The Massachusetts Horticultural Society, founded in 1829, is the oldest, formally organized horticultural institution in the United States. Providing information on horticulture and related sciences, it has disseminated this information through its Library, educational programming, exhibitions and community outreach initiatives. MHS has successfully championed many important issues throughout its history, such as the introduction of food plants (Concord Grape, 1853), the garden cemetery movement (Mount Auburn Cemetery, 1831), the school garden movement (1880s), the adornment Boston’s back alleys by establishing home gardens (1930s), the victory garden movement (1940s), and the garden history movement (1990).
Since 2001, the headquarters of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society has been at Elm Bank, located on the town lines of Wellesley and Dover. The Society is supported by revenues generated by membership (the organization currently has approximately 5,500 members), weddings and functions at our Elm Bank location, and by generous contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations. These funds support the Society’s mission throughout Massachusetts and at the Gardens at Elm Bank. MHS currently receives no government funding.
THE FIRST CENTURY 1829-1929
Immediately upon incorporation, the Society began weekly exhibits of locally grown produce, flowers, and horticultural techniques to teach the public about the newest innovations and cultivars. The exhibition sites used by the Society were Faneuil Hall and the Quincy Marketplace. The exhibitions were free and open to everyone and were heavily attended. In 1830, the Society began awarding premiums to the best specimens or educational exhibit. Also given to participants were experimental seeds and plants and untried growing mediums for their use and scientific advancement. These earliest shows were confined largely to fruits; later, vegetables began to take a prominent place. Flowers and shrubs have occupied the center of the exhibition since the 20th century.
Concerned businessmen, farmers and gardeners of Boston formed the Society. As membership grew, it emerged as an authority on horticulture by establishing professorships in entomology, pomology, botany, and floriculture. M. H. S. communicated with its sister organizations throughout America to promote scientific and educational advances in horticulture. Foreign travelers entering the port of Boston visited the Society’s exhibitions, and their contributions were documented and catalogued by the Society. This cooperation and information sharing brought a farming nation the best means of producing crops and the incentive to keep striving for diversification.
Congressional bills, as well as state agricultural and forestry concerns, were carefully followed by the Society in the early days, and the Society spoke for nearly a sixth of the population of Greater Boston, the size of its membership. The Society was one of the first organizations to promote scientific papers and their applications. In the 1860s the Society endorsed the work of Charles Darwin, paying tribute to him and his contribution to science at a time when the world was still spinning from the publication of his “Origin of Species”.
An M. H. S. Committee on Gardens was formed during this time. It toured urban and rural farms and gardens to discuss improvements and to promote Society membership and flower show competition. In 1866, this committee was invited by the City of Boston to critique the land the city had acquired for the Public Garden. The committee gave it a harsh review and made recommendations, which the City of Boston then adopted.
THREE HORTICULTURAL HALLS
The Society bought a 72-acre estate called “Sweet Auburn” in 1831 to be used as an arboretum, experimental garden, and as a cemetery. Mount Auburn Cemetery evolved and is now one of the oldest and most artistically landscaped garden cemeteries in America. Though the Society never realized its dream of operating an extensive experimental garden for itself during that time, the establishment of Mount Auburn began a land development and preservation trend that would cross the nation. In 1835, Mount Auburn Cemetery was separately incorporated from the Society. It was agreed that one-fourth of the money derived from the sale of lots in the cemetery should be paid each year to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Residuals from this arrangement continued until 1976.
The Society’s quarters moved in September of 1836 to 25 Tremont Street and the new hall was large enough to house the ninth annual flower show exhibition, a truly grand four-day display. Acacias were exhibited, along with what the record calls “a bewildering array of Dahlias”. In the center of the hall, a great table was adorned with two beautiful orange trees, large growing pineapples and heavily clustered grapevines. The displays of fruits and flowers were as notable for new and splendid varieties as for the taste with which they were arranged, and the number of visitors far exceeded that of any former year.
In May of 1845, the Society built and moved into the first Horticultural Hall on School Street, and the annual three-day flower show exhibition, now housed within the new building, grew ever more elaborate. The inaugural show included a Grecian floral temple, 7 feet wide and 15 feet high with six wreathed columns; a Chinese temple of three stories constructed of moss and evergreens and topped with a pyramid of flowers; a Gothic pyramid of moss inlaid with asters and marigolds; a harp with evergreen frame and strings of arborvitae; and a Newfoundland dog of moss and hollyhocks that was carrying a basket of flowers. These set pieces were the precursors of our modern-day flower show scenery.
In 1864, the Society moved to its second Horticultural Hall on Tremont Street – an imposing structure of Concord white granite decorated with Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns, a white granite statue of Ceres at the top and smaller figures of Pomona and Flora on the sides. The annual exhibition of 1865, the first held in the new hall, was suitably spectacular for the new surroundings.
The Tremont Street building eventually proved inadequate to meet the needs of the ever-expanding Society, and in 1900, the Society purchased land on the corner of Huntington Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue. Architects, Wheelwright and Haven, commenced the construction of the third Horticultural Hall. When the Hall was dedicated in 1901, it was one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world. Thousands attended the ten-day opening. The main hall was a glorious blaze of color. Azaleas, rhododendrons, and palms stood as if growing in a garden; and the adjoining small hall held a collection of the 1,000 orchids, the best ever gathered in America. The lecture hall, which could seat 300 people, was massed with purple wisteria, gloxinias, and geraniums, with banks of amaryllises and trumpet lilies. The loggia between the two halls was filled with jasmine, adding a divine fragrance to the spectacular show.
The third Horticultural Hall was home to many horticultural organizations such as the Benevolent Fraternity Fruit and Flower Mission, the Wildflower Society, the Garden Club Federation (whose founding in 1927 was organized by M. H. S.), the Boston Mycological Club, the New England Gourd Society, the New England Gladiolus Society, and the Herb Society of America. The building was renovated in 1984, and sold to the Christian Science Church in 1992.
THE NEW ENGLAND SPRING FLOWER SHOW
Competition among exhibitors began in the early years and the Society authorized an awards program for horticultural excellence. By 1834, an annual horticultural exhibition, then a three-day affair, was held at Faneuil Hall. As the organization developed, the size and number of exhibitions grew and new facilities had to be found. In 1852, a huge tent was erected in the Public Garden. In later years, the Society used the Music Hall, Symphony Hall, Wonderland, and Mechanics Hall as well as the three Horticultural Halls. The Spring Flower Show was institutionalized as an annual event in 1871.
Building on the merchant and shipping trade of Boston, introductions of new varieties of azaleas and rhododendrons, camellias and lilies, species of exotic and ornamental trees came to Boston via Europe and Asia and were first displayed at the Society’s Flower Show. The common bleeding heart (dicentra spectabilis), brought from China in 1850, was first exhibited at the M. H. S. Spring Flower Show in 1852. Together with the Arnold Arboretum or private individuals connected to the Society, M. H. S. sponsored plant expeditions to Asia, bringing back plants popular today: the white wisteria (wisteria florabunda ‘Alba’), green-stemmed yellow forsythia (forsythia viridissima), Japanese anemone or pink windflower (anemone japonica) and the old-fashioned weigela (weigela florida).
On the first day of the 1853 show in the Public Garden, a torrential downpour penetrated the canvas tent and drenched everything. Despite this, the show was a considerable success, significantly distinguished, in retrospect, because it presented the introduction of the Concord grape. This new seedling, which was to create a sensation in the horticultural world, was described by its introducer, Ephraim Wales Bull, as “a good table and wine grape, also early, hardy and prolific, and delicious in flavor.” Mr. Bull’s contribution of the Concord grape was properly recognized in 1873 when he was awarded the Society’s Gold Medal for Horticultural Achievement.
Since the Society began, it has been the forum for introducing new plants and flowers into the USA. There was a great need for good information about new plants, fruits and vegetables, as well as information about the plants native to North America. The tomato, for example, was considered a poisonous weed until 1820, when a New Jersey farmer consumed a basketful in front of his neighbors to prove that tomatoes could be eaten. Sunflower oil, whose beneficial properties are admired today, was first introduced at an M.H. S. Autumn Show. Both professional and amateur members of the Society were always involved in plant propagation and hybridization. Creating new varieties of apples, pears, or strawberries was high on the list of activities of early Trustees, many of whom were farmers. Later, feature exhibits at Horticultural Hall included an orchid show and, in 1922, a wildflower show, which turned the hall into a mountain gorge with brook, waterfall, and thousands of wildflowers forced into bloom under glass.
The centennial flower show of 1929 was one of the first of the great spring shows to be held in Mechanics Hall. For sheer display, it surpassed all previous shows and demonstrated the yet unrealized possibilities of such mammoth exhibitions. An innovative feature was the presentation of actual house fronts as settings for principal plantings, a technique now standard to flower shows. The State Department of Conservation, demonstrating the ravaging effects of forest fires and the need for land conservation, presented another exhibit noteworthy for its day. Here also, garden clubs made their debut into the realm of serious gardening and community leadership. The 1929 show initiated a new era in horticulture, for as one critic stated, “more people will garden and will garden more wisely, because these better shows have shown them better things.”
In 1909, Mr. George Robert White, a great benefactor of Boston, gave $2,500 to the Society as a permanent fund, with instructions that the interest each year should be used to award a gold medal “to the man or woman, commercial firm or institution in the United States that has done the most during the year to advance the interest in horticulture in its broadest sense.” In that year, the first George Robert White Medal was awarded by unanimous vote to Charles Sargent, Director of the Arnold Arboretum. It has since become the most coveted award of the Society. MHS continues to host an annual Honorary Medals Gala Dinner at which an array of prestigious medals are given to horticulture’s best and brightest stars. In most years, these include gold and silver medals as well as two special awards, the Thomas Roland Medal and the Jackson Dawson Memorial Award for the hybridization of ornamental plants.
When the Massachusetts Horticultural Society was founded, its trustees hoped that, “the Society might at some day diffuse horticultural information through a regularly published journal.” In 1923, the Society purchased Horticulture from William J. Stewart, a well-known floral judge and critic from the Boston area who founded the weekly trade journal in 1904. Under Society management, articles were expanded to look at subjects in greater depth, and over time, it became one of the most respected gardening publications in the country. M. H. S. sold the magazine in 1981. A subscription to the current Horticulture, in addition, to the Society’s newsletter, Leaflet, produced six times a year, is now being provided to MHS members.
In 1990, MHS founded the New England Garden History Society (NEGHS), dedicated to sharing information and research on all aspects of garden history with a concentration on the landscapes of New England. Its internationally respected journal was published between 1991 and 2003. A scholarly, but accessible text, fascinating period photos, illustrations and garden plans made it an ideal publication for both scholars and garden enthusiasts alike. Back issues of the journal are available through the MHS library (617-933-4910).
DEPRESSION, WAR AND PEACE YEARS 1930-1960
The Society’s membership remained quite steady during the depression years of 1930-1935. The Society reduced the number of shows during that time, but still rewarded participants with premiums and medals. The Society also undertook a role as advisor to government policies, involving unemployed surveyors and landscapers. Horticultural Hall became the home of many gardening organizations, and in 1939, was called the largest and most complete garden center in the United States.
In 1940, a committee on the Exhibition of the Products of Children’s Gardens was reactivated and for years to come would oversee a flower show that would involve thousands of children. The committee worked closely with the Boston school system and the Society’s volunteers implemented children’s programs in institutions, orphanages, Boy and Girl Scouts troops, and throughout New England farms.
The 1940s also brought the phenomenon of the “Victory Gardens” and the Society was instrumental in persuading the City of Boston to turn vacant lots and sections of city park space into areas for the encouragement of gardens. The citywide gardening program was established under the direction of the Mayor and the Society’s Director.
After World War II, the Society returned to its extensive show schedule and began organizing tours to every corner of civilization. Membership grew steadily, and the educational tours became more and more popular. The shows became elaborate, and attendance at the spring show began reaching the 100,000 mark.
1960 TO THE 1990s
The annual spring show was housed in Mechanics Hall until 1959, when it moved to Wonderland Park, where it remained until 1966, moving then to Suffolk Downs. In 1972, Commonwealth Armory became the home of this increasingly important event. In 1975, the show moved to the Commonwealth Pier Exhibition Hall and then finally to Bayside Exposition Center in 1983, where it continues to display the most noteworthy contributions to horticulture each spring. An important development in the early 1960s was the expansion of the number of entries of amateur horticulturists in the show, thus bringing participation in this historic annual event to a broader public. This commitment continues today. Junior Amateur Horticulture supersedes the former Children’s Garden Show held at Horticultural Hall in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Pilot Garden at Erie and Ellington Streets in Dorchester, Massachusetts was the product of a cooperative venture between the Society and the City of Boston. The former vacant lot was turned into a vegetable garden under the Society’s direction. This project spawned the emergence of the Boston urban gardener and also established the first 4-H group within Boston city limits. A lecture in 1971 by Henry Hope Reed, Curator of Central Park (New York), prompted M. H. S. member, Laura Dwight, to form the Friends of the Public Garden to help preserve and oversee the direction of the Garden in Boston. The beginning of the 1970s also saw the emergence of the “VoAg Days”, a program dedicated to helping recent graduates in agricultural and horticultural programs at vocational schools. These workshops and seminars involved hundreds of students and assisted them in job placement.
From 1969-1974, a school program called “Plants go to School” or originally “HUB BOX”, was introduced to fourth and fifth graders in the greater Boston area. Volunteer teachers were trained by the Society to take a kit of growing materials to school classrooms and to perform horticultural demonstrations. Seeds, potting soil, and containers were all provided while the instructor lectured on the significance of nurturing the miracle of growth and production. During that five year period of time, this very popular project was demonstrated in over 200 Boston classrooms and involved 6,250 children. Years later, former participants continued to report the success of the seeds sown and the resulting interest in gardening. The M. H. S. Plantmobile, a hands-on classroom on wheels with two beautifully painted murals covering its sides, eventually replaced this project. Allowing students to learn how their own schoolyard is part of an ecosystem and even how to create a rainforest in a bottle, this popular program served more than 3,500 New England schoolchildren in over 140 classes annually.
ESTABLISHMENT OF THE ELM BANK HORTICULTURE CENTER
In 1990, the Board of Trustees began to develop a new, long-range plan to establish the Society as a regional resource for practical horticultural education and information. This was spurred by a number of factors, including the increase in the popularity of gardening. (More than 60% of Americans now list gardening as their primary leisure activity.) At the same time, the decline in funding for the state extension services that once provided home horticulture tips and information resulted in the absence of a regional horticulture information center. The need for practical advice and gardening information, therefore, became ever more vital.
After a lengthy search, MHS signed, in the spring of 1996, a 99-year lease with the then Metropolitan District Commission on a 36-acre portion of the Elm Bank Reservation. The provision of information to gardeners of all levels, the establishment of trial gardens that showcased new plant species and cultivars, the restoration of historic gardens to their former splendor, and the protection and conservation of the natural environment are examples of the priorities agreed upon by MHS’s Trustees. Following a $5.5 million capital campaign, plant collections, classroom lectures and workshops, exhibits, tours, an updated PlantMobile, a plant clinic and an information phone line have been integrated at the Elm Bank Horticulture Center. Artfully combining contemporary and historic features, the site also successfully captures the spirit of Elm Bank’s previous existence as a prominent garden estate owned by the Cheney/Baltzell family during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.
THE MANOR HOUSE
More than a century ago, Alice Cheney-Balzell realized a
grand vision for her father’s estate at Elm Bank. As the steward of this beautiful
property, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society wants to keep this vision alive.
The question is: “How do we restore the manor house and have it be a
sustainable asset for Mass Hort?” The estate passed through several owners
before Benjamin Pierce Cheney, a businessman and a member of the Massachusetts
Horticultural Society’s Financial Committee, bought it for $10,000 in 1874.
Cheney built a Victorian style house among the ancient elms. In 1907, his
daughter Alice Cheney Balzell, inherited the property, and devoted herself to
its grand transformation during her thirty-year residence. She commissioned
architects John Marvin Carrere and Thomas Hastings, who designed the New York
Public Library, to design a neo-Georgian house, and the Olmsted Brothers Firm
to design the grounds. The estate was called Elm Bank. After Alice Cheney
Baltzell died in 1938, the house reverted to Dartmouth College. In 1940, the
college sold it to the Stigmatine Fathers, who operated a school and camp for
thirty five years. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts purchased the property in
the mid 1970s and in 1996, the 36-acre property was leased to the Massachusetts
Horticultural Society for a term of 100 years. Operations moved to Elm Bank in
1998 and by 2001 the Society had established its headquarters and horticultural
center at Elm Bank. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic
Places. As Massachusetts Horticultural Society looks to the future, discussions
of the manor house and its potential are part of that conversation. Over the next
year, we will be establishing a Manor House Committee to discuss preliminary
ideas for the manor house: its use, funding, and development in the future. We
are looking for people with a variety of skills: project development,
architecture, finance, historic restoration, as well as people from the local
community to volunteer to serve on this study committee. If you or anyone you
know are interested in joining the committee, please contact Kathy Macdonald.