America's First Gardens

Celebrate Independence Day by learning what the Founding Fathers (and mothers) grew in their gardens.

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Flowers of the Founding Fathers

Flowers of the Founding Fathers

Photo by: Image courtesy of Felder Rushing

Image courtesy of Felder Rushing

Yarrow, iris and coneflowers were grown by our founding fathers.

Want to really celebrate Independence Day? How about growing beautiful, useful plants once shared by our country’s Founding Fathers (and mothers), which still thrive without a lot of dependence on modern horticulture?

Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when plant exploration was in its heyday and gardens were expanding beyond the typical fenced-in vegetables, herbs and fruits, there were no garden hoses, sprayers, chemical pesticides or time to fuss with unnecessary chores. So people generally grew what grew best, and shared with one another. 

And it wasn’t just the women of the house who gardened — some of the most celebrated signers of our Declaration of Independence were hard-core plant enthusiasts. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington regularly swapped seeds, cuttings and small plants with like-minded gentlemen gardeners (some of whom were referred to as the “brothers of the spade”), and even back in England, Spain and France.

Without getting into a lot of this fascinating history, let me just give a quick run-down of a few of the plants which were enjoyed during our country’s founding, which are still mainstays in modern gardens for their beauty and usefulness, as well as their ease of growing in gardens without a lot of fuss.

Starting with vegetables and herbs, our nation was built by hungry people who depended on small food gardens, protected by wooden fences, that provided asparagus, peppers, beets, eggplant, Jerusalem artichokes, lettuces, rosemary, chives, mint, sage, thyme, fennel, apples, peaches, pomegranate and grapes. Because of climate differences, northern colonists grew cherries and rhubarb, while Southerners settled on figs and okra.

Surprisingly, a lot of colonists grew and ate all parts of the pretty little dandelion plant. And our native Monarda (bee balm) was used for making tea — especially when some rowdy protestors dumped a lot of the more familiar Camellia leaf tea during the infamous Boston Tea Party.

Familiar trees that survive from our country’s early days include beech, magnolias, oaks, buckeye, pecan, walnut, dogwood, hollies, golden rain tree, linden, maples, pawpaw, sweet gum, willows, redbud and persimmon. Many of those are familiar North American natives which are mainstays of European gardens today.

What modern garden doesn’t have at least a few of the shrubs grown 250 years ago in our country? Most common were the familiar rose of Sharon (Althea), azalea, lilac, beautyberry, witch hazel, boxwood, hydrangeas, mock orange (Philadephus), roses, sweet shrub (Calycanthus) and the snowball viburnum. These have long provided flowers, foliage and occasional herbal benefits throughout the year.

In addition to grapevines (including the Southern muscadine and fox grapes), early colonists draped their arbors and fences with ivy, coral honeysuckle, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper, clematis and wisteria, and often used the stems for weaving furniture and fencing.

Of the many flowers and bulbs we have always grown, from asters to yarrow, some of the more common ones include Saponaria (the leaves of which were used to make a mild soap), cockscomb, coneflowers, daffodils, coreopsis, orange or yellow daylilies, primrose, crocus, foxglove, iris, four o’clocks (which Thomas Jefferson called “the marvel of Peru”), goldenrod, hollyhocks, larkspur, marigold, lilies, pansy, phlox, columbine, snapdragon and yucca.

Again, many of these plants are native to America, and are now widely grown all over the world; some of the plants introduced from afar have become common weeds across our land, but still manage to be familiar and dependable garden favorites.

If you grow any of these, you are sharing a rich legacy from experimental gardeners who tried a lot before settling on the tried and true, and who carved out homes in a strange new land and fought to make it their own, as well as the Native Americans who already enjoyed the rich diversity of plants growing here long before Europeans began to arrive, bringing new plants with them.

By growing them today, we are honoring their efforts not just for tradition’s sake, but also as a celebration. Here’s to being more independent in our modern landscapes by enjoying these wonderful garden companions, which continue to be the backbones of our American gardens. 

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