In the Company of Gardeners: The Flower Diaries of Jefferson, Skipwith, and Faris

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Thomas Jefferson was the quintessential record keeper. He kept account books and both a Garden and Farm Book throughout his adult life. Although he died just a mile from the place of his birth, Jefferson traveled extensively and often made careful notes on the gardens he visited in this country and abroad. Through the sheer volume of his writings, Jefferson documented hundreds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and we find his plant references in letters, drawings, and memoranda to his workers, family, and friends. Record-keeping was as much his passion as music, reading, architecture, and gardening.

Jefferson's records, however, do not stand alone in his time. Other important and useful garden diaries, such as those belonging to Lady Skipwith and Maryland clock-maker William Faris, have survived in tact. The highly educated Jean Skipwith left remarkable lists of flowers that she grew in southern Virginia between 1785 and 1805. At the age of forty, she became the second wife of Sir Peyton Skipwith and they settled in the rolling countryside of Mecklenburg County. There they built a large Georgian-style house named Prestwould, after the Skipwith family seat in England. Jean Skipwith was a skilled gardener and she possessed an astute knowledge of botanical Latin. The libraries at Monticello and Prestwould both contained copies of Philip Miller's eighth edition of the Gardener's Dictionary, 1768, and Lady Skipwith often cited this botanical tome. Skipwith's floral documents, as described by Ann Leighton in her classic American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century "For Use or for Delight," were either left on the backs of old bills or neatly recorded in lists with such titles as "bulbs to be got when I can ..." and "Wildflowers in the Garden."

William Faris' diary reveals a middle-class American gardener of this period. Similar to Lady Skipwith, William Faris' plant lists span the years between 1792 and 1804, the last twelve years of his life. Historian Barbara Sarudy's recent book, Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake, 1700-1805, gives us a wonderful portrayal of his late 18th-century residential garden. According to Sarudy, the ornamental beds Faris created in Annapolis were akin in design, if not grandeur, to the more elegant geometric gardens that Chesapeake gentry were busy building about the same time. She describes an artisan who, in his spare time, grew thousands of tulips, narcissus, and other bulbs, selecting and breeding them in his modest 366' by 200' lot. In the spring of 1804, he counted 2,339 tulips in his garden, some named after statesmen such as President Washington and Madison, which he invited his neighbors to view. Visitors would mark varieties they fancied with a coded stick, and Faris would dig them in June for the neighbors to purchase.

Many of the plants that Jefferson, Skipwith, and Faris grew in common were reflective of current floral styles and availability. Tulips figured prominently in early American gardens long after the Dutch "tulipomania" of the 1600s. But, another common "root" of the Colonial Period was the tuberose, Polianthes tuberosa. In 1736, when Peter Collinson sent Williamsburg's John Custis roots of tuberose, Custis replied that they were already common in Virginia and that he need not send any more. This tender Mexican rhizome was especially prized for its heavy, sweet scent. Although the tuberose requires digging and storing over winter in colder climates, it still was planted by Jefferson, Skipwith, and Faris. Jefferson succeeded also with the double-flowered form, which he received from McMahon in 1807 and brought to flower at Monticello August 12th.

The Yellow Autumn Crocus or Winter Daffodil (Sternbergia lutea), a hardy southern European amaryllis, occurs on Lady Skipwith's list, and is a bulb John Custis described in the 1730s as the "Autumn Narciss with yellow Crocus-like flower." Elizabeth Lawrence, a Southern garden writer of the 20th century, noted in her book The Little Bulbs that "They have bloomed in Virginia gardens for many generations, and according to tradition grew in the Palace Gardens at Williamsburg in colonial times."

Like tulips, roses are another dominating class of heirloom flowers, and the gallica roses are considered among the most ancient. Jefferson ordered a number of distinct varieties from the William Prince Nursery of Flushing, New York in 1791, including Rosa Mundi (Rosa gallica versicolor). This sport of the Apothecary Rose is probably the oldest and best known of the striped roses, with petals vividly streaked light crimson and splashed with palest pink to white. Many legends surround this rose; the most romantic, but as yet unconfirmed, being that it was named for Fair Rosamund, mistress of Henry II in the 12th century. The variegated Rosa Mundi is likely what Jean Skipwith called her Marble Rose, which Bernard McMahon listed as a variant of the Rosa Mundi.

Mallows and hibiscus (formerly known also as ketmias) remain a confusing group in early garden literature. When Jean Skipwith included "Crimson Mallow" in her list of "Plants" she was likely referring to Great Red Hibiscus, Hibiscus coccineus, a magnificent, bright red-flowering perennial native to the coastal swamps of Georgia and Florida (but hardy to Philadelphia). The Great Red Hibiscus grows to eight feet in a single season. According to Ann Leighton, it was also cultivated by George Washington at Mount Vernon. Jefferson's "Scarlet Mallow," however, specifically referred to "Scarlet-flowered Pentapetes,"the seeds of which he received from Bernard McMahon and planted in his flower border in 1811. Pentapetes phoenicia is a handsome annual of the Old World Tropics with brownish-green stems and scarlet, mallow-like blossoms that open at noon and close at dawn. It is rarely cultivated in America today.

Jefferson grew relatively few houseplants, yet both he and Faris mentioned the scarlet, single-flowered Geranium (Pelargonium inquinans), a South African species and parent of our modern hybrids. It was first introduced into America in the late 18th century and is immortalized in Rembrandt Peale's famous 1801 portrait of his brother Rubens holding a potted geranium. President Jefferson kept a plant in the President's House and, upon his retirement from his second term, gave his rather neglected geranium to Washington socialite Margaret Bayard Smith. The "Rose Geraniums" mentioned by Lady Skipwith were likely varieties of scented geraniums, also from South Africa, many of which were offered by American nurserymen.

Of the scented flowers, few can compete with Poet's Jasmine, Jasminum officinale. The mere word "jasmine" conjures fragrance and romance, and the delicious odor of this flower, which pours forth at evening, is often the muse of amorous poetry. Jefferson included the "white jasmine" among his "Objects for the Garden" in 1794, and in 1809 he planted "star jasmine" in an oval flower bed. "White Jasmine," likewise, was on Jean Skipwith's list of "Flowering Shrubs." Although this shrubby, Himalayan vine can grow to thirty feet, Virginia winters keep the Poet's Jasmine as a low-growing, woody perennial. Further north it can be grown indoors in pots.

Likewise, wallflowers (Cheiranthus cheiri) ranked highly among the favorite perfumed blooms in early American gardens. Cheiranthus means "hand-flower," and in the Middle Ages it was carried in the hand at festivals. Parkinson wrote: "the sweetnesse of the flowers causeth them to be generally used in Nosegayes and to deck up houses." A double red form was among the six varieties Parkinson grew, and likely the famous "Double Bloody Warrior" that Lady Skipwith mentions by name. "Yellow Stock Gilliflower" was once the term used for the "Yellow Wallflower," and should not be confused with "Gillifowers" and "Clove Gilliflowers," which referred to pinks and carnations. In the late 1800s a miniature double yellow, now known as Harpur Crewe, was rediscovered by and named for the British Rev. Henry Harpur Crewe.

Annual flowers in the gardens of Jefferson, Skipwith, and Faris varied from the delightfully fragrant to the foul smelling and from the delicately beautiful to the bizarrely curious. Mignonette (Reseda odorata), a native of Egypt, was first described in Philip Miller's Dictionary, 1752, as a flower "of a dull colour, but hav[ing] a high ambrosial scent." It became so popular in London that in 1829 a writer remarked: "whole streets were almost oppressive with the odour." Napoleon is credited with collecting mignonette seeds during his Egyptian campaign and sending them to the Empress Josephine at Malmaison. She set the fashion of growing mignonette as a pot-plant for its perfume. At Monticello in 1811 Jefferson situated this flower near the NW cistern.

French marigold (Tagetes patula), on the other hand, was reputed to be poisonous, probably due to its offensive smelling foliage, which was described as hateful, if not injurious. Although native to Mexico, the French marigold, also known as the lesser African marigold, was introduced to Europe by way of North Africa by 1535. In 1808 Jefferson mentions the "2 kinds of Marigold," suggesting he had both the French and African (T. erecta). Faris simply wrote "Marigold;" but Jean Skipwith gives a more precise reference when she wrote "Striped French Marigold," indicating the newest sensation that William Curtis' Botanical Magazine featured in 1791: a lovely yellow-flowered marigold distinctly streaked with red.

Even though Jefferson once wrote that he had no time for "mere curiosities" in the garden, balsam apple (Momordica balsamina) would certainly fall into this category. This unusual vine produces lush, shiny green foliage and pale yellow blossoms followed by curious, bright-orange fruits. These will pop open revealing sticky, bright red seeds. Although the green, immature fruit is used in Asian cooking, it's more fun to watch them ripen and explode on the vine.

The ever-popular, biennial hollyhock (Alcea rosea) was another flower grown by all three. It has been cultivated for centuries and, although probably originating in Asia Minor, now is naturalized throughout the world. By the mid 18th century, Philip Miller's Gardener's Dictionary referred to both the single and double forms as old-fashioned. Jefferson first recorded hollyhocks in June 1767 and charted them in his 1782 "Calendar of the bloom of flowers" as blossoming from mid-June to mid-July. Hollyhocks have persisted in gardens, becoming the centerpiece of late 19th and early 20th-century "Grandmother's Gardens" and continuing in the modern flower border.

This brief collection of flowers mentioned 200 years ago offers a fleeting glimpse into three very personal and private gardens. While Thomas Jefferson, Jean Skipwith, and William Faris lived worlds apart, leading vastly disparate lives in many ways, they were alike in this: their passion for growing flowers and their wherewithal to keep records of their plants. Today, we can only envision the great friendship that might have transpired if circumstances had ever united these three remarkable gardeners.

Peggy Cornett, Director
Thomas Jefferson Center
for Historic Plants
January 2000

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