This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
The term florist's flowers has a somewhat wide range of meaning. For instance, we have florists who would allow only a few species within the circle to which they would give this name - as the Auricula, the Polyanthus, the Carnation, the Tulip, and a few others, which were long held as the very elite among common flowers. We have others again who attach a wider meaning to the term, and include recognised flowers of much shorter standing in their list; but even amongst those who have done the greatest service in bringing such flowers as the Phlox, Pentstemon, and Pansy to their present perfection, we see a dislike to any improvements taken in band at a later time; and as for going back to single forms of double flowers, as in the case of the Pyrethrum and the Dahlia, it is a thing they cannot tolerate. This spirit of setting up a standard of excellence, and working for and up to it, is a good one. Through this spirit all the improvements we have to-day in flowers have been attained. Even amongst those who sneer at the florists and their doings, the same spirit is noticeable.
Though they do not condescend to notice flowers which the florist has set his stamp upon, except in a more or less depreciatory way, we yet have them praising others which show an improvement in size, form, or colour, or all three.
In bringing the merits of hardy florist's flowers before the numerous readers of the ' Gardener,' I do not think it at all advisable to stick to any hard and fast line as to what constitutes such flowers. They are yearly increasing in numbers. A lover of flowers here, and another somewhere else, make a favourite of a plant, seed it - find that it breaks into various colours, and that its habit of growth is improved - until by-and-by another flower has been added to the ranks of the florist's types. The common bedding Viola, for instance, has not as yet attained to the standard of what may be called a florist's flower, but there is just a possibility of its doing so. The number of really effective bedders capable of flowering till Geraniums give in, may be counted on five fingers; the great majority, therefore, are grown for some peculiarity of colour, or habit, or time of blooming in early spring. But the other day a gentleman who has been in the front rank as a hybridiser of Violas, showed me blooms which had all the points of good florist's flowers, though the individual size was not larger than a shilling.
Another instance of a flower which has been made to yield a great variety in form, habit, and colour, of late years : Aubrietia graeca is generally well known as a lilac-flowered species. A gentleman took to it, and has now all shades of colour up to rich crimson, with larger flowers and great variety in habit. Of course these do not constitute Aubrietia graeca a florist's flower, but it yields an instance of how plants may be brought on to rank as such.
To the great majority of gardeners florist's flowers must be tested by their suitability as decorative plants and the simplicity of their culture. Not one gardener out of a hundred can or ought to trouble himself as to the nice points which exercise the mind of the florist proper. His employer does not want him to know, and on his own part there is no necessity that the knowledge should be attained. The gentleman whose gardener gives him unlimited numbers of Pansies, or Phloxes, or Gladioli, in the greatest number of varieties possible, and cultivated in the best manner, has something to be thankful for, no doubt. But we would prefer the garden where a great number of flowers of this type were grown, and where a dozen or two dozen of the best sorts of each were substituted for collections of varieties - and so, we have no doubt, would most owners of gardens. Many people are now anxious to get together a collection of hardy flowering border plants. The wish is a good one. Small gardens especially should be rich, in these, and gardens of a larger size should most certainly have selections added to their floral stores.
But it is well to bear in mind that the number of really fine hardy herbaceous plants is limited to a small percentage of the whole; and to remember that although a border may be filled with a great number of species, out of that number a large quantity may not add anything to the beauty of the whole. I would therefore enter a plea for the extended cultivation of hardy florist's flowers. There are really very few species which can compete in effectiveness and usefulness with the varieties of these. If you plant in a border representative collections of Phloxes, Hollyhocks, Pentstemons, Antirrhinums, Pyrethrums double and single, Auriculas of the alpine section, Pinks, Carnations, Picotees, Delphiniums, Gladioli, Tulips, Sweet-williams, Anemones, Irises, Ranunculus, Potentiilas, Roses, and other hardy flowers which the florist has improved, you have at once the certainty of obtaining a fine display of flowers. In those instances where there is not much space for hardy flowers, I would give these the preference to any other flowers, as they are sure to give the best return for space and labour.
At the same time, where labour cannot be spared to cultivate these as they ought to be cultivated in order to do them bare justice, it would be quite as well to stick in anything that comes ready to hand into your borders, and allow them to struggle amongst themselves for the mastery; but such a state of things is hardly gardening. Everything is improved by intelligent attention and good cultivation. With florist's flowers these are necessary to their enjoyment. R. P. B.