Jefferson's Vines of Summer: Beauties and Beasts

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Ask any of Monticello's gardeners and they will tell you that enough has been said about the Hyacinth Bean. From late summer through the first hard freeze their thick vines twine around the black locust arbor at the southwest corner of Jefferson's 1000-foot-long vegetable garden terrace. Festooned with glorious purple blossoms, it unabashedly beckons the strolling parade of visitors along Mulberry Row to shout again and again: "What's that purple flower?" Seed packets are often decimated at the Garden Shop long before this King of Vines retires for the season. Its popularity has spread quickly. Only a few years ago, it seems, this plant was virtually unheard of, but in this year alone I have seen it bedecking everything from the humblest back porch to the entry gates of the Governor's mansion in Atlanta.

But, this story really isn't about the Hyacinth Bean.

Many other tender climbers also captured Thomas Jefferson's fancy. He found the Scarlet-runner Bean (Phaseolus coccineus) so beautiful that its function in the vegetable garden was primarily aesthetic. Likewise, he grew the trailing Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) both in the eighteenth-century fashion as a vegetable, and simply as an ornamental, as noted in his "Calendar of the bloom of flowers in 1782."

Even more intriguing is his reference to an obscure and peculiar plant, the Balsam Apple (Momordica balsamina). Although Jefferson himself once claimed he had no time for plants of "mere curiosity," it is difficult to avoid terms like unusual, strange, and even weird when describing this member of the cucumber family. Its very name, derived from mordeo, to bite, suggests something grisly about the gnawed appearance of its dried seed. Granted, Balsam Apple does possess certain beautiful qualities with its lobed, glossy-green leaves, delicate tendrils, and lovely, pale-yellow flowers. Once the warty, orbicular green fruits begin to appear, however, the vine soon enters the realm of the bizarre. Its curiousness continues as the skin of its fleshy fruits changes to lurid orange-red and finally bursts wildly, dispersing the sticky, even brighter-red seeds.

Balsam Apple is native to the African and Asian tropics where its fruits are not only eaten but also used medicinally. It was cultivated in Europe as early as 1542, as illustrated in De Historia Stirpium by Leonhard Fuchs of Basle, Switzerland. Gerard's Herbal included a lengthy account of its medicinal virtues, and as late as the mid-nineteenth century, American garden writers were proclaiming its healing properties when applied to fresh wounds.

In Bernard McMahon's American Gardener's Calendar, which Jefferson followed religiously, Balsam Apple is described as a tender annual flower of the "twining sort"; recommendation enough for Jefferson to sow it on April 18, 1810, with his larkspurs and poppies. Neither the source of the seed nor the fate of the vine is known, yet it seems significant that Jefferson recorded it during such a hectic period. Amid the zeal of his first year of retirement he was busy planting fruit and nut trees in his orchard, choice native tree seeds and grasses in his nursery, Sweet Acacias in his greenhouse, figs below the vegetable garden wall, sesame in the orchard, and upland rice along the meadow branch. He was likewise busy worrying about his mill flooding, his cisterns leaking, and that his apricot tree would freeze. And, as his impending financial ruin loomed nearer, he was worrying a lot about money. Reason enough, it seems, for the gentle diversion of exploding Balsam Apples.

Another tender scrambler to consider is the Cypress Vine (Ipomoea quamoclit). It was brought into cultivation from the New World tropics by 1629 -- that is, from the time of Gerard, who listed it as Convolvulus pennata or Quamoclit, and commonly as Winged Bindweed and Winged Windeweed. In a single season it can grow into a delicate, twenty-five foot tangle of finely cut leaves spangled with small, scarlet, star-shaped blossoms. A decidedly feminine plant in every aspect, it inspired Joseph Breck to exclaim in his 1851 Book of Flowers, "There is no annual climbing plant that exceeds the Cypress Vine, in elegance of foliage, gracefulness of habit, or loveliness of flowers."

Certainly, Jefferson was mindful of these graceful elements as he seemed always to be passing seeds along to one of his daughters. Those that he sent in a tin from Philadelphia to Patsy (Martha) in 1790 were sown the following spring "in boxes in the window," giving us a rare reference of a plant being grown indoors at Monticello. By 1807, Jefferson's granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph was eagerly pursuing seeds to plant at neighboring Edgehill. In a letter of January 22, 1808, she happily reported to "grandpapa" that " . . . on my way from the North Garden she [Mrs. Nicholas Lewis] told me she had saved some of the Cypress vine." Similar exchanges can be found in the letters of other Virginia ladies of this era. On April 4, 1800, Cornelia Lee asked of Sully Plantation, " . . . will you please look in my Secretary for and send down some of all the different kinds of Convolvulus that are there not forgetting to add . . . a little Quamoclit Seed if you have any to spare."

Like many members of the morning glory family, Cypress Vine re-seeds abundantly and one wonders why the Jefferson household so often had to reacquire it. Gerard, on the other hand, observed, "It is so tender a plant that it will not come to any perfection with us [in England], unlesse in extraordinary hot yeres. . . ." The vine's loving disciple from Boston, Joseph Breck, even described "forwarding" plants in hot-beds before setting them out after June 10th. Many early references also advised pouring boiling water over the seeds before planting.

Future climbers for the gardens at Monticello and for CHP may be gleaned from Bernard McMahon's lists, including Love-in-a-Puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum), which has already made its debut on the roundabout flower walk this past summer. Also aptly called Balloon Vine and Heart Seed, this whimsical vine bears inflated, papery pods enclosing hard, black seeds distinctly marked by a white, heart-shaped blotch.

Without question, however, the rightful heir to our regal Hyacinth Bean is the Snail Flower (Vigna caracalla). Despite its common name, Jefferson justly called it "The most beautiful bean in the world." Its seeds ripen slowly and, for the past two years, we have not succeeded in beating the first killing frosts. Any effort to preserve them will be justified for the reward of its blossoms' aroma alone, which is so deliciously seductive that, blindfolded at twenty feet, anyone would confuse it with Chinese Wisteria. And its beautiful spiraling flowers, so mollusk-like, so beastly, are indeed a most definite shade of purple.

But, this is a story for another time.

Peggy Cornett, Director
Thomas Jefferson Center
for Historic Plants
January 1994

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