Van Gogh’s Tuberoses

Van Gogh was a flower-lover, to judge by the many paintings he made of them.

His sunflowers, of course, have become iconic, and his magnificent Irises sold in 1987 for a record-breaking $54 million. But there are scores of his lesser-known flower paintings in museums around the world.

Leafing through a Van Gogh book the other day, I came upon this painting titled Vase of Carnations and Other Flowers. Taking a closer look, I noticed that the starry white flowers at the top are tuberoses! In fact, to my eye they’re such a dramatic and important part of the painting that it might better be called Vase of Tuberoses and Other Flowers.

Van Gogh painted it in 1886, shortly after moving from the Netherlands to Paris where he soon began painting with the brighter colors and bolder brushwork of the Impressionists. At that time tuberoses were so popular that a Boston writer said “everyone who has a garden knows the tuberose” – and their fragrance today is just as wonderful as it was then.

You can view this painting in person at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, DC, and you can enjoy the same flowers that inspired Van Gogh by ordering your own tuberoses now for planting this spring.


Farewell to Paul Cates, Hero of Heirloom Glads

The world of heirloom flowers lost one of its greatest champions recently with the death of our friend Paul Cates.

‘Bibi’, ‘Starface’, ‘Lucky Star’, ‘Dauntless’, ‘Blue Smoke’ – these are just a few of the dozens of great old glads that Paul rescued and then grew for us, treasures that probably would have been lost forever if not for him.


But glads were only one small part of his amazingly full life. Born in the Maine farmhouse where he died 93 years later, Paul was a lifelong Quaker, jailed just out of college as a conscientious objector, and sent to Germany to do relief work. Returning there in 1958 for a PhD, he was pressed into service smuggling medications into East Berlin where he met his wife Elisabeth. By the time she managed to escape the country in 1969, their first son was already two years old.


Back in Maine, Paul went to work as a traveling pastor, taught German and Russian in Quaker schools, and raised cut-flowers to sell to local florists – with glads quickly becoming the most popular. In his spare time he wrote plays that drew sold-out audiences to the local grange hall, served as president of the Maine Gladiolus Society, and at the age of 79 he ran and lost a hard-fought campaign for the Maine House of Representatives.

There’s more – which you can read here – but you get the picture. Paul was an inspiring guy who lived his life joyfully making a difference. We feel lucky to have known him, we’re grateful for the difference he made in our lives, and our hearts are with Elisabeth and the entire Cates family in their loss.

‘Lucky Star’
‘Blue Smoke’

How Old is That Lawn Mower? Part 1

my new old mower; note the ribbed wheels and barely visible traces of gold paint

My neighbor Mark was cleaning out his garage when an old lawn mower caught my eye.

“That’s cool,” I said. “Do you want it?” he asked and – me being a fan of all things garden-historic – of course I said yes.

But how old was it? With its cast-iron wheels and smooth wooden hand-grips, I figured it dated to maybe the 1930s or ’40s, but I soon found out that I had a lot to learn about mowers.

The first lawn mower was invented in 1830 by Englishman Edwin Budding who was inspired by a machine that trimmed the nap off cloth. Before that, most lawns were cut with scythes – if they were cut at all – which was time-consuming and expensive.

Budding’s mower was a hit. “It promises to be one of the greatest boons that science has conferred on gardeners in our time,” wrote the era’s leading horticulturist, John Claudius Loudon, adding that wealthier land-owners could now “indulge in a garden luxury which, if they had to procure it by manual labor, would probably long remain beyond their reach.”

Budding’s mower, with large roller in back, single side wheel, and grass-catcher tray in front

The first mower to reach the US arrived in 1850, imported by a wealthy garden-lover for his Hudson River estate. Five years later his enterprising mechanic was building and selling the first American-made mowers.

“Side-wheel” mowers like mine were patented in Philadelphia in 1869, and the design has changed little since then. Unlike earlier mowers which used a roller in back to turn a large wheel on one side which then spun the cutting blades, these simpler new mowers used a pair of smaller wheels set on the sides to power the blades.

Since side-wheel mowers were lighter and had fewer moving parts that could go wrong, they soon became the most popular style. By the 1890s, they were being produced by scores of small factories throughout New England and the Midwest.

1889 trade card with carpet bedding and a side-wheel mower much like mine (and a horse-drawn version in back) at the Philadelphia site of the 1876 Centennial Exposition

A paper label glued to the handle of my mower reads “Van Camp Hardware & Iron Company, Indianapolis,” so at first I figured that’s who made it. Then I discovered a patent date cast into one of the wheels – Sept. 12, 1899 – and traces of red and gold paint on the wheels and iron arms.

Those clues led me to the former Lawn Mower Capital of America and helped me learn a lot more about my mower’s history – which I’ll share with you in a future newsletter.