The Garden World of Williamsburg's John Custis

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A central reference in our restoration efforts at Monticello is Brothers of the Spade, published in 1957 and edited by the noted Virginia historian Dr. E.G. Swem. This is the story of a trans-Atlantic plant exchange as expressed in the correspondence of two indefatigable eighteenth-century gardeners, the likeable and cranky John Custis (1678 - 1749) of Williamsburg, Virginia, and his Old World botanical mentor, the illustrious Peter Collinson (1694 - 1768) of London. Custis, whose garden "means all the world to me," heard of Collinson's desire for the "mountain cowslip" or Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica). After Custis forwarded the "beautifull out of the way plant and flower" to London, an international friendship based on a mutual passion for plants and gardening evolved in a series of thirty-nine letters. Custis provided highly prized botanical rarities from the marshland and forests of eastern Virginia, from the fringe tree to the umbrella magnolia, while Collinson dispatched the latest in European garden fashion -- striped crown imperial lilies, white foxgloves, and variegated evergreens. The spirit of their friendship somehow overcame the frustrations of seeds that failed to germinate, captains who killed the plants by overwatering them, and voracious shipboard rats. The horticultural struggles of these two plantsmen seem endless, and yet, in the end, we learn the twin lessons of gardening: persistence and patience.

A warm and almost tender relationship developed between the two correspondents. Although a plain-spoken Quaker, Collinson was a worldy businessman with sophisticated horticultural expertise and self-confident wisdom. He perhaps plays the role of the older brother, dispensing advice on ways to rid the garden of moles (with a heavy spade), coping with the Virginia climate (with the shade and protection of evergreen hedges), and the best technique for retarding the early flowering of the almond tree (plant on the north side of buildings). But he also worries about Custis's debilitating illnesses, personally consulting with his London doctor, the respected Dr. John Fothergill, for professional diagnosis and medication. Concern about his new friend's seemingly overwhelming legal difficulties led Collinson to call on his well-placed English social connections. The tension between Custis and Collinson is between the bright-eyed innocence of the New World and the confident experience of the Old; the little brother and the big brother.

Much has been written about Collinson. His influence as botanical mentor to John Bartram and inspiration to Benjamin Franklin, his amazingly voluminous correspondence with the leading naturalists of Europe and America, and his pioneering contributions to English horticulture have been well documented. Perhaps because of his gruff, testy honesty, it was the garden world of John Custis that captured the imagination of this ordinary reader. Custis unblushingly defined his garden tastes when he admitted to being "a great admirer of all the tribe striped gilded and variegated plants; and especially trees; I am told those things are out of fashion; but I do not mind that I allways make my fancy my fashion." Custis provides vivid images of an early eighteenth-century town garden, "inferior to few in Virginia." He alludes to his twenty-year old English yews, "the balls or standards having heads as big as a peck and the pyramids in full shape." Of the simple flowers of the globe amaranth, Custis said, "I esteem it one of the prettyest things I ever saw." Custis also had "the best collection of lilacs" in America, and Collinson's tuberoses, double tulips, horsechestnut trees, and Catherine Peach all thrived in Williamsburg.

Yet most of the European plants sent by Collinson, if not dead on arrival, suffered from the vagaries of the Virginia climate. We hear of Custis's ordeal to find "hardy and Virginia proof" species that could withstand the temperamental continental weather: the droughts and heat of summer required not only shades and arbors but "3 strong Negros continually filling large tubs of water"; the killing blasts of scathing arctic cold destroyed his prized variegated evergreens. Custis reports "the seeds in general we have from England very often never come up." This was all a great experiment. In the history of garden writing, few gardeners have failed, or at least confessed to failure, as often as John Custis.

The correspondence between Custis and Collinson is also a landmark reference to the introduction of species into American gardens. For the garden historian, the positive identification of introduction dates is the fuzziest and the most problematic issue in the field. Although difficult to verify, the European plants grown by Custis may have experienced their first trial in the New World in his Williamsburg garden. Collinson deliberately chose varieties and cultivars that had only recently become fashionable in Europe. They were unique gifts, and surely, the proprietor of a garden "inferior to few in Virginia" would expect the latest novelty in garden fashion: the Chili strawberry, Catherine peach, White Foxglove, China Aster, white currant, cyclamen, Arbutus unedo, Persian lilac, various species and rose cultivars, silver fir, white and red Dictamnus, globe thistle, European larch. If Custis was not the first New World gardener to grow these plants, he was certainly a pioneer in their cultivation.

John Custis's garden was a menagerie of striped, gilded, and variegated evergreens trimmed into fantastically-shaped round and pyramidal figures. Peter Collinson's garden was a botanical study collection of rare, curious, and recently discovered taxonomic species. For students of garden history today, Brothers of the Spade is an indispensable resource to the introduction of plants into North American gardens.

-- Peter J. Hatch

Director

Monticello Department of Gardens & Grounds

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