Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Before the Seed Sellers - Trading Seeds & Plants

Trading seeds & plants with other colonial gardeners

Gardeners interested in botany exchanged seeds & plants early within the colonies & across the Atlantic. John Custis (1678-1749) lived & gardened Williamsburg. John Bartram (1699-1777), the Philadelphia gardener, explorer, & botanist, wrote to English merchant & botanist Peter Collinson (1649-1768) that Custis’ Virginia garden was second only to that of John Clayton (1694–1773), the English-born Virginia naturalist of Gloucester County. Collinson corresponded & exchanged plants with several American naturalists. His famous garden at Mill Hill contained many American plants, obtained from both Bartram & Custis.

Both gentry & middling gardeners depended on trading plants & seeds with others to keep their gardens growing. Even the wealthy Virginian William Byrd (1674-1744) wrote in 1721, “I went to see the Governor to beg that he spare me some bulbs for my garden.”

William Byrd II, like his father, Colonel William Byrd, Byrd was a wealthy planter on his inherited plantation Westover, on the James River in Charles City County. He served as president, of Virginia's Governor's Council, as did his father. He recorded his observations on natural history as well as life in colonial Virginia.  Wealthy gentleman gardener Byrd was looking to decorate his grounds, but most gardeners of this period were still simply trying to plant enough edible stock to survive.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Vaughan Philadelphia May 11. 1791, about some seeds Vaughn had sent him. "Dear Sir, It is rare that my public occupations will permit me to take up the pen for my private correspondencies however desireable to me. This must be my apology for being so late in acknowleging the reciept of your favors of Sep. 21 Oct. 21. Dec. 2. and 16. and Jan. 6. The parcels of Mountain rice from Timor came to hand too late in the last season to produce seed. I have sowed this spring some of the same, but it has not yet come up. I was fortunate in recieving from the coast of Africa last fall a cask of Mountain rice of the last year’s growth. This I have dispersed into many hands, having sent the mass of it to S. Carolina. The information which accompanied this cask was that they have there (on the coast of Africa) 3. kinds of Mountain rice, which sowed at the same time, comes to harvest a month distant from each other. They did not say of which kind that is which was sent to me. The kind which ripens quickest will surely find sun enough to ripen it in our middle states...I am Dear Sir with sincere attachment Your most obedt. & most humble servt, Th: Jefferson"

Seed trading went on throughout the 18C & well into the 19C. Rosalie Steir Calvert (1778–1821) of Riversdale in Prince George's County, Maryland, exchange seeds & plants with her father who had returned to Europe.


In 1806, Rosalie Calvert asked for “some offshoots of your tulips, and above all, some rose bushes.” In 1807, she wrote for, “the double violet, the white and the blue...You have a superb collection of double poppies at the Mick—would you send me some seed? It is such a small grain that you could slip it in a letter.”

The following year, she desired, “the double yellow wall-flower and some little double pinks, too...they make a very fine display.” Of the yellow & puce mallows growing from seeds her father sent, she wrote they were “extremely beautiful and admired by all.” In 1803, Rosalie Calvert also planted a hydrangea from her uncle Joseph, which had not “bloomed yet, but I think I am going to have three small ones.” She also mentioned importing some hyacinths herself directly from Haarlem in 1807.

Seeds went both ways across the ocean, as Mr. Stier requested some American varieties. In 1803, Rosalie Calvert sent her father “some seeds of the tulip-poplar and red cedar trees,” and in 1807, she sent additional tulip-poplar seeds and acorns, and “a few seeds of the fragrant white azalea...the most beautiful wild shrub in Maryland.”

In 1809, she was not able to send tulip-poplar seeds, because of the American government’s embargo on trade with Europe. Somewhat disparagingly she wrote, "Do you still admire this tree more than any other? We don’t find it worthwhile to plant here. For wood for carpentry, it is only good when it is in large forests; trees that have been exposed to the wind are worthless, and they are not beautiful when they are old, having few branches and fewer leaves."

She also offered to “Try to get you the catalogue of Bartram of Philadelphia, who every year gathers seeds of different plants and trees of this country for sale.” She traded bulbs or seeds with her neighbors & friends as well.

In 1806, she wrote that Richard Tasket Lowndes of Blenheim, Bladensburg, & of Bostock House, also in Prince George's County, Maryland , had a “fine collection” of hyacinths and “each year we exchange some.” She noted in 1809, that Benjamin Ogle II, of Belair, in Bowie, Maryland, “always has a nice collection and we frequently exchange.” She also gave her father’s old friend, Dr. Upton Scott of Annapolis, one of her favorite tulip bulbs, the Marshal of France, in 1806. Scott also traded seeds & bulbs & plants with his watchmaker neighbor William Faris.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was interested in receiving new plants, whether from the far off travels of Lewis & Clark or from a Virginia neighbor. He wrote a letter to W. Fleming on November 28, 1809. "I have received safely... the foliage of the Alleghany Martagon. A plant of so much beauty and fragrance will be a valuable addition to our flower gardens."

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