Patient Watching and Faithful Care: Estate Gardeners in Worcester County, circa 1910 

On January 27th, 1910 a meeting was held at the Worcester County Horticultural Society (WCHS) to see Orchid Orpetiana, a seedling orchid raised and exhibited by George McWilliam of Whittinsville and named for Edward Orpet of Lancaster, MA.  The orchid had taken 8 years to blossom. Given the topic and that both McWilliam and Orpet were gardeners working at Worcester County estates, WCHS Secretary Adin Hixon invited other nurserymen and estate gardeners to attend to see the results of patient watching and faithful care. All responded and appreciated the thoughtfulness of the Society in extending the invitations. For many it was the start of a strong association with the Horticultural Society.

There was a lot of talent in the room that day. Attending were many of Worcester County’s most established gardeners and nurserymen:  Leonard C. Midgley, John Coulson, John Cook, and Alfred Green of Worcester; Florist H.A. Cook of Shrewsbury; W.S. Russell of West Upton; William Anderson, Joseph T. Clark, and Edward Orpet all from Thayer Gardens in Lancaster; Charles H. Green from Spencer; Edward W. Breed from Clinton; William McAllister and George McWilliams of Whittinsville; and Charles Potter of West Boylston.

The exhibit currently on display through June in the Tower Hill Library focuses on the lives and work of three of the gardeners in attendance: William Anderson (1868-1942), Superintendent of the Bayard Thayer Garden, Hawthorne Hill, in Lancaster; John Coulson (1845-1926) who was currently a nurserymen but up until 1905 was the head gardener at Stephen Salisbury III’s Garden in Worcester; and Edward Orpet (1863-1956) from the E.V.R. Thayer Garden in Lancaster.  Orpet and Coulson, originally from England and Anderson from Scotland brought strong horticultural backgrounds to their new homes along with an insatiable curiosity about plants.  Fortunately each found employment at gardens where the owners shared their passion.

We are fortunate to have materials from our archives that help tell their stories.  Two of John Coulson’s publications were donated to our library and both reveal his tenacity and range of interest and skills.  One of the works on display is a collection of 50 cyanotype photographs of begonias from the Salisbury collection, along with detailed descriptions and provenance for each. It’s not clear whether John or his son, Frederick Coulson (recently featured in the Worcester Art Museum’s exhibit on cyanotypes) photographed the plants, but it’s a rare, specialized glimpse of begonias in the late 1800’s . We also hold Impressions of Plants, Coulson’s attempt to document a wide range of flowers in and around Worcester with flowering times and locations.

Of the three featured, Williams Anderson was the most involved with the WCHS serving as a Trustee, frequent judge and head of exhibitions.  He is probably best known for his prowess with camellias, but his skill with many other species was well documented. Edward Orpet did not stay long in Worcester County, and like the others, was a frequent contributor to garden journals and books, but he may have gained the most national and international recognition.  From Lancaster Orpet became head gardener at Cyrus McCormick’s Walden estate outside Chicago and eventually wound up as head of parks in Santa Barbara, California where today, a park bears his name.

Stop by the Tower Hill Library on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday from 10 to 4 to see the exhibit and learn more about our resources and programs.