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1876 and all that...

Martin Gibbons ex Benjamin Samuel Williams Extracts' from a wonderful old book published over 100 years ago, but still full of useful, interesting and relevant information. A hard act to follow.
Martin Gibbons, The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London SW14 7ED, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 11, published online 23-09-2002

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I was recently given a copy of a wonderful old book with the snappy title, "Choice Stove & Greenhouse ORNAMENTAL LEAVED PLANTS, Second Edition, Comprising Descriptions of More Than Nine Hundred Species, Accompanied By Instructions for their Cultivation and Mode of Management" by Benjamin Samuel Williams, F. R. H. S. It was published by the author in 1876. Mr Williams ran a nursery, "Victoria & Paradise Nursery" in Upper Holloway, London, N., long before the age of postcodes.

The information in the book, though nearly a hundred and twenty years old, is so relevant and so up to date, and written in such delightful language, that I thought an extract would be of interest to our readers. Quite apart from the printed word, there are some splendid illustrations, one of which is 'appended hereto', brilliantly executed when you consider that these were woodcuts or engravings.

Mr. Williams modestly includes a full-page advertisement for his establishment towards the end of the book. "B. S. WILLIAMS", it reads, "respectfully invites the Nobility and Gentry about to furnish their Conservatories, Greenhouses, Stoves (i.e. hothouses), and Orchid Houses, to an inspection of his stock of Magnificent Specimens that are unequalled in this country, consisting of the CHOICEST and RAREST EXOTICS.

"Tree Ferns, Dracænas, Palms, Camellias, Azaleas, Agaves, Yuccas, Cycads, Beaucarneas, Aralias, and all kinds of Flowering, Stove and Greenhouse Plants.

"Besides the LARGE CONSERVATORY which is at all times of the year worth a visit, there are numerous Houses consisting of ORCHID HOUSES, PALM STOVES (to which many new and interesting Plants have of late been added), NEW HOLLAND HOUSES, FERN HOUSES, AZALEA HOUSES, &c., replete with Plants, which by the interest and instruction they will afford. Will well repay a visit.

"Priced catalogues gratis and post free to all Applicants"

It must have been quite a place.

He begins the chapter on palms thus:

"The various genera included under the popular name of "Palms" comprise some of the most noble and majestic objects in the whole vegetable kingdom. Their numbers are something extraordinary, both as to species and individuals: and though casual observers may think they have a somewhat similar appearance, their differences are quite in keeping with their numbers. Thus some have stems little thicker than a straw, and only a few feet in length; while others have stout columnar stems, towering upwards until they reach a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet in height, their peculiar flabellate or pinnate plume-like leaves giving them a most noble and picturesque appearance. Others, again, have slender stems, which climb over and amongst the forest trees, reaching several hundred feet in length.

Palms are of immense importance in an economic point of view and we therefore venture to hope a few remarks upon their produce will not be considered uninteresting or out of place in the introductory pages of this work.

From this order of plants are obtained most of the necessaries of life of the aboriginal tribes of the tropics, and the inhabitants of Europe consume immense quantities of their produce in the shape of fruits, oil, wax, sago, sugar, &c. They play indeed a large part in supplying our daily wants. As an illustration Elaeis guineensis may be cited. This supplies the African Palm Oil, and is a very common plant throughout Western Africa; the stem is straight and stout, some twenty or thirty feet high, and supports long plume-like, pinnate leaves. Some idea of its importance may be formed, when we relate that oil to the value of £1,500,000 is annually imported into this country, and used extensively in the manufacture of candles and soap. The oil also forms an ingredient in almost every meal of the Africans, who use it profusely for smearing their bodies, to enable them to resist the bites and stings of insects; from it they also obtain a wine which is largely consumed and much relished by them.

Dates, the produce of Phoenix dactylifera (although only appreciated by us as a luxury), form the chief support of the desert tribes of Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, and Northern Africa, and also of their domestic animals, for camels, horses and dogs are equally partial to them. The tree is also largely cultivated for its fruits in Africa, and to some extent in Western Asia and Southern Europe.

The canes called Rattans are the produce of various species of Calamus, a genus of climbing Palms, which are very abundant throughout India and the islands of the Indian Archipelago, but chiefly of Calamus Rotang, C. Rudentum, C. Royleanus and C. Viminalis, and it is computed that six or seven millions of these canes are annually imported into this country, and consumed in the manufacture of carriages, in making seats to chairs and stools, in the construction of couches, and in broom making; they are also dyed and substituted for whalebone in the ribs of umbrellas. From Calamus Draco, a resin is obtained and imported into this country under the name of "Dragon's Blood", which is extensively used for colouring varnishes, &c. &c., whilst from the leaves of nearly all the species, handsome and very ornamental hats and caps are made.

Leaving the Calami, we shall next bring to the notice of our readers the various uses of that exceedingly handsome Palm, Cocos nucifera, the fruit of which, by the name of Cocoa Nut, is too well known to need description. Independent of the value of its nuts, nearly every part of the plant is turned to important uses. Its timber, under the name "Porcupine Wood", is brought to this country in large quantities and is used in the construction of ornamental chairs, couches, and various other kinds of furniture; many fancy articles are also made of it, such as fans, walking sticks, tea-pots, combs, &c. The leaves are used for thatching the native huts, and for making into baskets; while the well known nut is a nutritious article of food, and from it is extracted an oil of excellent quality, which is imported into this country to the extent of about 2,000 tons annually. If the uses of this plant ended here it must be esteemed as highly useful but one of the principal uses of the Cocoa Nut has not yet been named. The dense mass of fibre surrounding the nut is imported, to the extent of about 10,000 tons annually, under the name of "Coir" and from it are manufactured mats of all kinds, floor cloth, cordage, cables, brushes of every description, bags, hats, caps, bonnets and many other such things.

Having taken a cursory glance at the economic properties of this noble order of plants, we must now turn our attention to their uses for horticultural purposes and in this respect everyone must acknowledge that they stand pre-eminent. On their suitability for purposes of open-air decoration in the summer months we have remarked in detail in the chapter devoted to Sub-tropical Gardening, and here we propose confining our remarks as to their culture and ornamental features, for the embellishment of the stove, greenhouse, conservatory, and dwelling house.

The word "Palm", until only within a few years, would seem to have impressed the minds of nearly all plant growers with dread, and with the idea that they were all gigantic trees, which it would be folly to introduce to our plant structures. Indeed to such an extent was the notion of the impracticability of their cultivation carried, that in many cases (some of which became under our own notice in our younger days), when seeds of these plants had been sent home, the time for planting and space required for raising them was most grudgingly spared, and we have actually known them cast aside as not worth one's being troubled with. Luckily we have now learned better and have retrieved this great error although not to the same extent as our continental neighbours; I am glad to see however, since the publication of the first edition of this book that the taste for Palms has greatly increased. Those amateurs (and there are many) who imagine Palms to be too large for them because they have only small or moderate sized structures, are certainly not acquainted with the numerous and elegant small growing plants comprised in the genera Geonoma, Chamaedorea, Areca, and others whose maximum height is only a few feet; but independent of the dimensions to which even the largest palms attain when mature, all and any of them are exceedingly ornamental in a young state, their noble and majestic foliage producing an eminently tropical appearance; nor do any of them rapidly become too large to be accommodated in medium-sized houses. They may also be employed with considerable advantage for the embellishment of the drawing room in vases or jardinettes, or for the dinner table, and when they have so far increased in size as to be no longer suitable for such use nothing can be more effective for the decoration of entrance halls, corridors and grand staircases. Indeed it is impossible to conceive any place requiring decoration in which Palms cannot be advantageously introduced.

Palms are among the easiest plants to cultivate with which we are acquainted. Their chief requirements being good drainage and an abundant supply of water to both roots and foliage - in the latter case however, be sure that it is clean. Perhaps the greatest error it is possible to fall into in growing palms is to keep them dry at any period of the year. Very many kinds of Palms grow along the banks of rivers - nay almost or quite in the water; others, although growing at a considerable distances from running streams, are only found in humid places or forming the undergrowth of the forests where little evaporation takes place; and even those individuals which seem to thrive in somewhat stony and dry places, have their roots deep down in the earth where the parching heat or drought has little or no effect on them.

In growing Palms our practice is never to allow them to feel the want of water. Many of the kinds should be grown in water, winter and summer, and if it is possible to keep the water in which they stand slightly heated so much the better; if this cannot be done the next best plan is to stand them in large pans of water, which may be allowed to become dry once in the twenty-four hours, but never during the night. This latter point should be specially borne in mind by plant growers, for we have seen many plants ruined by inattention to it; and if those who advocate the drying up of plant houses would only think of and remember the heavy dews we have during the hours of night in England, they would be better able to appreciate what must be the state of things in a tropical country.

For soil, as a general rule, use one part loam, one part peat, and one part good vegetable mould well decomposed, with a good portion of soil added. This compost we employ in the seed pots and for the first two or three years' growth, after which we prefer to add two parts of good fibrous loam in place of one; and when it is not desirable to put the plants into larger pots every year, a good portion of the surface soil should be removed and replaced by good vegetable soil which is sure to be attended with good effects to the plants operated upon. The pots must be thoroughly drained.

In regard to re-potting plants, we would strongly impress upon the minds of our readers, the necessity of preserving intact the large fleshy roots which are sure to be found coiled amongst the drainage. We have seen these ruthlessly destroyed, but it is a fatal error for they are the feeders and real life supporters of the plant. Nature does not chop off these roots or if through force of circumstances an individual plant is so situated that its roots suffer, the plant does not appear improved by it; and if we imitate nature it should be in her very best form, and not allow our plants under cultivation to be continually struggling for a bare subsistence. Should it be necessary at any time to reduce the roots of Palms by pruning, the plant should be plunged in a tank of water immediately after potting. To keep them dry under these circumstances, as many do, is an error, which is almost sure to end fatally. The above system has been practised with good results by us for many years, and we venture to say those adopting the same means will never have to complain of failure."

* * *

Mr. Williams lived in a much more leisurely age than we do now, when fuel was cheap, and there were servants-a-plenty to stoke those boilers, and carry the coal that kept the stove houses warm. An age when new and exciting discoveries in the plant world were being made all the time by explorers and plantsmen, and mind-numbing television didn't hand it all out on a plate. I'd love to be able to go back in time and take a wander around the Victoria and Paradise Nursery, in Holloway, London, N., and perhaps meet the proprietor. I'm sure we'd have lets to talk about.

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