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Articles » The Legacy of Victor Lemoine: hybridising on a heroic scale
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It is difficult for us to imagine how new the world of horticulture was in the early nineteenth century. Garden centre counters currently groan under the weight of begonia, petunia, impatiens, alyssum and numerous other bedding plants. Mesh bags full of gladiolus bulbs greet us at every point. Stripped down rose saplings are available even at drug stores, and lilac bushes can be purchased with ease. Scarlet “geraniums” are a cliché and the cognoscenti turn their noses up at them.

We take it all for granted and even find it a bit ho-hum. We seldom stop to think how all this came about. It was not always so. This glowing abundance was achieved by the extraordinary efforts of many devoted gardeners and hybridists, both professional and amateur, but there is one whose legacy stands out even in a crowded field: Victor Lemoine.

Historical Background

By the mid-nineteenth century exciting new ornamental plants were steadily coming to Europe from the Americas, the western parts of Asia and even from Africa. This process had started in the seventeenth century. Once the Far East opened to Western trade, the trickle of exotic plants rapidly became a torrent. Where did they go?

They were distributed in several ways. Botanical gardens wanted them to round out their scientific collections, though a dried herbarium specimen was just as valuable as a living plant. Wealthy people grew the new arrivals on their estates. Some of the aristocracy were avid plant collectors and several had strong scientific interests.

Important new organizations developed in the principal cities, such as the Horticultural Society in London, later to become the Royal Horticultural Society. These groups played a major role in supporting the explorers.They organized expeditions, issuing precise instructions as to what was needed, and bought land on which to grow the plants which came back. Kew Gardens started out as a private royal garden, as did the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, but both later became powerful national institutions.

Large numbers of the new arrivals were shared with commercial nurseries which had skilful and knowledgeable operators The middle class was small but ambitious, anxious to move into aristocratic circles. This was the time of the Second Empire in France. Building a large showy house with a large showy garden and a conservatory for good measure was a first step. Here were the customers for the nurseries’ new and improved wares.

Political and social change was coming. Something had to be done to stave off another round of revolutions. The 1848 uprisings in Berlin and Paris were a stark reminder of what simmered under the surface.

The idea of free public parks emerged. The first one had opened in England, near Liverpool at Birkenhead, in 1841. Parks were a relatively inexpensive way to relieve some urban rage. With all these changes the market for new ornamental plants expanded very rapidly.

Nurseries abounded. Gardening was a recognized trade or career, governed by apprenticeship. Very often sons followed their fathers into gardening on the large estates, or into the family nursery business.

Victor Lemoine

Pierre Louis Victor Lemoine, 1823 ­ 1911, came from such a family. His father and grandfather had both been in charge of large estate gardens. They moved to Delme in Lorrain before he was born. The village was not far from a well regarded school for boys. It says something about their level of prosperity that he could attend the school for the full duration of the terms. They did not have to take him out at an early age to do his share of the work.

Victor also became a gardener, but with considerably more education than his forebears. Instead of serving the standard apprenticeship close to home he attached himself to three important horticulturists of the time.

France had a powerful tradition of horticulture. For example, Louis XIV’s gardener, De La Quintinie, was a significant figure at court, in control of huge plantations where he grew food and ornamental plants. The king had to have fresh melon and peaches for breakfast every day of the year, winter or summer. Coping with such exacting requirements took a very special sort of skill.

By spending time learning from the masters, Lemoine prepared himself very seriously. He worked in the nurseries and earned his keep that way. He first went to E.A. Baumann in Bolwiller, a village in Soultz-Haut-Rhin, probably in 1840 when he was seventeen.Very little is known about some of his activities in this stage, not even how long he stayed there. E.A. Baumann was not just a master gardener, but a botanist to whom Lemoine later dedicated many of his hybrids. It is possible that Lemoine learned the technique of hand fertilizing plants to obtain new varieties from Baumann. The latter was one of the earliest nurserymen to do deliberate hybridizing or plant breeding, not just selection of attractive variations in existing plants

Lemoine next went to Van Houtte in Gand, Belgium. Van Houtte was one of the specialists who received plants from explorers all over the world.When he was older, Lemoine thought that this had been the most formative of all his experiences. Van Houtte was a skilled horticulturist, an artist and a scholar. He published Flore des Serres et de Jardins de l’Europe ( Geenhouse and Garden Flowers in Europe) at regular intervals in fascicles, describing and naming the new exotic material as it arrived. He had himself travelled in the East and South America on plant hunting expeditions.

Finally Lemoine spent another unknown amount of time near Lille, with the firm of D’Auguste Miellez. Once again he left almost no recored of why he went or how long he stayed. Miellez had a fine reputation as a rosarian.

After Lemoine finished the apprentice period he immediately made it clear that he was going to do new and different things. In 1849 he bought a small piece of land in Nancy, forty miles away from the family business, and opened his own nursery in the Rue de l’Hospice. He obtained the money from his father.

Nancy was a good choice. The textile industry was expanding rapidly. The merchant class supported thirteen horticulturists and four nurseries, as well as forty market gardens for produce. In spite of his impressive credentials, it took Lemoine a little longer than one would expect to become established.

Lemoine was a taciturn man, not given to recording very much about himself. The reason for the slow start may have been because of his broad ambition. Possibly he did not want to grow the obvious things that the public buys. He began almost immediately to select and cross-breed certain flowers. Those readers who remember the story of Dr ” Franceschi” (Emanuele Fenzi) in Santa Barbara will recall that he too was so devoted to science and rare varieties that he never made very much money. (Pacific Horticulture, 2002, volume 63, numbers 3 and 4.) In Lemoine’s case, this state of affairs did not last very long.

By 1852 he was selling the first documented double flower he had produced, a double purslane, possibly Portulaca grandiflora, originally from Brazil. The purslane was the subject of his first brief mention in a horticultural publication

In 1854, there was a double potentilla,’Gloire de Nancy’. The actual species with which he worked is not recorded. Within a few years, he began to prosper and by 1855 bought a much larger piece of land opposite the railroad station.

There he was able to indulge his passion for selecting and hybridizing on a grand scale but also had room to provide the standard stock everyone wanted. He married a woman from his home village, Marie Louise Gomieu (1834 ­ 1905), and they had three children within four years. The youngest was his son Emile, 1862 ­ 1942, who inherited many of the same qualities and talents which made Lemoine so remarkable. Emile’s two elder sisters were not married and had no children but he married one of his Gomieu cousins. Their son Henri was also an important plant breeder and horticulturist.

One must not overlook the significant contribution made by Lemoine’s wife, Marie Louise. She was a countrywoman, familiar with gardens and growing things, but her husband also taught her the precise techniques needed to cross breed flowers. She did it extremely effectively. The tools they used were very simple and easily available to anyone: a water color paint brush, fine pincers, a needle and small scissors.

The family owned the firm until Henri closed it in 1960. The Lemoines had weathered the great tragedies of the Franco-Prussian War 1870 ­1871, the First World War 1914 ­ 1918 and the Second World War 1939 ­ 1945, but were defeated by the post WWII peace. The extremes of austerity brought about by the war made ornamental horticulture almost impossible. The last few catalogues issued by the firm were very small, printed on poor quality paper and lacking the great profusion of plants which had characterized the family’s work before. Times were very hard and it is unclear what happened but partially it may be because they did not adapt to the new circumstances.

Victor Lemoine remained extremely active until the 1890s but then started to slow down. The work was continued by his son Emile. During the Franco-Prussian war, when food was almost non-existent and the news consistently bad, the Lemoines consoled themselves by going into the nursery and hybridizing. It was a release from distress. Later plant varieties were issued under his name but in fact the work was largely Emile’s by then.

Lemoine was a very civic-minded man, serving for more than eighteen years as a municipal councillor. He supported the planting of trees in the streets and managed the affairs of the town’s parks.

Beside the stream of new varieties with which he enriched so many gardens, he left another legacy. It was Lemoine who started the Nancy Horticultural Society (Societé Central d’Horticulture de Nancy), based on the model from Paris, Societé National d’Horticulture de France. Founding an institution of this sort has immense importance on the development of a branch of science or industry. The European countries, including Great Britain, were small enough and homogenous enough to benefit from centralized socieies.

The United States was too large and sprawling to give rise to similar organizations in the earlier years. The closest equivalent was the Massachusetts Horticultural Soicety, founded by C.H. Hovey in 1834. There was no American Horticultural Society until 1911.

The S.C.H.N. was a very serious organizion, holding annual flower shows with prizes and awards, and keeping meticulous records of each event and meeting.The Secretary was another nurseryman, Ernest Gallé, a most forthright and earnest individual. He did not hesitate to express himself forcibly when he disagreed with Lemoine or anyone else for that matter.

As the stream of hybrids and modified flowers gushed out of Lemoine’s premises, Gallé questioned the constant need to make all these changes. He thought that many of the predecessors had been glorious and worth while, and had barely been digested by the industry before being displaced again and again. This was actually a good point.

What Drives the Hybradist?

What is he or she seeking? There must be something else beisde the need for commercial success. Its importance is undeniable but it is probably not the principal force. Some of the drive has to be pure artistry, creating beauty for its own sake.

Passions are seldom satisfied and an initial success only creates a greater appetite for more. The challenge of defying nature is a driver and to some extent the ” if only” syndrome is involved. ” If only ” we had a (begonia) (gladiolus) (lilac) (peony) (pelargonium) with greater (fragrance) (hardiness) (longer blooming season) (brighter colors) (double petals), then we would be happy. Victor Lemoine left almost no written records and no one really knows why he was so passionate about creating new varieties.

Before we take a deep breath and look at Lemoine’s horticultural achievements, or at least those of which there are records, it is necessary to examine how plant selection and cross breeding work very briefly.

Elements of Plant Breeding

Baumann, Lemoine and the others were working before the Abbé Mendel’s work on genetics was published (1865) and recognized to be fundamental,. There were some early papers and treatises on plant crossing in France, notably by the Vilmorin father -son team, Louis and Henri, and Henri Lecoq whose work appeared in 1827.

In the United States Luther Burbank also worked on a giant scale from an empirical base. The key to their results was selection, seeing a characteristic which had special promise in one specimen out of a whole field of similar plants and then propagating that plant intentionally. Size was an obvious variable, but so were color, fragrance, hardiness and so forth. For generations this was how all improvements in agriculture and horticulture were made.

The idea of causing such changes artificially by cross breeding had to be freed from the restriction of religion, of being considered impious and against the will of God. All major innovations suffered from this at first.

What Mendel showed was that heritable characteristics followed straightforward and reproducible laws. The great advances in molecular biology recently have allowed scientists to see the mechanism by which these steps occurred, the splitting and reknitting of the DNA spirals.

Early plant breeders had no idea of what they were doing when they tried to cross species within a genus. Many of their accomplishments were purely due to chance. Doubling of petals is now known to be due to an excess of sterile stamens. They might unwittingly breed for a recessive characteristic and be very successful. Great moments of insight came when a breeder took the rather insipid results of the first cross and backbred them against the parent generation.

If there were four offspring of a tall pea and a short pea, one (the dominant) would be tall, one (the recessive ) would be short and two would be of intermediate size. Allowing the short pea to fertilize itself or crossing it with the parent ensured the continuity of short stature. Hybridizing brought the hidden world of the recessive genes to the surface, freed of the dominant sway. It is now known that dominance and recessiveness are not always fixed and may vary with the generations of hybrids, but is is a useful shorthand for most purposes.

Most of the plants we treasure in our gardens are the result of dozens of crosses between species and generations. Once a promising variety emerges and fulfills the desired criteria, commercial methods of propagation depend on cloning to disseminate it widely.

Thirty four years ago Richard Gorer unravelled many of the threads that lead to the modern hybrids. Even in 1969 he wondered whether some of the original species-parents still existed in the wild, to strengthen and re-invigorate forms which may have become corrupted by constant cloning. It must be much worse now with continuing and persistent loss of habitat.

The Lemoine Hybrids

At this stage one enters the realm of superlatives. Almost every specialty plant society could claim him for their own. Lilac seems to hold pride of place, but gladiolus, begonia, peony and pelargoniums run close behind. Two hundred and fourteen cultivars of lilac are attributed to the Lemoines. Almost all of them were commercially viable.

Lemoine started to breed lilac in 1870, during the war. He had had a small unassuming lilac bush in his garden for several years, with bluish double flowers, Syringa vulgaris ‘Azurea plena’. Another Belgian nurseryman, Libert-Daminot of Liège, had introduced the plant back in 1843. Breeding from this plant had been in the back of his mind for while and that was why he bought it. Persian S. vulgaris and the Chinese S. oblata collected by Père D’Incarville were the sole lilacs available at the time.

At the age of forty seven Lemoine was presbyopic (needing reading glasses) and had lost some of the dexterity in his hands, so his wife did most of the intricate and frustrating pollen transfer in the minute lilac flowers. The pistils in the double flowers were frequently bent and deformed. She made over a hundred crosses, using pollen from thirty different single lilac varieties. Out of all this work only seven useful seeds were formed. The next year they were able to gather thirty fertile seeds.

Five years later in 1876, three of their seedlings bloomed. One of them, Syringa ‘hybrida hyacinthiflora plena’, was a true hybrid between S. vulgaris and S. oblata. It was released in 1878. One or two plants could still be found at the Arnold Arboretum and maybe Kew in 1988. It was important because of its attractive lilac-blue color, great fragrance and early blooming habit.

After further breeding, the whole race of ” French Hybrids” was created and formed the foundation of modern lilac with giant double flowers. Soon afterwards Emile began producing most of the varieties with his mother, even though Victor’s name continued to be used.

From 1878 to 1900, sixty seven lilac cultivars were introduced by the house of Lemoine. From 1900, when Victor Lemoine was seventy eight, to 1911, the year he died, another sixty four were released. Between 1912 and 1933, Emile and later his son Henri released sixty two cultivars. It is hard to know who bred any particular plant. The transition was seamless.

Unfortunately they seldom left detailed records of what they did. This is similar to the complaints about Luther Burbank. His secrets died with him and most of his work cannot be reproduced. Scholars who have studied the Lemoine catalogues note that there is little detail and no concession to the average person hoping to learn something about the plants.

This article published in Rare Book Review June 2004 42- 43