February 12, 2014


Some flowers from the greenhouse, for a Valentines Day Composition.

I also just wrote an article for the lifestyle site STYLE NO CHASER, you can view it here.

Come on....I didn't mean it THAT way. What I mean is that by St. Valentine's Day, winter has begun to show some weakness. Sure, the biggest snows may be yet to come here in New England, but the sap in the Sugar Maples begins to stir. By February 14th, the sun seem suddenly to be much stronger, brighter even, as it reflects off of the show. Skiers and snowshoers feel and see the effect of their forheads and cheeks, and this ever-warming sun suddenly becomes most evident in the greenhouse where vents begin to rumble and squeek on sunny days, opening often for the first time this year, as temperatures edge , and beyond 75º, virtually beach weather under glass.

The facts are there - the days are indeed longer now growing longer each day, not by mileseconds as they were around the summer solstice, but now stretching each day by minutes.  Considering all of this together, justifies my new lable for this horrid holiday of boxed chocolate, long dull roses and crowded, overpriced restaurants. Valentine's Day  is now officially Hump Day. So guys, try explaining that to your other half without getting slapped.

So what do I give for Valentine's Day? Click for more:

Dutch bulbs have always been a traditional winter florist plant, and often provided the only source of fresh green material in snowy, winter areas, where pots could be brought out from a cold frame, and forced into bloom within a few weeks. These are some of my pots, which I set on the bench last weekend. In the warmer sunshine, they are progressing.

There was a time, when mid-February was the absolute busiest time of year for me. As a designer at Hasbro, the International Toy Fair held every February in NYC was both the highlight of our developemt cycle and marked the point when we would show fully imagined ideas to the press, the media, the analysts and to buyers. It was an exciting, top secret, fashionable and crazy month, always culminating on or around Valentine's Day, when finally, it was all over.

Annuals were often grown in the winter, to provide color, especially cool-loving annuals which would fail in the summer greenhouse or humid garden. This year, I am trying some of these old fashioned annuals as winter pot plants, here,  a salpiglossis  grows sturdy and strong in the winter light, whereas it would sulk in our hot, humid summer.

What does this have to do with this post? Since Toy Fair was held in New York City, I would finally have a break in action, and would take a weekend to explore the city, to shop, eat and to see more signs of spring that I would ever see in New England, only a few hundred miles north. In the city, late winter shrubs were already blooming including Hamamellis, Forsythia and Cornus mas, whereas in New England, these same shrubs would still have a month or so before they would share their blooms. A run through Central Park, would also show snowdrops in full bloom and hellebores. Spring, it seemed, took a detour in New York, before it decided to head north.

While on the subject of Valentine's Day, I thought that I would revisit some plants which I feel deserve more notice in February, beyond roses, which my any measurement, make absolutely no sense as a mid-winter sustainable crop. Why not consider something more natural? Something not flown in from Columbia or Israel via Holland. Why not consider something that your great, great, great Grandmother might have craved on this still, very winter nights.

This Disporum cantoniense 'Night Heron' makes a wonderful greenhouse specimen, even in the winter, where it's violet fruit contrasts nicely with the plants reddish foliage, which typically only appears red in the cool spring. I was presented this plant by the fine folks at the Blythewold Mansion in Rhode Island, and I can see why it does so well in the winter
in a container, as my plant now has nice, thick new buds emerging from the roots.

Forcing plants and the celebration of Valentines Day have  much in common. In the mid 1800's greenhouses and florists were just beginning to cater to the middle class, and across North America, especially where snow fell and winter was cold, the greenhouse often located behind the florist shop, was the only source for plant material. What this meant is that instead of long stem roses we now think of as being a typical Valentines Day flower, a tied bunch of sweet violets was the traditional floral gift to present to ones love. If the florist or local farms could not supply violets grown in the cold frame, than forced bulbs, or forced shrubs and perennials could be gifted, especially closer to the turn-of-the-century.

It's funny how we gardeners always want to rush spring, forcing this and that just to experience a glimpse of spring somewhere in the world, and this isn't a new trait, for many of the first plants grown in containers were technically 'forced' shrubs and perennials, in China and Japan, with the promise of a glimpse of spring. Int he Edo Period, gardeners forced peonies into bloom in the middle of winter, right in the ground, using coal and rush tents ( they still do this in some parts of Japan, where the Snow Peony Festival has been an annual event every February around Valentines Day.

An Acacia tree, trained and brought into bloom for Easter or Valentines day was a typical
gift plant in 1895.

In America, in the mid to late 1800's, acacia trees and even Japanese Maples were forced into bloom. Acacia's were quite common as traditional Valentine's day and Easter potted plants, as were Japanese maples which were still new in the trade. Remember, this was long before jet planes could fly roses from Israel  and Africa to Holland, and then to major global cities. Florists were limited to what they could force and grow themselves or from what could be shipped via ship or train.

Rhododendron is a broad genus, and many are tender, winter-blooming plants, in particular, this one - Rhododendron fragrantissimum. You have one guess as to why I bother to grow it? It's buds are almost ready to open.

The classic winter Valentines plants and flowers were not roses, nor even long stems, as the idea of an arrangement composed with long stems was unheard of. Until the early 20th Century, florists composed arrangements as constructions, using moss, wire and foliage, to create banks of flowers, often removing stems all together, or used flowers which had no stems such as camellias or gardenias. By the late 1800's, Flower books and florist magazines began to talk about short-stem arrangements as beginning  'old fashioned' and not as trendy as those with stems, yet many still spoke about using banks of moss, with wire and greens, in which to display camellias, violets, lily of the valley, and mignonette.

An Acacia Tree sold as an Easter Gift in 1895.

Traditional winter flower gifts continued to feature forced trees, shrubs and perennials until 1900, when greenhouses science progressed and long stemmed roses began to come into favor. Once air travel allowed the floriculture business to diversify, and reach every corner of the world, it's a little ironic, if not sad, that we lost many of the plant connections with winter forcing, which one brought us associations with scented violets, forced Lily of the Valley, forced shrubs and acacia trees for indoor display and appreciation. Today, a flower must be sturdy, it must ship well in-bud, and meet a long list of criteria practical for business reasons, but not for our soul. So many florist arrangements feel sterile today, that I find it hard to get excited about any of them, and I not-so-secretly long for the day of forced plums, delicate bulbs, and oh yes, acacia trees.

Crocus, perhaps the easiest bulb to force, are just beginning to bloom in my greenhouse.

Old Fashioned Primroses, like these Primula malacoides, or Fairy Primroses, are not as common as they once were. I
find them difficult to source, so I grow mine from seed which is sown in August. The flower buds form as the winter nights become long, and they will provide fragrance for the house, until May. They are just beginning to bloom.


  1. My P malacoides is blooming now too! I wonder though.....how do I keep it looking healthy? The leaves are dying off slowly. I'm keeping it moist and next to an east-facing window.
    I worked for a few years at a florist (now closed) that grew many of their own cuts, like Carnations, Chrysanthemums and others. I remember sterilizing the benches and how horrible it smelled! Creating 'Glamellias' was always a trip! Talk about constructing a flower!

  2. i always loved how the old school garden club ladies celebrated valentines day back in southeast alabama. they taught us that we should cut our roses back in february. somehow this resulted in valentines day being THE rose bush whacking day. there is something romantic, yet therapeutic about taking shears to the floral symbol of love on it's big day :)!

  3. Enjoyed the history of plant/flower arrangements for St.Valentine Day. Thanks!


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