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.