Monticello's Seeds of the Past

Back to Twinleaf Journal Online »

Collecting and disseminating seeds of choice plants was an important chapter of Jefferson's horticultural life. Throughout his correspondence and memoranda we discover his enthusiasm for seed exchange and his concern for their timely transfer. His letters reveal his awareness of the season "fast advancing," his urgency to connect with medical student couriers en route to Philadelphia, and his frustrations with uncertain transatlantic passages (such as during the 1812-15 embargo). But we also sense his anticipation for the botanical discoveries returned by the Lewis and Clark expedition and his delight as a grandfather encouraging young Anne Cary Randolph to preserve diligently their cherished flower seeds upon his retirement to Monticello in 1809.

Today, our efforts to search out and retrieve these seeds of the past are often equally frustrating, perilous, and even humorous. As I sorted through old files during my move to CHP's Tufton Farm, I retraced the trails of numerous searches; some fruitful, others leading nowhere. Some seeds seems to have arrived by providence -- the traditional plants "that have always been here" in the Monticello gardens -- such as Cleome, Cleome hasslerana, Globe Amaranth, Gomphrena globosa, and Blackberry Lily, Belamcanda chinensis, and single hollyhocks, Alcea rosea, which grace Monticello's hillsides and garden banks. The Goldenrain Tree seedlings, Koelreuteria paniculata, possibly descended from the tree Jefferson originally sprouted in 1811 from seeds sent by Lafayette's aunt, the Comtesse Noailles de Tessé.

Other seeds have traveled variously. Our species Wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri) and Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) came in 1985 through a friendship between Monticello's Director of Gardens & Grounds Peter Hatch and David Beaumont, curator of the gardens of Hatfield House, a sixteenth-century country estate outside London. The Wallflower, a simple, bright-yellow biennial of the mustard family, has since been easily maintained in our collection. Preserving the wild snapdragon, which Jefferson intended to naturalize in the "open Ground on the West" in 1771, proved to be more of a challenge. Because it easily cross-pollinates with modern cultivars, this wine-red flowering species must be grown in isolation. Today we still preserve these European wildflowers solely by cuttings and seed from isolated, greenhouse-grown plants.

An unwritten law governs the seed exchange between serious plant explorers: "Never ask for seeds twice if you fail the first time." Although forced to violate this dictum on at least two occasions, the end result somehow justified our indefatigable means. The single-flowered, species forms of African and French Marigolds, Tagetes erecta and T. patula, and the Yellow-horned Poppy, Glaucium flavum, did not arrive under as amicable circumstances as the seeds from Hatfield House. In 1981 Peter Hatch looked toward Britain for sources of horticultural treasures. He wrote the assistant curator of plants at Kew Gardens in Surrey, requesting seeds of numerous flowers grown in Jefferson's gardens. The representative from Kew, who propagated "only enough seed for our own needs," soon tired of Peter's repeated requests for failed seed that "a child ought to be able to germinate." Their correspondence ended abruptly in 1983 when the cranky curator testily chastised Peter for sending letters which were not properly signed and dated! Nevertheless, the Marigolds and Yellow-horned Poppy did indeed survive and are now distributed to thousands of gardeners throughout the country.

Without diligent care, rare and valued seeds can be lost entirely in a single season. Such was the case with our first crop of 'Tennis Ball' Lettuce, Lactuca sativa, grown from seeds acquired from the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado. When Monticello's former Executive Director, James Bear, pronounced it the finest lettuce he'd ever eaten, the frenzy to taste this once-favored lettuce of Jefferson resulted in the consumption of the entire crop. No seed plants were spared. In subsequent years we have forbidden all harvesting of this and other important eighteenth- and nineteenth-century produce until we assure the seed supply. Yet, we might still take heart in Jefferson's appeal to his friend Bernard Peyton to whom he wrote in May 1824, "I missed raising Nasturtium seed the last year and it is not to be had in this neighborhood."

Unforeseen calamities, both natural and manmade, often confound or attempts to obtain elusive Jefferson plants. The Garden Book contains a single reference to a relative of the common Four O'clock, the Sweet-scented Four O'clock, Mirabilis longiflora, which was sent to Jefferson from Bernard McMahon in 1812. Like its cousin, the tuberous-rooted perennial has the curious habit of flowering at dusk when its fragrant, tubular, white blossoms unfurl. Our interest in this unusual native of the Southwest and Mexico led us to inquire of its availability from our colleague Dr. William C. Welch, extension horticulturist at College Station, Texas. His search led to Dr. Michael Powell, professor of biology at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. Dr. Powell and his wife located two populations, which they monitored faithfully throughout the season. As is often the unfortunate fate of roadside natives, the highway department mowed one colony before the seed ripened. A second population, however, was spared and, since 1989 we have cultivated it successfully and now offer its seed to the public.

Because we, as garden historians, are in the business of collecting historic plants, seeds often come unsolicited from sister sites. The Hyacinth Bean, Dolichos lablab, the legend of Monticello's bean arbor, was a gift from Mount Vernon's director of horticulture, Dean Norton. Zinnia pauciflora and species China Aster, Callistephus chinensis, which visitors discover growing along the Roundabout flower border, were shared by Mark Reeder, former gardener of the William Paca House in Annapolis, Maryland. Still others have less legitimate origins, such as the French Mallow, Malva sylvestris, gathered surreptitiously from plants growing along the sidewalk in a blue-collar neighborhood of Charlottesville. When I notice Monticello visitors glancing warily over their shoulders as they sidle up against a mound of ripening Globe Amaranth, I recall that sense of romance and adventure that propels the eager collector, from the early botanical explorers to modern-day rose rustlers.

It is truly in the spirit of Jefferson that we pass along these seeds from one gardener to the next, and from generation to generation. Like him, we take equal pleasure in the regenerative abilities of flowers, which "have their short reign of beauty and splendor, and retire. . . to the more interesting office of reproducing their like." Though perhaps for differing purposes, our vision and zeal is the same as Jefferson's when he wrote his "good and ancient friend" André Thoüin of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris that his seeds "came safely to hand and were committed to our best seedsmen, in order that they might be preserved and distributed so as to become general."

Peggy Cornett, Director
Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants
1993

Back to Twinleaf Journal Online »

Tag this

None
Login or register to tag items

Add comment

Login or register to post comments