I love to read – almost as much as I like to garden for wildlife – and among the things I enjoy reading are stories from American history.
Understandably, I am eager to score tickets to “Hamilton” on Broadway. Since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, I decided to read the book, “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, which is said to have inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the hit musical.
Only partway into the narrative, I’m getting a pretty clear picture of Hamilton’s life in Manhattan in the 1770s, where the West Indies immigrant settled before becoming Washington’s right-hand man.
But as I envision the future U.S. Treasury secretary walking across the campus of New York’s King’s College, I strain to imagine the foundation plants and hedges. What did a landscaper do before English ivy and European boxwoods were so predominant on college campuses?
As it turns out, I was closer to conjuring the image than I thought. Colonial gardens were largely modeled on their European counterparts and many imported plants were already so common they had become part of America’s historic landscape.
For example, hollyhocks, foxgloves and daylilies are among three of the most popular plants for gardens in 1700s New England, according to gardeningknowhow.com, and yet all originated in Europe and Asia or parts of Africa.
Meanwhile, British gardens of the period commonly were populated with plants and trees from America.
But as the states evolved toward unity, a new type of garden emerged that rejected stylized European forms and species in favor of more natural planting designs and native plants to celebrate the eclectic American spirit.
The irregularity of nature had become a symbol of liberty.
Andrea Wulf, author of “Founding Gardeners: The Place of Plants in the Vision of America’s Founding Fathers”
“The irregularity of nature had become a symbol of liberty,” writes Andrea Wulf in a fascinating book about the relationship between America’s founders and their love of gardening.
In “Founding Gardeners,” Wulf sheds light on the role played by gardens in the transition of former colonies into the United States of America.
While serving as emissaries to England in 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson took tours of many gardens to gather ideas for showcasing the great American landscape. At Stowe, owned by Lord Cobham, a Whig who opposed strong centralized government, the pair saw a garden that symbolized a less regulated form of government by departing from the trimmed hedgerows and straight lines of formal English design. It was an idea that resonated with both men.
The use of native plants became another point of pride, and fashionable Montpelier was landscaped by James Madison to showcase American-style shrubs and forests.
Throughout most of the 1700s, the most notable botanist in America was Philadelphian John Bartram, who collected American shrubs and trees and operated a business sending seeds and plants to Europe and the colonies. When he died in 1777, his sons William and John continued the business, and William, according to Wulf, became the country’s most prominent naturalist.
In July 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention visited the Bartram property outside of Philadelphia after becoming deadlocked over a decision about representation in Congress. Some wanted each state to have equal representation, while others preferred a population-based formula. A spontaneous day trip was arranged to provide a bit of relief, and the delegates enjoyed a tour of Bartram’s garden, where they walked through landscaped mounds and dips creating microclimates for growing species from Lake Ontario to Florida.
Wulf writes: “In Bartram’s Garden, the delegates could see how the manifold flora of each state thrived together, their branches intertwined in a flourishing horticultural union.”
North Carolina delegate Alexander Martin responded positively to the excursion, and changed his vote two days later from ‘nay’ to ‘yea’ to help pass the Great Compromise, creating a uniquely American form of government.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Next time you feel discouraged, just spend more time in your wildlife garden and gain encouragement from the important role you are playing as an American patriot.
Reach Elder at firstname.lastname@example.org