Colin Mills, compiler of the Hortus Camdenensis, died in late November 2012 after a short illness. As he always considered the Hortus his legacy, it is his family's intention to keep the site running in perpetuity. It will not, however, be updated in the near future.

Florists’ flowers

It seems likely that as long as plants have been deliberately grown for the sustenance and comfort of man the beauty of many flowers has been admired and appreciated.  Even the most pragmatic of European monastery herbalists perhaps found space for a particularly attractive flower in the herb bed and saved seeds from a violet or other simple plant with an unusually shaped, strikingly large or beautifully coloured flower. 

Flowers have been grown for their intrinsic beauty rather than utility for well over two thousand years in China and almost as long in the great gardens of Asia and the middle east.  Europe lagged somewhat behind but pleasure gardens, the preserve of the rich and noble, had certainly made their appearance in England by the reign of Elizabeth I and ‘by the time of publication of John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole, Paridisus terrestris in 1629, gardening had become a major recreation with the English upper classes, and men created gardens for pleasure and beauty’.  [Scott-James p.17].  Floristry, the cultivation and breeding of flowers for the sake of their individual beauty, only began in any substantial way in Europe about the time of Parkinson. 

A totally different kind of gardening appealed to some artisans and labourers from as early as the 17th century, the intensive cultivation of flowers to achieve perfection of bloom.  Such plants were called florists’ flowers.  At first, the florists devoted themselves to a wide range of plants, improving them by meticulous selection, but in the 18th century the number considered worthy of the florist’s attention was drastically reduced.

As gardeners acquired skill in breeding stupendous flowers and marvellous new varieties of course they wanted them to be seen, and florists’ clubs were founded and flower shows held for the exhibition of choice plants and for the exchange of seeds and slips, knowledge and gardeners’ gossip.  The early florists’ clubs, like modern horticultural societies, were authoritarian in their management – exhibition rules were strict and flowers had to meet exact and demanding specifications.  For more than 200 years, through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, flowers were improved and re-improved, first by selection, later by hybridisation as well, until the catalogue of varieties was enormous.  For example, by 1770 there were over 1,000 named ranunculuses and more than 500 double hyacinths.  Most of them are lost today.  [Scott-James p.80].

Because a large garden was not required and many individual plants could be cultivated in a small area in pots, floristry was an activity that the artisan and labourer could undertake and many embraced it with enthusiasm.  The gardeners employed by the owners of the great pleasure gardens were very much involved from the beginning, often growing and exhibiting as individuals rather than as the surrogate of their masters.  In England this changed with the formation of Horticultural Societies all over the country, the greatest of which was the London Horticultural Society, founded in 1804 and now the Royal Horticultural Society.  These Societies established rules, often coordinated the activities of the small specialised clubs and published the results of their shows and competitions as well as organising their own.  There was considerable distinction in being known as the raiser of a particularly desirable cultivar, and in being the employer of a competent and successful plant breeder.  For many this was also translated into profit, the commercial nurseries paying handsomely for the right to distribute such plants and a few growers becoming successful nurserymen themselves.

In Australia there were fewer opportunities for a plant enthusiast such as William Macarthur to show off the latest importation or the fruits of his own breeding efforts.  Flower shows under the aegis of the Australian Floral and Horticultural Society began in Sydney in 1839, both spring and autumn shows held in most years.  Macarthur was involved from the beginning but he did not hold this organization in very high esteem, writing to John Bailey of Adelaide in December 1846: ‘I do not think there are any printed regulations for the Sydney Horticultural Society.  It is an exceedingly ill managed institution, almost altogether in the hands of persons who are unfitted from their habits and want of education for the conduct of such a society.’  [REF].

Many column inches of the 19th century horticultural press were filled with arguments as to which plants may properly be called florists’ flowers and articles on the attributes of the perfect flower.  This anonymous piece from the Floricultural Cabinet is particularly good review.

‘What is a Florist’s Flower?

The great difference between wild flowers and cultivated ones consists in the latter being so much changed, or as we term it “improved”, by culture as to be greatly altered in appearance from their original representative; but, let me observe, all plants are not thus capable of being so altered, though generally every individual of the same species varies slightly in some respects from its brethren.  Among trees, for instance, some have an erect manner of growth, while others, of precisely the same kind, will assume a drooping habit; and among herbaceous plants the colours of the flowers will often materially differ, and some even show a disposition to become double.  The more variable a plant is in a state of nature, the more readily will it become changed by the different modes of cultivation practised on it, though many plants scarcely differ under any circumstances; and, as a general rule, fewer annuals become changed than perennials, and fewer ligneous plants than herbaceous.  The early floriculturalists considered changed herbaceous plants only as florists’ flowers; but florists of the present day admit not only suffruticose plants, as Pelargoniums and some Calceolarias, but also shrubs, as Roses and Camellias.  Flowers, to constitute florists’ flowers, must become subservient to certain laws, the chief of which is form.  The outline of every florists’ flower should be circular, or as nearly so as possible, as may be readily perceived by drawing the outline of the most esteemed Tulips, Carnations, Pansies, etc.  A change of the form of the flower however, is not generally the first departure from nature in a plant, but is rather the result of culture or accident; a departure from the usual colour of the flower, or normal habit of the plant, is, however, by no means unusual; and the former constitutes, in conjunction with form, the chief merits of florists’ flowers.  Let us examine, for example, the flower of the wild Carnation.  In a state of nature, we shall commonly find it varying from flesh colour, rarely white, to dark crimson, and the outline, instead of being circular, angular; but, by cultivation, the flower becomes much increased in size; the stamens are metamorphosed into petals, rendering it what is called double; by which means, and by the enlargement of the original or guard petals, the angles are filled up, and the outline rendered circular; the ground colour also changes to pure white, striped with crimson, scarlet pink, or purple, in which case it is called a Carnation; or with a white or yellow ground, dotted and edged with red, purple or scarlet, it is termed a Picotee.  The flower, however, is not the only part that undergoes a change, the whole plant has also departed from the original type; it has become much more vigorous, with leaves broader and blunter than in the species.  The great distinction, however, between native species and accidental varieties is the incapability of the latter of perpetuating themselves; for, should they produce seed, the greater portion of the plants raised therefrom will be in a transition stage of the original stock.

Besides changes in form and colour, florists’ flowers undergo transmutations of various organs; for instance, in order to render Carnations and Pinks double a multiplication of petals takes place, and the stamens are expanded and become petaloid; the Rose is rendered double by a multiplication of petals; and the Anemone by a regular series of transformations of all the organs, from the sepals to the pistillum.

Many florists’ flowers have been very much improved by cross-impregnation, of late years, not only between varieties of the same species, but also between two distinct kinds.  Had not the wild Violet [here is meant Viola tricolor rather than V. odorata] been crossed with V. altaica and others, our gardens would never have been decorated with large round Pansies of every imaginable hue and combination of colours.  Cross-impregnation, in addition to altering the properties of the flower, occasions a considerable change in the habits of plants; thus the large fine flowers that are produced on tall diffusive-growing plants may, by careful hybridisation, be produced on dwarf thick-set plants; and bright-coloured flowers, without a dark spot to relieve them, may have the spot given them by carefully crossing them with some allied spotted kinds.  Now that the theory of hybridisation is so well understood, a vast untrodden plain lies open to the florist, which, in the course of a few years, will doubtless be productive of many unexpected novelties; new races will be springing up every day, and the already numerous varieties of plants increased tenfold.  As proof of this we have only to look at the number of new Roses and Calceolarias that are brought into notice every season.  A few years back we could scarcely have credited the changes that have been affected, and reviewing the past we are led to look forward to a wondrous future of florists’ flowers.’  An Old Florist.  [FC p.316/1856].

Why the floristry movement began is a matter for conjecture but Sacheverell Sitwell offers some intriguing suggestions.

‘During the reign of Queen Elizabeth many new flowers were introduced into our gardens.  By 1580 or 1590 at latest, the Tulip had arrived from Turkey, with intermediate stopping places in Germany and the Netherlands upon the way.  At about the same time the Auricula came from Flanders.  And, by 1600, we may say that the florist’s cult had been established.  The possibilities of these garden flowers were at once apparent.  It was only a matter of a few years before regular nurseries were in being.  So many qualities in the florist’s flowers made their appeal to the curious, if even precious, minds of the English Renaissance.  For the reign of James I, even more than that of Queen Elizabeth, represents the flowering of the Elizabethan Age.  The Spanish menace had been removed, there were no serous enemies, and the world of ability could give itself freely to metaphysical adventures.  This age, with its humanistic learning, was apt to look upon flowers as not less a part of the dominion of man than the beasts of the field, or the bricks and mortar of a human dwelling.  All such things were given to mankind for his use or pleasure.  They responded to his care and rewarded him with their plenty.

The variety of Pinks, Tulips, or Auriculas were, to them, a gallery of conceits or curios.  These things could not be unless they were intended by Providence.  And the successful working of this strategy of colours called for every skill on the party of the executant.  The lazy or incompetent received no prize.  It is easy to read, in the early garden books, that those who excelled in this art were regarded as virtuosos, in the old sense of that hard-tried word.  Their flowers were objects of virtue, the proofs of cleverness and husbandry, more valued still for their rarity.  As soon as this was acknowledged it would be the unlikely and unusual that won most applause.  The fascination of flowers that were striped or feathered, that had an artificial rather than a natural effect, becomes evident.  But ‘artificial’ means a thing made or fashioned by art, and it is in this precisely that the florist’s flowers consisted.’  [OFF p.2].

When the floristry movement began a very wide range of plants were grown by enthusiasts, anything that was relatively easy to grow and proved amenable to improvement by meticulous breeding and selection.  But florists’ flowers accepted as such by the new Florists’ Clubs and Societies at the end of the 18th century were few, only anemone, auricula, carnation, hyacinth, pink, polyanthus, ranunculus and tulip being allowed.  The explosion of plant introductions to Europe that began in the mid 18th century provided immense opportunities for florists and it was not long before calceolarias, chrysanthemums, dahlias, geraniums, pansies, verbenas and a host of other plants attracted large and enthusiastic followings.

Improvement of flowers by selection and hybridisation was also embraced enthusiastically By William Macarthur and his garden staff, Camellias, Cape bulbs, Passifloras and fruit trees being but some of the plants thus improved.  But perhaps the most lasting legacy of these endeavours is Erythrina x bidwillii, particularly Blake’s Coral Tree, a magnificent shrub still grown around the world today.