Judith M. Taylor is the author of The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree; Tangible Memories: Californians and Their Gardens, 1800 to 1950; The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: How the World Got into Your Garden, and Visions of Loveliness: Great Flower Breeders of the Past. She lives in San Francisco.
Walk into any nursery, florist, or supermarket, and you’ll encounter displays of dozens of gorgeous flowers, from chrysanthemums to orchids. At one time these fanciful blooms were the rare trophies of the rich and influential—even the carnation, today thought of as one of the humblest cut flowers. Every blossom we take for granted now is the product of painstaking and imaginative planning, breeding, horticultural ingenuity, and sometimes chance.
Gardeners of today take for granted the many varieties of geraniums, narcissi, marigolds, roses, and other beloved flowers for their gardens. Few give any thought at all to how this incredible abundance came to be or to the people who spent a good part of their lives creating it. These breeders once had prosperous businesses and were important figures in their communities but are only memories now. They also could be cranky and quirky.