End of a Year, Decade, Century, and Millennium

By Clement Kent


Why write another "odometer" article (wherein we celebrate the rolling over of all those ‘9’s on the dashboard to ‘0’s)? Because I won’t have another chance for a thousand years, that’s why! So, please bear with me for a thousand seconds or so while I pontificate on horticulture over the last millennium...I promise I’ll be brief!

What are some of the most significant events in gardening in the last year, decade, century, or thousand years? What can we look forward to in the next decade or century? Only a fool would pretend to know, which is why the Editors have asked me to write this article.

A thousand years ago horticulture and agriculture in European countries were quite primitive. Ornamental horticulture was extremely limited, and what expertise there was dwelt in monkish gardens and focussed on herbs. However, in Arab, Asian, and Aztec lands horticulture was sophisticated in both technique and esthetics.

Aztecs (or really, pre-Aztecan peoples if we must be accurate) and other South and Central American peoples earned our undying gratitude for domesticating corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, marigolds, zinnias, tobacco, and most important of all (to your unbiased author), chocolate. Great floating gardens were created on lakes in Mexico. Sophisticated use was made of tropical herbs and mushrooms for spiritual experience and healing. Unfortunately, these achievements are little known to modern readers due in part to the active suppression and destruction of native cultures. In spite of this colonial vandalism the diets of people in tropical regions around the world are now dependent on corn, as are the diets of Russians, Swedes, Irish and Canadians on the potato. The world’s cuisine would be unrecognizable now without the tomato and hot peppers.

The great Islamic renaissance had started well before 1000 A.D. and had taken the well established styles of enclosed gardens of the Persians and Egyptians to new heights. From such models of horticultural and architectural beauty as the Alhambra and other gardens of Moorish Spain in the west, and the Mughal palaces such as the Taj Mahal in the east, Europeans gradually came to know about a wealth of plant and design knowledge which we owe to the Islamic cultures. We associate roses with France and tulips with Holland, but these plants had already been brought to peaks of perfection in the gardens of the Sultan of Turkey and elsewhere.

While the American peoples domesticated western hemisphere plants and the Arabs and others built a new harmony between gardens and their enclosing walls, the Chinese and later the Japanese had already become profoundly advanced in horticultural esthetics and plant breeding. If you visit museums of Chinese painting or ceramic art, you will find gorgeous, highly bred carnations, chrysanthemums, lilies, cherries, and bamboos. A synthesis of the many arts came together in gardens, where poetry, plantsmanship, landscape architecture, painting, drawing, and spiritual disciplines all met. In many ways, much of the esthetic development of European derived horticulture has been rediscovery of things the Chinese had already learned, and forgotten, many times.

And yet, if we turn the telescope of time from 999 A.D. to 1899, it is indubitable that modern European cultures have had a huge impact on horticulture. Although the 18th century was very important, the 19th was supremely so for the European contribution to gardening. Most of the changes had to do with new skills and technologies in other areas. Advances in ocean navigation, metal working, and the harnessing of water and steam power all allowed the colonial powers to range the entire world. Individual collectors, botanists, and horticulturalists had a field day as the floras of first the Americas and then Asia were opened up to view. Governments invested in such great enterprises as Kew Gardens as a matter of colonial policy, as a way of finding and disseminating the best plant materials for plantations in the new colonies and raw materials exports to the industries of the mother countries. And, with a wealth of new species and the growing awareness of more scientific methods (Mendel was breeding garden peas in 1866!) the creation of new cultivars, varieties, and new hybrid forms exploded.

By 1899, the 18th and 19th century had given us Linnaeus, Darwin, Mendel in the sciences. Microscopy had begun to give botanists a deep understanding of plant anatomy and growth. Cheaper glass and cast irons and steels, plus the widespread use of coal, led to year-round greenhouse growing of tender, tropical species. Solariums, previously only possible for the nobility (such as the Orangerie at Versailles) were by 1899 a common feature of the best upper middle class homes. And perhaps most important of all, the number of leisured people had grown immensely.

No matter how much we romanticise the cottage garden, to a poor tenant family every scrap of ground was precious for food crops. Only medicinal herbs could be spared a bit of space. But once people are able to live even a little bit above the subsistence level, they will begin to grow flowers, topiary, and even trees for simple enjoyment. By the end of the 19th century the trend of urbanization had begun to remove many people’s easy access to the wild flowers of the countryside, and city slums were scenes of almost unparalleled grimness. A few precious pots of pinks on a windowsill might be all the garden a town laborer could afford - but oh! what pinks they grew!

A home gardener in 1899 had amazing access to the newest and best plants. Postal systems had reached, with the development of railways and paved roads, a peak of efficiency and reliability from which they have since sadly declined. British gardeners exchanged quite tender plants by post all the time, and catalog orders from the great nurseries could be relied upon to be in the buyer’s hands within a day or two of shipment. As a result an explosion of both amateur and commercial plant breeding began.

We have only to look in a recent Pickering Nurseries catalog to see how many roses of the 1890’s are still in commerce. The first Hybrid Tea roses were already almost 2 decades old; "Lady Mary Fitzwilliam" (1882, England), described as "vigorous, fragrant, with a large globular flower" was typical of the advances of 19th century hybridization. Hybrid Perpetuals such as Frü Karl Druschki (1901) or Paul’s Early Blush (1893) were popular in gardens. Rambler roses were all the rage: Psyche (1899, pink, large trusses of smaller blooms), Albéric Barbier (1900, white), and René André (1901, apricot blush) graced the most fashionable turn of the century gardens. There seems to have been a fad, too, for the Eglanteria roses, with their scented foliage, attractive hips, and elegant flowers - there are 8 varieties introduced in 1894 and 1895 in the Pickering catalogue. Some of our favorite Rugosa roses date from this time, such as Hansa (1905), Agnes (1900, Canada), and Roseraie de l’Hay (1900, France). The wonderful Moss roses, however, had already passed their peak of fashion by 1899, with only a few introductions in the 1890’s and exactly one ("Venus", 1904, Germany) from the 20th century in Pickering’s pages.

We owe more than we sometimes remember to the 19th century for our lilacs, magnolias, water lilies, sweet peas, rhododendrons, and many, many other plants. For instance, in the 19th century fragrance was still valued; in the 100 years now ending it was, sadly, often ignored in the race for bigger and brighter blooms. But what have we, our parents and grandparents contributed? What are the horticultural achievements of the 20th century?

On the scientific and technical side we shall be remembered as the century when the chemical factory came to the garden. Whether one likes it or not, more than 99% of modern horticulture is dependent on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, growth inhibitors, rooting compounds, and the like. For professional growers, as for farmers, these have been a trend whose advantages could not be ignored. Modern growers’ greenhouses are run by computer, with scientific sequencing of sprays, temperatures, shots of fertilizer or hydroponics, artificial manipulation of day length, etc.

We shall also be remembered as being at the very beginning of genetically engineered plants. Our herbicide resistant soybeans and our toxin-secreting corns may, or may not, be remembered as positive contributions, but remembered they will be. Accompanying this we will be remembered as the decade which attempted to patent the genome, patent plant varieties, and which introduced seed varieties which it is illegal for the home grower or farmer to save and replant! May we be forgiven...

On the positive side our recent years will be remembered for many things, only a few of which we can now be sure of. David Austin’s roses, modern Heuchera varieties, our thousands of Hostas, our Hemerocallises and our Hellebores will surely make the Horticultural History books.

Looking forward, what impends for 21st century horticulture? Technical advances in tissue culture and cloning will eventually put even very rare, hard to multiply plants into the hands of ordinary gardeners. As the baby boom generation ages and discovers gardening more and more, great quantities of money (and comparable quantities of hype and hysteria) will be thrown at gardening. Genetic engineering will allow more and more unusual hybrids to be created and brought to market in record short times.

Each trend generates a counter-trend, though not necessarily at the same time. As technology advances, I predict organic gardeners, native species gardeners, heritage variety hoarders, and the great clan of those who grow only from seeds collected in the Alps/Himalayas/Carpathians, will all multiply, both in numbers and vociferousness. I await, not exactly with bated breath, the first berserker shootings (in the USA, of course) of gardeners by gardeners. We will see several scenarios, no doubt: the wanton slaughter by the organic gardener of the neighbor who sprayed his genetically-resistant-to-everything roses and lawn with 10 times the normal dosage, accidentally destroying the irate organophile’s entire planting; and the maniacal machine-gunning by a 21st century lawn lover of the slovenly "wild garden" neighbor whose dandelion, Queen Anne’s Lace, goldenrod, chicory, clover, and crabgrass constantly assault the pristine greens on either side.

Against this futuristic background of shooting, shouting, and loud mechanical clanking, what does the future hold for the quiet enjoyment of our backyard plots? The challenges will be great. Global warming will be fitful but gradually accelerating. Hot dry summers will be more common than before, and population growth will result in ever higher prices for the water that comes from the hose. Xeriscaping, mulching, drip watering will all be "in". More and more of us will turn to partly or wholly enclosed solariums, sun porches, and window greenhouses as our backs and wallets slowly give out.

As the new century ages, new modes of gardening will arise. Already we have horticulturalists who do not grow anything: they arrange boughten flowers, they dry and tint, they tie silk petals, they make cunning arrangements of raked rocks and graded gravels. As the sensory richness of virtual realities increase, I think it inevitable that virtual gardens will become more and more important to a growing number of "gardeners". At first, the delights of these on-line plots will be visual only. However, engineers are diligently working on the sense of touch (albeit for the Nintendo and Doom crowd, not for gardeners) and I anticipate being able to "walk" through a virtual garden and "feel" the delicate textures of computer mosses and lamb’s ears when I am in my 70’s. Not far behind, if I make it to my eighties, will be scent simulation. I don’t expect to live long enough to experience simulated tastes, but four senses is quite enough to provide a rewarding garden experience. Since virtual gardens remove many limitations of lighting, water, acreage, and weeding, and can be shared with many rather than the few whom you can accommodate in your home, I expect them to become the "in" thing before the 21st century is half over.

And there you have it - my thoughts for 999 to 2049. Now, get out the champagne and go toast a winter cyclamen, paperwhite, or Cymbidium, while there’s still time. See you in the next millennium!



Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t