In the Garden:
Flower pots are on display at an exhibit celebrating their history at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia.
Flowerpots Hold More Than Meets the Eye
Can you imagine the concept of gardening without flowerpots? How would we grow our veggie seedlings? Carry the newest coreopsis and petunias to our cars? Hold plant tags till we make attractive labels? Plastic, clay, decorative, peat, fiberglass, styrofoam, wood, stone. Containers for our plants are like shovels -- ubiquitous, integral, and taken for granted. Yet they reflect history, culture, and art in horticulture.
I'm seeing garden pots in a new light, thanks to garden historian Susan Tamulevich. She explores the evolution of the common flowerpot in her traveling exhibition, "A Place to Take Root: The History of Flowerpots and Garden Containers in North America." Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia is hosting this exhibit through June 30.
Flowerpots Through the Centuries
What started as 60 pots is now 130, Susan says. The Bartram's display spans centuries -- from a replica of America's first clay pots handmade in Santa Elena, North Carolina (1500s), to the white, illuminated, translucent, 21st-century Bloom! pot from the Netherlands. It includes two original (partially reconstructed) glasshouse clay pots from John Bartram's garden (late 18th to 19th century) and the latest biodegradable prototype from twice-processed manure by Connecticut farmer Matt Freund.
"It's so thrilling to have it here in this beautiful barn," Susan exclaims. "The show has never looked better." Where most of us see ... well, pots, Susan sees people -- their lives, migration, hard work, whimsy, talent, inventiveness, skill. "In this country, settlers came from all over the world. Every region developed its distinctive [pot] style. On this side of the Hudson, notice the German and Dutch handles. The Pennsylvania German style is glazed and decorative."
One area is mostly devoted to American pottery, with examples of New England, Georgian, Mid-Atlantic, North Carolina, Ackermann, Roseville, and more. The North Carolina pots are uniquely rounded rather than straight-sided, to compensate for different textured clay. The Piedmont replica with ear-like handles is one of many with ruffled pastry edges. Also ruffle-rimmed, the Ohio pot is extravagantly decorated with colorful glazes and other ornamentation. "This show makes people realize how distinctive the pots are -- like furniture and clothes," Susan says.
The first flowerpots evolved as a way to transport plants, hence different handle styles depending on use and country. The floor display is flanked by descriptive signage, such as a graphic of an Egyptian wall-hanging from 1504 to 1482 BC showing plant gatherers in Punt (Somalia) loading myrrh-bearing incense trees in pots onto ships bound for Egypt. Netherlands, France, and Britain (especially Victorian) are given their due. Hortus Botanicus Leiden, Europe's first botanical garden (1599), is noted for having the first practical greenhouse for exotic medicinal plants and citrus trees. There's a nod to Louis XIV's Versailles Orangerie, with its ingenious oak tubs holding 1,200 orange trees and 300 other types.
Contemporary examples include an exquisite carved floor pot and saucer from Canada and Italian Vasa Trapezio rectangular planters. Something for everyone, everywhere.
You may have enjoyed this exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Botanic Garden in Ontario. Next summer it's scheduled for the Lewis Gintner Botanical Garden in Richmond, VA.
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