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Horticulture In Colonial Times And Its Effect On Our Landscapes

A lot of people are buying into the “use native plants exclusively” movement. However, like our human DNA, that of many plants we consider native may not be as native as we think.

Have you had a DNA analysis done on yourself? Were you surprised? Most people I’ve spoken to who’ve done it are surprised at the results. Remember the television commercial with the guy who thought he was German but found out he was Scottish? Well, it can be the same with plants.

If you go back to the beginning of European settlement in North America, the first settlers brought plants with them. They were familiar with these plants and what to expect. Then Native Americans introduced the new arrivals to their plants and the ways they prepared them for eating, and the settlers included them in their gardens. At the same time, Englishmen returning to England began taking plants and seeds from the colonies back with them, and the Brits couldn’t get enough of them. This led to a brisk transatlantic seed and plant trade.

John Bartram (AKA Kirk R. Brown) looks out over his nursery. Photo by Sara Brown.

John Bartram is credited with starting the first commercial nursery in the colonies. His restored nursery and home in Philadelphia are now owned and maintained by the Parks Department, and is open to visitors. At first, Bartram’s nursery activities were very limited due to his modest means and the need to grow food for his family. However, he struck up a friendship, and then a business relationship, with Peter Collinson. Collinson was a rich English merchant and amateur botanist with an insatiable desire for American plants.

Collinson financed Bartram’s plant finding expeditions and kept him supplied with English plants and Bartram kept Collinson supplied with American plants. I’m sure Bartram didn’t discriminate between his American and English plants. If they thrived in Pennsylvania, he sold them.

Thomas Jefferson, renowned for his extensive gardens at Monticello in Virginia, was a frequent visitor to Bartram’s nursery in Philadelphia. As a result, some of Bartram’s “neonative” plants must certainly be quite common in Virginia now and, probably throughout the south.

John Bartram’s story is fascinating but he wasn’t the only one growing native and imported plants side-by-side in nurseries and selling them to colonial farmers. So, just as has been the case from the beginning of time, little is as pure as it seems on the surface. That’s why I select plants based on their hardiness, ability to stay within bounds, attractiveness and resistance to insects and diseases instead of purely on their country of origin.

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One comment on “Horticulture In Colonial Times And Its Effect On Our Landscapes

  1. Perhaps one of the best or worst examples of this is Hawaii, which, because of its isolation, was inhabited by relatively few (compared to now) native specie. Not only did ancient Polynesians bring much of the flora that are there now, but they did not document the introductions over the centuries that they did so. Much of what they did know about the introductions was forgotten as their culture was civilized by outsiders. There are so many palms that live in Hawaii now, but only one is really native, which means that Hawaii has no more native palms than Oklahoma! Pritchardia schattaueri is from Hawaii, and Sabal minor ‘McCurtain’ is from Oklahoma.

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