Kanary-yellow ‘Bismarck-Levkojen’, large-flowered ‘Kaiser-Levkojen’ in brilliant pink or carmine. Velvet brown gold lacquer, scarlet gloxinias. American giant carnations and more than 80 varieties of sweet peas. The gardens must have been colorful and full of fragrances a hundred years ago. Asters and dahlias were trendy, but so were the new astilbe varieties from Georg Arends, ‘Amethyst’ or ‘Diamant’. In the vegetable patches, pea peas “with enormous load-bearing capacity” stood next to ‘Erntebringer’ runner beans, cucumbers had imposing names such as ‘Triumph von Würzburg’.
When rummaging through historical nursery and seed catalogs, images arise in the head. But colors, shapes and names also reveal what was important at the time. Beginnings can be traced, for example that of the still coveted delphinium ‘Berghimmel’: in 1930 gardener and perennial grower Karl Foerster advertised it as a “novelty of own breeding”.
Such documents provide a wealth of information and can now be easily read at home without visiting a library or nursery. The European Nursery Catalog Collection contains around 1500 catalogs, digital copies from the years 1805 to 1992. The majority come from Germany, but also from France, Great Britain and other European countries. The Potsdam garden historian Clemens Alexander Wimmer initiated this project for the German Horticultural Library. Started about four years ago, it includes countless hours of voluntary work and financial support from the Deutsche Klassenlotterie Berlin. The catalogs have to be tracked down and digitized individually, a tedious undertaking.
In the late 19th century, the natural “wild garden” was popular
Wimmer values cultivated plants as evidence of history, as cultural heritage. “They are artifacts. They are specifically selected by people, they are the way you wanted them to be at the time. They essentially belong to a person and a time. “
He is particularly interested in ornamental plants such as dahlias. Their shape reflects the spirit of an era. “Ball dahlias are perfect, symmetrical and round,” says the horticultural scientist. “They are products of Biedermeier and classicism. They wanted to have the ideal, regular bloom. One finds that consistently, whether in carnations, phlox, pansies. ”But then in the late 19th century a counter-movement emerged. Everything should look more natural, people spoke of the “wild garden”. The right time for cactus dahlias, which set a counterpoint to ball dahlias with their romantic, looser shape. If they had previously been considered “too messy”, they are now a sign of cultural development.
The same can be seen in the case of colors. “There were periods in which bright, pure colors were preferred, including in modern times,” says Wimmer. “In the twenties and thirties there was a shift away from pastel tones and fine nuances. Whole areas were planted in bright red and yellow in one color. ”Of course, this required other flower colors – yolk yellow pansies and fiery red salvias.
Some things also slumbered in special collections until the time came. “The copper beech has been known since the 17th century. But nobody was interested, because you couldn’t need such a color of foliage. But the founding period was the great time of the copper beech, many, many decades after the first find. ”In the second half of the 19th century there was a preference for colorful foliage and contrasts. Variety ‘Mrs Pollock’ with tri-colored foliage. “A typical plant from the second half of the 19th century!”
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