Cover image for Flora : an illustrated history of the garden flower
Flora : an illustrated history of the garden flower
Elliott, Brent.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Buffalo, N.Y. : Firefly Books, [2001]

Physical Description:
335 pages : color illustrations ; 33 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QK98.15 .E44 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area-Oversize

On Order



With stunning illustrations from the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library collection and concise text by Royal Horticultural Society archivist Dr. Brent Elliott, Flora tell the fascinating story of the worldwide botanical exploration undertaken over the past 500 years.

Founded in 1804, the RHS led the way in sending collectors around the world in search of new floral species, fostering the domestic cultivation of the garden flowers we know and love today. In the process the RHS has built an unrivaled collection of stunning artworks and rare books covering five centuries of plant history. The Society's Lindley Library is one of the world's finest horticulture archives, containing more than 250,000 paintings, illustrations and rare books.

The illustrations in Flora , many by the great names in botanical art, are notable not only for their historical value in charting the development of garden flowers, but also for their indisputable beauty and artistic merit. Flora is divided into six geographical sections: Europe; Middle East; Southern & Tropical Africa; Australasia & The Pacific; The Americas; and Asia. Biographies of the botanists and artists are also included.

The history of botanical illustration is long and broad. Today, the art is undergoing a renaissance: botanical illustrations are found on everything from greeting cards to wallpaper to expensive original artworks. This spectacular collection of Royal Horticultural Society illustrations will capture the attention of gardeners and art lovers alike.

Author Notes

Dr. Brent Elliott is archivist of the Royal Horticultural Society. He is author of Victorian Gardens , The Country House Garden and Treasures of the Royal Horticultural Society .

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

At first glance, this gorgeous volume appears to be an art book, but the nature of its art, hundreds of superior botanical illustrations reaching back several centuries and chronicling nearly 500 years of plant exploration and horticultural experimentation, defines it as a work of science history. Elliott, librarian and archivist at the Royal Horticultural Society, focuses not on plant hunters but on the plants themselves, summarizing stories of a botanical diaspora that changed the flora of Europe and the style and mission of gardens. The "first great wave of plant introductions" arrived in Western Europe from Turkey in the mid-sixteenth century, bringing hyacinths and tulips. The Americas were also a fertile source for flowering plants such as sunflowers and zinnias, and floras from Africa (crinums), Asia (irises and chrysanthemums), and Australia (banksias) were embraced with equal fervor. Each precise yet expressive illustration is accompanied by a capsule history of the plant's introduction, reception, and use, and the reader is left in awe of nature's endless variations on the themes of beauty, adaptation, and procreation. Donna Seaman

Library Journal Review

Librarian and archivist of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), Elliott (Victorian Gardens) presents spectacular examples of five centuries of botanical illustration taken from drawings and printed works in the RHS's collection. These are organized into five chapters corresponding to the five great sources of garden plants: Europe, the Turkish Empire, Africa, the Americas, and Asia and Australasia. Elliott introduces each chapter with a description of how the influx of new flowers from each area was incorporated into gardens and gardening design in Britain. His brief text for each of the beautiful, oversize illustrations focuses on the plants themselves; how and when they were first discovered, described, and named; how they were used; and how their popularity waxed and waned. This book makes no attempt to be a history of botanical illustration; indeed, the one flaw is that the sources of the illustrations are relegated to a list at the back of the book. The book concludes with a useful essay on plant names through history and short biographies of the illustrators. Recommended for all larger gardening collections. Daniel Starr, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Elliott (Royal Horticultural Society, UK) offers a beautifully illustrated historical record of the introduction of plants into cultivation for ornamental gardens of Western Europe. Five chapters represent the five regions of the world, which served as the source of introduced plants. For each plant there is a short historical discussion recording its recognition in the literature, and a picture, usually in color, copied from the early publications in the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library. The regional chapters are followed by a discussion of the history and development of botanical names, from the descriptive phrase to the binomial form. One chapter presents a series of selected biographies of early English botanists, gardeners, and nurserymen. There is an index to the illustrations, which gives information on the source of the picture. This book will be valuable to anyone interested in beautiful plant pictures and cultivated plant history. All levels. C. T. Mason Jr. emeritus, University of Arizona



Preface and Introduction Preface by Sir Simon Hornby President of The Royal Horticultural Society The passion for plant hunting, while never reaching the scale of the Gold Rush in California, has engendered manic characteristics among botanists over centuries. There have been distinct breeds of botanical adventurers: true botanists spurred on by scholarship, the thrill of the chase and breathtaking delight in the beauty of their discoveries; collectors, particularly the orchid hunters, driven by rivalry and the desire to claim a new species before anyone else; and commercial exploiters whose motive was greed -- to make money by introducing new plants to an enthusiastic and increasing band of amateur gardeners all over Europe. Books have already been written about the plant hunters -- for much the time operating in very tough and difficult conditions -- yet this story is about the plants they brought to Europe. It is a story not only of plant discovery but also of the changing fashions in gardening that drove the demand for new introductions. From the early nineteenth-century onwards, the successful breeding of hybrids in large quantities by commercial growers added still further to the increasing number of new plants. Over the years, too, many plants have been lost in cultivation as the drive to gain commercial advantage from new introductions has intensified. Today, a study of RHS Plant Finder shows how out of hand this drive has become with some genera, but it is symptomatic of an obsession that has existed for hundreds of years. The art of botanical drawing has a tradition of minute accuracy combined with freshness, portraying the beauty of nature in color and form of its plants. New introductions have been recorded with superb skill and artistry over the centuries, creating a signification historical record. That tradition continues today, as all over the world artists of outstanding ability record the introductions of plant breeders as well as species. In Flora , Brent Elliott uses illustrations from collections in the RHS Lindley Library to trace the introduction of plants over four and a half centuries. The combination of outstanding illustrations and fascinating text has produced a book of beauty and considerable horticultural significance. Introduction Until the 1560s, most plants grown in European gardens were native to Europe and the Mediterranean region. Reliance on western European natives did not mean, however, that the gardeners of the sixteenth century were starved of variety. Elizabethan enthusiasts collected double-flowered forms, interesting deformities, and multiple-colour varieties: double forms of cheiranthus and calendula; different colours of acanthus, aconites, achilleas (only now returning to a wide range of colours); striped aquilegias; lilies of the valley with red and pink flowers; carnations and primroses that exhibited hose-in-hose or other unusual patterns of flowering. Shakespeare commented on the fondness for variegation in The Winter's Tale , when Perdita calls striped gillyvors (gilliflowers) 'nature's bastards' because they are raised in cultivation rather than true to wild forms, and refuses to plant them in her garden. Polixenes reasons with her that the gardener simply follows nature's own methods in vegetatively propagating interesting variants: ... this is an art Which does mend nature, change it rather, but The art itself is nature. Per: So it is. Pol: Then make your garden rich in gillyvors, And do not call them bastards. Per: I'll not put The dibble in earth to set one slip of them. The first great wave of plant introductions to reach western Europe came from the Turkish empire. From the 1560s onward, crocuses, leucojums, erythroniums, ornithogalums, cyclamens, hyacinths, lilies, fritillaries, ranunculus, and above all tulips, flowed into Europe. This influx of new flowers prompted the first organized programs for selecting and marketing flower varieties. The interest in oddities and colour variations, already evident with European plants like primulas and carnations, was reinforced by tulips, which produced new colour patterns with great ease (as a result of viral infection). Tulips were not the only flowers to excite the passions of plant enthusiasts. Hyacinths, too, became extraordinarily popular. Not all these flowers were strictly speaking for garden use: the enthusiasts for new varieties -- 'florists', as they were then called -- were dedicated more to the show bench than to the flower garden. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, societies sprang up -- first in England, and later on the continent -- for the specific purpose of competing in the production and display of new varieties. There came to be eight accepted categories of 'florists' flowers', which had their attendant societies of competitive growers: tulips, hyacinths, auriculas, polyanthus, carnations, pinks, anemones, and ranunculus. These continued to exercise the talents of gardeners well into the beginning of the nineteenth century. Some American plants, among them the sunflower, had already arrived in Europe before 1600, but the real flood of ornamental plants from the New World began in the 1620s and continued for almost a century, bringing tradescantias, evening primroses, American strawberries, Virginia creeper, trilliums, rudbeckias, spiraeas, and Michaelmas daisies. Gradually the North American introductions changed in emphasis, and trees and shrubs became the primary focus. But for the flower garden the major source of new plants was the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope, and Leiden and Amsterdam became the center of introduction to Europe. Most of these plants moved straight into the new greenhouses that the wealthy were building. Here crassulas, mesembryanthemums, stapelias, and other Cape succulents were grown, along with proteas, pelargoniums, and Cape heaths, and the range of large-flowered amaryllis and crinums. Others, nerines, kniphofias, and zantedeschias, proved hardy outdoors. Many of the popular introductions of the eighteenth century were confined to the glasshouse, and flowers grown outside fell from fashion. This was the heyday of the English landscape garden, when a pastoral scene of rolling lawnand water replaced flower beds as the means of organizing the precincts of a country house. Tree introductions were compatible with the landscape garden, but flowers were to a great extent irrelevant, and flower gardens were kept away from the principal views. This fashion spread throughout Europe from the 1770s and remained dominant in the early nineteenth century, when English gardeners began to bring back the flower garden near the house. The eighteenth century had seen the development of the scientific expedition, with botanists and zoologists equipped to collect and bring back interesting new finds, so Australian plants began to enter cultivation even before any substantial European settlements were made. The name 'Botany Bay' indicates the importance ascribed to plant introductions from the new territory. As with South African plants, most of the Australian introductions went straight into the greenhouse and never emerged. Banksias, grevilleas, melaieucas, metrosideros, chorizemas, gompholobiums -- all flourished as part of domestic horticulture for those who could afford to grow under glass. The greatest period in the improvement of greenhouses began in 1817, when the great horticultural authority John Claudius Loudon invented the wrought-iron glazing bar. Loudon had initially looked forward to the day when everyone could have a collection of tropical plants, but by the 1830s he had become chastened, and was recommending that 'oranges, lemons, camellias, myrtles, banksias, proteas, acacias, melaleucas, and a few other Cape and Botany Bay plants, are all that can with propriety be admitted into a small conservatory'. So, while the fashion for Australian plants faded, its legacy continued in the English greenhouse throughout the century. By 1820 the nursery trade had become a significant commercial force, and the largest nurseries, like Loddiges' of Hackney and Veitch's of Chelsea, were able to mount their own collecting expeditions. The introduction in the 1830s of the Wardian case, a closely glazed case in which plants could be placed with some earth and water, forming a self-sustaining environment, revolutionized the business of transporting plants overseas. New plants began to flood into Europe. From the British colonies in India came rhododendrons; from the west coast of America came conifers and a slough of ornamental annuals; from Mexico came fuchsias and dahlias; from China came varieties of chrysanthemums, peonies, and camellias, the legacy of a long tradition of cultivation. And eventually, after opening to the West in 1854, Japan began to yield new irises and maples. Dahlias and chrysanthemums became the new florists' flowers of the age, sparking competitive societies into existence. Just as important as the number of new species introduced was the sheer number of specimens. Once plants that had been regarded as rare specimens became sufficiently numerous, gardeners could take risks with them, exposing some to the winter to see how hardy they would prove. And so plants that had once been confined to the greenhouse, like rhododendrons and camellias, began to move permanently outdoors, and many half-hardy plants moved into the flower garden for the summer season, to return to protective cultivation in the winter. Meanwhile, the older florists' societies were dying out, despite periodic attempts to revive them. They were replaced by horticultural societies devoted to the newer introductions and less concerned with competitive variation. A new concept had now been added to the plant enthusiast's repertoire: breeding. Once the existence of sexual reproduction in plants was established, its experimental use was initiated in the early eighteenth century, with Thomas Fairchild creating the first documented artificial hybrid ('Fairchild's mule' -- a cross between a carnation and a sweet william). The first extensive program for breeding new ornamental plant varieties was begun in the 1790s by William Rollisson, who produced Cape heaths for the greenhouse. In the 1840s, selective breeding hit the flower garden in a big way. Authorities like John Claudius Loudon were calling for flower beds to be arranged as solid masses of colour, spurring a demand for plants that would have a larger proportion of flowerto foliage. The first bedding varieties of pelargoniums from South Africa, and petunias, verbenas, and calceolarias from South America, began to appear. About 1870, continental gardeners developed an interest in English-style bedding, particularly in the latest fashion for'carpet bedding', the use of low-growing foliage plants to create flat patterned beds. But, while in England carpet bedding and flower bedding were seen as two distinct styles, on the continent gardeners felt no hesitation about mixing them together, and the resulting composite style spread around the world during the 1880s. Parallel to this development was an interest in restoring and replicating the formal garden designs and plantings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Once again, this fashion developed first in England, but by the beginning of the twentieth century it had spread to the continent and beyond. In recent years, new introductions for the garden have dwindled -- the focus of plant exploration these days is medicinal plants, not ornamental plants. Novelty in the garden has therefore had to be satisfied by hybridisation, Begonias, impatiens, hostas, hemerocallis, and of course roses, have been the subject of major programs of breeding. But, gradually coming to rival the breeding of novelties, revivalism has increased its hold on the plant world. The revival of old roses began between the world wars, and reached a peak with the work of Graham Stuart Thomas at Sunningdale Nurseries in the 1960s. Auriculas, which had come close to disappearing from cultivation, became the subject of a major fashion in the 1980s. There is now widespread interest in the range of cultivated varieties that formerly existed, and attempts are being made to protect and rediscover them. Perhaps in the future this interest will spread to the vanished Victorian bedding plants, to the varieties of hyacinths, anemones, and ranunculus that were grown in the eighteenth century, or to the curiosities of the Elizabethan garden. Excerpted from Flora: An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower by W. B. Elliott All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Turkish Empire
The Americas
Asia and Australia
On Plant Names
Selected Biographies
List of Illustrations
Index and Acknowledgements