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The Bounty of January: Robert Furber, Oak Spring, and Winter Gardening

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The Bounty of January: Robert Furber, Oak Spring, and Winter Gardening


The nurseryman Robert Furber (c. 1674-1756) was a pioneer in utilizing botanical art to advertise his plant varieties. Based in Kensington, a neighborhood in London, Furber owned and ran a successful nursery garden that provided plants both native to England and imported from around the world. He was the first person in England to use such extravagant illustrations in his advertising pamphlets, and these images remain iconic for their beauty and detail. 


Twelve Months of Flowers depicts floral arrangements that represent the flowers Furber grew by month, beginning with January. As well as this volume of flower arrangements, Furber produced a series titled Twelve Plates with Figures of Fruit, analogous to the flowers but displaying Furber’s pomological products; and a smaller volume titled A Short Introduction to Gardening, which supplements the information in the other two. Furber’s grand depictions of fruits and flowers enticed customers at the same time that they became classic works of botanical illustration. 

At Oak Spring, Bunny Mellon viewed the library not as holding static works of art history but instead as a dynamic source of ideas and knowledge. In keeping with her wishes, the Oak Spring Garden Foundation supports both library research and knowledge about gardens and horticulture. Throughout this year, we’ll be highlighting the links between the plants in our gardens and the plants on the page. We’re excited to have you join our interdisciplinary discovery.

Credit: Flickr user  Tim Hoggarth

Credit: Flickr user Tim Hoggarth

We begin with the lemon. Furber includes a variety of lemon in his January illustration from Twelve Months of Flowers, a specimen called the “Lisbon Lemmon Tree.” The Lisbon lemon is a variety that originated in Portugal and which had been spread around the world, with a range now spanning California to Australia. It has a tarter flavor than the popular Meyer lemon, and is grown especially in the orchards of California, where it thrives. In more humid places such as Florida and India, the Lisbon lemon does not do as well. 

A lemon tree in Bunny Mellon's formal greenhouse

Greenhouses allow nurserymen and gardeners to grow lemons year-round–including at Oak Spring. In our formal greenhouse, we have a variety of citrus trees, including an ornamental variegated lemon that Bunny procured in 1999. In the warmth of the greenhouse, our citrus trees will continue to flower and fruit throughout the winter, although to a lesser degree than in the considerably warmer summer months. Citrus trees are some of the rare plants that flower and fruit simultaneously, lending an extra beauty to our wintertime greenhouses. In the freezing cold of January, their greenery is a welcome sight.

The history of the lemon goes back millennia. Although scientists remain unsure as to the exact origin of its cultivation, some have suggested a region in Northeast India as a likely source. Whatever their exact point of origin, lemons spread westward, reaching what is now Italy as early as 200 CE and then the middle east a few hundred years later. As lemons became well-established throughout Europe and Asia, people began developing specific varieties and trading them across borders; such trade and movement of plants is what led Furber to include the Lisbon lemon in his catalogue. 

Credit: Flickr user  Keith Williamson

Credit: Flickr user Keith Williamson

By the time of Furber, this mobility of plant species was taking place on a global scale, with European species being grown in North and South American, American species being grown in Europe, not to mention the many African and Asian plant species that had begun to move through global trade routes. The story of the lemon is similar to that of other crops in the early modern and modern times, as an increasingly globalized human society moved species from one continent to another. Today, India, Mexico, and Argentina are the top three producers for lemons, although the crop is widespread throughout the world.

Greenhouse inside.jpg

Just as the history of the lemon is interwoven with human history, so too are art and horticulture woven together at Oak Spring. In the display greenhouses there is a beautiful trompe l’oeil painting adorning the walls of the entryway. These walls double as cabinets, with the painting displaying the objects that would normally go inside–an apron painted where an apron was hung, and shears painted where shears were stored. Included among these beautifully realistic images, painted on a discreet shelf corner, sits a lemon. Even in the greenhouse, Bunny emphasized the fluidity between art and life, creating a space where each still feeds into the other.