The Joe Pye weed blushes, the Northern red oak glows, the goldenrod erupts in a blaze of bright yellow.
You can see all of these signs of fall in the U.S., of course, but they’re there in Britain, too, where plant enthusiasts have been importing American plants since the 1600s. Aristocrats collected common plants as “exotics” and “curiosities” and planted “American gardens” in soil taken from marshes and bogs. American heiresses who came to Britain in search of titled husbands brought their own sensibilities to grand estates.
Nowhere is the American influence greater than in the (imported) colors of a British fall.
“Your autumn colors have really changed our landscape,” says Jean Stone, garden historian and author of the coffee-table book “The American Spirit in the English Garden” (Garden Art Press).
The impact of North American flora has gone largely unnoted, but Stone explores it in historical essays and profiles of storied British gardens, supplemented by hundreds of enticing color photos.
The British style is distinctive – there’s hardly a photo here that looks American – but if you peer beyond the clipped hedges at the borders bursting with boldly mingled British color, you’ll see American stalwarts such as purple coneflower (Echinacea), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), sunflower, coreopsis and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).
Stone writes that many popular British plants were originally imports. Rosemary is believed to have been introduced by either the invading Romans around 43 A.D. or by Eleanor of Provence in the 13th century. During the Crusades, knights brought back seeds, flowers, herbs and fruit from the East. With the discovery of the New World, wealthy collectors turned their attention to North America.
In 1637, the plant hunter John Tradescant the Younger set off for North America, where he amassed a huge collection of seeds and specimens, including the red maple tree, swamp cypress tree, purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and a native jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens).
In 1748, an aristocratic plant enthusiast named Charles Hamilton purchased a wooden box of unlabeled seeds from a plant-hunting expedition in North America.
“Hamilton and his head gardener sowed and planted these mystery treasures not knowing whether they were flowers or trees, how big they would become, what colour the flowers might be, or how they would thrive in the English soil or climate; but they must have been delighted by the results,” Stone writes. “Their collection included scented plants, strange new fruits and berries, with shrubs and trees of … vibrant color.”
Today, Hamilton’s Painshill Park in Surrey, owned by an independent charity, boasts North American black spruce, Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), bull bay magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and a pencil cedar (Juniperis virginiana) – trees that can be dated back to the founder’s time. Autumn color is provided by moosewood (Acer pensylvanicum) and toothache (Zanthoxylum americanum) trees. There’s a rhododendron said to be the first grown in the United Kingdom, and a plain where American trees such as pecans and canoe birches (Betula papyrifera) grow in groups.
The 19th century introduced the “Dollar Princesses,” American heiresses who brought colossal dowries to marriages with underfunded British aristocrats. Among them was Jennie Jerome, one of three daughters of Wall Street speculator Leonard Jerome. Jennie married Lord Randolph Churchill and had a son named Winston, who led the British to victory during World War II. Winston Churchill was a rose lover, and his wife, Clementine, chose the American garden designer Lanning Roper to work on the gardens at Chartwell in Kent.
Today, grassy prairie gardens with American natives such as purple coneflower are increasingly popular in Britain, Stone says. They were popularized by the influential Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, a fan of American plants and grasses, who also helped spread the prairie trend in the U.S.
Prairie plants are creeping into ordinary British gardens, Stone says, and they have a foothold in the extraordinary ones.
“In the public gardens and the parks, they have gotten spectacular,” she says. “They mix Echinacea and Rudbeckia among the grasses, which really does make them look pretty.”