Monday, May 11, 2015

Answer: Victorians and palms trees? A thing?

When walking by some Victorian homes with extravagantly tall palm trees, I began to wonder why they'd plant such trees.  I think they're beautiful (but then, I grew up in LA where every street has a palm or two), but they're also very odd.  

This wonderment leads to today's question: 

1.  What was it with the Victorians and palm trees?  Why were so many planted near their houses?  What was their thing about palms? 
Obviously, this is an open-ended question that might not have a crisp answer.  But this is a nice example of a question that isn't easily amenable to a simple search.  You actually have to root around a little bit to understand what's going on here.  Why such an interest?  Was it symbolic?  Was it practical?  Was it an ostentatious display of wealth?  

And did the Victorians do this everywhere?  Or just in California?  

As we discussed yesterday, this also might be a problem that requires some thinking about the vocabulary.  How would you describe this Challenge to someone else?  

To answer this question, I searched first in Google Books (thinking that this would be some of the best places to find historical context).  My searches started with: 

     [ Victorian palm trees California house ] 

I discovered that there are palm trees in Vancouver, BC, (there's even a Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society). 

But I also found the book Trees in Paradise: A California History, which includes a fascinating section on the Victorian history of palm trees, and how they came to be symbolic in Victorian landscape architecture.  

Transplanted to the so-called temperate zone, tropical palms could be domesticated, their negative associations [with sweaty, humid tropics, and tropical diseases] pruned. In royal botanical gardens and private greenhouses, cultivated fronds provided aesthetic escapism.  In the 1840s Kew Gardens built the world’s largest steel-and-glass greenhouse and amassed an unrivaled palm collection.  Many wealthy collectors subsequently built smaller versions of the Palm House at Kew.  The financier Jay Gould set the standard in the 1880s when he added a gigantic palm house to his Hudson River estate, with other three hundred varieties inside.  Thanks to collectors like Gould, palms began to signify wealth and luxury as well as tropicality.  The tourism industry of the Victorian era added more associations—leisure and fun…. On the Riviera, landscapers favored Canary Island date palms, which became the master floral form for a new archetype, the Mediterranean palm…. The premier cruise ships of the era, the trio of Olympic-class vessels from the White Star Line—RMS Olympic, RMS Britannic, and the RMS Titanic—contained lavish, oversized palm courts that combined verdure with opulence…”  (p. 345
This is starting to be pretty convincing. (Especially since the author is a historian, and has written several books about historical trends and developments.)  

In the Victorian era, palms were exotic and symbolic--certainly symbolic of far-away lands, but also of wealth and means.  If you lived in a temperate climate (as is much of California), you didn't need a greenhouse, but could plant a palm or two outside your front doorway.  

I kept looking at these results, but I wasn't getting too many more decent hits.

THEN I realized that a more specific landscape and architecture search would bring me even more focused results.  So I shifted my search to: 

     [ "Victorian landscape" "palm tree" OR "palms" or "palm trees" ] 

Why "Victorian landscape"?  Because I realized that "landscape architecture" and "landscape design" is a viable topic descriptor.  

Keep in mind that when constructing your query, you want to tap into the language that others will use.  

Kew Gardens Palm House (Victorian postcards)
With this search I found an interesting blog about "The Nature of Cities" with the following argument about Victorian gardens and palm trees:   

Interestingly enough, in tropical and subtropical countries the available plant material is also the result of English Victorian garden activity. The Industrial revolution, with its opportunities to build glasshouses together with the enthusiasm of colonial botanists, explorers and commercial plant hunters, resulted in the creation of the core of favorite tropical and subtropical plants, which were first collected and displayed in Kew Botanic Gardens (the Palm House). British glasshouses were responsible for creating the Western image of a modern “tropical paradise”. The process of choosing the most “appropriate” beautiful and unusual tropical and subtropical plants in greenhouses started in Victorian England and ended in the crystallisation of the Western image of “tropical Eden” based on exotic plants from all over the world. 

This search proved pretty productive... From another source I learned that t
he Victorian Palm Court is the central focus of the Phipps Conservatory (Pittsburgh, PA). The Palm Court covers over 7,000 square feet and rises over 65 feet high, with palm trees that were planted in the heady Victorian days of 1893.  The list of associations between Victorian buildings and palm trees goes on and on.  

However, from this search query, I also discovered a fascinating book review of Piety and Perversity: The Palms of Los Angeles by Victoria Dailey, with the following observation:  

Victorians were mad about palms, and it is to their invention, the greenhouse, that we owe much of our palm legacy. These large structures built of cast iron and glass allowed the exotic flora of the world to grow and be seen throughout Europe and America — entire greenhouses were devoted to them. Evoking exotic climes, far-off colonies, and intrepid explorers, palms were emblematic of Victorian aspirations, and their biblical associations stirred the pious Victorian soul. A palm house was built at Kew Gardens in the 1840s; a large palm conservatory was on view at the Vienna World Exhibition in 1873; a decade later Emperor Franz Joseph commissioned a huge palm house at the Schönbrunn Palace, still the largest in Europe. At the United States Botanic Garden, a palm house was built in 1870. These are but a few examples of the Victorian palm mania. 

By this point, I'm starting to get the message:  The Victorians were palm-crazy, and the association between palm trees as a aspirational and inspirational status symbol seems pretty clear.  

Was it only in California?  Probably not (see above--Kew Gardens, Vienna, etc).  But it was certainly easy to grow palms in California, partly because the climate was so amenable, but partly because it's easy to get seeds and/or small palms.  There are varieties that are endemic to California, for heavens sake!  

Native California palms, Washingtonia filifera.

Search Lessons:  Once you get how to do this search, the results pour in.  If you read the comments from our trusty Regular Readers, there are lots of associations between Victorian houses and palms.  Mostly, the working queries include "Victorian" and "architecture" or "homes."  This wasn't a difficult search, but the answers aren't just easily available.  You actually have to read a bit.  

You just have to read a bit.  And that's the secret for this week.  Read. 

I think you'll agree--reading this stuff was great fun.  Victorians!  Palms!  Dreams of the tropics!  

Search on!  

P.S.  Sorry about the delay in writing up the answer for last week.  I've been traveling.  (Surprise!)  I'll tell you about it tomorrow. 

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