The Lemoine Nursery of Nancy, France opened its doors in1849 and closed three generations later in 1968. Hundreds of cultivars resulted from decades of meticulous selective breeding. Thankfully, many of the Lemoine family’s Victorian Flowers bloom in our gardens t0day. If you appreciate double-blossomed lilacs, peonies, begonias and fuchsias–to name just a few—you share the Lemoine Legacy.
“And any of us who love soft, fragrant, sumptuous flowers can respond to the romantic guiding light that Victor Lemoine followed in selecting his most promising plants. For those of us who can walk thoughtfully through our beds and borders and hear the whispers of those who came before us, the voices of Victor, Marie Louise, Emile and Henri Lemoine speak just a little louder than some of the others.” The Gardener’s Apprentice
Growing numbers of exotic ornamental plants were transported from all over the world to Europe and the United States by the 18th and 19th centuries. While plants had been cultivated since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Victorian Era brought a new level of excitement.
Charles Darwin’s work with plants and artificial selection opened new doors to experimentation. Plant lovers–from aristocratic collectors to hard-working gardeners–were enthralled with the possibilities. What if a particular type of flower could be brighter in color? Could it have larger blooms? Could it be made more fragrant?
Victor Lemoine (1823-1911) was one such plant lover. He came from a long line of gardeners, with grand visions. Rather than settling for an apprenticeship at a nursery close to home, he studied with three respected horticulturists.
The first was E.A. Baumann in the village of Bolwiller, in Soultz-Haut-Rhin around 1840. It was Baumann who knew secrets, such as tricks to encourage hydrangeas to produce blue flowers. In Visions of Loveliness: Great Flower Breeders of the Past, Judith M. Taylor says that it was probably Baumann who taught Lemoine the art of “deliberate hybridizing or plant breeding, not just selection of attractive variations in existing plants.
Lemoine later studied with Van Houtte, a horticulturist and scholar who traveled to Brazil on plant-hunting expeditions. Lastly, he studied with Auguste Miellez who bred peonies. Each helped to form his life’s work.
In 1849, Lemoine opened his own nursery in Nancy, France. Rather than producing the obvious flowers with which his customers were familiar, he immediately began selecting and cross breeding his own visions. Many of these became breakthroughs in the gardening world of the mid-nineteenth century and beyond.
He sold his first documented creation in 1852. This double flowered Portulaca that possibly came from Brazil was published in the Revue Horticole. His nursery was thriving by 1855.
Following are just a few highlights. (These photos represent current day successors of the Lemoine genetic heritage.)
The First double geranium, was named. Gloire de Nancy. It was big, boldly red and double flowered. This served as the parent of all the geraniums of its type. He later created the pink, double flowered Madame Lemoine.
The First double Tuberous Begonia.
Limoine improved the scent and size of old-fashioned Syringa, now called mock orange.
Improved the color and size of Deutzias. By crossing the taller and low growing, he created Deutzia Lemoinei.
Contributed to the galaxy of superior peonies by doubling the blossom size, improving the fragrance and making the touches of color more vibrant. He also produced two new strains.
The first double flowered fuchsia, Solferino, with red and purple petals.
The first double lilac, with tremendous improvements in size, color and fragrance.
Of special note are the Lemoine lilacs. Between 1876 and 1927, the Lemoine Nursery introduced more than 200 cultivars of lilac, many of which remain favorites in our gardens to this day.
When Germans invaded Northern France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, “food was almost nonexistent and the news consistently bad, so the Lemoine’s consoled themselves by going into the nursery and breeding a new race of lilac. It was a release from distress.” (Visions of Loveliness: The Great Flower Breeders of the Past, Judith Taylor.)
For years, Victor Lemoine had an “unassuming” lilac bush with bluish double flowers in his garden. But the ovaries in lilac flowers are hard to find and the pistils frequently bent and deformed.
Lemoine’s eyesight was failing and his hands unsteady. The intricate and tedious work fell on Madame Lemoine who stood for hours on a ladder. With her sewing scissors, tweezers and a paintbrush, she carefully placed the S. oblata pollen on the S. vulgaris ovary.
She made over a hundred crosses, using pollen from thirty different single lilac varieties. Her efforts produced only seven seeds. The following year they were able to gather thirty fertile seeds.
Victor Lemoine and his wife, Marie Louise Gomieu had two girls and one son, Emile, who followed his father down the garden path. Emile later had a son, Henri, who also became an important horticulturist in the family tradition.
Later varieties were introduced as Lemoine creations, but it was mostly Emile’s work. He and his son, Henri released many lilacs after Victor died. “It is hard to know which of them bred a particular plant. The transition is seamless.” (Taylor)
The Garden Magazine, May 1917 called Victor Lemoine a master craftsman and transcendental genius.
“Measured not alone by the number of novelties, but also by their intrinsic value to the gardens of the world, Victor Lemoine, the great French nurseryman, deserves credit as the greatest plant breeder, “creator” if you will, that the world has ever seen.”
For many years, horticulturists looked forward to the announcements of his latest creations in his annual catalogue.
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