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A Belgian Botanical: 'Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l’Europe'

"Embothrium Coccineum". From 'Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l’Europe', Vol.13, 1858


Many of the historic images of tropical or rare plants I use in my blogs are from the celebrated Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, a wonderful resource not only for the botanical plates, but also the information it provides about the plants’ history and introduction into the UK [see Notes]. More recently however, some of the best images I’ve found have been from a Belgian publication, Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l’Europe – the English translation being ‘Flowers of the Greenhouses and Gardens of Europe’.

The plate above from Flore des Serres [its usual abbreviation] for example, is of a small evergreen tree, known as the Chilean fire tree or firebush, which grows in the temperate forests of Chile and Argentina. It’s grown as an ornamental in the UK, having been introduced to Europe by William Lobb during his plant collecting expedition of 1845-48.

Title page of 'Flore des Serres', Vol. 1, 1845

Flore des Serres appeared monthly for almost 40 years between the years 1845 and 1883, and is generally acknowledged to have been one of the finest horticultural journals produced in Europe during the 19th century, being described as “a showcase for lavish hand-finished engravings and lithographs depicting and describing botanical curiosities and treasures from around the world”. It ran to 23 volumes with over 2,000 coloured plates. The early volumes had text in French, German and English – although later ones are only in French. (There was also a Dutch version published in 1864, but this seems to have been a one-off.)

An example of the multi-language entries, from volume 1, is that below for Oncidium insleayi. This orchid, an epiphytic species native to Mexico, was first described by Mr. George Baker in 1840, who successfully grew it and named it for his gardener, a Mr. Insleay. [This orchid is now known as Rossioglossum insleayi.]

'Oncidium insleayi'. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol.1, 1845

Entry titles for Oncidium insleayi in English, French and German

Flore des Serres was founded by Louis van Houtte, and edited together with Charles Lemaire and Michael Scheidweiler. The three editors were experienced botanical engravers and horticulturists, who combined their knowledge and skills to create a showpiece journal featuring novel exotics of the day, as well as more familiar cultivated plants.

In this blog however, I'm concentrating on van Houtte as he was the driving force behind the publication. Briefly, however, Lemaire (1800-1891) was a French botanist, noted for his publications on cacti and for engraving Pierre-Joseph Redoute’s great works, including his famous Les Roses. Scheidweiler (1799-1861), a German-born professor of botany, was also interested in cacti. Wikipedia has brief entries on both men.

Louis van Houtte (1810-1876)

Portrait of Louis van Houtte. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol. 22, 1877

Van Houtte, renowned today as a Belgian horticulturist and for Flore des Serres, actually started his working life at the Ministry of Finance in Brussels. However, having a great love of botany and visiting gardens, he quickly moved into the world of horticulture professionally. Having begun writing a number of successful articles for a daily newspaper based on his garden visits, by 1832 he had founded the monthly gardening magazine, L’Horticulteur Belge, with Belgian botanist, Charles Morren (1807-1858). Although the magazine only ran from 1833 to 1838, it was the first journal of its kind on botany and horticulture in Belgium – informing its readers about new crops, tools and cultivation methods, as well as carrying articles by local growers and gardeners.

Unfortunately, this journal isn't available on-line, and I've only found limited information about it. I did, however, find a description from a website selling one of its rare volumes – the particular monthly volume for sale including 119 hand-coloured plates, either engravings or lithographs, with 78 plain plates described as being delicate engravings of views. And in a Belgian blog, I found an image of one of its plates – of Lilium speciosum, as can be seen below.

Front page of 'L'Horticulteur Belge' and, right, 'Lilium speciosum', t.1, from 'L’Horticultueur Belge', 1833

At around the same time as founding L’Horticulteur Belge, van Houtte opened a shop in Brussels selling bulbs, seeds and gardening equipment. During this period, he continued his study of plants, having a special interest in the tropical, and exotic, plants which had begun to flood into Europe from all corners of the globe. Only a year later however, tragedy struck and his wife of only a short time died. Devastated, van Houtte accepted an offer to travel to Brazil to collect plants. Before leaving, he handed the magazine over to a colleague and closed his shop. Van Houtte actually had 3 separate commissions for the trip: a private commission for King Leopold of Belgium to collect orchids and other Brazilian plants for his own private collection; to send the Brussels Botanical Garden plants and seeds; while the Belgian Government wanted insects and other objects of natural history for the Brussels Museum.

Plant-hunting in Brazil

In January 1834, van Houtte sailed for Rio de Janeiro. Having collected more plants than he could carry himself from the surrounding area, when van Houtte travelled on to the Organ Mountains (already a well-known hot-spot for orchids), he hired a black porter, Domingo, to help him. Van Houtte spent the next 2 years in Brazil, and no doubt had many intrepid 'plant-hunter' adventures as it’s said that Domingo saved his life on at least one occasion. However, van Houtte seldom referred to his experiences in Brazil, and returned to Belgium at the end of 1836.

Van Houtte was obviously successful in completing his commissions to everyone's satisfaction as, after his return, he was appointed the director of the Brussels Botanical Garden. Later he went on to found the Belgian Royal Horticultural Society, modelled on the RHS in London. In 1836, van Houtte also remarried.

I've been unable to find much information on the plants he collected during his travels; however, in volume 3 of Flore des Serres for 1847 – so just a few years after his return to Belgium, there's an article written by him titled Courte excursion dans Les Montagnes des Orgues et dans Les Forets Vierges au Bresil – 'Short excursion to the Organ Mountains and the virgin forests of Brazil'. With my limited French, the lengthy article seems to offer observations about the forest and the mountains, but van Houtte writes at one point (loosely translated) that: ‘The account of my trip, the reasons that determined it, my stay in Rio, etc… all these things would offer only mediocre interest, so I will ignore them'. I assume, therefore, that he doesn't include much about his actual travels, and, as mentioned earlier, writers do acknowledge his reticence about the trip. It does however give us the illustration below.

'Foret vierge au Bresil' – Virgin forest in Brazil. From 'Flore des Serrres', Vol. 3, 1847

'L’Etablissement Louis van Houtte'

Van Houtte’s botanical knowledge, business acumen, and facility with languages also led to commercial success and, in 1839, he established a nursery at Gentbrugge near Ghent with a partner, Adolf Papeleu. The nursery began on a somewhat small scale, selling camellias, geraniums and azaleas. However, after only a year, it was stocking 400 varieties of azalea, adding rhododendrons and dahlias obtained from England. By 1843, the nursery had 3 greenhouses and, as the business expanded hugely, another greenhouse was added. Van Houtte’s seed business also grew and by that same year he was selling 1,400 varieties of seed for ornamental plants as well as 400 types of vegetable seed.

View of the van Houtte nursery in Ghent around 1850. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol.6, 1850-51 [As well as the greenhouses, note the numerous cold frames]

The nursery sold such popular plants as roses, phlox, lobelias, peonies, carnations, verbena and delphiniums, various pansies (from England), as well as deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. For unheated greenhouses it sold fuchsias, cinerarias, petunias, as well as orange and lemon trees, around 225 varieties of cacti, and 175 varieties of cape heathers from England. The nursery also stocked palm trees, orchids, ferns, and pineapples for hothouses.

By the 1870’s the nursery was flourishing, and L’Etablissement Louis van Houtte, as it was known, was the largest plant nursery in Belgium with an area of some 34 acres, 50 greenhouses, and some 200 gardeners. One source says it was the largest nursery on the whole European continent at this time. It not only numbered the Belgian Royal Family amongst its customers, but also those of the Netherlands, Sweden and Italy. And apprenticeships at the nursery were in such demand that van Houtte set up a horticultural school in 1849, the Institut Royal d’Horticulture de Gend-Brugge. The school received subsidies from the government, and many future stars of the Belgian horticultural scene began their careers there.

'Aristolochia Duchartrei' [a species of exotic tropical climber known as Dutchman’s Pipe]. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol. 18, 1870

Flore des Serres

The nursery also became famous for Flore des Serres, launched in 1845, which was published by its own printing department situated in the middle of the nursery's gardens. The illustrations in Flore des Serres depict flowers and plants for sale in van Houtte's nursery, particularly exotic plants, and so also doubled as its commercial sales catalogue. Belgian lithographers who worked on the journal were Guillaume Severeyns, Louis-Constantin Stroobant and Pieter De Pannemaker. Stroobant printed many of the illustrations in the first 10 volumes, although some were often taken from other publications, including Curtis's Botanical Magazine. The front page of Flore des Serres attributing "extracts" [also from articles, as well as illustrations] from "...The Botanical Magazine [the earlier name of Curtis's Botanical Magazine], The Botanical Register, Paxton's Magazine of Botany, etc., etc., etc."

By the second year of its publication, Flore des Serres had a circulation of 1,500 – limited perhaps, but this was a rather luxurious, and expensive, publication aimed at the well-off rather than working gardeners. A blog about Flore des Serres by The Association of Botanical Artists Belgium [VBKB – Vereniging van Botanische Kunstenaars Belgie] from 2020, points out that, at one point, the magazine cost the equivalent of a farm worker's monthly wage.

The front page of later volumes carried a full description of what to expect inside the journal, as this example below from volume 22 of 1877 shows. Its on-line translation is given as:

Everything concerning utility and ornamental gardening; plant cultivation greenhouses and outdoors; such as vegetable plants, fruit trees and foresters; description of the plants most recently introduced into the gardens; the examination of question of natural history, meteorology and general physics which most directly concern the large and the small culture; travel connections, etc.,

Looking through the various volumes of the journal also provides an interesting window onto the species considered particularly desirable at the time for conservatories and glasshouses across Europe. These included orchids, roses, camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons, as well as carnivorous plants, tropicals, and other exotics. One example, Rhododendron dalhousiae or 'Lady Dalhousie’s rhododendron', is shown below. This is one of the species identified by Joseph Hooker during his famed expedition to Sikkim in the Himalayas in 1848-1850. It's named for the wife of the 10th Earl of Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India who travelled with Hooker for a time when he set out on his travels. Hooker, who described this species as “the noblest species of the whole race”, introduced it to England in 1850 where it became extremely popular.

'Rhododendron Dalhousiae' from 'Flore des Serres', Vol. 5, 1849. As can be seen in this illustration, this species is epiphytic and, right, the flowers in detail. [Note the large fold-out plates.]

Van Houtte was, indeed, an astute businessman with an eye for the latest 'must-have' plants. At the height of European 'orchid mania' in 1845 for example, he employed his own plant-hunters to find new orchids and other exotics from the Americas. The plants were then cultivated and propagated at his nursery for sale, and published in Flore des Serres.

‘Vanilla Phalaenopsis’. From ‘Flore des Serres’, Vol. 17, 1867-68

A Horticultural Coup

One of his biggest horticultural coups (with the help of Eduard Ortgies – more on whom below), was the first successful cultivation of the famed giant waterlily, Victoria regia [now Victoria amazonica] in Europe. Its enormous leaves, that can reach up to 3 meters wide, have upturned rims with a purplish-red, ribbed underside with sharp spines, and are famously said to be strong enough to support the weight of a small child. [This is, however, probably something of a garden history 'myth', as it's said that the children depicted in such photographs were usually supported by something underneath the lily pad. However, this shouldn't detract from just how extraordinary this plant is]. The large flowers, which are short-lived and open at night, start out white to attract pollinators, and then turn pink after releasing their pollen.

'Victoria regia'. From 'Flores des Serres', Vol.6, 1850-51

However, the first of these introduced waterlilies to flower was in November 1849, at Chatsworth House, the country seat of the Duke of Devonshire. Interestingly, Ortgies was instrumental in this waterlily's cultivation in both England and in Europe. So let me introduce him.

Karl Eduard Ortgies (1829-1916), was a German horticulturist and nurseryman, who entered horticulture as an apprentice in Germany before eventually seeking employment in London. After working at a nursery there, he joined the staff at Chatsworth House in 1849. Its owner, the Duke of Devonshire, was a passionate gardener and collector who had, in collaboration with his famed Head Gardener, Joseph Paxton, created Chatsworth's splendid gardens. Paxton entrusted the young Ortgies with the care of the famous Victoria regia waterlily which, at this time, only existed in England as a few seedlings raised at Kew. Chatsworth, along with 2 or 3 other great gardens of England, were given seedlings – and the race was on to coax the waterlily to produce the first blossom in Europe. When the Chatsworth lily eventually began to blossom, such was the excitement that the news was sent to the Queen (after whom it was named), and botanists William Hooker and John Lindley were invited to Chatsworth to see a second bud open.

Van Houtte became determined to be the first in Europe to cultivate this waterlily. And, just a year later, he not only managed to obtain a seedling from Paxton, but also employed Ortgies as its keeper. Ortgies arrived in Ghent in April 1850, and a specially built conservatory (designed by him) was constructed for the waterlily, pictured below. In September that same year, its first flower opened.

‘The interior of the Victoria House in the Establishment Van Houtte’. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol. 7, 1851-52

'Exterior view of the Victoria Regia House [on the right] at Van Houtte’s nursery'. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol. 6, 1850-51

Ortiges later went on to create the first confirmed waterlily hybrid – named Nymphaea ortiesiano-rubra, shown below, which duly appeared in Flore des Serres. He also managed to coax the famed Australian blue waterlily, N. gigantea, into flowering and setting seed.

'Nymphaea hybrid Ortgiesii' [now N. ortiesiano-rubra]. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol.8, 1852-53

Not Just Plants...

There are other differences between Curtis's Botanical Magazine and Flores des Serres. The latter also includes illustrations other than of plants. For example, tools – the secateurs below being from the well-known French company, Nogent.

'Secateurs de Nogent (Haute-Marne)'. Illustration of secateurs made by the French company Nogent. From Flore de Serres, Vol. 21, 1875

Another difference is that some of the illustrations in later volumes of Flore des Serres, include depictions of native peoples alongside plants as, for example, the two below of banana plantations in Ethiopia.

'Plantations de Musa Ensete en Abyssinie'. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol. 14, 1861

'Musa Ensete'. From 'Flore des Serres', Vol. 14, 1861 – originally published in 'Curtis's Botanical Magazine', Vol. 87, 1861 and drawn by Walter Fitch Hood

At the time, the plant in the illustration above (on the left-hand side) was known as Musa ensete – or the Ethiopian or Abyssinian banana. But it’s one of those plants with a mistaken identity – as well as a complicated naming history.

First described and drawn by celebrated Scottish traveller, James Bruce, in 1769, Bruce was of the opinion that it was not a species of musa [i.e. banana]. It was only in 1853 however, that Kew Gardens received seeds, sent by a British Consul based in the area, under the local name ensete. It's now known that ensete is indeed a member of the banana family – Musacea, but the dessert bananas that we eat are of a different species, usually M. acuminata. The plant depicted in these illustrations is [still] an important root crop plant in Ethiopia, and its correct name is now E. ventricosum.

The illustration, left, from the 1861 volume of Flore des Serres, is an example of illustrations taken from elsewhere. It's actually by Walter Hood Fitch, one of the foremost illustrators for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in which it was originally published in 1861.

Some illustrations in Flore des Serres also show plants growing in their natural habitats – and, continuing with the banana example, the beautiful image below shows Musa vittata [now M. x vittata, a synonym of M. x paradisiaca, one of the species of dessert bananas].

'Musa Vittata'. From 'Flores des Serres', Vol. 15, 1862-65

There are also illustrations of insects, such as the one below which shows a variety of insectes utiles or 'beneficial insects'. Figures 9 and 9b show, for example, the Coccinelle or the 'ladybird', and its larvae form.

‘Insectes utiles’ [beneficial insects]. From Flore des Serres, Vol. 13, 1858

In a horticultural journal insects are one thing, but in the same volume I was rather surprised to come across several beautiful illustrations of sea creatures, under the article title Les Aquariums Marins – Anemones de Mer or, in English, 'Marine aquariums – Sea Anemones'. The article describes these varieties of sea creatures as "Beautes caches de la Mer" – or the 'Hidden beauties of the sea'.

Plate I from Gosse's book, 'A History of the British Sea Anemones and Madrepores' published in 1858, as featured in 'Flores des Serres', Vol.13, 1858

The article [if my google translation is correct, as my French is hopeless] is about a book published by English naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888), who Wikipedia describes as an innovator in the study of marine biology. He not only created and stocked the first public aquarium at London Zoo in 1853, but even coined the word 'aquarium' in his first book on the subject published in 1854. His work was also the catalyst for an aquarium craze in early Victorian England. The article also says that L’Etablissment Van Houtte had a marine aquarium for some years which contained Zoophytes [i.e. plant-like animals like corals and sea anemones]. The illustrations published in Flore des Serres are from Gosse’s book, which are colour lithographs from his own watercolours. [The image, above, is actually from the book rather than Flores des Serres, as it's of better quality.]

Gosse’s story is a fascinating one and, as I discovered after reading a little about him, aquariums were yet another Victorian passion. And although not really a garden history subject, as garden writer Shirley Hibberd [author of books on such things as ferns and foliage plants, as well as editor of Amateur Gardening] wrote a book about them, and aquariums pop up in the horticultural press of the time, I've decided it'll be just about ok to write a separate blog on the subject...! However, if you can't wait, there's plenty about him on the web, and a recent BBC Wildlife article from March this year described him as "the man who invented the fishtank".

However, I’m digressing hugely here... so, to finish.

Van Houtte died after a period of illness on 9th May, 1876. His second wife and children continued the horticultural business and, in 1889, it was renamed S.A. Horticole Louis Van Houtte, Pere which, after the 1st world war, moved to another town and survived for several more years.

Front cover of plant catalogue of 'Louis van Houtte Pere', 1902

Over the following decades, the land in Gentbrugge was used for other purposes until, in April 2018, a new park was built where the nursery once stood, called the Victoria regiapark, with only a few large trees remaining from van Houtte’s time. As for Flore des Serres, it continued after van Houtte's death under the guidance of his son until 1883.

Van Houtte was, and still is, highly thought of in Gentbrugge. A bronze statue of him was commissioned in 1877, one year after his death, and unveiled there in August 1879. There’s also a stained-glass window in one of the local institutions depicting science and horticulture “hand in hand”.

In Summary

For me, what sets Flore des Serres apart from other botanical journals of the time are the beautiful illustrations of plants growing in their particular habitats, some of which also include native peoples going about their daily business [although it's unknown whether the artists based these on travellers' descriptions or their imaginations]. However, these images do set the plants in context – rather than being just the usual close-up of a flower and its parts shown on the page as in other journals (including Curtis's Botanical Magazine). Its volumes also provide a snapshot of which newly introduced plants were popular across Europe at this time – with many depicting the various tropical orchids that began to appear in European (and UK) glasshouses and conservatories.

The earlier volumes are also useful for their articles about the plants, as they include text in English (although often taken from UK publications). Unfortunately, later volumes do not, so a lot of really interesting information is completely lost to me.

However, it's the illustrations that really make Flore de Serres worth a look. And all volumes are available on-line at the Biodiversity Heritage Library: v.1 (1845) - Flore des serres et des jardins de l'Europe - Biodiversity Heritage Library (


For more information on Curtis's Botanical Magazine, see my blog For the "use of Ladies, Gentlemen and Gardeners": Curtis's Botanical Magazine

And for more on the incredible story of the Victoria regia waterlily at Chatsworth, please see Dr David Marsh's excellent blog for The Gardens Trust from 2018. Link here: Joseph, Victoria and the amazing leaf | The Gardens Trust

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