University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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PERENNIALS AND GARDENS IN HISTORY
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
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 from various gardens and sites in foreign countries.
           
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 National Historic Landmark that's open to the public (www.bartramsgarden.org), still containing some famous and original trees dating to the 1700’s.
           
One of the most important gardens of historical interest, and probably one of the least known, was the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, Netherlands (www.hortusleiden.nl). 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.
             
Also from the west coast comes the Shasta Daisy, named for the northern California 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 varieties of plants, of which this daisy introduced in 1901 after 15 years of breeding was one of his most famous.
           
The Shasta daisy is actually a hybrid of four species, and had several named 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 point for improvement. It’s interesting that this “American” flower was created from wild daisies from England, Portugal, and Japan, the wild oxeye daisies themselves having hitched a ride to our country with the Pilgrims.
           
Further down the west coast, in southern California, 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 (www.huntington.org). Although many of these plants won't grow in our northern region, nevertheless, the desert garden is noteworthy as one of the oldest and largest collections of cacti and succulents in the world, and is one of the main gardens among the 14 there on over 200 acres.
           
On the east coast is another famous garden, the former estate of Pierre du Pont from 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 or selected at Longwood.  Some carry the Longwood name, such as a camellia, boxwood, holly, rhododendron, and several cannas. More
on their research program and new plants is on their website, under plants and gardens.
           
These 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.  Look 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 cold, rainy, or wet days outside, or in the evenings.
     

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