Morven, the national historic landmark in Princeton, has long been known for its colonial history. Less recognized is its status as a Victorian masterpiece. The horticultural aspect of this past will be highlighted in a talk given by its recently hired co-horticulturists, Louise Senior and Charlie Thomforde, on Wednesday, February 12, at 2 p.m.
“Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Victorian Garden Practices” includes an educational tour of Morven’s Victorian-themed gardens and a presentation on the culture and history that led to the creation of such gardens. For their talk, the two have defined the Victorian garden era, a time considered by many as the golden age of horticulture, as the half-century period between 1840 and 1890.
“There was so much going on in the Victorian world — inventions, explorations and trade, and embracement of technology and science — that helped to create a burgeoning middle class and the concomitant development of leisure time,” Senior notes. “All of this affected gardens and how they were viewed and designed.”
“We have Victorian landscape areas at Morven now,” Thomforde adds. “American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing’s very influential landscape style in the 1840s — of which Morven is an example — emphasized grass and trees with flowers relegated to separate areas. However, not everyone favored that and, as a result, carpets of what are known as bedding flowers also came into vogue.”
“Morven is now in the process of adding an area of flowers,” Thomforde continues. “These will be colorful, Victorian favorites that have long bloom periods and can handle drought.” Among those being considered, and which will be covered in the talk, are orange tiger lilies, fragrant white mignonettes, pink bleeding hearts, and blue balloon flowers. Many will be offered for sale at Morven’s annual plant sale in May.
And then there’s Love Lies Bleeding, also known as Hopeless Love. Frequent visitors to Morven over the past few years easily spotted this annual as it is up to 8 feet tall, with striking red, dripping plumage that can give the plant the appearance that it is bleeding. “It was quite popular in Victorian times,” Senior says.
Senior’s talk will highlight a little known aspect of Victorian gardens: the tools and techniques developed to create them. Some were quite funky and no longer exist today. “Others, such as rubber hoses were new,” she notes, “as well as pumping technologies and the development of paper seed packets.” She will also cover the vegetables grown in that era, a favorite subject of hers.
Senior and Thomforde joined Morven as part-time co-horticulturists following the retirement of longtime horticulturist Pam Ruch last July. Each brings a background as eclectic as Morven’s history and their differing expertise enriches Morven’s extensive programs in both history and horticulture.
A bona fide Jersey girl, Senior grew up in Maple Shade Township, in a pre-Civil War house that her parents rebuilt. While neither her mother, a school nurse, nor her father, an engineer, were horticulturists, a family friend, who loved plants, was. Senior credits this woman for introducing her to the pleasure of growing and then eating fresh vegetables as well as the tricky process of hybridizing plants.
Though her B.A. from Harvard and her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona were in anthropology, Senior says she has always had a strong interest in botany. Indeed, following her 1981 Harvard graduation, she hiked all 2,150 miles of the Appalachian Trail and observed first-hand the different flora throughout the eastern U.S. Between 1989 and 1993 she spent three excavation seasons in Syria, although there was little opportunity to observe plant life when on those assignments.
Marriage and motherhood reinforced her interests in horticulture and gardening. She became a master gardener and became active in school gardens. For the past six years, she has been the School Garden Educator, a part-time job based at Princeton’s Riverside School. In that job, she not only teaches garden lessons to all children but also manages the gardens during summer and coordinates food donations from those gardens to the Arm in Arm food pantry in Trenton.
Senior also volunteers at the William Trent House in Trenton. Last year she received the International Master Gardener Search for Excellence Award for a children’s program that she created. She often works on educational garden programs with Thomforde at Trent House, as he has been a long time volunteer there as a historical horticulturist.
When it comes to horticulture, Thomforde definitely knows whereof he speaks as he spent his early childhood on a farm outside of Philadelphia in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Later, his father left the farm to become an international agricultural advisor. That job took him and his family to Iran and then on to Rome, where the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization was headquartered.
Thomforde gained a deep appreciation for Italian culture during the years he was in middle and high school in Rome. And not only culture but also a reverence for the past. “There is a casual appreciation for the past that we don’t have here,” he has said, and he hopes to inoculate such appreciation in his work at Morven.
He left Rome to earn a degree in biology from Swarthmore and a master’s degree in public horticulture administration from the University of Delaware. And all the while, he continued his research in and love of garden history.
“Robert Stockton, grandson of the Richard who signed the Declaration of Independence, made a lot of changes to Morven’s house and grounds around 1850,” he says and will cover this period in his contribution to the talk. “We know he had a large vegetable garden, a section of roses, and a glass house for tender ornamental plants that was located more or less where the present parking lot is. He also employed a gardener who won prizes for his vegetables at the Princeton exhibitions of the New Jersey Horticultural Society — but no prizes for any ornamentals.”
Senior will give another garden-themed talk on Saturday, February 29, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Her Signs of Spring Walk will highlight the science of early spring flowering plants as well as their beauty. “We’ll even dig a little bit to see what’s happening underground and explore what’s inside the ‘expectant’ buds on our branches.”
The two garden talks are among a plethora of offerings — including those on music performances, lectures on architecture, and poetry readings — that are scheduled events at Morven through the first half of this year.
And as a preview of flowering activities, the Morven horticulturists provide note that April brings magnolia and daffodil followed by tulips, dogwood, and serviceberry. They’ll be followed in May by Flowering Quince, Redbud Tree, Wisteria, Tree Peonies, Lilacs, Brunnera “Summer Forget-Me-Nots,” Primroses, Spiraela, Spanish Bluebell, Harison’s Yellow Rose “A Scotch Rose,” and Buckeye Tree.
Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $8 to $10. For further information, go to www.morven.org and click on Upcoming Events and Programs. Dates and times are also given for afternoon teas and museum tours. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.