Our Founding Gardeners

One of the things I enjoy about herbs is learning the history and lore associated with these useful plants. While working on an article about New World herbs (to be published Summer, 2013 in “Herb Quarterly”) I came across a botanical history book called Founding Gardeners, by Andrea Wulf. The book discusses the first four U. S. presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison – and shows how their intense interest in botany and agriculture was influenced by and influenced their actions as founders of this country. Sounds like a bit of a stretch? Well, here are a few facts to chew on:

  • All four men were known as innovators in gardening and agriculture. Washington built a new style threshing barn that was the object of visits by fellow farmers. Jefferson designed a new plow that won recognition and awards in Europe.
  • During the Revolutionary War, a significant element in Washington’s letters home to his wife included detailed instructions about farm activities.
  • Their political writing was often sprinkled with botanical references, such as Jefferson’s comment to Adams that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
  • During their visits to Europe, gardens were high on their list of must-see places. They all took notes that were later used in the creation of their home estate gardens and – in the case of Jefferson – the layout of our nation’s capitol.
  • Madison addressed an agricultural conference in 1818 with a speech that was essentially a call to ecologically sound farming practices, pre-dating today’s ecologist by over a century.
  • All four of them understood the symbolism in gardens and insisted that their formal gardens be populated with newly-discovered American trees rather than varieties imported from Europe.
  • Each of these men, retired from the presidency to enthusiastically resume their agriculture pursuits. Washington focused on agricultural practices. Adams was engrossed in manure – what we would call compost. Jefferson brought seed from all over and made detailed records of what grew and what failed. Madison incorporated innovative design and land management in his estate at Montpelier with the intent of making a visual lesson to visitors about how the country should be run.

Although the book focuses on the broad political picture, it points out how botany and agriculture was a hot topic in the 17th and 18th century. Discovering a new useful plant could be the gateway to fame and fortune. This is the age when the herbal pharmacy exploded with new herbs from the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Our Founding Gardeners were also interested in these discoveries.

This connection can be best illustrated by the Lewis & Clark expedition. Remember that from high school history? Well one of the reasons Jefferson believed Meriwether Lewis was the man for the job was because he was the son of a practicing herbalist and was “no ordinary botanist.” Indeed, the expedition came back to the still-under-construction U.S. capitol with a report of over 200 new plant species, including medicinal herbs used by Native American tribes they met along the way.

 I know this post is a slight departure from the practical nature of most of my writings but I just had to share with you an interesting aspect of American botanical history. It’s nice to know that snakeroot, Joe Pye weed, sarsaparilla, and spicebush have been used by Native Americans for centuries but imagine the excitement of the early explorers who first came upon these useful herbs. This is why I love studying herbs – there’s always some new discovery waiting on the next page. :>


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