By Anner Whitehead, VA,
with the assistance of Dorothy Stiefel, Mike Lowe, and Clarence Mahan
The first decades of this century saw an intense interest in the improvement of many perennial garden plants through hybridization, and the strong and widespread belief among connoisseurs that excellence was achievable, that progress was being made rapidly, and that new information should be shared among themselves, and with the general public. Plant societies were formed to these ends, among them the American Iris Society, and popular books and articles were written to make sophisticated information readily available to persons of all social strata and walks of life. Among those actively involved in these endeavors was Alice Harding, who was interested in several genera, including tulips, mock oranges, and hemerocallis. Like so many of the founders of the American Iris Society, including Bertrand Farr and John Wister, she was especially fond of peonies, and it is in regard to these that she is most often remembered as a pioneer
Alice Howard Harding was born in Keene, New Hampshire and was educated by private tutors and abroad. She married Edward Harding, a prominent New York City attorney, in 1900, and a few years later they established their country home and gardens at Burnley Farm in Plainfield, New Jersey. These gardens were of “unusual size and beauty” and there she grew collections of rare and superior varieties of many flowering plants. While Alice Harding enjoyed the means to garden on an indulgent scale, she was not an indiscriminate accumulator. She was a knowledgeable, practical, and observant gardener who believed that only the most excellent plants had a place in her garden and each new season carried the potential for greater delight In 1926 she observed
“One of the most interesting phases of gardening is the yearly improvement of material by selection. A dispassionate judgment, a firm resolve, and an unfaltering hand are needed in this work….This year the list of good varieties in my pile of discards was almost appalling. Yet there are better ones left, and next year I shall rejoice exceedingly.”
She did not, however, presume newer introductions were invariably superior. Each was scrupulously evaluated, and her opinions were her own. For example, she did not care for the lax standards on the popular irises LENT A WILLIAMSON (Williamson ’18) and LORD OF JUNE (Yeld ’11), and said so She retained proven plants and propagated her favorites assiduously, just as she eagerly anticipated the blooming of each new arrival. However, not everything was as it should be, even in Plainfield in 1926.
“As for the new introductions which I try out each year, not all will be permanent residents of my garden. This is understood….Disappointments there must be, but there are also pleasant surprises. For example, a beautiful unknown variety of iris…appeared in the test bed this season. It is one of seven or eight plants labeled ‘Asia’ sent to me by various growers, each of which turned out to be something else.”
Alice Harding is among the many fine historic irises Iris City offers.
Alice Harding, who was a Charter Member of the American Iris Society, also experimented with hybridizing. She raised a number of iris seedlings and registered six. These are CAROLINE CLEMENT (’29), ELIZABETH HOWARD (’34), COMMODORE FELLOWS (’34) NICOLE LEMOINE (34), TOPGALLANT fn d ]), and ARSINOE (’29). Interestingly, several of these are progeny of MOONLIGHT (Dykes ’23). Earlier, she had awaited with great interest the arrival of MOONLIGHT’S famous offspring, W R. DYKES (Dykes-Orpington ’26), which, she observed, promised “to be the nearest approach yet to the perfect yellow iris.” Her ARSINOE is listed as a cross of BALLERINE (Vilmorin ’20 ) and SOUV DE MME. GAUDICHAU (Millet ‘ 14), both of which she greatly admired. Although she sent at least one of her seedlings to Wisley for trial, she introduced none of her irises into commerce. Neither did she exhibit her plants, preferring instead to sponsor prestigious prizes in different genera for superior new seedlings raised by others. She also donated collections of peony cultivars from her garden to botanical gardens around the world so that they might be studied for climate tolerance. Mrs Harding’s deep affection for the iris and desire to support new advances in that genus was reflected in her notably generous financial contribution to the First International Conference on Irises convened in Paris in 1922.
Alice Harding distinguished herself as an author. Her writing is clear, simple, authoritative, and charming. It reveals a practical and sensitive woman of great intelligence and wit. She published the seminal study of peonies. The Book of the Peony (1917), and then Peonies in the Little Garden (1923] a smaller book directed at the general reader. These have recently been reprinted under one cover by Timber Press, a testament to their enduring value. In appreciation of these books she was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Peony Society in 1928, and a medal from the Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France. She also wrote Lilacs in My Garden (1933), with a forward by her friend Emile Lémoine This last work was translated and reprinted in France. Another European friend was Miss Jekyll, and, as she tell us in an obituary she wrote for the Bulletin of the Garden Club of America, whose Garden Literature column she edited for several years, she was fortunate to enjoy a great deal of Dykes’ company while in England a few months before his death. She encouraged him to visit America to lecture, but that was not to be.
Alice Harding identified herself modestly as one who “worked hard from the sheer joy of the work itself and without thought of reward,” but, in addition to the honors noted above, she was made a Chevalier du Mérité Agricole of France and a Dame Patronesse of the Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France. The Horticultural Library at Nancy, France was named Bibliotheque Alice Harding in recognition of her many contributions So widespread was the esteem in which Mrs. Harding was held that at the time of her death in April, 1938 that two irises, two herbaceous peonies, one tree peony, two lilacs, and a rose had been named in her honor by some of the most respected hybridizers of the day. Not the least of these is the splendid golden yellow tall bearded ins in which many of us today continue to “rejoice exceedingly,” ALICE HARDING (Cayeux ’33), winner of the Dykes Memorial Medal of France.
Mr. Lemoine dedicated several cultivars of different kinds to Mrs. Harding – the lilac ‘Souvenir de Alice Harding’ and two peonies, one herbaceous and the other a tree peony with the same name as this Lilac. Mrs. Harding was especially known for the peonies. The lilac remains a supreme homage because she chose the seedling herself.
The tree peony named for Mrs. Harding has luscious bright yellow double blooms. It is a Japanese variety and is also known as ‘Kinko’.
Harding, Mrs. Edward, “A Few of the Newer Irises and Peonies of Proved Value ” House beautiful, October 1926. p.428f
Harding, Mrs. Edward, Peonies in the Little Garden(Boston, 1923). Preface.
Harding. Alice, “William Rikatson Dykes” Bulletin, Garden Club of America, March, I926. p.78
Bulletin, Garden Club of America, May, 1938 p3 [Obituary of A.H.]
Peonies: The Manual of the American Penny Society, 1928. Edited by James Boyd. p. 294f.
Peyton, George. “Alice Harding” Obituary American Peony Society Bulletin, March. 193’l. p 8
“Mrs Edward Harding. A Horticulturist” Obituary New York Times, April 18. 1938, p L: 15
Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France, Commission des Iris. Les Iris Cuitives: Actes et Comptes-Rendus de la ler Conference Internationale des Iris tenue à Paris en 1922. 1923, p 9
Bulletin, American Iris Society, Number I. June, 1920, p.25
[Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol. 13 Issue 1, Fall 2000]