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.
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.
The exhibit features replicas of what Wolff believes is the earliest American-made pot, produced in Norwich, Conn., around 1750; geranium pots produced at the historic Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia; and a fruit-tree container made at Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate.
While terra-cotta pots were the preference for many centuries, in the 19th century potters began experimenting with glazed surfaces and different designs. Patents were issued for pots containing India rubber in 1855, cork in 1856, iron in 1861, asphalt in 1895, and coconut shell in 1901.
At the time, gardeners disagreed on the value of porous versus nonporous containers, a debate that has finally been settled by the realization that some plants thrive in one type while others prefer the other.
Flowerpots began to be increasingly popular about 1850, when plate glass allowed for more windows in houses, and thus for more window boxes, says Tamulevich. The development of the railroad also made it easier to transport potted plants. By the late 19th century, potters who created pots by hand were being replaced by companies that mass produced everything from terra-cotta pots to sewer pipes. Then, in the 1950s plastic began replacing clay.
One of the goals of the exhibit, which runs until Sept. 11, is to discover and pay tribute to geographical differences in pots. It features the world of Eric E. Soderholtz, who, in the early 1900s, researched ancient artifacts including garden containers and then tried to replicate them at his garden in Maine.
Because of the harsh winter climate, Soderholtz experimented with reinforced concrete and colored pigments. He worked with famous landscape designer Beatrix Farrand, and his pots can be found from Rockefeller Gardens in Seal Harbor, Maine, to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.
The exhibit also documents more modern designs produced by Lunaform in Sullivan, Maine.
Tamulevich and Wolff plan to have the exhibit travel to various museums and botanical gardens over the next three years, growing as regional variations of flowerpots are collected and displayed.
"My hope is that by moving it from region to region we will ask questions that can then be answered," says Wolff. This will add to the available knowledge on the subject.
The tentative plan is for the exhibit to be on display at the Pottery Center in Seagrove, N.C., in February; moving to the Stonington Historical Society in Stonington, Conn., in June; and to the US Botanical Garden in Washington later next summer.
The exhibit features touches of whimsy. One of the pots is large enough to engulf a child, and one of the more modern designs on display is a container in bright plastic with a light in the lower portion. It functions as both a lamp and flowerpot. In addition, a dairy farmer has contributed a new compost garden pot made from cow manure.
• 'A Place to Take Root' is on exhibit through Sept. 11 at the Ethel H. Blum Gallery, College of the Atlantic, 105 Eden St., Bar Harbor, Maine. For more information, call (207) 288 5015 or see www.coa.edu.