Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/January 1873/Cultivating Wild Flowers

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BUT few are aware of the many American wild-flowers which merit and would repay cultivation. The showy scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) is a common sea-coast weed in some of the extreme Southern States. In the North it has deservedly become a favorite; and culture has placed it within the reach of every one, even the poorest. The brilliant, deep-red cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is highly esteemed abroad as a garden-plant; and yet, to dwellers in our cities, this plant is almost unknown, although it is one of our common wild-flowers, lavishing its bewitching beauty in numberless places, both North and South. Nor is the above word a mere figure of speech. An English scientific gardener lately visited Long Branch. He took a ride among the surroundings of that watering-place. When between Eatontown and Red Bank, he suddenly requested the driver to stop, at the same time uttering an exclamation which caused Jehu to doubt the gentleman's soundness of mind. The carriage was stopped, and away went the well-dressed Englishman over the field-fence, as lithe and agile as a youth. He actually plunged into the half-swampy ground, and made, as nearly as possible, a straight line toward a scarlet speck in the vernal distance. No high-mettled bull in a Spanish arena ever went more intently at the little red banner of the picador than went our friend John B., Esq., through that wet New Jersey meadow for that scarlet flower, which drew him like a fascination. It was a pitiable plight that he presented on his return to the carriage, exultant with his prize. To the astonished driver he offered these apologetic words: "This is the splendid Lobelia cardinalis, which I have cultivated with so much care at home, and, behold! here it grows wild!" To which Jehu, whose astonishment had now become modified by a shade of contempt, returned an ingenious equivocation: "That is worth a gentleman spoiling his clothes for!"

We know of more than one little cottage flower-patch, whose owner has planted in it the cardinal-flower, where it has grown in such decided prominence of beauty as to maintain a sort of pontifical preeminence among the floral dignities of the parterre. This splendid flower, with its racemes like scarlet rods, and the habit of the plant, so upright and graceful, with a sort of queenly bearing, and gorgeous magnificence, very much outshone its gayer but straggling companion, the gaudy scarlet salvia. We know a village blacksmith who thus made this plant the spectacle in his flower-plot; and it was amusing to see persons, in their admiration, seeking to purchase plants from this little garden, utterly ignorant of the fact that they could be had simply for the going after in the contiguous meadows. As a wild-flower, they had often seen it, but had never observed it. Forsooth, how few obey the aesthetic command: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow!"

And there is the common spreading dogbane, to which science has given one of its terrible sesquipedalian names, to wit, Apocynum androsœmifolium. It is an engaging plant, for all that, with its open, bell-shaped flowers. Its first cousin, the Indian hemp, though very unpretentious as to its flowers, has an upright habit, much more queenly than the loose abandon of its beautiful flowered relation. Alas! for its reputation, this plant has fallen into bad hands, and become notorious among the empirics of medicine. Speaking of the spreading dogbane, a correspondent of the Torrey Botanical Club, quoting authorities, describes it as "one of the most charming of our native plants. The beautiful clusters of rosy bells, with their pink bars, and delicate fragrance, claim for it a place in the garden, where, however, we do not meet with it, but on open banks and by the side of roads or cultivated fields. It is well approved, too, by the insect tribe, who are, in general, much more appreciative judges of color and odor than we are. In Europe, where it is not native, it is cultivated in gardens, and, according to Lamarck, is called gobe-mouche—fly-trap. If flies alight on this plant, they are frequently entangled by the glutinous matter, and destroyed. Hence, the plant has been called Herbe d la puce."

It has surprised me that so little has been done with our star-worts, or native asters—plants so prodigal of bloom during the late summer, and almost the entire autumnal months. The number of species is very great, and some are of exquisite beauty. Our favorite is the Aster concolor. It abounds South, and comes as far North as the Pines of New Jersey, where it attains perfection in delicacy of structure and prodigality and compactness of bloom. Indeed, this part of New Jersey has seemed to us as the prodigal border-land, where the Southern and the Northern floras terminate and commingle, or overlap each other. Here Michaux and other great men have labored, and carried away many novelties. In these regions, the Aster concolor grows up like a simple wand, with its small leaves closely hugging the remarkably small stem, much as if a wire had been dressed with leaves for festal uses. The upper part of the stem is so closely surrounded with the compact flowers, that it is literally a purple raceme or wand. Cultivated in mass, in a dry soil, this aster would glow like a sheet of purple flame.

And why is the very common, yet very stately, gentian over-looked? This plant is positively unique in character. A single stem set amid green leaves, with cerulean gems, is a thyrsus worthy of a god. But there is a quaint, coyish modesty about it—its singular flowers seem to be always in bud, as if too coy to blossom outright.

And what charming terrestrial orchids are found native—but, concerning this, there, is but space for a word. These singular indigenous flowers—so lovely, and yet so eccentric—are represented by a large number of species. They may be called pretty, winning little oddities. They would need some skill, perhaps, in their cultivation; and some might come to be regarded as the coquettes of the floral community, jilting the gardener with futile promises. Last summer, we took up with our fingers a pretty specimen of the Calopogon pulchellus, which means the Beautiful Little Beard. It had but one tiny scape, growing from a green bulb which lay in the moss, much like a solitary egg in a bird's-nest. The entire plant, with its marvellous flower, was not more than six inches high. Our heart failed us in an attempt to put it in the press as a specimen; so we planted it in a little pot, attached to it a label bearing its scientific name, for popular name it had not, and then put it on the glass case on the counter of the apothecary. It was a pleasant surprise to everybody who saw it. Many were the ejaculatory commendations received by the little stranger with the purple hood, and the quaint little beard of so grotesque dyes of pink, and yellow, and white. The pretty stranger was unanimously voted "charming;" and was by some taken to be a rare exotic, that had grown up under the professor's care. Besides this, we have among our native orchids the equally pretty Pogonia and Arethusa; while, worthy of any conservatory, are the white fringed and the yellow fringed Rein-orchis, both of the genus Habenaria. Mention might be made of the Lady's Slipper, the showy and rather ostentatious Cyprepedium; but the list is a long one. These native orchids are all eccentricities, and we have selected the most lovable, and the most easily attainable—in fact, those the nearest to our hands.

Just as the above was written, the usual monthly report of the Department of Agriculture came to hand. The following paragraphs are so much to the purpose, that it would be nothing less than blame-worthy not to quote them. Speaking of American plants in Great Britain, it cites an English journal as saying: "The beautiful Asclepias tuberosa is, this season, producing freely its showy, bright orange-colored flowers in several collections round London. This fine perennial thrives perfectly well almost anywhere, if planted in sandy peat." In the same journal we find the following: "One of the best hardy-aquatic plants, in flower at the present time, is the North American Pickerel-weed (Pontederia cordata), a plant by no means so often met with as it deserves to be. It produces a stout spike of handsome sky-blue flowers from l½ to 2 feet high. No ornamental water should be without this charming aquatic, which should, however, have a place near its margin." "The American Pitcher-plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is thriving as well as any native plant in the bog-garden in Messrs. Backhouse's nurseries at York, and by its side a healthy little specimen of the still more curious Darlingtonia Californica is beginning to grow freely."

The Asclepias family in America is very rich in species, but the above-mentioned one is by far the noblest of them all. From the fact that it attracts around it large numbers of these beautiful creatures, it is often called the Butterfly-weed. The plant was formerly held in high repute as a medicine, under the name of Pleurisy-root. But its gorgeously-colored flowers, so intensely orange, and so densely massed in heavy umbels, present a gorgeous richness which is incomparable. There is an African species, with flowers of a similar color, which is carefully cultivated in conservatories; but, when contrasted with our native plant, on every count, the foreigner becomes tame, and mean, if not insignificant, in the comparison. As to the Pickerel-weed, it is of easy culture; and in the margin of garden-ponds, or fountain-basins, it might be pronounced as gracefully genteel. The Pitcher-plant, if set higher up on the banks in a bed of sphagnum, or bog-moss, would be so uniquely elegant as to deserve the epithet recherché. This same plant can be grown in a pot, simply by keeping the saucer well supplied with water, while its quaint flowers, and the curious structure of the leaves, would make it the favorite bit of bijoutry in the floral jewels of the window.

This culture of wild-flowers, to some extent, can be indulged in by almost all. Its effect upon a mind of average intelligence is surprising. We have, in our acquaintance, a village bricklayer, a man whose means are of the most slender kind. He has a love for flowers, and shows considerable tact in producing effect by massing the different popular sorts. The imported asters, the improved petunias, and pansies, are severally made to effect a blaze of color. But his chief affection centres in a little spot where he keeps his wild-flowers, among which he pointed out to us, with an amiable pride, his pet pogonias, obtained from the swamp over the way. This man has become quite a systematist in botany, and is deservedly looked upon as the botanical light in his community. And who could possibly indulge in this pleasure of wild-flower culture long without wanting to know the names of his plants? But, as few of them have popular names, he must turn to botany for information. Thus this innocent and elevating pursuit may become a key to the acquisition of scientific knowledge, and the application of scientific methods. Here we stop, with the sense of a child who has picked up a few spangles which have dropped from Flora's rich attire.