Monticello's Mystery Plants

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The range of plants recorded by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello reflected the scope of his myriad interests and multi-faceted personality: hot peppers from an army captain in southwestern Texas; rare nectarines from his life-long Italian friend, Phillip Mazzei; American Indian corn and bean varieties collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition. We are proud of our Monticello collection, and 25 years of historic plant hunting have uncovered some treasured wonders of the early 19th-century horticultural world: from the yellow Antwerp raspberry and Marseilles fig to the tennis-ball lettuce and pine-apple melon to the ornamental Barbados flower fence or Caesalpinia pulcherrima (formerly Poinciana pulcherrima), species Pelargonium inquinans, the scarlet pentapetes, and "Bremo Musk Cluster" rose (Rosa mos-chata plena). Many of the Jefferson and Monticello plants, however, remain a mystery; their identities masked by confusing Jefferson terminology, the absence of detailed descriptions of their qualities, and 200 years of changing gardening tastes. Surely, 18th-century varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers have become extinct, yet surprisingly, the identity of most of these "Monticello Mysteries" were cloudy from the beginning, from Thomas Jefferson's lack of precise identification or from murky contemporary descriptions.

Monticello's Mystery Apple

The Taliaferro (pronounced "Toliver") is Monticello's mystery apple. Jefferson planted unprecedented quantities of this apple in a select location in Monticello's South Orchard. While Jefferson praised it as "the best cider apple existing," produc-ing a cider "more like wine than any other liquor I have tasted which was not wine," the lack of a detailed description of its qualities makes retrieval of the Taliaferro virtually impossible. According to Jefferson, Taliaferro was discovered by a Major Taliaferro of Williamsburg in the field of his neighbor, a Mr. Robertson (corrupted by Jefferson and others to "Robinson"), in the middle of the 18th century. Boston pomologist William Kenrick provided the only published description of the Taliaferro in 1835: "The fruit is the size of a grape shot, or from one to two inches in diameter; of a white color, streaked with red; with a sprightly acid, not good for the table, but apparently a very valuable cider fruit. This is understood to be a Virginia fruit, and the apple from which Mr. Jefferson's favorite cider was made."

Kenrick's description is so vague that confirming a potential Taliaferro today is like bobbing for the slipperiest of apples. Does the white color refer to the skin or the flesh? Kenrick's statement that it is "not good for the table" contradicts a Jefferson statement that it is "refreshing as an eating apple." The enigma of the lost Taliaferro has elevated its stature among historic apple hunters to almost mythic qualities, and handfuls of poten-tial candidates, crimson-striped crabs and white-streaked cider apples, reappear like migratory birds every season. But, we will never know what the Taliaferro is unless an undiscovered pomological description miraculously appears.

Monticello's Mystery Tree

In 1816 Jefferson referred to the "Monticello aspen" he was sending to a friend and neighbor, James Barbour. Another local acquaintance of Jefferson's, John Hartwell Cocke, perhaps pro-vides a partial clue to the identity of the "Monticello aspen" when he recorded in his garden diary, "In the year 1789 Mr. J. brought with him from Europe a species of this tree ["poplar"] somewhat different from the tall and slim lom-bardy [Lombardy poplar, Populus nigra var. Italica], Mr. J's being a tree of some shade." Still another hint, although it does not necessarily mesh with the Cocke testimony, was given by Jefferson in a letter to William Hamilton in 1806 that accompanied "9. plants of the Aspen from Monticello which I formerly mentioned & promised to you. It is a very sensible variety from any other I have seen in this country, superior in the straitness & paper whiteness of the body; & the leaf is longer in its stem consequently more tremulous, and it is smooth (not downy) on the underside." A well-known watercolor of Monticello, painted by Jane Braddick Peticolas around 1825, reveals an intensely planted thicket next to the West Front of the house of what is apparently the Monticello aspen," the trunks and foliage of the individual trees shining with a silver glow. What is the "Monticello aspen," Thomas Jefferson's mystery tree? The allu-sion by Cocke to it being "a tree of some shade" and introduced from Europe, and the exaggerated "paper whiteness" of the trunk and leaves described by Jefferson and illustrated by Peticolas suggest it is perhaps a variety or form of European aspen (Populus tremula).

 

Captain Lewis's Pea

2004 marks the 200th anniversary of the St. Louis departure of the Jefferson-sponsored Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the bicentennial has inspired a pro-found curiosity about the botanical and horticultural discoveries of the "Corps of Discovery." In April 1807, Jefferson successfully sowed "the flowering pea of the plains of the Arkansas" in an oval flower bed at Monticello, seed of which had been sent by Captain Meriwether Lewis. Jefferson noted it was "remarkable for its beautiful blossom & leaf," and his granddaughter Anne collected the seed later that fall. Despite its presumed ornamental qualities, "Lewis's flowering pea" was later relegated to more utilitarian areas along the periphery of the Monticello South Orchard: "between turnips and peas" and in "low ground."

Lewis's pea presents a host of issues. The route of the expedition, for example, was far north of the Arkansas River, so the seeds had likely been obtained in St. Louis on the return journey. The seeds had been routed through Bernard McMahon, the Philadelphia nurseryman and official curator of the horticultural collection of the expedition. McMahon identified the genus, based presumably by the appearance of the seed, as a Lupinus. We have grown the Texas blue bonnet, Lupinus texensis, as a possible "Lewis's pea," but the range of this heralded wildflower is far south of the Arkansas River. Paul Cutright, in Lewis and Clark, Pioneering Naturalists, a fine book on the natural history of the expedition, identifies the plant as American vetch, Vicia americana. American vetch is hardly "remarkable for its beautiful blossom and leaf," yet it would be a likely candidate as a soil ameliorator because of its quick-grow-ing, nitrogen-fixing, leguminous qualities. Dr. James Reveal, distinguished bo-tanical historian and author of Lewis and Clark's Green World: The Expedition and its Plants, suggests the key reference is to the "plains of the Arkansas," completely removing Lewis's pea from the realm of the "Corps of Discovery" and possibly placing it among the plants collected by the Freeman Custis Expedition of the Southwest in 1806.

 

The Extinct Hudson Strawberry?

In 1812 Jefferson wrote his friend and neighbor, George Divers, that he had spent "20 yrs. trying unsuccessfully" to obtain the "famous" Hudson strawberry for his garden at Monticello. After repeated requests of McMahon, who said the Hudson was "the best kind we have here," Jefferson finally estab-lished "flourishing" plants by 1812 in the submural beds below the vegetable garden wall. S. W. Fletcher, author of The Strawberry in America, said it was a selected form of the wild eastern North American species, Fragaria virginiana, and the "first named variety listed in North America." Wilhelm and Sagen, in A History of the Strawberry, 1780, disagreed, asserting the Hudson was a hybrid seedling of the native F. virginiana and the Pacific coast F. chiloense that occurred in a Rhode Island garden around 1792. The confusion was compounded by the emergence of Hudson's Bay, generally recognized as a F. virginiana cultivar originating in Canada and sold as early as 1810 by the William Booth nursery. Whatever the Hudson's muddled origins, it was a pioneer American cultivar: "very large, fine flavor, and great bearers" according to the 1790 William Prince catalogue. By the mid-19th century, the "old" original Hudson had nearly disappeared from cultivation, so it seems likely this "famous" strawberry is today extinct.

 

A Garden of Lost Vegetables

 
Many of the 330 varieties of vegetables grown at Monticello present the most complex challenge for the historic plant detective. Most vegetables are annuals and thus are easily lost if seed collection is neglected. Names have been changed for commercial purposes. Jefferson often listed varieties according to the person from who he received the seed ("Leitch's pea"), its place of origin ("Tuscan bean"), or else he noted a basic and general physical characteristic such as color ("yellow carrot") or season of harvest ("for-ward pea"). The popular Sugarloaf cabbage was sent to Monticello by Bernard McMahon, and according to Fearing Burr, author of The Field and Garden Vegetables of America, 1863, was distinguished by its unique "ashy or bluish-green hue," a habit more like a Romaine lettuce than a cab-bage, and unique spoon-shaped leaves that formed a "clasp or cove over and around the head in the manner of a hood." Although a concept foreign to us today, lettuce was often cooked like cabbage in the early 19th century. An ideal variety for this was Marseilles, which Jefferson raised in large quantities, planting out 245 seedlings in 1809. The large, bronze-green heads, coarsely blistered, were harvested in winter after reaching 20 inches diameter and almost two pounds in weight. ?at's a crop of lettuce.

In an 1825 letter to Thomas Worthington, the former governor of Ohio, Jefferson requested seeds of a "mammoth" cucumber, four and a half feet long: "Although giants do not always beget giants, yet I should count on their improving the breed." The Ohio "cucumber" was probably a gourd, squash, or something akin to the ancient serpentine cucumber, Trichosanthes colubrine. Finding such a curiosity would, again, be dependent on locating a more concise description of the Worthington cucumber.

We are perhaps closer in identifying and displaying Jefferson's "potato pumpkin." Jefferson wrote the Jamaican planter Samuel Vaughn:

"We have lately had introduced a plant of the melon species which from its external resemblance to the pumpkin, we have called a pumpkin, distinguishing it as the potato pumpkin, on account of the extreme resemblance of its taste to that of the sweet potato. It is as yet but little known, is well esteemed at our tables, and particularly valued by our negroes. Coming much earlier than the real potato, we are so much the sooner furnished with a substitute for that root-€¦perhaps it may be original from your islands."

A recipe appeared for the prepara-tion of the potato pumpkin in Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife in 1824. Randolph was a cousin of Jefferson's and her cookbook has been described as "the most influential cookbook of the nineteenth century." Food historian and heirloom vegetable grower, William Woys Weaver, notes the now-avail-able Tennessee sweet potato squash (or pumpkin) is a descendent and perhaps a legitimate replica of the one grown at Monticello.

Jefferson has been acknowledged by food historians as introducing rhubarb into American gardens, but his notations about planting it are achingly puzzling. He wrote in his Garden Book in 1809: "I. row of rheum undulatum, esculent rhubarb. The leaves excellent as Spinach." First of all, Rheum undulatum is a medicinal species used for its roots, not the plant used for cooking the leaf stalks into delicious pies. Secondly, if he really meant the pie plant, meaning "esculent rhubarb" or Rheum rhaponicum, the leaves of this species are poisonous and are hardly suitable as a salad green. What in the world was this man referring to?

Another vegetable Jefferson credited himself for introducing into the United States was "sprout kale," "the finest winter vegetable we have." Seed had been sent by French botanist André Thüin of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1811, and Jefferson consistently and enthusiastically cultivated it for the next thirteen years. Jefferson wrote that sprout kale "is among our most valuable garden plants. It stands our winter unprotected, furnishes a vast crop of sprouts from the beginning of December through the whole winter. [The sprouts] are remarkably sweet and delicious." The "sprouts" were not like Brussels sprouts, but the "fine, tender, sweet" greens emerging from the plants. Jefferson documented planting other distinct and well known types of kale, including Russian, Buda, Delaware, and Scotch: all commonly described by 19th-century vegetable writers. Sea kale, Crambe maritima, was also a favorite of Jefferson's, but is harvested and used in the kitchen quite differently. Jefferson, in other words, knew kale. Other experts have suggested the identity of the Monticello sprout kale. Colonial Williamsburg's Wesley Greene suggests it might be dwarf German kale, greens, or borecole, while William Woys Weaver has a "gut feeling" that it is broccoli raab or a type of baby kale.

Identifying the plants grown by Thomas Jefferson is often a lesson in the vocabulary of the English language: deciphering Jefferson's terms for plants, linking his name to those used in the historic literature, particularly writers such as Philip Miller or Bernard McMahon, then pinpointing the modern botani-cal or variety name in a source such as Hortus Third or the Fruits and Vegetables of New York series published in the early years of the 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary is a definitive resource. We have had some success with the herbaceous ornamentals described by Jefferson. The "Chinese Ixia" planted in an oval flower bed in 1807 is blackberry lily or Belamcanda chinensis. The "Dragon's Tongue" listed by Jefferson on an undated memorandum of cultivated flowers is spotted wintergreen or Chimaphila maculata, while "A little yellow flower from the woods Star of Bethlehem," noted on the same piece of scrap paper, is yellow star grass or Hypoxis hirsuta.

Some plants have been easier to identify than to grow. We have identified Jefferson's "American Columbo" as the stately and rare mountain wildflower, Swertia caroliniensis, but have never successfully established it in the flower gardens; as well we have trouble nursing the "American larkspur" or rare, native Delphinium exaltatum through a hot, humid Piedmont Virginia summer. One genuine mystery plant is the "hardy" "Mourning Bride," the bulbs of which Jefferson requested of a friend and neighbor, Isaac Coles, in 1811. Although Coles acknowledged the "Mourning Bride has not flourished well in our garden," he forwarded both bulbs and "a few roots" to Monticello. At least two sources suggest "Mourning Bride" has been used as a synonym for the annual Scabiosa, or pincushion flower (Scabiosa atropurpurea); however, the roots of this species are fibrous and not technically a hardy perennial in Charlottesville. So, what is Mr. Jefferson's Mourning Bride?

What have we lost: the "best cider apple existing," "the best kind of strawberry we have," a flower "remarkable for its beautiful blossom and leaf," "the finest winter vegetable we have," an ornamental tree "entirely peculiar and superior to all others"? These historical sound bites suggest the loss of the greatest hits of the early 19th-century horticultural world, precious genes that could revolutionize the nursery business (Monticello aspen), invigorate Third World countries (Taliaferro apple), or provide sustenance for small villages in north Alaska (sprout kale). Or, it could just be Thomas Jefferson hyperbole. As always, we urge Twinleaf readers to help us in our search.

Peter J. Hatch, Director
Gardens and Grounds
January 2004

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