Travelling as I do often between the UK & France it’s easy to get confused about the time. Maybe it would be easier if I was using the clock invented by Carl Linnaeus the great Swedish botanist. He’s most famous of course for creating the system by which we we classify our plants but in 1748 he also devised a 24 hour floral clock. I wonder if he knew that 144 years later a floral clock of a completely different kind would amaze the public in Paris, with others soon doing the same in Detroit and Edinburgh. It wasn’t long before municipal parks all over the world were the places to go to get the correct time.
After observing that different plants open their flowers at different hours of the day, and in a very regular way Linnaeius began to investigate biological rhythms in plants and wondered if it would be possible to use that fact to tell the time with any degree of accuracy. In 1751 he wrote his ideas up in Philosophia Botanica, and listed as many as 46 plants – sometimes known as “dial flowers” – that could/should be used. Most of them are what we what we might politely call wild flowers if not weeds.
You can see them all at the website of his former university in Uppsala, while artist Jovanna Mendes de Souza has drawn them all. Perhaps surprisingly its thought unlikely he ever actually attempted to create one of these floral timekeepers himself, although that hasn’t stopped people trying ever since, but almost always unsuccessfully because, as was pointed out in an article in The Garden in 1900, the opening times of flowers are dependent on climatic and seasonal effects as well as differences in daylight hours so the same plants will behave differently depending on where in the world they are growing, all of which affect flowering times.
Linnaeus was however not the first to suggest using the natural properties of plants to estimate the time. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher realised that some plants, notably the sunflower had a tendency to follow the sun across the sky and he devised a a “sunflower clock”. This involved a sunflower floating on a piece of cork with a needle stuck into it to act as a pointer to the calibrations on the surrounding ring.
Great idea in theory but unfortuantely it appears that Kircher cheated a bit because an observer noticed that it wasn’t the sun that was causing the flower to turn but an artfully concealed magnet.
The first real functioning floral clock was created in 1892. It was laid out in a small jardin anglais adjoining the Trocadero Palace on the opposite bank of the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. A commercial attraction, with visitors paying to enter the garden through a turnstile, it was described as like “an immense face scintillating with precious stones”, although of course they were flowers. These were laid out in multicoloured arabesque patterns. The clock was powered by water supplied under a constant pressure from a nearby cascade, which drove the gearing mechanism. Henri de Parville writing in Le Figaro said it was ” un trouvaille!” – a brainwave. He went on to suggest that it would be easy to open gardens at night too, with electric lights among the flowers, and to “throw sparkling diamond dust on the hands to dazzle the spectators”. He suggested installing one everywhere there was a reasonable water supply and definitely wanted wanted one installed at the next great Paris exhibition in 1900.
Despite my best efforts I can find out very little about either it or the team responsible other than their names, nor can I find any other illustrations or how long the clock lasted. However its installation was widely reported in the British press with snippets, like the one on the right, appearing in many local papers that summer and autumn. Notice the suggestion that the minute was sharp enough to cut down plants that grew too big.
At almost the same time another floral clock was created in Detroit in 1893, not as part of any exhibition or trade fair but as a by-product of a new water supply system. This had opened in 1879 but there was a lot of surplus land and the authorities decided to use them as a public park imaginatively named Water Works Park.
There were all sorts of attractions in the park including lakes and a 185 ft tall observation tower as well as the clock.
Designed by Elbridge Scribner, the park superintendent, and appropriately powered by paddlewheels driven by water the clock was 10ft across and over 7 feet tall but despite its size it was initially quite plain – being mainly comprised of houselkeeks, albeit over 7000 of them, planted through chicken wire. It’ s creation was, like the one in Paris, widely reported in the world’s press.
Later replanting made it much more colourful. But, as is the way of the world, it fell out of fashion by the 1930s and was sold to Henry Ford who converted it to a traditional pendulum-and-weight mechanism and installed it in Greenfield Village his outdoor living history museum. It was returned to the park in 1989.
There’s a more detailed history and its more photos at the website of Historic Detroit.
Another floral clock appeared much later in Detroit too outside City Hall, although again I can’t find much about its fate.
Scotland led the way in introducing the idea to Britain, with the first floral clock installed in Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens in 1903. Described by a local paper as “one of the quaintest of horticultural freaks” it was the brainchild of John McHattie, the city’s parks superintendent and was inspired by a carpet bedding display he had designed for the coronation of Edward VII the previous year. Edinburgh clockmakers James Ritchie and Son worked with him to instal a clockwork mechanism underneath the slightly raised planted clock face. The Gardener’s Magazine said that McHattie “is exciting the horticultural tastes of the Modern Athens, providing the floral beauties for some, arborescent displays for others, and floral freaks to attract yet others.” The city authorities were so pleased that they raised his salary by £100 a year.
It originally only had an hour hand about 1.5m in length but the minute hand of 2.4m was added in 1904, and the following year a mechanism based on organ pipes was installed to add the sound of a cuckoo, although the cuckoo itself, and its house -which are still there – didn’t arrive until 1953. It was converted to electricty in 1973, after 70 year of being wound up daily. Today, the original makers James Richie still maintain the clock.
The dial is 3.6m wide, and 11m in circumference and is replanted every year. In the early days it took 13,000 plants but this increased to 25,000 in the 1950s and these days over 35,000 are used. Apparently it took two gardeners five weeks to plant! Today, 16 large stainless steel containers are pre-planted at a nursery which has helped simplify the process.
For the first couple of decades the design was based on geometrical shapes with the clock numerals being picked out by a yellow leafed plant. During the Second World War, it was decided to commemorate wartime events and victories and since then there have often been celebrations of anniversaries or other topical themes. So for example in 1974 the clcok marked the centenary of the gardens themselves, while more recent ones have been a commemoration of Robert Louis Stevenson, the the 350th anniversary of the city’s Royal Botanic Garden, the NHS and of course the Queen’s jubilees.
Another significant early example was the giant clock created for the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. Designed by Paul Ostrowski it lay on the slope outside the Agricultural Exhibition building.
With a diameter of 112 feet it was the largest timepiece in the world. That was reflected in its other statistics. For example its hour hand was 50 feet long while the minute hand was 75 feet and moved 5 feet every minute. Fifteen foot numerals marked the hours and were planted with coleus. The mechanism ran on compressed air and the clock was illuminated by 1000 lamps and planted with 13,000 flowering plants. It also had a large bell weighing 5000 lbs which rang on the hour and half-hour. At the same time the doors of the little pavilion above 12 opened and revealed a large brass clock!
While the floral clock was dismantled at the end of the fair the brass one was saved and can be seen in the Missouri History Museum. The exhibition site was then converted into a city park and another floral clock was installed in 1951 as a memorial for those who served during the Korean War. However it didn’t last long with mechanical problems causing its decommissioning in 1985.
In 2009 The Missouri Botanic Garden commissioned another, albeit smaller version to commemorate its 150th anniversary and their website has a detailed account of its design and planting while you can see photos of it during construction on another page.
These early examples of Floral Clocks soon inspired others. Bradford started to install a temporary one for an exhibition in 1904 but soon ran out of money and the idea had to be abandoned.
Next came one that appeared in a park in Penge [then in Kent, now in the London Borough of Bromley]. It had one difference that, although the hands were movable it did not have a functioning mechanism and the hands were set every day by the gardeners to show the closing time of the park. This idea was copied elsewhere including, Darnall, Summerfield park in Birmingham and even in the gardens of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Individuals took up the idea as well, including a railway signalman who created a static floral clock at Neville Hill Junction station in 1908 [Yorkshire Evening Post – Monday 15 June 1908] and James Cook who added a clock to his front garden to tell passers-by the local tide times.
The first working floral clock in England was on Royal Prince’s Parade in Bridlington in Yorkshire. A crowd of several thousand turned up to see the lady mayoress cut the ribbon and start it up in June 1907. The mechanism was electric and also by James Richie of Edinburgh, while the horticultural side was done by the town’s head gardener. It was 12 feet across and used 10,000 plants.
The new feature did wonders for tourism in Bridlington with the town’s gardener reporting receiving “no end of letters and cuttings” and enquiries about it. The council were not just very pleased with the attention it bought the town, but also claimed that admission charges to the Parade grounds see it in its first season had already paid for it twice over. By 1926 half a million postcards of the floral clock had been sold and this doubled to over a million by 1930.
A check on British Newspaper Archives showed that other towns were soon reported to be considering a floral timepiece. There was discussion about the idea in Sheffield in 1907 and then Hull the following year where the parks superintendant was all in favour and thought it should be possible to have it in place in time for the following season.
It was damaged during air raids but restored to working order in 1948. I can’t find out its fate but it is not longer there.
Halifax created a clockwork one in the People’s Park for the coronation of Edward VII in 1911 while Swansea had a clock working in Victoria Park by 1912, the mechanism for which cost £47. The Swansea clock became a symbol of the city and lasted until 2003 when redevelopment of the neighbouring site sent the diggers in.
Luckily David Mitchell, the city’s former horologist, who had cared for it for around 50 years noticed what was happening, stepped in and rescued it, and it has been stored in his garage ever since. Attempts to have it reinstated have so far failed but he lives in hope. You can read the full story at Walesonline.co.uk
Apologies: I’ve reached my self-imposed word limit and only got part way through the story of floral clocks , so I’ll return to them a few weeks time.
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