History in the Garden and How the New World Upset it All

Among the spectacular plants discovered in the Americas, azaleas captivated European gardeners. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

Gardeners make history. Gardening is history itself. The story of many ancient civilizations can be chronicled in their gardens. For centuries, anthropologists have been mining seeds and structures to put together historical puzzles of long-gone civilizations. Their gardens tell their histories. And every time you plant the seed of some exotic vegetable or add a perennial, shrub, or tree to your landscape, you are taking part in a tradition that spans centuries. You, too, are making garden history.

That first garden, the Garden of Eden, must have been a wondrous place, albeit a chaotic one. Common sense tells us that the earliest gardens produced foods, and their establishment marked the beginning of the end of a nomadic lifestyle of early peoples who followed game for their existence. Once mankind settled down and began to create gardens beyond those for sustenance—for pure delight, for show—the playing field had changed dramatically from Eden, where wildness dominated.

Another American native that captivated European gardeners in the 1700s, the purple coneflower (Echinacea), continues to add color to gardens everywhere. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

The earliest of true gardens were the provinces of kings and royalty. These gardens had rigid lines of clipped shrubs, rows of trees in lockstep formation, and geometric expanses of lawn. Perhaps the orderliness of those gardens provided some comfort, a sense of control over the wildness of nature, at a time when the forces of which were mysterious, even sinister. Order and mathematical precision ruled in those gardens, and legions of caretakers were required to maintain the labor-intensive displays of wealth and power. The story of these gardens and how gardening evolved is recounted in Andrea Wulf’s intriguing book, The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession (2008).

Magnolia grandiflora was one of the most coveted trees in European “American gardens.” This striking tree, native to the southern US, added fragrant and showy flowers and flamboyant, glossy green foliage to gardens. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

For decades, order and control defined the garden. Though the common man may have had his potager of cabbages, onions and the like, real gardens were the playgrounds of Europe’s wealthy and powerful. Even with all their care and attention, those early royal gardens suffered from what could only be called a fairly boring content. The French and Italians had led the way in what constituted a proper garden, along with the Netherlands with its showy bulbs and flowers. Even so, the choice of plants was severely limited.

Tulip mania propelled the Netherlands into the forefront, setting the tone for gardening throughout Europe. For years the tulip remained unchallenged, until new and colorful plants from the New World turned the gardening community upside down. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

But in the 1700s, an era when gentlemen scientists and botanists explored the continents and examined their own like never before, long-held notions and beliefs were frequently challenged. It was still a time when the idea that man could “create” new plants through controlled hybridization (as opposed to what often occurs naturally in the wild) was considered blasphemy. Even so, things were beginning to change. There were forces at work stirring the pot of innovation and experimentation.

The scepter of dominance passed to the English, and once that happened, gardening would never be the same again. This change occurred as all the “new” plants from the American colonies, as well as many from elsewhere around the globe, began arriving in Europe, particularly in England. As the new plants arrived, gentlemen gardeners and botanists began naming them, often with cumbersome results. Plant names usually included all the attributes of a particular plant, and some of those names ran quite long. The Brother Gardeners mentions, for example, that today’s Kalmia angustifolia or sheep laurel used to be classified as “Chamaedaphne sempervirens, foliis oblongis angustis, foliorum fasciculis oppositis,” or “evergreen dwarf laurel, with oblong narrow leaves growing in bunches, which are placed opposite.” As more plants were discovered, the longer the names grew.

If a garden consisted of green trees and shrubs, one way to add interest was to create topiary by trimming out shapes and figures. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

From around 1735 to 1754, an ambitious botanist from Sweden, Carl Linnaeus, published revolutionary books on the discovery of sexual reproduction in plants and on a simplified, effective system of plant classification.  While some initially viewed his ideas with ridicule and resistance, his timely development of a simplified classification system would shorten plant names and make them manageable. His system could also specifically identify each and every known plant, as well as easily and simply name any “new” discoveries. Linnaeus’s elegant “binomial” classification system was adopted and is still in use to this day.

At the same time, a time when the concept of democracy was taking root, the colorful plants from the colonies were profoundly influencing gardens throughout Europe. Those American plants included rhododendrons, azaleas, beautyberry, beebalm, rudbeckia, coneflowers, wisteria, maples, magnolias, white pines, tulip poplars, cedars, and firs. This profusion invaded the old world, bringing color and perfume to gardens first in England and then throughout Europe. New naturalized plantings followed the contours of the land. Gone were the rigid dimensions of gardens. Lines softened with the luxuriant plants arriving from the colonies. “American gardens,” with their unregulated designs, were all the rage in on the great estates. Colonial botanists such as John Bartram helped make that transition by exporting plants and seeds abroad through his English contacts, like the wealthy merchant Peter Collinson.

For centuries, formal gardens dominated elite gardening preferences in Europe, where grand estates vied for ever more elaborate installations of garden statuary and fountains. If there is one thing they had in common, it was the predominance of green foliage and absence of color. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

American-style vegetable gardens became part of that picture as well. How wonderful, how gratifying to discover the role this continent and our native plants had in one of the greatest expansions of gardening and botanical interest ever. Before long, the very concept of gardens became democratized and spread far beyond those royal gardens for all to enjoy. This expansive view of gardens continues to this day.

Whenever any gardener adds a new hybrid or wondrous exotic to a garden, that addition is bound to influence the design and patterns of care, making that gardener, too, part of an evolving history of gardening. The story is an ever-changing scene, a fascinating study. If you would like to learn more about those early gardens and their influence on the evolution of gardening (and how Linnaeus sought his revenge on his worst critics through the naming of certain plants, earning him my admiration for his delicious sense of vindictiveness) seek out Wulf’s captivating, comprehensive book.

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