Idaho History

The Idaho of 1870s proved fertile ground for flowers, gardens

Idaho City was an unlikely place to find flower gardens, but it had some beauties.
Idaho City was an unlikely place to find flower gardens, but it had some beauties. Idaho State Historical Society

Idaho’s pioneers took pride in their gardens – not just the fresh fruit and vegetables they enjoyed at mealtime, but the flowering plants that added beauty to their daily lives.

The Idaho World expressed it well in a story published on May 5, 1870: “It is a pleasant indication of improvement in this city, the efforts being made the present Spring to make more attractive the residents of families by flower and other gardening. What a relief to the eye a few bright, green, grassy lawns, and how comparatively little the trouble and expense to the real pleasure they would afford. Dr. D.H. Belknap is among the foremost in the labors of gardening and abundantly competent to instruct those less skilled. If he can make a winning with a garden on the top of a stone pile, surely everybody having better natural advantages can do so.

“Floriculture we feel confident will this season be far in advance of the gratifying progress made last year. Now is the season of the year to make all necessary preparations and arrangements, and take our word for it, none who try the experiment will regret it.”

The World did all it could that spring to encourage flower gardening in Idaho City, especially by praising those who were making worthy efforts at it. “No experimental or practical gardening we have seen surpasses the artistic floral and vegetable grounds of Messrs. Baird & Judge in the rear of their Miners’ Exchange saloon. Although bachelors of the strictest sect, these gentlemen know what constitutes a beautiful and attractive home as well as a place of business, and a few weeks’ time will make quite a little Eden around them.

“Another splendid garden is being made and planted by Sheriff Britten, adjoining the Penitentiary and county jail, sometimes known as the ‘Hotel de Britten.’

In May the World had praised Dr. Belknap for his fine garden. In August it praised his wife. “One of the nicest flower gardens we have ever seen in this Territory is in close proximity to our office and belongs to Mrs. Dr. Belknap, who evinces a cultivated taste in floriculture. She has an endless variety of beautiful kinds, the names of at least half of which we confess ignorance of. It is quite an oasis on our sterile bedrock town site, and many of our acquaintances have been the recipients of beautiful and fragrant bouquets culled from Mrs. Belknap’s flower-beds. We acknowledge the reception of several, which have graced our sanctum during the past two weeks, for which we return thanks.”

We learn more about Rachel Belknap in May 1875, when she died in Silver City at the home of her son-in-law, James I. Crutcher. She was born in Maryland in 1814, moved to Ohio in 1828 and married Dr. Belknap in 1842. They moved to Oregon in 1850 and to Idaho in 1863.

The Idaho World described what it called “A Rare Flower” in February 1869. “At Eckhart & Saunders’ store can be seen a rare and curious Chinese flower, called, as nearly as we can get the word, ‘Swee sin,’ which is one of the most noted and valued of all the Chinese flora. At first sight it is quite like an onion sprouting, but a close look will show that it is not – to say nothing of the aroma. The Swee-sin is a bulbous flower and needs to be placed in a common dish, to have small stones put around the base, and kept in even temperature. It blooms in from six to eight weeks, agreeable to circumstances. There is a Chinese superstition connected with the flower which renders it most valuable in their estimation. It is their custom to plant the bulb at the opening of each New Year. (If it blooms, good fortune, if not ill fortune and calamity.)”

From all we have been able to learn from a variety of sources, the plant described was probably a hyacinth, a bulb still planted at Chinese New Year.

As we shall describe next week, the night-blooming cereus caused a similar stir in Boise City in 1889.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email