By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops
Specialist University of Vermont

Did you know that some of the plants
you have in your garden may have played a role in history?
The Native Americans may have used some for medicinal
or ceremonial purposes, for example. Other plants were
discovered or introduced to this country by explorers,
botanists, and plant enthusiasts.

The first botanic garden in America, founded
by the famous explorer John Bartram at his nursery site
in Philadelphia, was comprised mainly of native American
plants he had collected. He sent at least 200 varieties
to England, where they were introduced by his collaborator,
the botanist Peter Collinson.

One of these was the aster. Many new cultivars
were bred there and returned to the United States. Bartram
was a Quaker farmer from Pennsylvania, self-taught in
botany. His home and garden site is a landmark that’s
open to the public.

One of the most important gardens of historical
interest, and probably one of the least known, was the
Hortus Academicus in Leiden, Netherlands. Founded in
1593 by the famous gardener Carolus Clusius, it was
the first botanic garden to focus on ornamental plants
rather than medicinal ones. It is from this garden,
and the special collection of tulips of Clusius, that
the Dutch bulb industry was founded.

The famous edelweiss of the Alps was the
cause for what is supposedly the first legislation for
plant protection. Growing high on steep slopes, it was
a challenge to collect, and so became highly sought
by male climbers as a gift and sign of devotion to their
girlfriends. The German alpine club, to protect the
plant (and also its members from undue climbing dangers),
imposed fines for its collection.

Another mountain flower, native to the
western mountains of this country, figured in our history.
Lewisia, commonly known as bitterroot, was named after
Meriwether Lewis of the explorer team Lewis and Clark
and their 1804-06 expedition. President Thomas Jefferson
commissioned this expedition to find a water route west
and to record the natural history of the region. One
of the plants they found was the bitterroot.

This plant became the state flower of
Montana and also lent its common name to the mountains
dividing Idaho and Montana. The name comes from the
bitter taste of the roots, a food eaten by Native Americans.

The historical origins of many perennials
are also interesting, and often led to plant names.
The bulb called Crown Imperial (Fritillaria) was introduced
to Vienna from Turkey in 1576. Referred to by Shakespeare
in A Winter’s Tale, and by the English gardener John
Parkinson in 1629 as the finest of lilies, it takes
its common name from the imperial gardens of Vienna.

Primroses have been grown in gardens for
centuries as well. Early primroses were basically white
and yellow, with some doubles, until 1638. It was this
year that the noted English plantsman and gardener John
Tradescant the Younger collected a species commonly
known as “Turkey Red” while visiting Greece
and Turkey. It served as the beginning of work in breeding
colors into primroses.

Early in this century, a concert pianist
out of work bred the famous Barnhaven primroses in Oregon
in a leaky timber cabin, warmed by a wood stove and
lit by an oil lamp. A strain of primroses without the
usual central “eye” was bred from a plant
found in a backyard in Cowichan, British Columbia, and
goes by this town’s name.

Many perennial desert plants got their
start on the estate of the real estate millionaire Henry
Huntington early in the 20th century. Today, this is
the Huntington Gardens located north of Los Angeles
near Pasadena. Although many of these plants won’t grow
in our northern region, nevertheless, the garden is
noteworthy as the perennial desert plants form the largest
such outdoor collection in the world.

These are only a few of the fascinating
facts on the history, origins, lore, and naming of plants
and the gardens. If you want to learn more, an excellent
reference is The Gardener’s Atlas by Dr. John Grimshaw,
Firefly Books, 1998.

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