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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Garden Time: The Beauty of Floral Clocks

Floral clocks are an exciting and innovative garden design element that began to be featured in outdoor public spaces at the turn of the twentieth century.  Though “Floral clocks” can refer to Carl Linnaeus’ design which places flowers in a clocklike pattern to open and close according to the hour, the floral clocks referred to here are large functioning time pieces placed amongst richly colored and contrasting “carpet plants” in elaborate, often geometric patterns in a garden bed.
The Archives of American Gardens’ includes photographic prints Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens' floral clock.  The idea for the floral clock’s design is credited to Edinburgh Parks Superintendent, John McHattie who arranged to have clock makers Ritchie & Son install the mechanism for the clock in 1903.

When the clock began to operate on June 10, 1903, it had only an hour hand; in 1904 a minute hand was added.  The Prince Street Gardens’ floral clock was unique for not only having a twelve foot dial, but also for having florally worked out hands.  The hands of the clock were created from long, shallow troughs of sheet meal, and planted with flowers.  The Princes Street Gardens’ floral clock was not only a work of ingenuity for masterfully combining the technology of clock making with the art of planting design, but also for the engineering that took to install it on a forty degree incline.

Princes Street gardens Floral Clock in Edinburgh, Scotland, between 1920 and 1940.
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection.

At the turn of the twentieth century, floral clocks became feature at world fairs and public parks. In America there were floral clocks displayed on the slope of the Agricultural hill at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Water Works Park in Detroit Michigan featured a water powered floral clock and by 1948, America was home to the world’s largest floral clock in Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland, which still operates today.

Stereograph of the Great Floral Clock in front of the Agricultural Building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Historic Gardens Stereograph Collection
Floral clocks have their place as a trend or fad in gardening history and are wonderful examples of the use of technology in the garden.  The ability of landscape architects, gardeners, and clock makers to collaborate on such beautiful and yet demanding pieces is what makes the floral clock so special.  

Jessica Brode
Smithsonian Gardens

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