It is easier to define and distinguish the crops and crafts of ornamental horticulture from the rest of horticulture than to separate the historical antecedents of ornamental horticulture from those of pomology, forestry, and vegetable production. Several factors account for the difficulty of assigning specific dates to the horticultural time line for ornamentals. Foremost among these factors is the changing way people have used and regarded many of the plants of horticulture over time. Today’s flowering specimen trees were commonly more prized for their fruit in centuries past. Even their importance as food suffered inconsistencies. For example, peaches were once as important for hog feed as for peach brandy. Today, certain cultivated varieties of peaches may be used for the landscape value of their flowers, with their fruit regarded as little more than a maintenance nuisance. Olive trees have undergone a similar change of purpose in landscape use.
The development of ornamental horticulture has accompanied the evolution of a worldwide system of agriculture, but it has not paralleled that development. Agriculture reaches back to primitive cultures and to the cultivation of edible plants that began when the reliable availability of wild game waned.
The biblical Garden of Eden is not possible to date, but its influence in ornamental horticulture has been great. Several Western cultures have set the Garden of Eden as an ideal standard to strive toward in the development of their gardens. Eastern cultures have similar romanticized ideals of the garden as a spiritual paradise, and those ideals have frequently influenced the design of their earthly landscapes.
Aside from the religion-based garden influences, there are documented records of gardens as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians over 5,000 years ago. Irrigation made arid lands productive, and the selective production of preferred plants began. Although food provision was undoubtedly the major purpose of these ancient gardens, the Egyptians were among the earliest civilizations to cultivate plants for their aesthetic values. Their interest in plants as sources of spices, fragrant oils, and fibers eventually progressed to the development of
formal gardens around the homes of the affluent. For centuries the Egyptians refined their techniques of horticulture production. Their pictorial and written documentation of the plants important to them throughout their thirty-five centuries of cultural dominance comprise a great legacy that will keep scientists and historians busy for years.
As human society evolved and advances were made in agricultural technology, those civilizations that were attentive to the stewardship of their land tended to last longer than those such as ancient Greece, which flourished brilliantly but briefly on the calendar of Mankind. After the Egyptians, it was not until the era of the ancient Romans, about 2,500 years ago, that ornamental horticulture was again recognized as having value in the lives of people. The Romans were the photocopy society of history, borrowing extensively from the agricultural and horticultural knowledge of Egypt and Greece. However, to their credit, they refined and improved the techniques, and proved themselves to be much better stewards of their land than the Greeks whose culture they supplanted. It was the Romans who introduced grafting and budding as common propagative techniques.
Ancient Rome exemplified what many would regard as a regrettable accompaniment to the appreciation and advancement of ornamental horticulture. As a result of its total cultural dominance of the known world, its unchallenged military might, its enslavement of weaker societies, and its supreme self-assurance, Rome’s wealthy citizens were free to practice civility at the highest levels. They built gracious villas at the center of large farms. Directly adjoining the villas were large gardens that extended the spaciousness of the indoors to the outside. Those villa gardens were usually walled to permit greater control of the growing environment and the development of the owners’ fantasies. Formal patterns, water features, sculpture, flower plantings, pruned shrubbery, and carefully planned paving patterns created outdoor rooms whose primary purposes were visual enjoyment and leisure time pleasure.
Had Rome not fallen, it is interesting to wonder how the history of ornamental horticulture would be written today; but decline and fall it did. With the demise of Rome, Western civilization plunged into the Dark Ages. Surviving only fragmentally in the small protected gardens of monasteries scattered across Europe, ornamental horticulture did not return to favor until the Renaissance, which began in Italy in the sixteenth century.
The gardens of the Italians of that century were joyous rediscoveries of their rich Roman ancestry whose ruins were literally strewn at their feet. Once again confident of their power to exercise control over their environment, Italians of the sixteenth century built large formal gardens that were as remarkable for their engineering as for their aesthetics. The technology of the time allowed the Italians to transform their steep hillsides into broad terraces for pleasurable human activity. Lavish water displays resulted from the redirection of rivers and streams into and out of the gardens. With the sculpture of heathen Rome still abundant, former marbleized deities assumed new roles as novel ornaments in the gardens of Christian Italy.
In the seventeenth century, France continued the tradition of lavish formal garden development on a scale even larger and grander than that of the Italians. As the lead player on the stage of Western civilization, France, during the reigns of the Louises, affirmed again that gardens
and ornamental horticulture paralleled the growth of military prowess, power, and wealth more than the improvement of agricultural technology. While many less fortunate citizens of France were barely subsisting, the great formal garden master Andre LeNotre was creating living works of art at Versailles and other sites throughout France. His apprentices spread throughout Europe, attempting to bring the gardens of very other country into compliance with the formal, Baroque tradition of France. While the French gardens were seemingly simple—symmetrical balance, walk intersections marked by a fountain or piece of sculpture, plants sheared into sculptural shapes (topiary), and a design most intricate and complex near the building, becoming less intense as it advanced toward the surrounding countryside—few were able to match the genius of LeNotre. Also, not every garden site could duplicate the vast flatness of France where the gardens could cover hundreds of square miles and create the desired impression of limitless luxury and extravagance.
England, in the eighteenth century, brazenly rejected the belief that landscapes must be formalized and display the heavy hand of man in order to qualify as a garden. With a court life less formal than that of the French, and a more free-willed aristocracy, England was receptive to the influences of men like William Kent, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and Humphrey Repton who believed formality to be anti-Nature. The English Naturalism style gained such popularity throughout the British Isles that centuries-old formal gardens were swept away, to be replaced with grassy landscapes whose groupings of trees, carefully shaped lakes, serpentine streams, distant views of grazing sheep, fabricated grottoes, and manufactured ruins atop distant hillsides fit their designers’ ideas of how a romantic Eden-like paradise landscape should appear. Nowhere was a straight, formal line, sheared plant, or splashing fountain to be seen. Yet these naturalistic gardens were just as contrived as their formal Continental predecessors. Observing these gardens today, many wonder what was so special about them. They are so park-like and so evocative of a drive through the open countryside, it is easy to forget that at the time of their development, they were as extraordinary as was the horseless carriage at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The other great contribution of the English in the history of ornamental horticulture was their role as plant collectors. Their fondness for plants is almost genetic. As they moved back and forth across the civilized and not-so-civilized world, English explorers took and/or collected plants with them. In addition, they wrote about the plants they collected and even preserved pressed samples of them, much to the benefit of later botanists and taxonomists. They established great botanic gardens for the propagation, study, and public display of their plant bounty collected from the far reaches of the empire. Also, though the English did not invent greenhouses, the orangeries of the aristocracy planted the benefits of indoor plant production into our historic consciousness.
Concurrent with the evolution of ornamental horticulture in Europe, but separated both geographically and attitudinally, were the gardens of Asia. First the Chinese, then the Koreans, and later the Japanese used plants within and surrounding their homes in ways that most Westerners can never fully comprehend. Closely tied to their Buddhist and Shinto faiths, oriental Asians perceived themselves as being a part of the natural world, not separate from and dominant over it. In their cities,
crowded even centuries ago as they are today, gardens were small by comparison to Europe’s. The gardens were walled, and within their confines, the Orientals developed gardens that ranged from lush and green (the Buddhist paradise gardens) to stark and minimal (the Zen gardens). Plants were pruned and trained to represent their larger counterparts outside the walls. In more abstract uses, plants represented mountains, clouds, islands, and other nonplant elements of the natural world. The intent was to represent the larger, not-so-perfect, natural world in scaled-down, perfect form. Shinto gardeners frequently believed that certain unusual plants possessed spirits, or the souls of departed friends or relatives, or important persons. As such, those plants were regarded with special reverence. Unlike the formal gardens of Europe, which were intended as a grand stage for the display and glorification of the human players with plants subjugated to a minor role, the gardens of the Orient were designed to feature plants and other elements of the natural world in a way that provoked an intellectual thoughtfulness by the visitors. In many cases, a walk through an oriental garden was a psychodrama intended to remind even the most aristocratic Asians of their natural place in the world.
If any one thing stands out as a landmark along the historic progression of ornamental horticulture, it is the discovery of the New World. The Americans were a rich repository of plants, already being cultivated for both food and ornamental purposes by Indian cultures long before the invasion by European explorers began. Once underway, the exploration and settlement of the New World promoted large-scale transplantation of foreign plant species and plant products between Europe and the Americas.
As the various nations of Europe sought to stake their territorial claims in the New world, numerous colonies were established in the lands that years later would become the United States. The seventeenth century saw the Spanish, the Dutch, and the English heavily committed to the colonization of the coastal areas of North America. While indigo, tobacco, timber, rice, and other economic crops were of far greater importance to the settlers, they still found room in their lives to value and grow ornamentals. The New England Puritans established cottage gardens to produce flowering plants that scented their houses, spiced their cooking, and decorated their celebrations. The Dutch discovered and sent back to Holland the bulbs that would later establish their international preeminence as bulb purveyors to the world.
For much of the next century, even as the early colonists were replaced by sons and daughters who sought and eventually seized their independence from their European homelands, American gardens and uses of ornamental plants were copies of Old World ideas. Twenty-first century tourists visiting historic Williamsburg, Virginia, see eighteenth – century formal gardens everywhere. Savannah, Georgia, is a picturesque city built to a European ideal of public squares at the center of residential clusters.
The great estates of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello were profoundly influential in America’s perception of ornamental horticulture, due largely to the godlike esteem that both men enjoyed from their contemporary countrymen and the admiring millions who have followed. Both estates were a combination of farm and English naturalistic garden. Spectacularly sited, Mount
Vernon and Monticello represented their owners’ responsible stewardship of their lands and their willingness to try new agricultural techniques. While neither estate made lavish uses of flowers, their shade tree plantings and expansive lawn areas were reminiscent of the designs of Kent and Brown in England.
As the post-Revolution nation grew stronger economically, the favorable climate and tobacco/ cotton economy of the Southeast fostered a lifestyle and garden culture that were aristocratic and formalized. Bowling greens, Elizabethan flower gardens, and serpentine walks lined with graceful shade trees typified the gardens of early America in the South. it is tempting to seek similarities between the self-confident, slave labor-centered, plantation lifestyle of the pre-Civil War southern United States and that of the Ancient Romans, wherein both societies found time to cultivate their appreciation of ornamental plants under similar circumstances.
As the nation pressed its boundaries westward through the visionary efforts of Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and others, the vegetation of the prairies and the fertile soil of the American Midwest were added to the American treasure chest of resources. Far away, at the western edge of the continent, Spanish settlers were building missions throughout the land that would become California. Mission plantings were generally typified by orchard groves, vineyards, kitchen gardens, and small flower plantings. As the Spanish Mexican influence took root in southwestern North America, it laid the foundation for a garden design legacy that reaches back to the fourteenth century, yet is still viable today. The Moorish gardens that were prevalent in southern Spain in that early time, were typically walled and paved, and closely related to the buildings they adjoined. They often used water features for their psychological cooling effect, and the term Spanish Patio came to define a distinctive type of outdoor area development. Six centuries later, that garden style is still popular, particularly around the adobe and mission-like architecture of California, New Mexico, and Arizona.
The history of ornamental horticulture in America is as difficult to chart on a time line as is its history worldwide. Perceptions of the role of plants change over time. Exploration and discovery of new species continue. Nevertheless, certain individuals, places, and events are worthy of note, even at the risk, of omitting others of comparable merit.
• Dutch settlers brought bowling greens to America. These set the precedent for our village greens, city parks, and athletic fields.
• Botanic gardens, featuring all types of horticultural plants, were first established in Colonial America in the 18th century and facilitated the exchange of plant species between the country and the city and between the Old World and the New. One of the earliest and most famous botanic gardens was that of John Bertram of Pennsylvania, established in 1728.
• Greenhouses were also being built in America, originally as orangeries for citrus fruits prior to the Revolution. In appearance and construction materials used, they were far cruder and darker structures than those of today.
• Nurseries, although not unknown elsewhere in the country, were most important in western New York around Rochester. Both fruit trees and ornamentals were grown and shipped to all parts of the nation and the world. For at least half of the 19th century, Rochester reigned as the center of nursery production in America.
• Commercial seed houses and the mail order seed businesses began in the mid-1800s, further diversifying the regional floras of America.
• Jacob Bigelow, a Boston physician and botanist, took responsibility for the development of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts about 1817. It was done in the naturalistic style of eighteenth-century England and set a new national standard for burial grounds. So widespread was the enthusiasm for naturalistic cemeteries and their inclusion of a wide variety of trees and shrubs that the best ones became comparable to botanic gardens. These cemetery grounds also whetted the American appetite for more numerous and more naturalistic city parks.
• Frederick Law Olmstead, regarded as the Father of Landscape Architecture in America, drew on the designs of the English naturalists to win the competition for the design of New York City’s Central Park, the first great city park in America. He and his partner, Calvert Vaux, built city parks throughout the eastern United States and firmly established the democratic concept of public landscaping for all citizens, not just the wealthy and powerful.
• Late in the 19th century, the lawnmower was technically improved to the point that lawns could be kept trimmed in a manner similar to today. Prior to that, scythes and/or grazing animals were the means of controlling turf height.
• Pierre du Pont, of the Pennsylvania du Ponts, established what is arguably America’s premier horticultural display garden over a forty-five year period, beginning in 1906. Now open to the public in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens is an Americanized eclectic interpretation of sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance, seventeenth-century French Baroque, and eighteenth – century English Naturalism.
• The publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in 1962 moved agriculture in general and ornamental horticulture in particular in a direction that never concerned the early growers and garden builders. Silent Spring was the first significant alarm sounded to warn of the dangers of overusing chemical pesticides. Miss Carson’s reputation as a marine biologist and writer served her well in garnering support for her cause and helping her to weather the storm of criticism leveled against her by the chemical companies. Awareness of the long-term dangers of pesticides was heightened
at both the individual and the governmental levels of society and over the next several decades, many changes were enacted to rein in their unrestricted use. Today, thanks to Rachel Carson and many other environmental advocates, the control of insect, disease, and weed pests is increasingly in the hands of trained professionals who use chemicals knowledgeably and with restraint. Biological controls and integrated pest management are the new means of controlling pests. Most of the highly toxic and long-lasting materials of the past are now out of production. What few remain are only available to
certified trained professionals who know how to use them safely and with minimal impact on the environment.
• Public acceptance of the environmental ethic that threads through modern horticulture has also encouraged industry practitioners to seek new and safer ways of bringing their products and services to the marketplace. Naturalized plantings have found acceptance where high maintenance plantings would have been in the past. Golf courses are beginning to manage their non-play areas as wildlife habitat regions within their properties. Reduction of irrigated areas and careful monitoring of fertilizer applications to assure that it stays on site are common practices on many courses now. Consumers are being educated to accept greenhouse and nursery products with superficial flaws when those flaws have nothing to do with the quality or use of the plant or product.
Ornamental horticulture in the United States is not as much a state of being as it is a state of becoming. As America’s ethnic heritage expands from a majority of Euro-Americans to include more Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other immigrant groups, it is predictable that the uses and appreciation of ornamental plants will continue to evolve. That is probably as it should be. One can only wonder how this Foreword will be written when the fifth edition is published.