In September 1902, Isabella Stewart Gardner caused a sensation at Horticultural Hall when she inspected an exhibit of plants from her greenhouses and gardens:
It would have been hard for a casual observer at the annual flower, fruit and vegetable show which is being held at the new Horticultural hall to determine yesterday morning whether Mrs. John L. Gardner or the magnificent group of foliage plants which she was admiring received greater attention. As Mrs. Gardner entered the hall, the word went around that the popular member of Boston’s elite was among the guests. Immediately she was the center of attention, though unobtrusively so. . .
The exquisite group of foliage plants, palms, and ferns . . . occupying 200 square feet, was arranged by Wm. Thatcher, head gardener . . .
(“Splendid Exhibit at Horticultural Hall,” Boston Daily Globe, Sept. 13, 1902,
The grouping won second place in the category, receiving a prize of $35 (about $1000 today). First place was awarded $50.
The report of Isabella Gardner’s visit to Horticultural Hall may have been somewhat exaggerated because, in 1902, many in Boston were actively speculating about her mysterious building on the Fenway. At the time, Gardner was installing the collection at Fenway Court (as the museum was then known) in preparation for its opening celebration on January 1, 1903.
Nevertheless, it is notable that even during this busy time, Gardner took time to indulge her passion for horticulture. The records of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society show that, year after year, plants, flowers, and vegetables arrived from Green Hill, the Gardners’ Brookline estate, to be shown in weekly displays and larger seasonal exhibitions.
Plants from Green Hill were first exhibited by Gardner’s father-in-law, John L. Gardner, Sr., who was elected to membership in the Society in 1845. In 1884, his son “Jack” Gardner, Isabella Gardner’s husband, inherited the Brookline estate, and he—like his father—became a Life Member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. After her husband’s death in 1898, Isabella Gardner herself became a Life Member, one of few women of the time to join the Society at that level. At the weekly and seasonal exhibits, Gardner, in her own words, “raked in” prizes for her entries.
In 1899 alone, she won prizes for:
Flowers: Cinerarias, all categories of Primroses, Hyacinths, Sweet Williams, Hardy Phlox, Montbretia (the British name for Crocosmia), Lilies, Orchids, Violet “La France” (introduced in 1891), Rhododendrons, Iris (German and Japanese), Pæonies, Campanula medium, Delphiniums, Hollyhocks, Forced Shrubs in the March Spring Exhibition, Freesias, Gesneria bulbosa (an unusual succulent from South America with a stunning orange flower, now known as Sinningia bulbosa), Hardy Aquatic Flowers, and a Silver Medal for “Superior Cultivation of Erica melanthera” (a low, fragrant heather)
Vegetables: Cucumbers, Brussels Sprouts
Foliage: Palms, Dracaenas, Asparagus deflexus (asparagus fern)
In the prize-winning displays, “Decorative Plants” included the large foliage plants that have always been a prominent part of the Gardner Museum’s courtyard. Visitors can still see many of these plants—but not the vegetables!—in the courtyard today. In the north and south ends of the courtyard, the large fishtail and fan palms, Boston ferns, and other foliage plants provide a lush background for the changing displays. The one- to two-foot leaves of Monstera deliciosa, a member of the Arum family, glisten in the north end of the courtyard. These vines come from the tropical jungles stretching from southern Mexico to Guatemala; there, they often climb trees, sending long cord-like aerial roots down toward the forest floor.
This article continues our periodic exploration of the landscape history of the Gardner Museum as it relates to our founder’s deep passion and commitment to horticulture and design. To see how this history continues today, visit the courtyard display now on view or attend one of our landscape-related events or tours.
Images: (top) Courtyard from the North Cloister, February 2009. Plants include Cymbidium orchid, fan palms, and Norfolk island pines. (bottom) H. H. Hunnewell and Charles Sprague Sargent at the first flower show in Horticultural Hall, 1901. Photo courtesy of Arnold Arboretum. The exhibit in the background is a typical display of "Decorative Plants" created for the opening of the new hall.