Victorian Women and Their Plants

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Photo by Getty Images/karma15381.

In the 19th century, it was considered unacceptable for women to participate in many natural sciences; for a lady to kill, dissect, and study an animal would be improper. However, the work surrounding plants, such as arranging flowers for home décor or sketching specimens, was a domestic and therefore feminine pastime, and there was nothing to stop women from focusing seriously on the plant world through botany, horticulture, or gardening. While others considered plant science and the activities around it to be little more than a hobby, disregarding much of women’s research and findings, this outlook allowed women to take part in scientific study in previously inaccessible ways. Now they could invest their interest, intelligence, and time in a personally enriching activity still deemed appropriate for “the fairer sex.”

Plants in general became a fascination among the middle classes in the Victorian era. Flowers as indoor décor were all the rage, and floral bouquets were used as a form of communication; terrariums and conservatories were full of exotic plants such as ferns and orchids, and any home worth its salt had a parlor fern at the very least. Botanical obsession went so far as to ascribe a meaning to each type and color of flower. The bouquet a person chose to give another spoke volumes about the giver’s intentions and relationship to the recipient (learn more below). Home gardens became popular as well, because this was the first time in history the middle class was affluent enough to have domestic gardens cultivated for aesthetic purposes. Previously, gardens were either a practical means of growing food or reserved for the aristocracy.

Victorian women took full advantage of these new domestic trends and invested themselves in the study of plants and flowers under the guise of making beautiful homes. Fortunately, their observations, experiments, illustrations, and notes made significant contributions to botany. Here are some of the women who created legacies we value today.

Henrietta Beaufort (1778-1865)

The education of children was considered an appropriate role for women to take on, so Henrietta Beaufort used her interest in botany as a tool for teaching. In 1819, she published a book titled Dialogues on Botany for the Use of Young Persons, which was meant to introduce children to the science. Unlike most books on botanicals, Beaufort’s did not contain any illustrations. While this was a controversial choice, Beaufort believed it was important for people to study nature by experiencing it in real life rather than viewing it in representations.

Anna Atkins(1799-1871)

While many Victorian women collected botanical specimens and illustrated them with fine pen drawings and delicate watercolor, Anna Atkins brought a different medium to the practice: photography. Atkins studied algae specimens and preserved images of her research using cyanotype printing — a rudimentary version of photography that involves applying chemicals to paper, then drying the paper in the sun with the object you want pictured placed on top of it. The sun’s rays combined with the chemicals create a photo-like print. Atkins created at least 307 handmade cyanotypes of different algae species and is considered the first woman photographer. Although photography made her famous, her interest in the medium only blossomed because, as she gained interest in the collection and classification of different algae, the lack of accurate illustrations available frustrated her.

Anna Atkins preserved an image of Laurencia pinnatifida. Photo courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Margaret Gatty (1809-1873)

While staying in the British seaside town of Hastings to recover from an illness, Margaret Gatty began a new hobby: collecting seaweed along the beach. She found great joy in her seaweed expeditions, and eventually took it upon herself to compile her knowledge in a book. British Sea-Weeds details more than 200 specimens of local seaweed. More than that, her book also contains a guide for women seeking to begin their own seaweed-collecting hobby, including advice on what to wear for practicality’s sake (men’s boots), as well as how best to comport yourself to keep the activity appropriate (don’t go to the beach without a gentleman for accompaniment). Gatty’s book sparked a major trend, and soon it was common for Victorian ladies to don their husband’s boots, grab a collecting bucket, and head to the seashore.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Today, most people know Emily Dickinson for her poetry, but she was also a botany enthusiast likely better known during her lifetime for her gardening skills than her literary prowess. Flowers play important roles in many of her poems, which hints to the reader how much time she spent with them. Dickinson kept a meticulous herbarium — a notebook filled with more than 400 pressed and labeled flowers, leaves, and other botanical specimens. The herbarium is still intact today. It resides at Harvard University’s Houghton Library and can be viewed in its entirety online at the Harvard Library Emily Dickinson Collection.

Emily Dickinson’s love of words and flowers combine on the cover of one of her poetry books. Photo courtesy Roberts Brothers.

Marianne North (1830-1890)

While the majority of female European botanical illustrators in the 19th century stuck to either local specimens or exotic imports, Marianne North followed her love of plants around the world and painted them as she went. Her colorful illustrations are not of specimens collected and pressed upon a page, but of landscapes, flowers, leaves, and fruits in their natural environments, sometimes adorned by gorgeous birds or jewel-like beetles. During her lifetime, North traveled through Canada, the United States, Jamaica, and Brazil, and was the first person to document many species in the Amazon. During 14 years of travel and observation, she documented over 900 different plant varieties. Her vibrant oil paintings and illustrations capture the life of the specimens she observed and the exotic locales in which they originated in a way that none of her male counterparts ever matched.

Marianne North’s paintings were exquisite and true-to-life. Image by Marianne North.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)

One of the first and most famous female garden designers, Gertrude Jekyll herself and her design style became popular while she was alive, and still has influence in contemporary design. Apart from breeding her own cultivars, Jekyll’s main innovation was creating gardens that looked wilder and more whimsical than the usual, manicured gardens of the day. She was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which aimed to make practical objects beautiful, focused on the beauty of nature and natural materials, and believed in creating art that worked with its environment, not against it. Learn more about Jekyll and her work with the article “The Longevity of Love-in-a-Mist.”

Gertrude Jekyll’s home, Munstead Wood, was surrounded by gardens in her own whimsical style. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Internet Archive Book Images.

Theodosia Burr Shepherd (1845-1906)

Theodosia Burr Shepherd was one of the very few women of her time to earn a living from her interest in plants. Impoverished, with children to take care of, Shepherd bartered wildflower seeds and calla lily bulbs that she collected herself for clothing. Eventually, she was collecting seeds and bulbs to sell to large seed companies. After making a significant amount of money, she began the Theodosia B. Shepherd company — no longer in business — where she sold seeds and bulbs, and also bred flowers, many of which we still know and love today (‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory and ‘Oriole’ rose, for example). This seed company not only made Shepherd one of the first women in the U.S. to hybridize flowers, but, more importantly, the first woman to own her own company.

Theodosia Burr Shepherd bred the popular ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Erin Metcalf.

Kate Sessions (1857-1940)

Kate Sessions began her career teaching horticulture in San Diego, but eventually switched to an even more hands-on endeavor when she purchased a flower shop and nursery. Business boomed, so much so that Sessions needed more space to grow her plants. She struck a deal with the city, negotiating for a piece of land in exchange for planting 100 trees each year to beautify the area now known as Balboa Park. She made good on her promise and personally planted many of the trees still standing in the park today. A bronze statue of Sessions now resides in Balboa Park to commemorate her significant impact on the green space of San Diego.

A statue of Kate Sessions now stands in Balboa Park in San Diego. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/RightCowLeftCoast.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

Another woman known for her literary prowess, Beatrix Potter is most famous for writing and illustrating delightful children’s books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit. However, she was also enamored with nature, and mycology in particular. She created hundreds of stunning, full-color illustrations of mushrooms, and her mycological research led her to develop her own theory as to how fungi spores reproduce. Unfortunately, her theories weren’t given proper consideration by the scientific community because of her gender, and her paper On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae was never published.

Children’s storybook author Beatrix Potter also created hundreds of full-color mushroom illustrations. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Charles G.Y. King.

Dickinson once wrote, “The career of flowers differs from ours only in inaudibleness.” Mirroring the poet’s words, many Victorian women’s passionate studies of the “inaudible” botanical world allowed them to make a discursive mark for themselves in history. And women today continue to follow in their footsteps.

Coded Bouquets

Thought to be inspired by traditions brought back from Turkey in the 1700s, the idea of flower code enraptured the French Victorian upper class. From the popular flower almanacs and dictionaries of the early 1800s grew the comprehensive tome Le langage des fleurs. Written by Louise Cortambert in 1819, the definitive guide grew in popularity throughout Europe, and by 1923 there were at least 98 different versions of the flower dictionary circulating the U.S. And the secret language didn’t end with bouquets; pre-Raphaelite painters hid floral symbolism in their works, and famous authors, such as Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte, used the language of flowers to evoke certain themes and emotions in their literature. In fact, the language still finds use today: Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, crafted the bouquet for her wedding with flowers for love, marriage, and gallantry.

The symbolic meaning of different green sprigs and floral blooms grew from many sources. Some had mythological roots or were based in ancient mystic or medical lore. Other meanings were derived from the physical characteristics of a plant; the different colors of a single species, such as roses, often all had their own specific definitions. Still other definitions seemed essentially baseless — although that only added to the enticing secrecy of the language.

Bouquets Decoded

If you’re interested in assembling a flower arrangement to express affection, animosity, or sympathy, consider blooms with some of the following meanings, as defined by Le langage des fleurs:

  • Amiability: red valerian (an accommodating disposition), white jasmine
  • Beneficence: mallow
  • Danger: rhododendron
  • False riches: sunflower
  • Festivity: parsley
  • Friendship: ivy, pink rose
  • Good luck: white heather
  • Grief: aloe, marigold, weeping willow (mourning)
  • Hope: hawthorn, pine (hope in adversity), snowdrop
  • Insincerity: foxglove
  • Love: lilac (first emotions of love), moss (maternal love), myrtle, red rose, tulip (declaration of love)
  • Mirth: saffron
  • Peace: hazel, olive branch
  • Protection: juniper
  • Stupidity: scarlet geranium
  • Suspicion: mushroom
  • Think of me: pansy, white clover

Rose Morris is a writer and editor living in Vancouver, BC, Canada. You can find her on Instagram @Rosalie_Morris.

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