Some 18th century American flowers in British gardens

The native floras of some countries are persistently undervalued by gardeners, even by the gardeners of the country concerned. We in Europe, all rush to grow the latest import from Northern India, China, Japan or Nepal, whether the plants are a part of the ancient garden culture (like chrysanthemums or day lilies), or newly collected from some remote valley. Few seem similarly to value American plants. Yet that vast and exciting flora embraces everything from wonderful coniferous trees to the rare mariposa lilies of Colorado, or the strange Sarracenias of the western States. It is even more surprising in view of the immense impact that the North American flora has made on European gardens, not only in terms of plants, but also in terms of garden design and garden image.

Odder still is that the dismissal, by many European gardeners, of the plants and planting possibilities that have come from America has spread to America itself; any historically minded European gardener, looking at the American contribution to gardening, must be more than mystified by the widespread present-day American admiration of European plants, designers and planters, sometimes to the exclusion of their own. Of course, early American immigrants from Europe were equally Euro-centric; the new Americans were busy bringing out flowers to remind them of home – and naturally planting gardens in the old European styles, both to remind them of ‘home’, and also to express the values of the societies they had left. But the feeling of the ‘superiority of elsewhere’ seems to have hung on, so that many American gardeners and garden writers often think that European gardens are somehow ‘special’, and don’t realise the enormous debt that Europe owes to America, and how old this debt is.

It is not merely that the plants from Persia, China and India are more recently arrived, and so more exciting. Though there certainly were huge numbers of arrivals from these countries in the early decades of this century, plants from there had been arriving in western Europe from the time of the Roman expansion eastward, though the trickle only became a flood by the sixteenth century – very much the same sort of date that American wild and cultivated plants began to influence European gardens for the first time.

Though flowers like the Near Eastern hyacinths and tulips became important ‘florists’ flowers, it is the American flora that has most influenced European gardens, whether of the development of the late-summer gardens of the early eighteenth century, or, in the nineteenth, the ‘English’ herbaceous border, which was effectively based entirely on hybrid flowers developed from American species. Even by the early seventeenth century, many eager European gardeners passionately collected seeds and bulbs sent home from the newly settled American states. While it was, of course, natural that drugs like tobacco were swiftly adopted, and large numbers of food crops achieved early European penetration (though some of the beans were hardly in the kitchen before 1900, and in Northern Europe even tomatoes and aubergines were treated with suspicion until the same period), American flowers were hardly laggards.

Some did arrive somewhat disguised. There were a number of early attempts at the commercial exploitation of the American native flora, though ones which often ended up more for decoration than for industry. So though the early 18th century export of seed of the Virginian strawberry eventually gave rise to grand hybrid fruit comparable to modern sorts, the export of seed of the hardy blue lobelia (the still grown Lobelia syphilitica), as a supposed cure for the disease, ended up with the plant in the flower garden, not the medicine chest. The same fate awaited the various American iris species also used against syphilis.

The American strawberry was also called the ‘Scarlet strawberry’, a colour not much represented by the existing seventeenth century garden flora. Hence, there was a big trade in the seeds of Lobelia cardinalis, which had to be sent over every season as it refused to set seed in British gardens. The great gardener of the period, Philip Miller, thought the flowers the best red he’d ever seen. Other flower varieties regularly exported were various species of Coreopsis (from New-England, Maryland and Virginia, and a rare one from Carolina sent annually by a Mr Catesby), sassafras berries (British gardeners had difficulty growing the shrubs – too cold in winter, too dry in summer), and monardas from both Canada and Virginian (as tea, they didn’t catch on, but were soon in every flower border).

One way of showing the early importance of the American flora is to take a ‘snapshot’ in time; here in our Scottish garden, we have planted a parterre of 1700. This was more or less fifty years before the big wave of shrub and tree introductions that gave rise to the phenomenon of the ‘American garden’ which survive today in some numbers. A parterre of our chosen date contained mostly herbaceous genera, bulbs, a few annuals and biennials, and the tender plants used in pots to line walks, paths, and to decorate doorways. Though most examples will have contained plants derived from the old European and Middle Eastern garden flora, it would, we discovered, have been remarkably easy to plant one up using entirely American species popular in Europe by that date.

The daisy family alone would furnish flowers for much of summer and autumn, starting with the erigerons, or, for later summer, some of the rudbeckias, coreopsis, and many more. American Composites were a revelation for European gardeners. Many of them flower in late summer and autumn, long after all European and most eastern flowers had long finished. Gardeners anxiously sought them out; not only the genera just mentioned, but also a flower with long and reflexed purple petals, probably an Echinacea (they’re still much admired today), and all the new wonders amongst the asters.

This was a particularly rich genus; amongst their vast numbers, there were especially early introductions like Aster tradescantii and A. turbinellus (both now enjoying a come-back in modern florists windows). All the natural variants of Michaelmas daisies were rapidly taken up; Aster novae-angliae was introduced to Britain by 1710, with purple and pink variants soon popular, and A. novae-belgae was in by much the same date. All the early eighteenth century forms were ‘single’, for the still popular ‘doubles’ did not appear until late in the century.

And if their blues, purples and soft whites began to pall, the gardener could add the hot yellows of the woundworts (species of Solidago). The first of these to arrive came from New York, but they were later found all over the settled states, especially Pennsylvania. As they filled September with their golden yellow, they were immediately much admired. Sharper yellows and some bronzes could be found amongst the helianthuses. The perennial sorts were widely popular in British towns where they would grow in spite of the thick smoke of winter and industry. In large gardens, they were also used in ‘bosquets’, amongst the other large plants, and in big borders surrounding the parterre.

But of the other herbaceous American genera, there were endless lovely things. Amongst the aquilegias (only the European Aquilegia vulgaris, though in many forms, was common in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century), handsome things like the spring flowering A. canadensis, or the gorgeously fiery A. formosa, were grown, and the fine blue and cream A. caerulea soon added its genes to the strains of aquilegia available.

For the gardener looking for something exotic, there was the luscious Phytolacca, the American nightshade, from Virginia, New England and Maryland, whose fleshy roots were used as a purge (it needed a spoonful of the juice), and whose black-purple berries were used as a dye for paper (one which soon faded, for no-one knew how to fix it). It was another plant for big gardens as, well grown, it could often reach six feet high. It’s medicinal use was soon found too violent for humans, and it became called ‘Porke Physic’, being more suitable for pigs.

Silvery blues and soft perfumes were found amongst some of the first Lupinus species. Though the genus was known in Europe, the only European sort had been the ancient annual crop plant. Of the multitude of American species, only a small creeping one from Virginia became popular in smaller gardens. It took another century or so before western American species began to arrive, eventually giving rise to the grand hybrids that filled Victorian gardens. A few species of Phlox, all from Virginia or Carolina, were found to do well in British gardens. They were much admired and widely grown. Gardeners could choose a creeping sort with flowers in sky blue (probably the charming P. divaricata), and several tall herbaceous ones in shades of purple (probably P. paniculatus). These were also found to grow well in big pots, and were then used to ‘adorn Courtyards and Halls’; something worth trying today.

But the list goes on an on: the brilliant scarlet of Chelone barbata, the softer tones of the first few penstemons (though grown by ‘curious persons’ only), the sharp pinkish purples of Physostegia virginiana, the vastly popular spider flower (species of Tradescantia), which though grown on the European mainland since the late sixteenth century, only came to Britain in the mid seventeenth century. By 1700, various colour forms, including pink and red flowered sorts, were commonly given a shady border all to themselves. Shade helped the flowers last for longer.

For smaller plantings amongst the box beds, enthusiastic gardeners of 1700 grew the single, wild form of the gorgeous white puccoon (Sanguinaria canadensis), to be found all over N. America. While the single flowered form was much admired, the rare and beautiful double was in cultivation by 1720. Native Americans had used the juice of the roots of the wild species as body paint, though it seems never to have become a cosmetic in Europe. Amongst its smoky grey-green leaves could have been twined three species of Virginian violas, all of which were to play an important part in the hybridisation of the 1820’s, when their progeny, the violas and pansies, began their meteoric rise to fame.

One early eighteenth century planting scheme suggests planting Sanguinaria and violets amongst Sisyrinchium (an American genus), and tiny bulbs like Dog’s Tooth violets, Cyclamen species, Persian irises, and Narcissus bulbocodium. Though the bulbs in that planting were all European or Near Eastern, amongst the many bulbs contributed by North America, the lilies were perhaps the most sought after, especially things like the ‘Canada’ martagon, later found all over Virginia, the handsome crinums, ‘lately from America’ in 1710 (so we’ve cheated a bit), and which was first an admired stove plant, though soon found to be reasonably hardy.

But a bulb planting could also boast the ‘Meadia’ or ‘American cowslip’, members of the genus Dodecatheon, grown in Europe since the end of the 17th century, though swiftly lost, and then ‘lately reintroduced’ by Peter Collinson, who got seeds from Bartram when the latter was travelling beyond the Appalachians. By 1700, variants were still rare but gradually getting into gardens, and thrilling gardeners used only to the European dog’s tooth violets. All could look pretty amongst American Smilax and Smilacina (already appearing by 1640). In the pots decorating the garden could be grown all the colours of Mirabilis jalapa (common since the early years of the seventeenth century, though then thought of as a convolvulus), pots of climbing ipomoeas, the endless colourful sorts of amaranthus, including the wonderful love-lies-bleeding which was grown even in the most modest gardens, grand daturas like D. stramonium, or some of the first American verbenas from Carolina (a genus that was later to be the mainstay of Victorian half-hardy bedding gardens), or the species of Solanum from Virginia that were then, as now, called ‘winter cherries’, the brilliant peacock blue of Commelina coelestis, tropaeolums, yuccas and the fabulous agaves. And the sarracenias? They seemed to survive the boat journey to Europe, being amongst the first plants to be exported with balls of earth still around the roots. Philip Miller received several shipments of them. Alas, even he didn’t really know how to grow them, and they soon died. And with them, European gardeners are still struggling.



8 Responses to Some 18th century American flowers in British gardens

  1. Wonderful! I love this. Thank you and I will add you to my list.

    The Sassy Countess

  2. Ann Pearson says:

    I came across this by good luck while looking for something on American plants sent to England at the very end of the 18th century––1799, to be precise. I am doing some research on a letter from a British naval captain, anchored in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to his daughter in Cornwall, in which he talks about sending a parcel of seeds from Virginia, to be followed by “Roots, Plants, Cuttings, Offsetts, Etc” from Bermuda and Halifax, which his wife is to plant in their garden. The letter never reached its destination and ended up in a French archive, probably because the ship carrying it was captured by a French privateer. The idea of this man far from home, separated for long periods from wife and daughter but dreaming of their garden, suggested the basis for a novel. As part of the background research, I am trying to work out what horticultural treasures my captain might have sent home to the garden he planned to cultivate once peace was restored. (Unfortunately, he and his family would have to wait another fifteen years for that happy event.)

    Your fascinating account of your 1700 border gives me hope that you might be able to point me to some good sources. I should be most grateful for any information you could provide.
    With best wishes,
    Ann Pearson

    • david stuart says:

      Ann hi. That sounds a fun idea. Have a look for a book of mine called ‘Plants that Shaped our Gardens’, published by Harvard in North America, Frances Lincoln in the UK. It’s got a lot of material about the botanical mania British gardeners had for NA plants in the late 18th/early 19th century. There’s a good bit, too, in my ebook – Old Fashioned Flowers. Both have got bibliographies. If the captain’s garden ever got the seeds, cuttings, etc, it would have been the envy of the neighbouring gentry.
      Let me know how you get on.

      • Ann Pearson says:

        Hello David,
        Thank you so much for these suggestions. I shall certainly follow them up. Coming across a site like yours, with a real person behind it, is one of the great rewards of the Internet.
        I very much enjoyed the glimpse into your own garden. I live in Vancouver (though my heart is still in Suffolk) and my garden at this moment has witch hazel, mahonia ‘Charity’ (beloved of humming-birds) and ‘Dawn’ viburnum in bloom along with the first hellebores and snowdrops. I hope yours has its share of January pleasures too.

        Will be in touch again when I work out what my captain might have sent home.
        All the best,

      • david stuart says:

        Ann hi.
        My garden with the same plants, alas without the humming birds. Incidentally, if you get the chance to grow proper Mahonia japonica, do. Big, sprawling, but with a colossal perfume too. My father lived for a time in Bermuda and met my mother in Halifax.


  3. Ann Pearson says:

    Hi David
    I grow the native Mahonia aquifolium which flowers later and is very strongly scented, but I shall look out for M. japonica. How fascinating that you have a Bermuda/Halifax connection. I’m finding the most unexpected links in my research for this novel.

  4. Which plantsmen were importing seeds, bulbs, and plants from the Virginia and Pennsylvania colonies between the years 1750 and 1776? Are there archives in the UK I can visit to research to see if there are any records of those importations and from whom they might have bought them?

    Were individuals digging things up and trading them directly or were they being contracted by merchants in Philadelphia and Williamsburg? If so, which merchants?

    • david stuart says:

      There is quite a bit of info in my book ‘Plants that Shaped our Gardens’ published by Frances Lincoln. There’s also a Kindle edition under the title ‘The Hungry Jungle’ – have a look on Amazon. Otherwise, you could also try the Garden History Museum in London.

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