In praise of the flowerpot
Researchers reviewing the renowned decorative arts records of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London can find hundreds of different designs for an olive fork. They will not find any for flower pots. Garden containers were considered "rude and cheap ware," according to a 19th- century letter that Jim Keeling of Whichford Pottery of Warwickshire, England, found on the subject.Skip to next paragraph
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But a new appreciation for the merits of the humble garden pot is dawning, and an exhibition in Maine shows just how important this unassuming container is. "A Place to Take Root" exhibits more than 60 garden containers at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Through the centuries, the use of flowerpots has influenced the history of horticulture, which "blossomed" once people had the ability to move plants from one environment to another.The Egyptians were among the first to use pots this way. The Romans were the first to bring potted plants inside in cold weather.
In the 1700s, pots allowed breadfruit seedlings to be transported from Tahiti to the West Indies, and geraniums made the journey from Africa to North America. Orchids and African violets have also traveled long distances in containers.
The exhibit features replicas identical to those in Cosimo de Medici's famous Renaissance garden in Florence, Italy. There is also a terra-cotta pot that has a fanciful face on the side, just like the pots used during Holland's tulip craze of the 17th century. The French have loaned a tree tub similar to the ones used in Versailles by Louis XIV's gardeners to move orange trees out of the cold each winter. The container was so innovative that it had cast-iron corners with hinges, allowing the gardeners to open it each spring and add fresh soil around the roots. The container also had legs long enough that a cart could be wheeled under it.
Innovative containers date back to ancient times, however.
The Greeks designed large pots that had numerous holes. These pots were planted partially in the ground, and when the plant's root structure developed, the holes allowed the gardener to break the pot, leaving the plant undisturbed. Variations of that pot have been made in Crete for 3,000 years by those who still today fish in the summer and mold pottery in the winter.
Much of the research and new understanding of garden containers has come from Mr. Keeling, who has written a book called "Flowerpots"; the exhibit's curator, Susan Tamulevich; and Guy Wolff, a Connecticut potter.
"Guy Wolff has been leading the way for the rest of the world in our understanding of flower pots," says Ms. Tamulevich. "He's done a wonderful job over the last 10 years of researching and finding so many designs that were lost over time."
Mr. Wolff has found designs in shards at great gardens such as at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, in records at historical societies, and even in historical paintings where a potted plant is part of the background.
Wolff says he began searching for these designs because their appeal is so strong in contemporary America. "It is important to look at them because in our current overstimulated society that is so mechanical and industrial, there is a huge hunger for high-level, human-crafted products," he says.