropical look were favorites for shady areas in the garden. They remain a must as a beautiful flower that will bloom with little sun.

• Pansies were beloved, particularly because the flower was said to resemble a human face. Today we still plant pansies for color in both spring and fall.

• Morning Glories are another Victorian favorite, and even today the morning glory is a must for every garden. It is an easy to grow climber that will reappear every summer once you plant it.

• Coleus, though it has no flower to speak of, provides color to the garden with its stunning leaves. Because it came in many shades, it was a popular Victorian choice for carpet beds.

All of these selections are still among the top sellers at large retailers and local garden centers every spring. Which ones do you grow in your garden?

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are in Camden.

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