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Fringe Flower; Grancy Graybeard (Chionanthus virginicus)




GardenSMART visited Rosedown Plantation SHS, a Louisiana Historic Site operated by the Office of State Parks, where we saw beautiful outdoor rooms highlighted by magnificent specimen plants.


Manager Trish Aleshire is keen on heirloom plants.  As a consequence, she is also interested in the history of gardening in the United States.  As Trish tells us in this week's Guest Article, gardening began as a basic need to grow food to stay alive.  As a natural result, growing plants evolved from feeding the body to also filling appetites for beauty.    (SHS State Historic Site)

---Anne K Moore June 26, 2009---



Trish Aleshire, Manager Rosedown Plantation


The history of horticulture in the U.S. reflects the changes and growth our country has seen over the past 500 years.


The early colonists grew vegetables and fruits to provide food for their families.  They brought seeds and plants from their home countries in Europe, plants they were familiar with, in the hope these plants could adapt to the climate and conditions in America. 


Many of these plants grew and flourished in their new homes, such as the peaches the Spanish introduced to the Georgia area.  The colonists were mostly interested in finding new higher yielding varieties of the plants they grew and finding better ways to grow those varieties.  Starvation was a reality in the early settlements and a successful garden was essential for survival.


As the settlements attained greater success and our population grew, our gardening focus began to change.  The early writings on American gardens were done by physicians interested in herbs for medicinal purposes. Naturalists also wrote about and collected the country's plants in the hope of finding new species to sell to the European markets.  A small book entitled New-Englands Rarities Discovered, written by John Josselyn in 1672, describes the birds, beasts, serpents, and plants of the country.  Mr. Josselyn writes of the medicinal uses of the plants and animals as observed from the Indian population.

   Cabbage & Violas


Colonial Williamsburg exhibits some of the finest examples of early plantings of native and imported plants.  The gardens are characterized by clipped hedges and formal gardens along with fruits and vegetables.  These early 1700's gardens show the beginnings of gardens built not just for utility but for pleasure and an eye for design.


However, it was the introduction of the large estate owner that really led to America's love of flowers.  The large land grants of the time allowed families to plant huge amounts of tobacco, indigo, cotton and sugarcane and amass wealth.  The plantations, with large labor forces of enslaved workers generated yet unseen riches for numerous families throughout the country.  It was this wealth that gave people the opportunity to have the time and money to plant flowers and ornamentals on a large scale.  It also allowed for those with the interest to collect and import exotic plants from around the world.

Cotton in the field


The first nurseries were started in the early 1700's.  John Bartan's Philadelphia garden and nursery supplied many plants to the country's early gardeners.  By 1806, Bernard McMahon was selling over 1000 different types of plants and William Prince and Son was doing a booming business.  William Prince was so anxious to find new and exciting plant material for his customers that he hired sea captains to aid in finding and importing plants to the U.S. By the early 20th century there were nursery businesses in every state.


Americans were also anxious to learn about the flowers and landscaping ideas developing across the country.  Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted were two men whose writing heavily influenced the gardening public of the time.  They were successful in adapting the European style to a North American landscape; their suggestions influenced many public parks, campuses and home gardens. 


Popular gardening books of the time included Martha Logan's Treatise on American Flower Gardens   and The American Gardener's Calendar, by Bernard McMahon written in 1806. These publications gave clear directions and guidance to achieve good results in all things horticultural.


Another important influence to the nation's gardens came in the form of garden societies.  The first garden societies were begun in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania in 1829.  Their members, men only, were first interested in finding and developing new food crops but soon became interested in ornamentals as well.  Women were not allowed into the societies until the late 1800's.  The first woman to give a paper to a horticultural society was not until 1880.  


It was these early clubs that strengthened the nation's interest in many of the plants we hold dear today.  In the early 1800's exhibitions of Indian Azaleas, dahlias, camellias, annual flowers, fruits and vegetables held by the many prominent horticultural societies created an interest in these plants and spurred the countries love affair with new species and varieties.  Other exhibitions of azaleas followed in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania in the 1870's which brought these shrubs to the attention of the general public.


Public gardens also had a permanent effect on creating enthusiasm for ornamental gardening.  Public gardens like Longwood and the Arnold Arboretum in Boston were instrumental in exploring the world and collecting many of our favorite plants. We can credit the managers of these public gardens for the introduction of Japanese Crabapples, Flowering Cherries, Tree Peonies, several Azaleas, and Lilacs. These public gardens became popular destinations for the visiting public.


Americans were steadily educating themselves on the horticultural sciences.  Experimental stations and horticultural curriculums were now being established in many colleges and universities.  There were nine large horticultural societies at the turn of the 20th century and 50 single plant societies.  Ladies were now gaining prominence in the world of horticulture; they made up the majority of members of garden clubs and societies.  As communication techniques improved it became easier to get new information on plants and growing methods.  Ornamental horticulture was no longer a hobby for the rich, but was an important part in most Americans' lives.


Americans spent 35 billion dollars on their gardens in 2007 and another 45 billion dollars on lawn and landscape services in 2006.  71% of Americans participate in gardening activities, that's 82 million households.  The American garden is a hobby and an industry that is here to stay. 

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By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photos courtesy of Suntory Flowers

As summer heats up, the garden party is just beginning for gorgeous, tropical mandevillas. To learn more click here for an interesting article.

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