Thomas Jefferson's "Belles of the Day" at Monticello
". . . the flowers come forth like the belles of the day, have their short reign of beauty and splendour, and retire, like them, to the more interesting office of reproducing their like. The Hyacinths and Tulips are off the stage, the Irises are giving place to the Belladonnas, as these will to the Tuberoses, etc. ... - Jefferson to Anne Cary Bankhead. Monticello. May 26, 1811
Thomas Jefferson wrote this often-quoted passage to his granddaughter as a means of instructing her on the ephemeral nature of beauty, the normal transitions in life, and the inevitable passage of time. That he used flowering bulbs as his metaphor is fitting. Jefferson often looked to the natural world for descriptive inspiration, and bulbs by comparison, through their unfolding transformations, compress the stages of a human lifetime into a single season.
Bulbs -- often called bulbous or flowering roots in the 18th century -- were common in American gardens by Jefferson's day. Their light-weight, easy portability during dormancy, as well as their ability to be shipped dry, were key factors in their dissemination. Because they could be layered into boxes, wrapped in pouches, stuffed in satchels, and tucked in pockets, they were ideally suited for the vagaries of transcontinental and transatlantic voyages. They were, undoubtedly, flowers that caught Jefferson's attention early on. The very first entry in his Garden Book, a diary of gardening activities kept for nearly sixty years, reads: "Purple hyacinth begins to bloom." This observation -- made on March 30th, 1766 -- was followed a week later with "Narcissus and Puckoon open." By the next year Jefferson, ever the scientist, began charting the regularity of their blooming periods, noting that both the hyacinth and narcissus were flowering on March 23rd, a full week earlier. Bulbs were the primary focus in his "Calendar of the bloom of flowers in 1782," where he, in a sense, graphically portrays the passage he later wrote to his granddaughter by showing the overlapping sequence of blossoms from the narcissus, jonquils, and hyacinths of March and April to the anemones, ranunculus, and tulips of May and on to the lilies of June.
Jefferson rarely specified beyond the genus of his bulbs, offering few clues as to the dozens of varieties or cultivars he might have grown. Yet, there is evidence of the sophistication of his taste and the tastes of the times. For example, Jefferson often sought the more highly developed florist types of flowers. He consistently ordered the double forms of anemones, Persian Ranunculus, and tuberose and, while in Paris in 1786, he sent double tulip bulbs to Francis Eppes at Monticello. He listed double hyacinths in separate colors of pink, yellow, white, blue, and red, and, in 1812, he received from Philadelphia nurseryman Bernard McMahon "3 Double blue Hyacinths, named Alamode by the Dutch, remarkably early & proper for forcing." Today, double hyacinths are rare commercially and very expensive. Likewise, his "1 Root silver striped Crown Imperial,"(Fritillaria imperialis) is now virtually a museum piece nurtured in Dutch botanical gardens.
If frequency is an indicator of preference, then the tulip, which is mentioned more than any other flower in the Garden Book, should be considered Jefferson's all time favorite. Jefferson was not unique in this, even in America. In the 1730s Williamsburg's John Custis received "Double Tulips" and "early tulips" from his mentor Peter Collinson of London, and a portrait of Custis clearly shows him holding a well-worn book with the words "of the Tulip" legible on its spine and a streaked tulip blossom beside it. Tulipomanea, a 17th-century European tulip "fever" where fortunes could be made or lost through the purchase of a single bulb, had long subsided from its peak in the 1630s. Yet, tulips retained universal appeal and remained the intense focus of florists well into the 19th century. Again, thanks to the discriminating Bernard McMahon, Jefferson was receiving some choice forms by 1806, when a shipment included such classics as: Bizarre (mustard yellow flowers marked red or brownish-black), Bybloemen (white ground marked deep rich purple), and Rose (white feathered with red or rose markings). Also in the package were the Baguet Rigauts and Primo Baguets, which had rosy-purple or brownish-red markings on a white ground with pure white bases. According to Anna Pavord, in The Tulip: The Story of a Flower that has Made Men Mad, the Baguets, a Flemish specialty, were amongst the most sought-after tulips of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. They were wide-cupped, round-petalled flowers, said to be capable of holding "a pint of wine" in their blossoms. While we can be impressed with Jefferson's florist tulips, the major caveat of these types was that they were not really meant for the garden. Pavord stresses that they were aristocrats, meant to be cosseted, covered, and protected from harm. Better suited for the garden were the "2 Roots Parrot Tulips ... red, green and yellow mixed" sent by McMahon in 1812.
When Jefferson divided his winding flower walk on the West Lawn into 10-foot compartments in 1812, bulbs were a major consideration in the planting scheme. Each of the 87 beds (43 on the North side and 44 on the South) were numbered such that: "the odd compartments are for bulbs requird. taking up the even ones for seeds & permanent bulbs." Thus, Jefferson tried to insure that each type of bulb would be cared for appropriately, and obvious perennials like daffodils would be left undisturbed. Bulbs were precious things then. Unlike today, they could not be replaced readily, and they required proper storage and cultural attention in order to multiply. An exchange between Jefferson and his daughter Martha in 1816 clearly reveals this arduous process. Jefferson, writing from his occasional retreat, Poplar Forest, on November 10th, asked that his faithful gardener, Wormley, bring "some of the hardy bulbous roots" divided from the Monticello collection: "... daffodils, jonquils, Narcissuses, flags & lillies of different kinds, refuse hyacinths &c. ...." Ten days later Martha responded that it was already too late to send all that he listed because the roots were actively growing, but she sent instead "... a number of offsets of tulips and hyacinths ... the smaller ones are not blooming roots yet, but will be in a year or 2. the tulips & hyacinths are mixed but Cornelia knows them all ...." The waiting was always part of the experience.
This leads to the natural question: what did beds of flowering bulbs really look like in early American gardens? Of all modern-day attempts to recreate 18th- and 19th-century flower plantings, the ubiquitous bulb display, featuring thousands of uniformly spaced blossoms, is probably the most misleading. Jefferson's modest planting of 50 ranunculus, 24 anemones, 27 hyacinths, and 20 tulips in 1807, for example, would seem starkly weak in comparison, especially when considering Ann Cary Randolph's appraisal of the borders in March of the following year. She reported to her grandfather, who was still serving as President, that all the bulbs were "coming up very well particularly the tulips of which he [Burwell] counted at least forty flourishing ones." By April 15th, 1808, she further observed that "neither the hyacinths nor Tulips grow as regularly this spring as they did the last. Wormley in taking them up left some small roots in the ground which have come up about in the bed & not in the rows with the other."
Jefferson's interest in bulbs extended to native sorts, as well. Like his contemporary, Jean Skipwith of Prestwould Plantation in south central Virginia, Jefferson grew the spectacular American Turk's Cap or Spotted Canada Martagon (Lilium superbum), received from McMahon in 1812. Because Jefferson pre-dated the great wave of Japanese introductions by about fifty years, nursery lists such as McMahon's offered a combination of North American and European species. Thus, the "various sorts of lillies" he ordered included not only the European Turk's Cap (L. martagon) but also possibly any number of native species, such as the Canada Martagon (L. canadense). The White Lily (L. candidum) of Europe, which became known as the Madonna Lily later in the Victorian period, was likewise at Monticello and Prestwould. More unusual were the Atamasco Lily (Zephyranthes atamasco), a southeastern U.S. species of Rain Lily similar to the Z. candida, and the "Columbia Lily." The latter is believed to be a western species of Fritillaria (Fritillaria pudica) collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition and planted at Monticello in 1807 as: "Lilly. the yellow of the Columbia. it's root a food of the natives." While this diminutive, yellow bell-like flower is prolific throughout the Northwest, it has proven impossible to grow in central Virginia.
It is always intriguing to speculate if any bulb colonies have survived. Although some species, such as Narcissus, are extremely long lived, there appear to be no ancient stands of daffodils remaining from Jefferson's time. One unusual species, however, still thrives in the Monticello landscape. The southern European Tassel Hyacinth, Muscari comosum, has spread so abundantly that it has naturalized in the flower gardens, down the slope to the kitchen garden, and throughout the fruit garden. Jefferson's 1782 reference to Feather Hyacinth blooming from mid May to mid June and the "6 Feathered Hyacinth roots, Hyacinthus monstrosus L." sent by McMahon in 1812 technically implies the Tassel Hyacinth's more showy cousin, Muscari comosum 'Plumosum', whose blossom has turned the purple-blue tassel or topknot into a feathery plume. Whether the common names were confused or the bulbs were mixed or both forms were planted is not clear, but the longevity of the naturalized colonies is certain.
For the most part, Jefferson's "belles of the day" were indeed temporary beauties during a fleeting chapter of his life. In a touching remembrance made by his granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge, she describes the magical moments of her childhood when new beds were prepared for his flowers. "I remember the planting of the first hyacinths and tulips, and their subsequent growth .... There was Marcus Aurelius, and the King of the Gold Mine, the Roman Empress, and the Queen of the Amazons ...." Their winter-long anticipation was answered when one of the grandchildren would "discover the tender green breaking through the mould, and run to granpapa to announce, that we really believed Marcus Aurelius was coming up, or the Queen of the Amazons was above ground!" The entire family was in ecstacy "over the rich purple and crimson, or pure white, or delicate lilac, or pale yellow of the blossoms," and Jefferson would sympathize in their admiration and discuss new groupings, combinations, and contrasts. She concludes, "Oh, these were happy moments for us and for him!"
This joyful scene dissolved relatively quickly when, after Jefferson's death in 1826, curiosity and souvenir seekers came in droves for mementoes of the great Sage of Monticello. In 1827 Virginia Randolph Trist reported to her sister Ellen Coolidge that, sadly, "Mama's choicest flower roots have been carried off ... and everything and any thing that they fancied." In this, the conclusion of Jefferson's 1811 "belles of the day" letter to Anne Cary Bankhead seems all the more poignant as he himself accepts the inevitable: "... as your mamma has done to you, my dear Anne, as you will do to the sisters of little John, and as I shall soon and cheerfully do to you all in wishing you a long, long goodnight."
Peggy Cornett, Director
Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants