GARDEN FLOWERS – plants for pleasure

From the earliest times man has appreciated the beauty of flowers. Their attraction arises from their marvellous symmetry and variety of form, their range and intensity of colour and their pleasing perfume too. Their transient nature—springing suddenly to perfection, then fading—enhances their charm, as expressed by the Scottish poet Robert Burns: But pleasures are like poppies spread— You seize the flower, its bloom is shed.

Historical background

Originally all flowers were plucked from wild plants or shrubs, but at surprisingly early periods, in various lands, people began to cultivate flowering plants within the protection of their gardens. The first gardens were fenced or walled enclosures devoted to plants that met other needs—fruits, roots and vegetables to eat, spices for flavouring food and medicinal herbs to cure ailments. Gradually the purely decorative plants claimed a small space, which tended to spread until, today, for millions of town and suburban dwellers, a garden means a flower garden and nothing more.

Flowers are perishable, and so their early history under cultivation is only known from sculpture, pottery, paintings or literature. The frequent appearance of flowers as art forms in carvings on ancient Egyptian and Assyrian temples proves that their cultivation was under-stood as early as 3000 BC, even though this meant reserving precious irrigated land from the production of essential food. Until recent times flower growing has always been associated with a wealthy ruling class or religious foundation which alone could afford to set aside and tend land for pleasure rather than economic production. Hence the links between attractive flowers and palace, monastery and temple gardens, assuring their care and propagation down the centuries.

The history of garden flowers reflects the story of mankind. In the western world the Greeks and then the Romans, inherited both the plants and the methods of tending them, that had been developed in Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. These skills were passed on to the monks who tended flowers in their cloisters through the Dark Ages. On the other side of the world, Chinese and Japanese gardeners were developing their own peculiar yet charming gardening patterns and traditions, based on plants native to eastern Asia. In Central and South America the American Indians, equally isolated from both these movements, were cultivating coloured varieties of dahlias as well as the maize and potatoes they needed for sustenance.

The great age of exploration, from AD 1450 to 1800, changed all this. Navigators who dis-covered new lands brought back seeds, bulbs and living plants to enrich their homelands. Though many introductions failed, others throve exceedingly. Garden flowers today are an astonishingly cosmopolitan collection, many found in every country, regardless of its climate. Leading flowering plants include chrysanthe-mums from Japan; pelargoniums and gladioli from South Africa; dahlias from South America; hyacinths from Asia Minor; and roses originating from European, Asian or North American wild stocks. Interbreeding between related species on remote continents has added both variety and vigour, and trade in new kinds is truly international.

All garden flowers originate in the wilds and, given sufficient care, any wild plant can be grown in a garden or greenhouse. But in practice only a small selection of wild flowers feature in everyday gardening. These have been chosen, by trial and error, as good material for both the nurserymen who raise them and the gardeners who plant and enjoy them. Though some keen gardeners tend their flowers through all stages of their life history, most prefer to buy seeds, bulbs or well-rooted plants from pro-fessional horticulturists. The specialist looks after all the difficult stages and copes with their problems, while the ordinary gardener enjoys the final, relatively easy stages of care and admires the result. Many popular flowers are only half-hardy. In this case the nurseryman cares for them during the winter season when frost can kill tubers or other breeding stocks and the outdoor gardener takes them over for the warm frost-free summer when they blossom.

An acceptable garden plant, as well as being attractive, must be easy to raise in bulk and should survive either seedling or transplanting stages easily. It must remain vigorous under varied conditions of soil and climate and be free from pests and diseases. The same basic plant should be available in a wide range of shapes, sizes and colours, for everyone enjoys variety. Most of the flowering plants grown in gardens today are the outcome of ruthless selection aided by planned breeding to obtain new strains for still more exacting choice.

Woody perennials

An important group of garden flowers grows as shrubs or woody plants with perennial stems surviving for many years. Roses and rhodo-dendrons predominate in lands with temperate climates, but cannot stand tropic heat. In warmer countries hibiscus is grown instead. Woody-stemmed plants have one great advantage— they can be increased by grafting choice varieties on to common stocks. Once a desirable new kind has been discovered or artificially bred, it can be quickly increased and distributed to every suitable part of the world. Such a variety, increased by vegetative means, is called a clone or cultivar.

This is well illustrated by the handsome strains of double roses known as Bourbons. Late in the eighteenth century French farmers on the Indian Ocean island of Bourbon (now called Reunion) developed the pleasing practice of protecting their fields with hedges of spiny roses. No rose was native to the island, so they imported a Chinese rose, Rosa sinensis (now known as ‘Parsons pink perpetual’), from its far eastern homeland. This was carried in by European trading ships on their homeward voyages. About the same time Arab traders brought from the Persian Gulf another choice strain, Rosa damascena bifera, nowadays called ‘Pink autumn damask’ or ‘Four seasons rose’. It originally came from Crete in the Mediterranean, where it was grown for its fragrance and habit of blooming twice each year. In 1817 a cultivator named Perichon showed to the visiting French botanist Breon a beautiful and vigorous seedling rose that had originated through chance hybridization between these two species. It had all the desirable virtues of fragrance, good double form and a long blooming season. This rose, ‘Edouard’, was sent to Paris in 1819, propagated at Neuilly by the nurseryman Jacques and quickly became available to rose-growers everywhere. Other choice varieties, such as the widely-grown ‘Madame Bosanquet’, followed.

The artificial breeding of roses, from wild European, Asiatic and American foundation stocks, has now become a major activity of rose-growers. Only one seedling in a thousand is likely to prove an improvement on the well-established existing kinds. New strains can now, in many countries, be patented, so that a lucky raiser reaps a well-merited cash reward.

Herbaceous perennials

Herbaceous perennials are soft-stemmed plants with tough rootstocks that endure for many years. They can be increased by seed, which introduces a chance of variability, or by dividing their roots to gain an exact replica of the parent plant. In this latter way, a named variety can be quickly increased and spread. Alternatively, this clone or cultivar can be increased by taking cuttings from young stems and rooting them in a suitable compost, under the right conditions of heat and moisture. Many herbaceous perennials are simply selections from wild populations, usually exotic kinds introduced from distant lands. Others have been improved and given wide ranges of fresh form and colour through planned breeding.

Conspicuous examples are the beautiful delphiniums that have been diversified into many patterns of dark and pale blue, mauve and white, with double or single flowers on either tall or short stems. This has been achieved by crosses between various wild species native to the Northern Hemisphere. Columbines or aquilegias have likewise been transformed into numerous variations of shape, some with remarkably long spurs to their blossoms, over an even wider range of colours.

Most of the perennial asters, also called star-worts or Michaelmas daisies, originate from wild American species, such as the New England aster, Aster novaeangliae. Breeders have produced many tall or short and single or double variations on the original ‘multiple daisy’ pattern, in every shade of blue, mauve or purple, plus white. More kaleidoscopic ranges, through every colour of the rainbow, are found among the florists’ chrysanthemums, which all originate from one single-flowered species, Chrysanthemum indicum, native to China and Japan. The marvellous range of dahlias are likewise all variants of a single wild species, aptly named Dahlia variabilis, native to Mexico and Central America.

The word ‘iris’ comes from a classical name for the rainbow, and is highly appropriate for garden plants of the Iris genus. Many European and Asiatic rhizome-rooted kinds, once known as ‘flags’ have been interbred to give tall or short cultivars that often display two colours in every bloom. Recently breeders have achieved equally attractive results with smaller species native to California.

Bulbs and corms

Many of the showiest garden flowers, including tulips, hyacinths, lilies, gladioli and daffodils or narcissi, spring from bulbs or corms that yield, or can be persuaded to develop, offshoots. They are only raised from seed when a breeder seeks to create a new variety. Once this is achieved, nurserymen propagate it by dividing bulbs or corms indefinitely. They tend the small bulbils for a few years, and stop them seeding by re-moving flowers, so that they devote all their food reserves to growing steadily larger. The growers sell the resultant ‘top-size’ bulbs to gardeners who let them flower for one exceptional first-year display, then relegate them to some minor garden bed.

Some common bulb plants hybridize readily, others not at all. All the many named sorts of hyacinth, with blue, red, purple, pink, white or yellow blossoms are simply ‘sports’ or chance mutations from a single species, Hyacinthus orientalis, introduced from the Lebanon to Holland in 1560. It produces bulbils readily if the base of the bulb is cut, but not otherwise, and it refuses to cross with any related kind.

In other large groups of decorative bulbs, certain species interbreed with some, though not all, of their near relatives. Breeders have manipulated these ‘good-combiners’ in endless ways to develop new cultivars, some exceptionally lovely, others quaint and others ugly! These highly variable plants include the tulips of the genus Tnlipa, derived from several wild species native to Europe and Asia, which have been propagated by Dutch breeders’ for 400 years. Daffodils and narcissi of the genus Narcissus have been developed in their almost infinite variety, from European, Asiatic and American wild stocks. All the marvellous named kinds of gladioli, in an even wider range of colours, originate from wild species of the genus Gladiolus, native to southern Africa.

Annuals and biennials

Annual plants flower only in the same year as their seed is sown, biennial plants flower in the following year. Both die after ripening abundant seed. Hence they are easy to propagate as individuals, but difficult to perpetuate as im-proved races. Nurserymen overcome this problem in two ways—selfing and straining.

The common sweet pea is a flower whose varieties, when once established, are kept going by selfing. They all originate as variations from a common ancestral species, Lathyrus odoratus, introduced from Sicily to London in 1699. This will not interbreed with related plants, but flowers of any variety of it accept the pollen from others of the same kind. By growing plots of one sort, remote from other sweet peas, growers ensure that most, if not all, their seedling offspring will prove ‘true to name’.

Straining is used for other annuals, such as pot marigold, Calendula officinalis, native to the Mediterranean region. Gardeners do not seek the ideal perfection of a selected named variety, but simply aim to grow large double orange or yellow flowers, produced over a long season. Seedsmen select the best individuals as foundation stocks for the beds that they tend to yield commercial seed, and cull out any inferior plants during each growing season. In this way an improved strain is gradually perfected.

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