Jefferson's Botanical Perseverance
". . . my wants in the article of plants . . ."
"I will still add a little to my former wants so as to put me in possession once for all of every thing to which my views extend, & which I do not now possess." -- Jefferson to Bernard McMahon. Monticello, February 16, 1812
As with books and reading, for which he admittedly possessed a "canine appetite," Jefferson craved all types of plants and the "articles" of horticulture. His lifelong correspondence reveals both new and recurring themes in this regard. With agriculture, for example, his efforts to promote the cultivation of olives in the southern states spanned more than three decades. In 1789 He wrote from Paris to William Drayton of Charleston, "I have exceedingly at heart the introduction of [the olive] into Carolina & Georgia being convinced it is one of the most precious productions of nature and contributes the most to the happiness of mankind . . .." By 1822, he still maintained this conviction in a letter to N. Herbemont, "I have long earnestly wished for the introduction of the Olive into S. Carolina and Georgia . . . ." More often than not, these quests met with little or partial success.
Jefferson similarly pursued North American plants with undaunted fervor. This was particularly evident while he served as minister to France during the 1780s. His frequent requests for plants from home reveal his eagerness to dazzle European aristocrats and savants with the remarkable beauty, size, or curiosity of New World species. Through his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson championed the natural abundance of his country. Jefferson's friendship with Madame de Tessé was bound by their mutual love of botany and horticulture and especially the North American flora. For her park at Chaville (on the road to Versailles) Jefferson asked for seed of many native trees and shrubs from American naturalists such as William Bartram and John Banister, grandson of the noted seventeenth-century botanist. In a letter to David Ramsey, a Charleston physician and historian, Jefferson included an unusual request: "Since writing my letter of yesterday a person whom I am very desirous of obliging [Madame de Tessé], has asked me to procure from South Carolina some plants of the Magnolia grandiflora, sometimes called altissima, and some seeds of the Dionaea muscipula." The latter reference was to the remarkable Venus's Flytrap, known also by its Native American name, Tippitiwitchet. This strange, insect-eating plant was first taken to England by William Young in 1768, six years after its discovery by John Bartram and his son William. British botanist John Ellis named it Dionaea, after the Greek goddess of beauty.
William Bartram later chronicled the discovery of the Venus's Flytrap in the saga of his journey through the Carolina's, Georgia, and Florida. In Travels, Bartram recounted the trip made with his father across expansive coastal savannahs in the South. They found the "northern most specimen" of the Southern Magnolia along the boundary of North and South Carolina. There they observed also ". . . an abundance of the ludicrous Dionaea muscipula . . . . This wonderful plant seems to be distinguished in the creation, by the Author of nature, with faculties eminently superior to every other vegetable production . . .." The following description reveals the romantic quality of William Bartram's imaginative prose: ". . . see the incarnate lobes expanding, how gay and sportive they appear! ready on the spring to intrap incautious deluded insects! what artifice! there behold one of the leaves just closed upon a struggling fly, another has gotten a worm; its hold is sure, its prey can never escape -- carnivorous vegetable! Can we after viewing this object, hesitate a moment to confess, that vegetable beings are imbued with some sensible faculties or attributes, similar to those that dignify animal nature; they are organical, living, and self-moving bodies, for we see here, in this plant, motion and volition."
Bartram's idea of botanical consciousness to explain the Flytrap's hair-triggered closing response seems curious and whimsical to us today. Interestingly, Jefferson also embraced this theory to some degree, as evidence in an 1809 letter to Margaret Bayard Smith regarding a geranium he kept while President: ". . . if plants have sensibility, as the analogy of their organisation with ours seems to indicate, it [his geranium] cannot but be proudly sensible of her fostering attentions." Philadephia nurseryman and author Bernard McMahon also echoed this notion in his description of the Sensitive Plant (Mimosa pudica) in the American Gardener's Calendar, 1806: "The sensibility of this plant is worthy of admiration . . . with the least touch . . . the leaves just like a tree a dying, droop and complicate themselves immediately . . . so that a person would be induced to think they were really endowed with the sense of feeling." Their analogous arguments offer an intriguing perspective on nineteenth-century reasoning.
Benjamin Hawkins, a naturalist from Warrenton, North Carolina, became Jefferson's primary agent in his pursuit of the elusive Flytrap. Hawkins, himself, had collected plants near Wilmington, North Carolina and kept them alive in a box under his pear tree.Yet, despite Jefferson's persistant requests and Hawkins' many promising letters, their efforts to transport Flytraps to France apparently never succeeded. In a letter to Madame de Tessé dated April 25, 1788, Jefferson philosophically warned of such eventualities: "Botany is the school of patience, and its amateurs learn resignation from daily disappointments." And so it was with her Flytrap.
It was not until 1804, toward the end of his first term as President, that he finally received from Timothy Bloodworth his first Flytrap seed. The timing, however, was undoubtedly wrong. Jefferson, deeply entrenched in the "splendid misery" of the Presidency, apparently had no opportunity to devote to his seeds. He kept them until his final retirement to Monticello. There, on April 13, 1809, his 66th birthday, he made a last reference in his Garden Book, ". . . sowed seeds of Dionaea muscipula in a pot. they were several years old . . .."
Another plant that was destined to remain on Jefferson's list of "wants" was the sensational Caracalla Bean (Vigna caracalla). Unlike his repeated Flytrap correspondence, only two exchanges come to us about his interest in this tropical ornamental vine. They again involved his associate, Benjamin Hawkins. In 1792 Jefferson proclaimed to Hawkins, "the most beautiful bean in the world is the Caracalla bean which, though in England a green-house plant, will grow in the open air in Virginia and Carolina. I never could get one of these in my life. They are worth your enquiry." This passage suggests his efforts, though unrecorded, were more aggressive. But how and when did he first encounter the vine? He quite possibly saw it in the greenhouses of Kew gardens which he visited while in England in 1786. Jefferson likely knew of the Caracalla through Philip Miller's The Gardener's Dictionary. The 1768 edition, housed in Jefferson's library, described it as follows: ". . . a kidney-bean with a twining stalk . . .. grows naturally in the Brazils, from whence the seeds were brought to Europe." Miller observed further: "It is very common in Portugal, where the inhabitants plant it to cover arbours and seats in gardens, for which it is greatly esteemed . . . for its beautiful swell smelling flowers . . .." Interestingly, Miller was aware of the difficulties in perfecting seed and overwintering the Caracalla in England, which is also a problem in Virginia.
Bernard McMahon included it in the lengthy appendix of the American Gardener's Calendar, which Jefferson owned. McMahon categorized it under "Hot-House Herbaceous Perennial Plants, &c." as Phaseolus caracalla --Twisted-flowered kidney-bean. Other equally unattractive names for this magnificent vine included Caracol, Snail Flower, and Corkscrew Flower.
By 1839, Robert Buist's The American Flower Garden Directory gave this description: ". . . snail-flower is a very curious blooming plant, with flowers of a greenish yellow, all spirally twisted, in great profusion when the plant is well grown." In his Notes on Edible Plants, Dr. E. Lewis Sturtevant observed that this tropical species was often grown for its showy, sweet-scented flowers in the gardens of North and South America, southern Europe, and India. During the 1890s, New York nurseryman and writer Peter Henderson noted that the bluish-lilac flowers were ". . . valued by florists for their delicious fragrance and for their resemblance to Orchids." But, by the early twentieth century, Liberty Hyde Bailey's Cyclopedia observed, "It is an old-fashioned glasshouse plant in cold climates, but is now rarely seen."
It has taken the perseverance of another generation of gardeners, however, to finally bring the beautiful Caracalla to Monticello. It thrives today on bean-pole tripods next to the vegetable garden pavilion -- with blossoms rising overhead -- a sweetly-scented beacon of Jefferson's intent.
Peggy Cornett, Director
Thomas Jefferson Center
for Historic Plants