University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Verdant Frames, Plant Portraits from the Ellwanger and Barry Collection

Volume XXXIX • 1986
Verdant Frames: Plant Portraits from the Ellwanger and Barry Collection

Increased public and professional interest in the restoration of nineteenth-century properties has focused attention on both structures and their settings. Landscapes, considered by many historians to be artifacts in themselves, can convey social and cultural values in their form, function, style, and material.1 Unfortunately, when we witness only the remnants of historic landscapes, their meaning is often obscured.

Professionals in historic landscape preservation seek to interpret the past as it survives in the present. Frequently, documentary sources and texts must be consulted to identify and understand features observed firsthand. However, unlike architectural preservation, landscape preservation lacks a coherent body of historical literature from which to draw.2 Consequently, one of the best mirrors of the past is the photograph.

From 1850 onward, the most common medium for outdoor photography was the stereoview: two almost identical photographs placed side by side. When seen through a special viewer, the photographs converged, producing a convincing illusion of three dimensions. Photography became even more popular in the 1880s when George Eastman of Rochester, New York introduced the Kodak. This portable hand-held camera, which used roll film, greatly simplified picture-taking. Consequently, hobbyists and professionals alike could record landscapes and gardens, from the ordinary and commonplace to the extraordinary and unique.

After more than a century, most of these gardens have been lost, but many of their portraits, snipped from the film of history, have survived. A staggering number are still in the hands of garden makers or their descendants. However, significant collections do exist, published and unpublished, identified and anonymous, in public archives and private repositories throughout the country.

In conducting research into nineteenth-century gardens and homegrounds in New York State, Gerald Allan Doell and I surveyed the photographic collections of more than three hundred libraries, museums, archives, and private collections. These ranged from small historical societies staffed by volunteers, to large universities and public institutions with specialists in collections management and conservation.

Even for the experienced researcher, locating and retrieving these garden portraits can be a tedious task. Because landscapes and gardens rarely appear as subject entries in photographic collections, the archivist, who is intimately familiar with the content of each collection, plays an important role in identifying sources for study. We are indebted, therefore, to the late Alma Burner Creek for introducing us to the Ellwanger and Barry Company Papers in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester. In 1982, when we initiated our study, Ms. Creek, library assistant at Rush Rhees Library, had just completed an analysis of the Ellwanger and Barry Company Papers. It contains some of the finest period photographs of nineteenth-century gardens and homegrounds in New York State.

George Ellwanger (1816-1906) and Patrick Barry (1816-1890) were pivotal figures in the history of American horticulture. Their Rochester nursery, the Mount Hope Botanical and Pomological Garden, was established in 1839 on little more than five acres of land. Within twenty years, they were cultivating over 500 acres of fruit trees and ornamentals, an area greater than any two other nurseries in America combined. In addition to a large assortment of deciduous trees and shrubs, their inventory included evergreens, weeping and specimen trees, roses, herbaceous perennials and bulbs.

After the Civil War, the horticulture industry in New York State expanded to a national market. Ellwanger and Barry established branch offices and nursery facilities in Columbus, Ohio, and Toronto, Ontario, to serve the demand in Western territories. Sales agents combed Oregon, California, and the Southwest to secure orders of seeds and fruit trees from pioneer homesteaders. Many agents trained by Ellwanger and Barry went on to establish nurseries of their own. Consequently, Ellwanger and Barry supplied not only the plants, but also the prototype for the nursery industry to areas beyond the Mississippi River.3

Despite the closing of the Mount Hope Nurseries in 1918, the Ellwanger and Barry Company Papers were kept intact, stored in family homes and company offices. Recognizing that the collection had significance beyond the confines of their immediate families, various Ellwanger and Barry descendants took steps to insure that the papers would be permanently available to persons interested in studying the horticultural history of western New York. They gave the materials to the University of Rochester Library; today the Ellwanger and Barry collection consists of the company's own 1,600-volume "business library" and twelve linear feet of manuscript material, consisting of correspondence, ledgers and account books, diaries, records of fruit trials, inventories - and photographs.

The landscape and garden photographs included in the Ellwanger and Barry Company Papers are generally of three types: 1) photographs of the Ellwanger and Barry properties, including the gardens and grounds of the nursery as well as their own private residences; 2) photographs of anonymous Rochester properties, perhaps planned and planted by the firm; and 3) photographs of individual specimen plants, some used as illustrations for the Mount Hope Nurseries catalogues. Together, they offer interesting insights on American customs of landscape gardening during the latter years of the nineteenth century.


A Glimpse of the Nineteenth-Century Garden

Nineteenth-century gardens and homegrounds evolved at a time when America was seeking her own identity in a rapidly changing world. Nostalgic for the past, yet eagerly anticipating the future, Americans sought to resolve this dichotomy through design in architecture, decorative arts, and landscape gardening. During this period, garden professionals took on more specialized roles: seed and nurserymen supplied plants; horticulturists recreated the conditions that would make them thrive; and landscape architects arranged them in a harmonious composition.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, well-developed gardens and grounds offered a good indication of a person's status, since they were relatively rare, and required a great deal of time, money, and effort for effect. By 1860, however, interest in gardens and gardening had spread to members of the middle class. In the years that followed, the mere presence of an ornamental garden no longer served as a reliable indicator of status. Instead one's taste and social position were implied through the variety and quality of plants, ornament and architecture in the garden, and the manner in which these elements were displayed. Not surprisingly, nurserymen like George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry exerted considerable influence over insecure homeowners who were unwilling to face this dilemma alone.


The Lawn

The most important feature of the landscape garden was the lawn - not a rough meadow, but a panel of grass mown to a softness like velvet. Lawns not only gave unity and repose to the landscape picture, but dramatized every other garden feature. Flower beds, trees and shrubs, or the residence itself stood in sharp contrast to the velvety turf, while sunlight and shadow produced constantly changing patterns on its gentle surface. This effect was so desirable that homeowners attempted to maintain the greatest expanse of unbroken lawn possible, even before the mechanical lawnmower became available.


Trees and shrubs

The chief ornaments of the lawn were trees and shrubs, obtained from a variety of sources. Friends and neighbors shared cuttings as readily as they exchanged recipes. Native woodlands offered many fine plants for those who were willing to collect their own. And of course seed and nurserymen competed for the attention of the gardening public with the newest varieties discovered by plant explorers the world over. With this wealth of material at their disposal, homeowners of the last century experimented as never before with achieving novel effects in the landscape.

Unlike today's homeowners, their nineteenth-century counterparts did not feel compelled to conceal the foundations of their homes with a fringe of evergreens. Instead, residences were accented at the corners or entrances with small flowering shrubs or vines, or were left completely devoid of plantings near the house.

Large shrubs and trees belonged even farther from the residence, where they could be seen from within. When used in masses, trees and shrubs could frame a strikingly beautiful view, conceal drying yards, barns or vegetable gardens, accent the alignment of a drive, or simply give homeowners some privacy from their next-door neighbors. Informal groupings of trees and shrubs could also form pleasant backgrounds for single specimens, flower beds, or garden ornaments.

The landscape gardener sometimes selected trees and shrubs for their individual beauty. The best specimens had distinctive characteristics:  conspicuous flowers, an unusual growth habit, or foliage with an interesting color or texture. Planted singly on the lawn, or in a small group, specimens became the object of a view, perhaps from a parlor window, pavilion, or garden seat. The changing seasons produced a kaleidoscope of effects, lending constant variation to the scene.

Used without restraint, specimen plantings could easily disrupt the unity of the landscape composition. Many homeowners, intrigued by things new and unusual, used specimens like verdant furniture, adding a new variety to their lawns each year. Unfortunately, they found that it was much easier to overplant a lawn than it was to overfurnish a room, since trees and shrubs eventually outgrew their assigned spaces.



If a single type of plant could characterize the nineteenth-century landscape, it would be the vine. Climbing and creeping vines gave the greatest amount of beauty, with the least care, in the greatest number of places. Without them, landscape gardeners would have found it difficult to create beautiful garden pictures.

Vines were practical as well as beautiful. A correspondent to The Horticulturist in 1849 observed:

Many are compelled to live in houses which someone else built. . .or which have, by ill-luck, an ugly expression. . .Paint won't hide it, nor cleanliness disguise it, but vines will do both, or what is better, they will, with their lovely graceful shapes, give a new character to the whole exterior.4

Vines could also solve a multitude of garden problems. If the summer house suffered from too sunny a location, vines would shade and protect it. Flowering vines added even more incentive to linger if the blossoms perfumed the air with fragrance. Some residences seemed to jump from the lawn like a Jack-in-the-box. Vines at the foundation could ease the transition, and mercifully conceal any odd angles or awkward projections. In fact, vines were so versatile that even amateur gardeners made few mistakes in their placement.


On the other hand, the proper use of flowers in the landscape was often misunderstood. As an investment in beauty, flowers were hard to resist. Horticulturists and gardeners loved them because flowers demonstrated their skill at growing plants; homeowners loved flowers because they were showier than anything else. Unfortunately, their arrangement on the lawn sometimes resembled "bits of lace or bows stuck promiscuously over the body and skirt of a lady's dress.5

Although flowers were essential ornaments, they were introduced only sparingly in the landscape. To be tasteful, homeowners placed flower beds where they could be easily seen, but did not demand attention. Usually this was within sight of the residence, or along its principal walks.

One system featured flowers in an informal way - arranged in natural-looking drifts of color before a background of dense shrubbery. Bulbs and other perennials were ideally suited for this "mingled" style because the succession of bloom produced constantly changing pictures all season long.

Another system featured flowers in geometric-shaped beds. Circles, stars, diamonds, and crescents were incised into the lawn as if with great cookie cutters. To be effective, the flowers were massed together in uniform groups, according to color, texture, and height. Single plants that died, or blossomed untrue to the color scheme, were immediately removed and replaced. Patches of bare soil were rarely tolerated, even during the hottest or driest summers. When they were done well, however, the geometric flower beds evoked the freshness, brilliance, and clarity of precious gems set in the landscape.


Paths and Pleasure Drives

The task of the landscape gardener did not end with the arrangement of trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers. Sometimes the situation demanded a change in the lay of the land to give grace and beauty to the whole. One test of skill in creating such a change was designing paths and pleasure drives.

Except on small properties, and those designed in a formal style, landscape gardeners avoided leading straight to the residence. The most pleasant paths curved gently and approached the residence from a charming angle. Landscape gardeners also avoided unnatural alignments. An easy double curve was preferred to a path which zigzagged unnecessarily.


The Living Picture

The landscape gardener of the nineteenth century used all these elements to imitate natural scenery for a more subtle organization of the homeground. This new informality, however, could easily be mistaken for formlessness. As with any experiment, some gardens and homegrounds were more successful than others. Too often, homeowners attempted to crowd the features of more ample grounds into a confined space, creating, at best, an incomplete jumble. Nevertheless, those who used restraint in planting trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers, and sensitively sited paths and drives, could indeed create a garden or landscape which resembled a living picture. Their successes and failures in achieving unity, harmony, and variety in an informal way have shaped the principles used today in the design of residential properties.


Photographs as Mirrors of the Past

Historical photographs illustrate the tremendous diversity which existed among American gardens during the last century. The gardens created during this period were a curious mixture of art and industry, style and taste, imitation and originality, subtlety and spectacle. Composed of exotic plants, and arranged in an unusual manner, they now seem foreign to many of us as we look at their photographs - perhaps even a bit bizarre, or at least "old fashioned." If, for a moment, we can put aside nostalgia and twentieth-century tastes, and look beyond the flower beds and gazebos, we will begin to see the gardens in a different light - as products of a particular time, place, and personality, and as reflections of life in America during the nineteenth century.

Although most nineteenth-century gardens have long ago disappeared, historical photographs enable us to share in the experience, so we may better understand the gardens of the last century and the people who created them.




[Note: it is hoped that at some point in the near future the images which accompanied this article will be placed online.]

Front Grounds of a Suburban Rochester Residence, c1895

Although garden writers preferred landscapes with varied character, striking views, and native stands of trees, most homeowners had to settle for level sites of limited extent.  In these situations, the local nurseryman proved to be a valuable ally for providing as much "nature" as possible.

The porch of this suburban residence, built about 1870, is draped with ivy (Hedera helix).  Potted plants cluster at the foot of the steps and a rustic planter is poised on the lawn at right.  Two young elms (Ulmus americana), planted quite close to the residence, will eventually grow to towering heights, enframing the residence from the street.  The rest of the lawn is dotted with various ornamental trees and shrubs, to which a new variety was probably added each year.  These homeowners had most certainly read the most up-to-date manuals on landscape gardening, for their front walk features a slight inviting curve, and the turf is carefully kept from encroaching on the edges.


Peegee Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora')

Homeowners a century ago could probably choose from a broader palette of plants than are commonly available today. This was the result of ambitious programs of plant exploration undertaken during the nineteenth century. One of the most successful collectors was George Rogers Hall, a young American physician who practiced in Asia. In 1861, he sent the first direct shipment of plants to the United States from Japan. Among his introductions were the star magnolia, the dwarf Japanese yew, the goldband lily, and the Peegee hydrangea.

According to one critic at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Peegee hydrangea was "planted by everyone who owned a twenty-foot lot."7 Its popularity stemmed from immense flower clusters which appeared in August and September when few other shrubs were in bloom. With the onset of frost, the flowers gradually turned from white, to pink, to purple, and persisted on the shrub in a semi-dried state until well into the Winter. It is particularly effective in this photograph because the light-colored blossoms contrast with the dark tones of the residence.

The Peegee hydrangea takes its common name from the initials of the botanical name, Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora', which means "large panicle-flowered hydrangea."


Umbrella Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides nana)

Plants, like fashions, go in and out of style. Some of the most popular plants of the nineteenth century featured exaggerated forms or unusual foliage, characteristics which today might be considered bizarre. These qualities were perhaps best combined in the umbrella catalpa.

With tropical-looking leaves and a habit of compact growth, the umbrella catalpa was frequently the first choice of city dwellers with small lots. It rarely grew taller than eight feet and needed no pruning to keep its symmetrical shape. At the turn of the century, the umbrella catalpa lent a formal effect to flower gardens, as well as front grounds.

Identified in the Mount Hope Nurseries catalog as Catalpa Bungei,6 this dense, globe-headed tree is now known as Catalpa bignonioides nana, a dwarf cultivar of the Common Catalpa or Indian Bean.


Chinese Peonies on the Grounds of the Nursery, 1890

It is difficult to appreciate the scale of this massed planting of peonies, until one discerns the figure of nurseryman George Ellwanger in the background. Ellwanger was evidently fond of the Chinese peony, introduced to America in the early 1800s, and offered no fewer than 80 different named varieties in his Mount Hope Nurseries catalog. They ranged from the flesh pink 'Albert Crousse" and creamy white 'Amazone," to the deep purple "Violacea" and delicate rose-colored "Zoe Calot." He described the peony as "a noble flower, almost rivalling the rose in brilliancy of color and perfection of bloom, and the rhododendron in stately growth."13

The peony had other attributes which endeared it to the home gardener. It was a dependable plant: hardy, vigorous, and resistant to disease and pests. In addition, no other flower was so well adapted for large, showy bouquets. Ellwanger recommended that it be planted singly on the lawn, in borders, or, for a grand show, in a large bed as pictured.


Mr. Ellwanger's Rockery, Rochester, New York, 1894

Rock gardens gave homeowners the opportunity to grow an entirely different class of plants than had previously been possible. They became the refuge of unique and interesting alpine plants that thrived in the deep, cool, moist pockets of soil not found in conventional gardens. onsequently, care was needed to provide the proper conditions for plants, so that the rock garden did not degenerate into a rock pile.

George Ellwanger's rockery was one of the most successful, and worthy of emulation by others. Built on the edge of the lawn at the foot of a wooded slope, it contained many native and imported flowers and ferns: the tufted phlox or moss pinks (Phlox sublata, P. procumbens, and P. amoena), the hardy candytufts (Iberis gibraltica and I. corraefolia), variegated thyme, Arabis alpina, hardy alyssums (Alyssum Wiersbecki and A. saxatile compacta), Lotus corniculatus, cowslips and hardy primulas, saxifrages, narcissus, anemones, hepaticas, columbine (Aquilegia), helleborus, bloodroot, and violets.12

Much of the beauty of this particular garden was the result of its location. Whereas many rock gardens were heaps of stone piled upon a broad, smooth lawn, the rock ledges occurred naturally in this woodland slope. In addition, the plants were more plentiful than the rocks, an unmistakable sign of successful plant culture. Most important, however, was the skill of the designer. Mr. Ellwanger, mindful of the artistic principles of unity, balance, variety, and rhythm, created a woodland masterpiece which to the untrained eye, would appear to be genuinely natural.



Hall's Honeysuckle at Barry Residence, Rochester, New York, July 1894

Prized for their beauty and shade-giving qualities, vines were used to cover cottages, verandas, walls, trellises, even the stumps of old trees. The best bloomer of all, according to the Mount Hope Nurseries catalog, was the Hall's Japan honeysuckle (Lonicera Halleana).10 This strong and vigorous variety boasted fragrant blossoms of pure white, which gradually turned to yellow. At the Harriet and Patrick Barry residence, Hall's honeysuckle was trained on a wire mesh trellis flanking two ground floor windows. In this way, the rooms within would be perfumed with fragrance from July through September.

Hall's honeysuckle was one of the most popular climbers in cultivation, perhaps because it was inexpensive as well as beautiful. One garden writer noted that it was "cheap enough to plant at every post in the chicken yard and could afford shelter and shade for the fowls, as well as a screen for their not always sightly runs.


Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra 'Italica')

Familiar to many from its use as a windbreak or screen, the Lombardy poplar actually has much more aristocratic roots in the history of Amen can horticulture. Identified before 1750 as a clone of the black poplar, the Lombardy poplar was introduced to America in 1784 by William Hamilton.8 It was the first tree to exhibit a narrow columnar form and was originally prized as an ornamental.

In the decades that followed, the Lombardy poplar became a popular street tree. It was documented along avenues in Philadelphia before 1800, and in upstate New York communities, including Cazenovia and Canandaigua, by the 1830s. The Lombardy poplar was also "indispensable to landscape gardening to break the ordinary and monotonous outlines of most other trees." 9 In this photograph, it was chosen as a complement for the architecture of a carriage house, probably because the spiry forms accented the vertical lines of the circular tower.



  1. Thomas J. Schlereth, Artifacts and the American Past (Nashville: American Association of State and Local History, 1980).
  2. Frank D. Cawley, Historic Landscape Preservation and Restoration: An Annotated Bibliography for New York State (Albany: Preservation League of New York State, 1977).
  3. For a fuller discussion of Ellwanger and Barry, their family lives and nursery business, see the first four articles in The University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Vol. XXXV (1982).
  4. "On the Drapery of Cottages and Gardens," The Horticulturist, Vol. 3 (February 1849), p. 354.
  5. Frank J. Scott. The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds (New York: Appleton, 1870), p. 105.
  6. Ellwanger and Barry Company, Mount Hope Nurseries General Catalogue (Rochester: The Post Express Printing Co., undated), p. 33.
  7. Neltje Blanchan, The American Flower Garden (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1909), P. 171.
  8. Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher, Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640-1840 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1971), p. 231.
  9. Ellwanger & Barry Company, Mount Hope Nurseries General Catalogue, p. 35.
  10. Ibid., p. 66.
  11. Blanchan, The American Flower Garden, p. 323.
  12. Charles Henderson, Henderson's Picturesque Gardens (New York: Peter Henderson and Co., 1908), p. 117.
  13. Ellwanger & Barry, Mount Hope Nurseries General Catalogue, p. 68-71.


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