One of the horticultural oddities of the last century is the floral clock. Most of us have encountered them from time to time during our travels, often sighted on gentle slopes in manicured public gardens at tourist destinations. Apart from a moment’s thought at the sophistication of the technology and the intricate plantings used by the designers, most of these outdoor landscapes are soon forgotten.
As a working gardener I’ve had a fascination with these quirky garden features throughout much of my working life. Not only are they a reflection of the design and propagation skills of their creators but they also express the civic pride and wealth of the community in which they are located.
Floral clocks are found throughout the world but usually within temperate latitudes within societies which can afford the high cost of upkeep. Hotspots for these horologically functional novelties include North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. But floral clocks of one form or another can be found in other areas of the world too—I know of examples in India, China, and Japan, and recently stumbled on one in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, hardly a city we connect with municipal prosperity.
While mostly associated with twentieth-century landscape design practice, floral clocks have a history that dates back to the eighteenth century (and even earlier if their horological cousin the sundial is included). The celebrated eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus was, for example, obsessed with the possibilities of creating a botanical clock, known as a Horologe or Watch of Flora, made up of 46 different flowering plants which opened and closed as the day progressed, thus informing the viewer of the time of day.
Linnaeus’s plan seems solely an intellectual fancy restricted to observations of the habits of individual plants, and to the best of our knowledge his clock was never constructed. Despite this, his research in Uppsala found a reflective audience over the following decades and ‘dial plants’ were sometimes grown in botanical collections. The early nineteenth-century British gardening authority J.C. Loudon, for instance, listed a number of dial plants suitable for the purpose in his influential Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1822).
During the nineteenth century, floral or carpet bedding became increasingly popular and gardeners experimented in constructing intricate designs combining brightly coloured plants sourced from around the world. Reflecting the tastes of the time, gardeners tried to make plants look like something else. While many such bedding designs were laid out in private gardens the increasing establishment of public parks saw these skills transferred into a civic setting.
While carpet bedding began to loose popularity in the late nineteenth century there was clearly an interest to use the skills learnt in ‘bedding-out’ in a new modern way. Reflecting the advances in technology it is not surprising that someone would eventually build an outdoor clock decorated with living plants, with the time being articulated by machine (clock hands) rather than by the plants themselves.
The earliest known example of a floral clock was the l’horloge fleurie created by a French horticulturist named Debert in the Trocadéro gardens in Paris (1892). Not long after, another was constructed across the Atlantic at Water Works Park, Detroit (1893) and a decade later the still-extant clock at West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh (1903). Another significant early example was the giant clock created for the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. Other early floral clocks were also constructed in Le Mans, Interlaken, and Budapest as well as elsewhere in Europe.
After the first wave of interest in floral clocks some of these were abandoned due to the upheavals of the Great War, but during the 1920s and 1930s interest in the concept returned. With the increasing popularity of the motor car many towns constructed floral clocks as tourist attractions and many new floral clocks were constructed in English coastal towns.
Floral clocks came on the scene at the same time as the fashion for postcard collecting so it comes as no surprise that these gardens would become a popular subject. Thanks to the popularity of postcard collecting we have a record of nearly all of them, and as plantings changed each year these postcard views offer a revealing record of changing design approaches.
The best-known example of this chronological record is of the Edinburgh floral clock, photographed by postcard sellers most years since 1903. Designs used for this high-profile example have celebrated royal celebrations and civic achievements as well as anniversaries of significant local worthies.
The first floral clock in Australia was built in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo in 1928 and since that time it has been a popular landmark destination. In 1930 a clock was built at the Royal Agricultural Showground in Melbourne. This example was constructed at the height of the Great Depression and the mechanism was made out of scrap parts, a thrifty showpiece which was a popular curio at the showground for many years. Following the construction of the large clock in Melbourne’s King’s Domain, however, the Showground dial lost its uniqueness and was later removed.
As someone who has planted out formal annual beds I am in awe of the skill of the gardeners who plant-out the dials of these clocks. While some modern dials are decorated with mass plantings and coloured gravels, the true floral clock is decorated with thousands of tiny individual plants that have been raised from seed prior to planting out.
Many of the locations of the early clocks were found in temperate climates with cold winters. Therefore the annual planting-out of the dial face only occurred in spring, after the end of the cold weather, as many of the plants were frost tender. Plant selection was important but with the large range of plants imported from around the world designers have had a large range of plants from which to choose.
Succulents are a popular choice in many floral clock planting schemes. Hardy sedum and sempervivum are desirable as they are easy to propagate, diminutive in size, and come in a large range of colours. Less hardy choices include the larger-sized echeveria and agave. While there are many suitable non-succulent plants, popular choices include alternanthera, lobelia, alyssum, senecio, coleus, iberis, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), and salvia.
While most landscape themes have been well studied it is slightly surprising that garden historians have written little about these highly distinctive, much viewed landscapes. It is hard to explain such historical neglect as carpet bedding has been well documented and analysed. But perhaps these quirky landscapes have been perceived in some quarters as a form of horticultural kitsch, reflective of an earlier artistic aesthetic. But like the recent interest in garden gnomes—now sanctioned by Chelsea Flower Show—there is hope for a revival of interest in these intricate, technologically inspired, floral landscapes.
[This article was first published in the July/August/September 2014 issue of Australian Garden History (the quarterly journal of the Australian Garden History Society]