Flowers for a Happy 4th!
Celebrate Independence Day with these 13 native plants from early American gardens
I’m not a plant person. To me, a garden or wild place is so much more than the sum of its parts. However, spurred by a new garden journal, I’ve recently taken up walking around my garden to see what’s blooming. Right now, black-eyed Susans and butterflyweed are both about to burst, but I can’t truthfully say they are blooming. So I eagerly go out each morning, often in my PJs, to check. I highly recommend you join me.
When you focus on a garden’s elements, each flower or insect or bird is a world in itself. That’s especially evident when they’re blown up in macroscopic photos like Barbara Temple Lombardi’s in Flowers and Herbs of Early America by Lawrence Griffith. To celebrate Independence Day, here are some pictures, history, and recommendations from that book.
British horticulture and the empire
Growing plants for their ornamental qualities wasn’t really a thing until the 1500s. By the end of that century, ornamental cottage gardens became a big thing in England.
Even in rural areas of Britain, with the emergence of the middle class during the Elizabethan age, yards became enclosed and abutted the house, and the concept of the cottage garden was born. By contrast, in 1607, . . . [when] homeland Britons were beginning to enjoy the aesthetics of gardening, their colonizing brethren were concerned with survival. — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
As part of their thirst for discovery as well as conquest, British explorers appreciated the flora and fauna they found throughout the empire. We still benefit today from the observations and samples they collected from North America. Unfortunately, our landscape also bears the strong imprint of colonialism, with exotics dominating our plant nurseries and invasive and naturalized plants crowding out natives in our “wild” places.
American colonial gardens
Colonists’ first priority when it came to plants was food. They found the following food plants, either wild or farmed by Amerindians:
[M]aize, beans, pumpkins, acorns, walnuts, mulberries, strawberries, chestnuts, chinquapins [dwarf chestnuts], cherries, plums, gooseberries, persimmons, tuckahoe [arrow arum], groundnuts, mushrooms, melons, [passionflower, peaches, and martagon lily roots]. — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
Even by the 18th century, gardening was still rare. Colonial Williamsburg’s garden historian, Don McKelvey, found that only about 7 percent of probate inventories had garden tools.
McKelvey deduced that gardens were a function of class: “The people who have garden tools tend to be wealthy middle class or gentry, doctors, lawyers, merchants, plantation owners and interestingly tavern owners.” — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
Native plants from early American gardens
Griffith, curator of plants for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, created an experimental garden to identify plants early Americans might have grown in their gardens. He planted them all from seed, just as early Americans would have done.
In my quest to identify appropriate plants and how to use them, I concentrated on flowers and herbs that, when used in a mixed palette, would prove amenable to being sown directly in garden flower beds, show promise in germinating easily, provide extended bloom, and display a propensity to produce and abundantly scatter seed thereby perpetuating themselves and obviating the need for a greenhouse. . . . One of the things I quickly learned was that two hundred dollars in seed gives a far greater garden in less time than the equivalent investment in gallon-sized perennials, a quarter of which would probably die in the first year. — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
Reflecting the 18th century — and current — taste for the exotic, most of the plants Griffith chose to feature in his book evolved in Europe and the American tropics. The American plants were apparently of more interest to Europeans than the locals. As Phillip Miller wrote in 1760 about devil’s claw:
“The seeds of this Plant were brought from Mississippi to the Gardens at Paris, where it was first propagated; and the Plants ripened their Seeds there, some of which were sent to me by Mr. Richard, the King’s Gardener at Versailles. These were sown in the Chelsea garden [near London]; but they remained in the Ground a Year before they began to vegetate.” — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
Devil’s claw is one of several currently less often cultivated native plants that Griffith’s experiment has inspired me to grow. In case you want to join me, here are 13 plants to grow from seed (or tuber) in honor of the original 13 colonies. (I’ve included similar western species from the same genus, when available; range maps are linked to range descriptions.)
Rarer early American native seeds
Reseeding annual for damp soil in full sun. Sow seeds in May to June for flowers in late summer; seeds available from ID Seeds Farm on eBay. Southwestern species seeds available from Borderland Plants.
Heat-tolerant, reseeding annual for full sun; sow directly on warm soil surface where its thorns won’t be a problem; seeds available from Monticello. Western prickly poppy seeds available from Theodore Payne Foundation.
Considering the sobering fact that very few antique annuals provide the length of bloom we expect from modern cultivars, Mexican poppy’s eight weeks of bloom and its precocity in bearing flowers seven weeks from seeding make this a strong if problematically prolific player. — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
Cinnamon vine or groundnut: Apios americana — eastern two thirds of North America
Perennial vine for trellis or fence in full sun. Plant tubers in spring, available from Offgrid Maine on Etsy.
The cinnamon vine was once an important food crop for Native Americans, who cooked and consumed the nearly spherical tubers. . . . [M]any native plants, such as the cinnamon vine, that were common in the seventeenth century are now rare in the local environment. — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
Early flowering plant for shady woodland gardens among plants that will shine in summer when it's dormant; seeds available from Hayefield. Western foothill meadow-rue seeds available from Larner Seeds.
None other than Carl Linneaus named the Claytonia genus after John Clayton (1694-1773), clerk of court for Gloucester County, Virginia. Clayton collected 710 herbarium specimens and sent them to Europe, where they were used by Linnaeus and are now included in the John Clayton Herbarium at the Natural History Museum in London.
Passionflower: Passiflora incarnata — South
Large, aggressive vine for sunny, wild areas. Seeds available from Strictly Medicinal Seeds.
Should one choose to adopt this vigorous native, it should be the inhabitant of a field that is mowed occasionally, every year or two, where grasses, tree saplings, large herbaceous weeds, and the vines of the Virginia countryside bound over endless acres: Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), woodbine (Lonicera sempervirens), yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), and passionflower. — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
Must-have early American seeds
These native selections from early America gardens remain popular today and their endurance is testament to how beautiful they are in an ornamental garden. I’ve already planted most of them and will be planting seeds for the rest this fall. If you join me, please try first to source seeds grown near you. While most thrive in full sun, columbines generally like shade.
Anise hyssop: Agastache foeniculum — northern NA
Blue vervain: Verbena hastata — all of NA
Purple coneflower: Echinacea purpurea — eastern half of US
Happy July 4th!
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
We know so much about the history of plants because scientists have been documenting them in “herbals” since the third century BC, when Theophrastus wrote Enquiry into Plants. Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum in Athens, “saw plants primarily as medicine, fiber, and food,” according to Griffith. Reflecting relatively belated interest in the ornamental qualities of plants, the earliest “florilegium” — flower book — was published around 1590.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, also wrote “the most replete and valuable garden diary of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
In his Garden Book, which documents his horticultural activities at Monticello from 1766 to 1824, he took meticulous, almost daily notes of the progress of his yearly planting schemes. — Flowers and Herbs of Early America
I had an aha moment a couple of months ago when I found in my Excel plant list for Florida a note about transplanting spontaneous sea oxeye daisy from the north to the south side of our dock. Even after reading the note, I had no recollection of putting it there. I realized the importance of keeping a journal.
After some searching, I chose the Royal Horticultural Society’s A Gardener's Five Year Record Book. It allows you to start any time, maintain a few key facts for each week of the month, and then compare what’s happening that week across five years. I think I can keep this up, whereas I imagine giving up on the more detailed alternatives available.
Curious how English weather perpetuates unrealistic horticultural standards? Read Why I Resent English Gardening.
Want to plant milkweed for monarch butterflies? Learn how in The Best Monarch Garden Design Isn’t What You Think.
Ready to create a seed nursery? See How to Save Money with Winter Sowing.