University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
PERENNIALS AND GARDENS IN HISTORY
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
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
introduced to this country by explorers, botanists, and plant
various gardens and sites in foreign countries.
first botanic garden in America, founded by the famous explorer John
his nursery site in Philadelphia, was comprised mainly of native
plants he had collected. He sent at least 200 varieties to England,
were introduced by his collaborator, the botanist Peter Collinson.
One of these
was the aster. Many new cultivars were bred there and returned to
States. Bartram was a Quaker farmer from Pennsylvania, self-taught
His home and garden site is a National Historic Landmark that's open
public (www.bartramsgarden.org), still containing some famous and
trees dating to the 1700’s.
the most important gardens of historical interest, and probably one
least known, was the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, Netherlands
(www.hortusleiden.nl). Founded in 1593 by the famous gardener
it was the first botanic garden to focus on ornamental plants rather
medicinal ones. It is from this garden, and the special collection
of tulips of
Clusius, that the Dutch bulb industry was founded.
famous edelweiss of the Alps was the cause for what is supposedly
legislation for plant protection. Growing high on steep slopes, it
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
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
Clark and their 1804-06 expedition. President Thomas Jefferson
this expedition to find a water route west and to record the natural
the region. One of the plants they found was the bitterroot. This
the state flower of Montana and also lent its common name to the
dividing Idaho and Montana. The name comes from the bitter taste of
a food eaten by Native Americans.
historical origins of many perennials are also interesting, and
often led to
plant names. The bulb called Crown Imperial (Fritillaria) was
to Vienna from Turkey in 1576. Referred to by Shakespeare in A
and by the English gardener John Parkinson in 1629 as the finest of
takes its common name from the imperial gardens of Vienna.
have been grown in gardens for centuries as well. Early primroses
basically white and yellow, with some doubles, until 1638. It was
that the noted English plantsman and gardener John Tradescant the
collected a species commonly known as "Turkey Red" while visiting
Greece and Turkey. It served as the beginning of work in breeding
in this century, a concert pianist out of work bred the famous
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
goes by this town's name.
from the west coast comes the Shasta Daisy, named for the northern
mountain and bred by Luther Burbank (www.lutherburbank.org).
Burbank was one of the foremost classical
plant breeders of the last century, introducing over 800 new
plants, of which this daisy introduced in 1901 after 15 years of
one of his most famous.
Shasta daisy is actually a hybrid of four species, and had several
cultivars (cultivated varieties) including the popular ‘Alaska.’
The wild oxeye daisies Burbank had seen in
Massachusetts as a child served as his inspiration and starting
improvement. It’s interesting that this “American” flower was
from wild daisies from England, Portugal, and Japan, the wild oxeye
themselves having hitched a ride to our country with the Pilgrims.
down the west coast, in southern California, many perennial desert
their start on the estate of the real estate millionaire Henry
in the 20th century. Today, this is the Huntington Gardens located
north of Los Angeles near Pasadena (www.huntington.org). Although
many of these
plants won't grow in our northern region, nevertheless, the desert
noteworthy as one of the oldest and largest collections of cacti and
in the world, and is one of the main gardens among the 14 there on
east coast is another famous garden, the former estate of Pierre du
the early half of the last century. In addition to the over 300
acres of gardens,
with 20 indoors and 20 outdoors, Longwood Gardens (west of
Philadelphia) has a
rich history of plant research (www.longwoodgardens.org). Over 500
new plants from all over the globe
are trialed each year, with over 130 new cultivars having been bred
at Longwood. Some carry the Longwood
name, such as a camellia, boxwood, holly, rhododendron, and several
on their research program and new plants is on their
website, under plants and gardens.
are only a few of the fascinating facts on the history, lore, and
naming of plants and their gardens of origin. If you want to learn
more, an excellent
reference is The Gardener's Atlas by Dr. John Grimshaw,
Firefly Books, 2003.
for it in your local library or from used book sellers. You can
learn much more through visiting the
websites of these gardens—a great way to spend time indoors during
or wet days outside, or in the evenings.