We are often asked about the exotic-looking plants included in several of the plantings at Oakland. Are they hardy? Are they appropriate for a historic garden? The answers are yes and yes. In fact, bananas are one of the few plants we can document as being grown on the grounds during the Victorian period. Today we include palms, cannas, bromeliads, and many other tropical plants in our gardens. Many have proven themselves hardy within the city but others must be given protection from the cold.
Amateur botany and plant collection were favorite pastimes in the 1800s, and numerous expeditions to far-flung parts of the world were funded to acquire new and exotic material. Many plants died during the long sea journey from China, India, or elsewhere; however, the introduction of the Wardian case in 1842 allowed many exotic plants to reach the West. Elegant versions of these cases became the rage in sophisticated drawing rooms, but the simple, functional forms were responsible for the availability of many new garden-worthy plants.
The number of these plants is astounding. In the 1905 edition of his Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, L. H. Bailey listed 23 species of banana plants (Musa) as being commercially available in North America. He dedicated three pages to various types of Canna and over seven pages to ferns. Owning these plants was a matter of great pride and they were tended with care.
Many of these new plants were believed to be tender and were grown in greenhouses or brought inside to overwinter. In October of 1873, The Atlanta Constitution reported that this was certainly the practice at Oakland where Atlanta’s first greenhouse was built in 1870 for “the preservation of hot house plants during the winter season…[saving] the owners the expense and trouble of taking them home.” The article continued to say that this original greenhouse proved inadequate and a second house, three times its size, was added in 1873.
A popular picture postcard from the very early 1900s shows a very exotic planting of bananas and other plants growing at Oakland. There’s no way to tell if they are hardy, but they are large and flourishing and they inspire us today. We have included many bold, tropical-looking plants in the restored areas. Look around on your next visit and see how many you see. You might even try to locate the site of the postcard picture. It’s in the Original Six Acres, but it looks very different today. We look forward to restoring its tropical style when we restore that section.