If you’re as flower-mad as we are, you can thank the visionary Victorian-era floriculturists who gave us so many of the stunning varieties we know and love today…
Have you ever wondered about the origins of your flowers? How did they get so ridiculously lovely? Well, ‘modern’ cut flowers – the dramatic, room-filling explosions of colour and scent that we love to display on our homes – might not exist were it not for a handful of brilliant men and women who dedicated their lives to floriculture: the art of cultivating flowers and ornamental plants.
Geniuses of the 19th and early 20th centuries such as Victor Lemoine and Marie Henrieta Chotek played crucial roles in developing everything from roses to orchids to daffodils. Here’s a brief history of floriculture…
The concept of cultivating ornamental flowers and plants dates back to ancient times, perhaps to 600BC and the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But really, what every floriculturist needs is a good greenhouse to keep the climatic conditions just right.
The earliest known forerunner to the greenhouse system was built in AD30 for the Roman emperor Tiberius, who apparently enjoyed a daily fix of Armenian cucumbers. According to the author Pliny the Elder, the cucumbers were put outside during the day, and tucked in at night in specially designed frames or houses glazed with sheets of silicate.
Glasshouses and Tulipomania
By the thirteenth century, gardeners had worked out that glass was the perfect material for greenhouses. The Vatican boasted glasshouses known as ‘giardini botanici’, or ‘botanical gardens’, which were designed to house plants brought back from the tropics.
As time went on, the greenhouse became increasingly sophisticated, with the introduction of ‘ondol’, or temperature control, being recorded in Korea in the 1400s, using a form of underfloor heating powered by a fire or stove.
Orangery in Holland – engraving by Jan Commelin (1676)
The 17th century saw the further development of the greenhouse across Europe, including the birth of the orangerie in France, designed specifically with the aim of protecting orange trees.
Holland, meanwhile, was finding itself in the grip of so-called ‘tulipomania’, when the price of tulips reached an all-time high, with some flower-mad members of the middle and upper classes literally paying a fortune for a single tulip bulb. Nowadays Holland is still famous as the home of the tulip, and houses some of the most expansive greenhouses on the planet.
The Victorian Floriculture Boom
But it was back in England, during the Victorian era, that the practice of floriculture really took off, with experts creating an extensive new range of varieties which still influence the cut flowers we enjoy today.
During this period, the British began to build bigger and increasingly elaborate structures, using glass and iron to create such marvels as the impressive Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, now a world heritage site and still a global pioneer in botanical research to this day.
Floriculture began as a pastime of the aristocracy – a kind of haughty-culture, if you like – but over time, with the growth of the science of botany, it became increasingly popular and accessible to ordinary people, and to dedicated professionals.
The Great Floriculturists
The Victorian era introduced some key players to the world of floriculture, who created and propagated many beautiful new cultivars, in a perfect marriage of art and science.
One of the most important flower breeders of the age was Victor Lemoine (1823-1911), who was particularly celebrated for his success with lilacs. The greatest of a long family line of horticulturalists, he was responsible for the introduction of over 200 different types of lilac, and thanks to him the term French lilac has come to mean all cultivars of the common lilac that have double flowers.
Common lilac Syringa vulgaris – ‘Madame Lemoine’
The Frenchman was internationally famous, and became the first foreigner to receive the coveted Victorian Medal of Horticulture from the Royal Horticultural Society. He also developed many other varieties of flower, including geraniums and fuschias, as well as cannas, delphinium, deutzia, gladiolus, heuchera, hydrangea and peonies.
Marie, Countess of Roses
Meanwhile, the magnificently-named Henrieta Hermína Rudolfína Ferdinanda Marie Antonie Anna Chotková of Chotkov and Vojnín (also known as Marie Henrieta Chotek – presumably to save time) was endowed with the rather lovely title of the Countess of Roses.
Born in 1863, Marie was an aristocrat who was passionate about growing roses and created a world-famous rosarium, or rose garden, in the grounds of her Dolná Krupá estate in the Danubian Hills (in what is now Slovakia), where she was responsible for creating a huge number of new rose cultivars.
Marie was another internationally-renowned figure during this golden age of floriculture, even achieving a diploma of appreciation from the Pope. However, during World War I the Countess gave up gardening and went to work as a hospital nurse, taking care of wounded soldiers. When she returned to her estate, at the end of the war, her rosarium was completely destroyed and, despite her best efforts, it never quite returned to its former glory
The rose cultivar ‘Marie Henriette Gräfin Chotek’ created by Peter Lambert
Agnes Joaquim – the flower of Singapore
The Singaporean floriculturist Ashkhen Hovakimian (1854-1899), also known as Agnes Joaquim, was of Armenian descent and showed a particular penchant for breeding orchids. Agnes famously bred the world’s first cultivated orchid hybrid, known as Vanda Miss Joaquim.
Her creation won the prize for the rarest orchid in 1899, and went on to become the national flower of Singapore.
The ‘Vanda Miss Joaquim’ orchid
Sir Harry Veitch
Originally of Scottish descent, Sir Harry James Veitch (1840–1924) was an English horticulturist who played a key role in the creation of the Chelsea Flower Show.
Indeed, so great was his contribution that he was the first horticulturist to receive a knighthood, in 1912 (as well as winning the Order of the Crown from King of Belgium, the French Legion of Honour, the Isidore Saint-Hilaire Medal, the US George R. White Gold Medal … and last, but certainly not least, the Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society.)
The Queen and Princess Mary at the 1920 Chelsea Flower Show
In the 20th century US floriculture really took off, and went big bucks in typically American style. Alice Vonk found fame for creating the ‘whitest marigold’, as part of a 21-year-long quest by the company Burpee Seeds.The challenge was launched in 1954 in a bid to find the purest white flower, and Alice successfully beat off the 8,200-strong competition in 1975, winning $10,000 and in the process creating the ‘costliest flower ever’.
Alice Vonk and David Burpee with the snowbird marigold – Photo credit
Another notable name was William Pannill (1927-2014) who successfully registered over 200 new varieties of daffodil, and also set up the American Daffodil Society’s Pannill Award, which he then went on to win for himself no fewer than three times!
These days, growers all over the world continue to create ever more fascinating and stunning flower varieties.
But they’re all directly influenced by the relatively small number of great floriculturists, the Victorian visionaries who helped create so many of the cut flowers we love to display in our homes today.