They don’t appear on those “what’s hot and what’s not” lists, but plants are at the mercy of fashion equally as much as clothing, popular music, furniture, and any other cultural artifact.
And just like any of these, once you’ve been sensitized to the difference in style between the old, the new, and the in between, the differences are easy to spot. I’ve never been able to figure out furniture, and I’m not exactly rocking the latest clothing styles, but in the years I’ve worked at a historic garden I’ve gotten better at telling at a glance old plants from new ones.
This photo is from the collection at Wyck. Of the hundreds of historic images there, this one has always intrigued me. The other photographs, whether of people or the landscape, are staged and formal, a response to an era in which photography was a lot more precious than today. What I like about this one is that it’s as close to a casual snapshot as exists. It was taken in 1924, and shows a bed of pansies in bloom and behind them some sweet william about to open. It’s also a bit of a vanity shot. Someone was proud of himself for growing these pansies, probably from seed, and coaxing them so successfully into bloom. There’s nothing particularly documentary about the image; it’s just sentimental, particularly for a family of serious-minded Quakers like the one that lived at Wyck .
The pansies are beginning to show up in the stores now, and I have been pleased to see that this year many of them have faces again. The most popular varieties in the last few years have been the ones with blank petals. Looking at them is like talking to the back of someone’s head, and since I like to talk to plants, they leave me a little cold. I’m looking forward to a better audience.