This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", 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.
Perhaps of all plants for winter decoration, as far as colour is concerned, there is not one to be compared with the Poinsettia pulcherrima for effect; it is a stove weed for facility of management, easily propagated from the young wood, easily grown, and easily accommodated when at rest. Plants of it can be had in bloom from 4 inches to 10 or 12 feet high. It is a gauky plant, but we like it for its gaukiness; its habit is a protest of nature against torturing into the dignity of a specimen - that is, what are usually known as specimens.
We have about nine dozen natural specimens struck about the first and second weeks of August last and onwards, and dozens of them have flowers 16 inches across in pots from 4 to 9 inches diameter, and have been liberally top-dressed with all but raw sheep's manure. For decoration of large stands they are grand, or with a common white Azalea in the middle, surrounded by a band of Poinsettias and edged with Eran-themum pulchellum, a rich combination of colour is made. About this same Eranthemum, a very old-fashioned plant, it is a gem for winter decoration liberally managed, and withstands, or rather enjoys, the heat of rooms. With plenty of light, it is grown as easily as a Geranium into an orthodox specimen of any size as round as a bee-hive. Small plants also struck in August and grown strong give beautiful balls of bloom in January, and are easily had in quantity. It associates well with Crocus, Snowdrops, Tulips, and Primulas, as edgings for baskets, stands, or groups, and beats Scillas for colour.
A much-neglected old plant for winter decoration, and one of the richest in colouring, is Justicia formosa: liberally treated, and grown in the full sun to ripen, it will continue for months a dense sheet of blossom, and can be had from 4 inches to as many feet.
Euphorbia jacquiniflora should be grown planted out for cutting from. The back wall of any warm pit or house, and not necessarily warm at the root, will suit it well. Three little plants about 1 foot high each in 4-inch pots were planted out against a cold wall of a Melon-house last August; the single shoot, bent down horizontally, very soon broke at every eye. Now those plants have six to eight branches 4½ feet long, and a thick mass of flowers for 18 inches of their length.
A few old planted-out plants trained to a wall will supply quantities of bloom in winter. The peculiar bend in the spike of bloom makes it awkward to fit into bouquets; but we find it makes a rich edging to baskets and vases by bending it round the margin, and pegging the long bow-shaped spikes to a bed of moist moss. It makes a brilliant scarlet wreath to the edge of a basket. This Euphorbia is second only to Poinsettia for pot-culture for winter work.
Cuttings of Salvia splendens taken from plants grown in the open air in September, and struck in large sixties, will flower profusely in a little heat all winter, and are most valuable for combination in stands or vases. Imperial blue Ageratum can be managed in the same way, and will supply neat little potfuls of blue flowers all winter in a little heat. These are all very common things, but none the less useful for making pretty combinations for effect in winter - quantities of small plants giving greater facilities for change than a few large specimens of the same things.
The common stove Ferns, such as Adiantums and Pterises, can be readily raised in quantity from seed. These can be made useful for table decoration and small shallow vases by mixing them in shallow pans or flower-pot flats with rooted bits of Poinsettia in September; and grown on a little, they can be turned out like a sod, and appropriated in many ways.
How to decorate a dinner-table is a question not easy to answer in words, so much depends on the utensils used and other accessories; but it will be found a very simple matter generally with a liberal supply of materials. Miniature flower-borders made of tin troughs from 1 to 2 inches wide, filled with sand and flowers, and of every variety of shape, have become very fashionable of late years for table decoration. However toyish they may be, they are very elegant and pretty when tastefully arranged, and a light description of plant used for the middle of the table, such as Cyperis alternifolius, Cocas Weddelliana, or the narrow-leaved Dracaenas. For fringing these little borders, besides Ferns we find the flat sprigs of Cupressus Lawsoniana very useful, and nothing more pretty in winter when materials are scarce. The leaves of the various varieties of Coleus, such as Queen Victoria, Baroness Rothschild, or Duke of Edinburgh, are also very pretty as margins. Each section of the design should have a character of its own, and should be balanced like a well-planted flower-garden.
When a table is of sufficient size, a great variety of design can be made with a plateau of glass, covering the whole of the middle of the table, on which lakes and lawn and rockwork can be produced in miniature, to imitate a landscape view. Small Ferns and Lycopods are indispensable for this sort of work, which must not be attempted without a great variety of small plants specially got ready for the purpose - Lycopodium densum and L. denticulatum grown in broad shallow patches, so as to be easily turned out in match pairs and healthy tufts in small pots for filling in. We have seen designs of this description repeatedly arranged on the table-cloth, and they have a very novel and pretty effect by candle-light.
In arranging cut flowers in stands, vases, or glasses, the tastes of gardeners and of employers differ. If the latter, the gardener must follow suite. We sometimes see flowers made up to a compact face, and close like a Covent Garden bouquet, as round as an inverted basin, or pyramidal as a loaf of sugar, with the flowers arranged to contrast in geometrical uniformity - as, for instance, different varieties of Verbenas arranged according to their colours, or Chrysanthemums, in winter. We think this a very material or mechanical taste. Colours in a vase of flowers should certainly be blended with an eye to their contrast and effect; and no eye of real taste would tolerate an ill-balanced, mis-shapely vase of flowers; but we think it should be done with something of nature's freedom, light and graceful. The necessity of the case may be sufficient apology for the packing and building expended on a hand bouquet, but there is no such excuse for the table bouquet arranged on moss or sand; indeed, many of the best of flowers of a spikate habit, such as Liliums, Calanthes, Hyemalis Heaths or Hyacinths, defy the packing process.
Flowers should, therefore, be cut with as long stalks as possible; even Geraniums, however averse we may be to the sacrifice, ought to be cut with a piece of the wood and foliage. There is nothing more easy than to overdo the decoration of the dinner-table; the butler thinks of the exhibition of his gold and silver, the gardener is expected to put in his best appearance - the conflicting elements combined often result in something like an attractive stand at a bazaar. Since the fashion of table a la Russe was imported, and dining-tables no longer groaning under the weight of roast-beef, nothing should be introduced out of keeping with the companionship of the dessert. The view from the level of the eye, when the guest is seated, should be uninterrupted; so that specimen or bush plants, however well grown or flowered, should be confined to the drawing-room, unless grown as standards - then small plants of Azaleas or Rhododendrons are admissible, Roses, and such things as Cytisus, drooping Acacias, and standard Geraniums, of whatever sorts, but especially the cut-leaved sorts, as the old Lady Plymouth, or the new variegated Ivy leaves.
The Squire's Gardener.