This section is from the book "The Florist And Garden Miscellany". Also see: All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!.
When you said, in your Number for November, that you had had a smile excited by seeing the worst Pelargoniums in your collection the most admired, you only spoke the experience of all who have a collection of any florists' flowers; to whom it is a common mortification, when exhibiting the objects of their care to casual observers, to have the most perfect kinds passed by without notice, even when attention is called to them, while the defective are singled out for approbation. This well-known fact is often appealed to as a proof of the intrinsic unsoundness of the florist's standards of preference, and of the uselessness of his labours; in fact, that all is mere whim and caprice.
There is also another difference between the cultivator and the public, somewhat more specious as a matter of reproach against us, and often triumphantly adduced, as decisive of the advantage possessed by the uninitiated over the initiated, - that a simple admirer of nature will look with pleasure upon a Primrose or a Pansy, from which the connoisseur would turn with disgust. It is thence argued that our science is worse than useless.
Nor is this treatment of our pursuit confined to those who, being ignorant themselves, would fain plead for "ignorance as bliss." The really scientific and kindred botanist (he must excuse us for claiming the relationship of a younger brother) misappreciates our labours, and holds them in greater abhorrence than the most resolute upholder of the "natural system" of vandyked Pinks and Carnations. He calls our double flowers monsters, and our varieties hybrids. Perhaps it may be new to some of your readers that the meaning of that latter word is, "offspring of violence done to nature," And as we, in the simplicity of our ignorance, or the consciousness of our rectitude, have adopted his term of reproach as a convenient one to express a factitious variety obtained by crossing the seed, it will remain as a standing testimony of the opinion botanists had of the practice. And it is a fact that, as a class, they still despise the whole system of fancy flowers, and even carry their prejudices so far as to dislike the beauties that have been obtained by art.
Here, then, are three formidable classes of opponents, to one or other of which I think all the objections I have heard raised to the art of the florist may be referred. And as my object in these papers is to shew that they are all and severally untenable, it appears better to meet them and join issue at once; after which I will endeavour to demonstrate and apply those fixed laws of nature, through which have been developed whatever advances have yet been, or will hereafter be made in the improvement of certain flowering plants.
I. The first objection is, that what are counted excellences in the eyes of amateurs are mere matters of taste and caprice; that the standards by which they are judged are purely arbitrary and conventional; and that no sufficient reason can be given why any other standards might not as well be adopted as those in use, because taste is most variable and inconsistent.
Persons who thus reason should be reminded that the general amount of consent among those who have engaged in the pursuit and paid attention to it, - and those not of one time or one place, or among those only who were influenced by each other's opinions, but of all times and of various countries, and often bearing no respect towards one another, - should suggest a doubt whether facts are not against them. The truth is, it is a curious matter of inquiry, and one of those which led the writer to think upon the subject, how much the facts of the case are against them, and tend the other way; how constant it is that frequent and attentive examination of many varieties of the same species of flower almost in every instance leads the cultivator to value certain peculiarities, whether pointed out to him or not, which constitute the properties of that species of flower.
Not that each would prefer the same variety; that would imply that there is no place for taste at all, for which I shall shew that there is a wide, but not an unlimited, field. But that in all the varieties that each most esteems, there will be found certain characteristic points of excellence. This suggests what will be proved to be a fact, that for such agreement there is a reason founded in nature; a reason we will afterwards investigate. In the meantime the mere intimation it gives that these preferences are not arbitrary, is a sufficient answer to the objection as it is usually made.
The same appearance of mere arbitrary standards of excellence is found in many, perhaps in most, other objects of pursuit. An ordinary person going among the stock of a farmer who breeds high, would in all probability make the same mistake that you complained of in one ignorant of Pelargoniums, and excite a smile of pity or contempt through his unacquaintance with the technical value of level backs, flat loins, wide forelegs, and straight sides, or by shewing so much want of discernment as actually to praise a good-looking animal with a black nose; a fault as inexcusable in a cow, and as surely indicative of defective breeding, as the same appearance would be at the bottom of the cup of a Tulip.
Now these marks are not arbitrary; no one supposes them to be so in cattle; credit is given to the farmer that he had a reason founded in nature for the points of his beast, though that reason does not lie on the surface, to be discerned by every passing beholder. They are admitted to be what they really are, - an index of its qualifications to fulfil its destined functions.
The same thing occurs in judging between the relative values of different specimens of the same kind, in all articles, whether natural productions or works of art. There are always some technical marks to judge by, which serve to indicate, in short compass, the intrinsic qualities of the article. And these marks will seem arbitrary to those who do not understand them, because their connexion with the qualities is not seen. The merchant judges of samples by marks that are meaningless to others, but which lead him to a correct result, because they have a real natural connexion with the qualities he seeks. And the florist has an equal reason for the properties of his flower. A novice will sometimes bring a seedling Polyanthus to an older cultivator, expecting the same admiration it has excited in himself. In size, and shape, and colour, and edging, it is perfect; and he is surprised and mortified at the coldness of its reception. And when told why it must be rejected, he considers the floristic canon as arbitrary and unreasonable which condemns an otherwise excellent flower for the trifling defect, if defect it is to be called at all, that the stigma is visible. Yet condemned it would be, and universally, by judges; and they are right, as will be shewn in its place.
A pin-eyed Polyanthus or Auricula has no business in a collection, though not out of place in a border.
There is no caprice in this. And the real agreement that has obtained all along from the first among florists in their estimate of fancy flowers is greater than is at first discoverable; because they did not set out from a known system acknowledged by all, or by any, and therefore their differences of taste were greatest at first, and diminish continually afterwards. No such system was then thought of or supposed to exist, but each endeavoured to improve his chosen flower in his own way. But now, after their labours have in a course of years slowly collected various and tangible results, we can see that those results have been reached by successive steps, all in the same direction. The Tulip - which has perhaps been cultivated longest as a fancy flower, and which, as the gaudiest of them, is peculiarly likely to dazzle even the experienced into mistakes of its true properties - has undergone several apparent revolutions of opinion about its standard points. We have now, however, no difficulty in following the successive advances it has made, and discovering that there was no capriciousness, nor any other general alteration of taste than what arose from a general onward progress.
It may be true that some old varieties exist in most fancy flowers, which have seldom been surpassed since; but at the time of their first appearance they were not, as they are expected to be now, the types of the whole bed. And when it is thence inferred that many have been discarded to make room for others no better, or perhaps worse, than themselves, it is not indeed denied that such mistakes may have happened; but from some researches made on the subject, I am inclined to believe they have been comparatively rare. And there is one reason for novelty, not generally known except to experienced florists (though popularly acknowledged in fruits), that highly-cultivated varieties soon wear themselves out and degenerate. Pinks rarely retain their character through more than from ten to fifteen generations of cuttings; and therefore new ones must be continually superseding the old, even though little, if any thing, superior to those they displace.
And as for a person unaccustomed to any species of flower making a wrong selection for his approval, it happens in every thing else as well as in flowers, and therefore loses its force. Lace, for instance, is made for the same purpose that the flower was created, - to please the eye; and an unpractised eye would be as apt to pass by the rare and costly, and to select the valueless in lace, as in a Pelargonium. The fact is ever found to be, that the most showy qualities are not the most useful; nor is that which will most permanently please, that which first catches the unaccustomed eye. But that which is sterling, which will attract without fatiguing the sight, and gratify without offending the judgment, will often be passed over at first without notice. And therefore it is no more a reproach to the study which investigates these facts, or to the art which is founded upon them, that the eye of a novice should make a choice, which the same eye when tutored by experience would reject, than it is an argument against a more cultivated taste in diet, that a child prefers green fruit to ripe, and leaves wholesome food for gingerbread.
Iota. [To be continued].