Restoring American Gardens

A sign of maturity in a society is the desire to retain tangible evidence of the past, rather than to erase it roughly and thrust ever forward. Gardens are an important part of our heritage, but are very fragile and hard to restore. One aspect of doing this successfully is knowing which plants were available during the period of the garden’s creation. Nothing is worse than planting anachronistic species when trying to maintain an authentic atmosphere.

Restoring American Gardens

Denise Wiles Adams has performed an inestimable service for the historian trying to establish when particular plants were imported into the United States. This is a very difficult task. The most obvious source is a series of nursery catalogues, but as Mrs. Adams points out, there are many fallacies in accepting any entry in an old catalogue at face value. In spite of these caveats, catalogues are still the most fruitful source of data.

Other sources are advertisements in newspapers, stories in magazines and personal records. In England and other European countries, the existence of centralized horticultural institutions such as Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society meant that new arrivals were identified, named, catalogued and the results published systematically. The same was not true for the United States.

The leading botanists at Harvard, Philadelphia and other universities were working to capacity labeling the huge flora of this country. Some state horticultural societies performed these functions for imported plants, but sporadically and not continuously.

C. H. Hovey’s “Magazine of Horticulture” in Massachusetts listed new imports. It only lasted about thirty years before closing in 1868. Hovey ed it on Curtis’s “ Botanical Magazine”, an English publication which began in 1789 and continues to this day.

Businessmen and private individuals brought in new plants from many sources in England, Europe and other countries, but it was done haphazardly, according to fashion and the whim of the public.

Mrs. Adams’ book is full of divine lists. She very sensibly sticks to plants which were sufficiently popular to be representative. Their history is more likely to have an accurate accounting. Her categories are trees, shrubs, bulbs and tuberous plants, vines and climbers, hardy annuals, hardy herbaceous plants and heirloom roses.

She lists them all alphabetically in a master summary and then cross indexes them with the names of old nurseries where they could be purchased, arranged by geographical region. There is also a list of modern sources which stock the species and varieties we need to re-create a garden of the past. A very important list names which heirloom plants must be avoided because of their invasive behavior, something which could not have been known back in the nineteenth century. Kudzu is a very good example of this!

Mrs. Adams also provides succinct discussions of historical garden theory and practice. One of the delights of her book is the large number of charming historical illustrations, such as a picture of a lady with a bunch of old roses standing in front of a cottage covered with now forgotten creepers, or the many paintings of new flowers from old catalogues.

Restoring American Gardens
An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants 1640 to 1940

Denise Wiles Adams
Portland, OR Timber Press - 2004

Review by Judith M. Taylor, M. D.
The San Francisco Garden Club
New member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society