This month we focus on a classic: the garden rose. We also talk tiny strawberries and look at two native trees that are flowering right now. Featuring Peggy Cornett, Curator of Plants; Michael Tricomi, Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens; Debbie Donley, Flower Gardener; and Robert Dowell, Senior Nursery Associate at the Thomas Jefferson Center Historic Plants.

Michael Tricomi: It's May at Monticello and truly a glorious time of year. Dozens of flowers are in bloom—scarlet red corn poppies; the majestic sweet flag iris; and the delicate, rambling wild geranium. But our focus today is on a classic: the garden rose. We’ll also talk about the tiny strawberries Jefferson grew and a few native trees that are flowering right now.


Michael Tricomi: This is “A Rich Spot of Earth,” a podcast about gardening and the natural world. I’m Michael Tricomi, Manager and Curator of Historic Gardens at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Albemarle County, Virginia.


Michael Tricomi: Jefferson and other American gardeners cultivated what we now call Old Garden Roses from Europe. They are the ancestors of our modern, hybrid tea roses. Curator of Plants Peggy Cornett sat down with Flower Gardener Debbie Donley to discuss some of the roses Jefferson grew.

First, they talked about Rosa gallica, a species native to southern and central Europe. It was prized in ancient Greece and Rome—the Greek poet Sappho described it as “the queen of flowers.” In Medieval gardens, it was celebrated for its medicinal properties. 

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson was first mentioning roses quite early in the 1760s. And we think he was probably talking about the Apothecary’s Rose and the Rosa Mundi. They're both Gallica-type roses and they're just some of the most beautiful, really. They grow about three- four feet tall. They bloom in the spring. They spread by suckering roots and they're fragrant. They have a reddish deep rose-pink color, I guess you might say. And the Rosa Mundi is variegated, so it’s bicolor. It's a light pink, white, and red.

Most of these European roses are once-blooming. So they're going to bloom in late spring and then they're just like big shrubs. And so, we have some beautiful ones in the garden at Monticello—the Apothecary, the Rosa Mundi, and then one that we think is the rose that was given to Jefferson by Margaret Bayard Smith. She talked about the “black rose,” and we think it's a type of Gallica called the Tuscany Rose, which is a deep, almost, violet-red color. And it's another once-blooming rose, and it suckers, so it gets quite rampant. . .

Debbie Donley: . . . aggressive. It suckers a lot.

Peggy Cornett: And so you have to cut it back after it flowers.

Michael Tricomi: Gallicas are compact in size but they send out underground runners and spread quickly. If you need to fill an empty space, they’re great. Otherwise, as Peggy mentioned, you have to cut them back to manage their size.

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson also got roses from the Prince Nursery on Long Island. In 1791, he ordered 10 roses. It included these big white roses that he called Alba roses. They're shrub roses with kind of blue-green foliage, arching stems. Some are white fully-double and others are semi-double. And he was also ordering the Cinnamon Rose, which has a kind of a cinnamon red stem to it, very prickly. And the Moss Roses, which are very fragrant and double. And, also, the Musk Rose, which is a very important rose in our collection today because it was almost thought to be extinct.

Debbie Donley: I love the Musk Rose. It blooms off and on periodically, even up until Christmas if it's a mild winter and it's in a protected area. You can cut it back to three feet. I just cut mine back a lot and then it just responds wonderfully.

Peggy Cornett: Yeah. It's a tough rose. It doesn't have a lot of prickles.

Debbie Donley: And it doesn't tend to get black spot.

Peggy Cornett: No, it's white flowers, where they're double or semi-double flowers.

Debbie Donley: Clusters of white flowers.

Michael Tricomi: The true Musk Rose is Rosa moschata, an ancient species from southern Europe and the Middle East. A hardier species, Rosa moschata nepalensis, was introduced during the late 19th century and nearly superseded the true musk. 

Peggy Cornett: One of the famous Musk Roses that was rediscovered back at the end of the 1900s was a Musk Rose that was found in Hollywood Cemetery, in Richmond, Virginia. It was on the Crenshaw family plot, I guess you might say.

Debbie Donley: And that's a wonderful place to go if you're interested in heirloom roses. It's just beautiful, overlooks the river. Lots and lots of old varieties of roses and the people buried there are very interesting too.

Peggy Cornett: Yeah, that’s right. In the 19th century, people went to cemeteries—it was like going to a botanic garden. There were large ornamental trees, as well as a lot shrubs, including roses and bulbs.

Michael Tricomi: For centuries in Europe, the rose was associated with fleeting beauty because most roses bloomed just once during the spring. Then there was a rose revolution.

Peggy Cornett: What really changed in the early 1800s is when roses from China were introduced that were repeat blooming. And that was a real sea change in roses. So the Rosa chinensis, the China Roses, they brought this ever-blooming quality. And we have a collection of roses that are called the Noisette roses And those are roses that are hybrids from the Musk rose that was crossed with the Old Blush China rose.

Michael Tricomi: The white European Musk and the bright pink Old Blush China Rose produced a new pale pink rose that was sweetly fragrant. And, as Peggy mentioned, they bloomed repeatedly throughout the Spring and Summer. The French breeder Louis Noisette developed many varieties from this cross. At our Center for Historic Plants, we have a garden that features Noisette, Musk, and China roses, telling the story of how the Noisette rose developed. Please join us for our next Open House on Saturday May 25th, from 9:00 to 2:00 to see and purchase these and other rare, historic roses.

4. Strawberries

Michael Tricomi: Strawberries are one of the delights of the May garden. Jefferson grew a few different varieties, which I discussed with Peggy and Debbie.

Michael Tricomi: The alpine strawberry or the wood strawberry was popular in Europe and was brought over. That is a strawberry that Jefferson cultivated. It's a very small but very fragrant and very sweet tasting strawberry.

The other strawberries that were cultivated were the wild strawberry, the Fragaria virginiana, that could be found just in fields and woodlands throughout the United States. And that was also cultivated in the gardens at Monticello.

Peggy Cornett: Isn't that the one that Jefferson counted how many were in a pint jar or something like that?

Michael Tricomi: It's unclear if he was talking about the alpine or the wild strawberry.

Peggy Cornett: That would make sense. They're both about the same.

Michael Tricomi: 100 fill half a pint, so very, very tiny.

And then later on, hybrids came about. The Chilean strawberry was introduced, and while it wasn't successfully grown in the gardens at Monticello, Jefferson did plant them and attempt to grow them. They can be challenging to grow because they're an imperfect flower. There's male and female. And so that can make cultivation challenging. And then in the northern climates, a lot of times, they're not hardy. And then if you get too far south, they struggle in the heat.

Peggy Cornett: I remember we had it years ago, but they never fruited. So I guess that was the problem. We just had one sex or the other.

Michael Tricomi: The hybrid between the Chilean strawberry and the wild Virginiana strawberry produced the Fragaria ananassa, named after the pineapple, for the large shape from the Chilean strawberry and the sweet taste and fragrance from the native Virginia strawberry. And that's really what most modern strawberry cultivars are based off today, is the Fragaria ananassa.

In the gardens today, we grow a few different varieties. We have the alpine strawberry that Jefferson grew. We also have Chilean strawberries. We have scarlet strawberries, which is the wild strawberry. And then we have a white strawberry, which is a more modern cultivar that we're using to interpret the white berry that Jefferson recorded in the garden book, Fragaria vesca, so, it's the same species as the Alpine, but it's white.

Peggy Cornett: Don't you mulch them with pine straw or something?

Debbie Donley: That's good for them.

Michael Tricomi: Yeah, strawberries they like that acidity. And so mulching with pine straw that's a

common practice. It helps prevent weed pressure.

Peggy Cornett: It keeps them clean. A lot of times strawberries can get beat down into the dirt and it's hard to clean them, to wash them, get the dirt, the grit out of them. And so this can keep them cleaner.

Michael Tricomi: Yeah, it's very low growing fruit on a very, very small plant. It just six inches if that above the ground.

Peggy Cornett: And some strawberries send out runners and others are more just bunching.

Michael Tricomi: And there's all different methods of cultivating strawberries. Some gardeners like to let the runners do their thing and take over, and others like to prune them and keep them contained in little compact plants.

Peggy Cornett: I guess if you're growing them commercially, you want to get the biggest fruit possible. So, reducing the amount of energy to put out a runner would help keep the plant, like you say, contained and then it would make a bigger fruit set.

Michael Tricomi: Many times a larger fruit comes with less sweetness.

Peggy Cornett: Less flavor.

Michael Tricomi: So you're constantly going back and forth between how large of a fruit do you want versus the sweetness, because again, you could be picking those tiny little berries for a long time, but they have such an intense flavor that sometimes it's worth it.

I encourage visitors to try the Alpines. There's just so many berries there. And it's really neat to taste a strawberry that you don't find very often anymore. We're so used to these commercially-grown, very large berries, and again, with that reduction in flavor. So trying an alpine strawberry is a real eye-opener for a lot of visitors.

Peggy Cornett: And they're growing right in a bed in front of the garden pavilion, which is a focal point in the vegetable garden in the midpoint, and they're on a slope and so, it's easy for kids to reach into there. And so it's in an ideal location. We don't encourage people to pick things from the garden, but except in this particular case, I think it's acceptable. 

Michael Tricomi: That's really the one thing that I do definitely encourage people to try.

Michael Tricomi: Of course, most people grow strawberries for the fruit, but they’re nice little plants in the garden.

Peggy Cornett: It has a beautiful almost shiny foliage. It's almost an evergreen foliage.

Michael Tricomi: It has very nice dark green leaves, very big leaves.

Peggy Cornett: The flowers are very pretty too. They're white and five petaled.

Michael Tricomi: And a lot of these varieties, the aroma that they put out, you could smell it from really far away.

Peggy Cornett: I'm using it as a ground cover in my backyard. I'm just letting it grow wherever it wants to grow.

Michael Tricomi: There are accounts of people going for walks through fields and taking their horses, riding on horseback, and your boots and the horses hooves would be stained red because of the fruit of the strawberries, just fields of them.

Debbie Donley: My mother and I found a bunch one year and we actually found enough to make jam.

Peggy Cornett: Wow.

Debbie Donley: And it was just delicious. The strawberries are about the size of your little fingernail, but we found a lot on the right of way actually, which seems like a dry, barren type soil, but they were very happy. It's the best jar of jam I ever made.

--- Visitor Spotlight ---

Michael Tricomi: Now let’s hear from a recent visitor to Monticello:

Flowering Trees

Michael Tricomi: For 200 years, two Tulip Poplars planted in Jefferson’s time stood sentinel by Monticello. Sadly, they had to be taken down in 2008 and 2011, but Tulip Poplars remain one of the most impressive trees on the mountain. Horticulturist Robert Dowell joined Peggy to talk trees.

Tulip Poplar

Peggy Cornett: Jefferson really admired a lot of our native tree species in Virginia. And one of the premier trees on his hierarchy of trees would be the Tulip Poplar. It's one of the largest, tallest trees in the landscape. He wrote to Madame de Tessé in Paris that the tulip poplar and the white oak were the Juno and Jupiter of our groves.

I also understand that the West Portico was supported by trunks of tulip poplar trees before the columns were completed. And so it was a rustic look of the house being supported by these massive logs of Tulip poplars.

And of course they flower, they're called tulip poppers because their flowers are look like tulips. They're yellow and green. They're very pretty and just quite a stately tree.

Robert Dowell: The Latin name is Liriodendron tulipifera. And despite the common name being Tulip Poplar, it's not a true poplar. Poplars are a different genus—Populus. It's actually in the Magnolia family. It naturally grows very tall, has a columnar habit. Often, in river bottom areas, you see very large specimens. They can be a hundred feet tall and have trunk diameters three feet or greater. They're very common tree throughout Virginia, but its range is up and down the east coast. But It gets big. So if you live in a postage stamp yard I wouldn't recommend that one.

They're very easy to identify because they have a very distinct four lobed leaf that's unlike any other deciduous tree I can think of, at least in Virginia. And the buds are also quite distinctive when the tree is dormant, they have these spoon-shaped buds that make it easier to point out from an oak or a hickory that it often occurs alongside. And like Peggy was saying, it has beautiful tulip-like flowers that the bees love. And there's a honey made from it that's often sought after by a lot of people.

Peggy Cornett: And of course we have to remember that Jefferson's retreat home in Bedford County was Poplar Forest and it was named after the massive Tulip poplar trees that still grow there. There are some still original Tulip poplars there from Jefferson's time period. They're really magnificent.

And it's not unusual for them to hollow out. They're still stable and strong. It's just the center starts to decay. So, you do find some that you could practically walk inside them.

But one of the tulip poplars that was taken down, the one in 2011, had a very solid trunk. And they were able to hollow to carve it out and make a trough for the smokehouse and it's actually on display at Monticello, under the south wing of Monticello, you'll see it in there.

Debbie Donley: Another interesting thing about that tulip poplar that was cut down is that a young tulip poplar suckered up from the base of it and it's quite large already. So it is a direct descendant from the original.

Peggy Cornett:  Yeah, it's coming right out of the center of the decaying stump that's still on the West lawn. And it's been flowering for the last couple of years, so we're definitely going to take advantage of that.

Fringe Tree

Michael Tricomi: A much smaller native tree that also flowers right now is the Fringe Tree.

Peggy Cornett: The Latin is Chionanthus virginicus. It has beautiful airy white, fragrant flowers. And after Jefferson died in 1826, his granddaughter, Cornelia Randolph, was sending a box of plants to her sister in Boston, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, who had moved there with her husband. And in this package, she said that she was sending “some little remembrances of Monticello.” And so she included lots of interesting small trees and shrubs. She sent the Snowberry Bush, Pyracantha, the Halesia, which we call the Carolina Silver Bell, but she called it the snow drop tree. And then the other tree she sent included the Fringe Tree. And she said she felt like it might be tender in Boston, but that that her family could grow it in indoors or in a greenhouse. But I think it is pretty hardy.

Robert Dowell: Yeah.

Peggy Cornett: It's hardy to what?

Robert Dowell: It'll grow all the way up to the northern Midwest and New England. So, it's certainly hardy.

Peggy Cornett: She wasn't sure, so she was making that kind of caveat. But she said, "Nothing can be more beautiful than one particular plant that we have growing in our meadow here behind a rock over which it bends and dips its long pendant, graceful branches, covered with fringe like flowers into the branch below. I love flowers and must excuse my dwelling so long on the beauties of one of the prides of our meadows and woods."

And it's quite poignant that she was sending these remembrances to her sister because it wasn't long after Jefferson's death that a lot of the landscape was being ravaged by souvenir seekers. Plants were taken from the landscape, roses, and jasmine vines, and fig bushes. People wanted to rob the landscape to have a memento of Thomas Jefferson.

But isn't it related to ash trees?

Robert Dowell: It's in the olive family, which is interesting. Ashes and fringe trees are in the olive family, so they'll have an opposite bud arrangement. And the fringe tree has a pinnately compound leaf, which is similar to like a walnut or a tree of heaven. It is a small tree. So mature height might be 25-30 feet. It can be multi-stemmed or single-trunked. It's very adaptable. It can take full sun, considerable shade. It’s soil adaptable. It's a very useful tree. It's even been recommended for street plantings.

Peggy Cornett: And aren't there male and female trees?

Robert Dowell: It is dioecious. Yep. You have male pollinating trees and female fruiting trees. And the fruit is like a little, it looks like a little plum almost.

Peggy Cornett: It's a dark blue-purple color. And we have a tree just off the winding walk.

Debbie Donley: Right by the garden tour benches.

Peggy Cornett: Yep. The flowers are drooping.

Debbie Donley: They're Lacey, very graceful. 

Peggy Cornett: It's loose. It's just a loose, cascading kind of flower.

Debbie Donley: When I found one naturally growing in my woods at home, I was just thrilled.

Robert Dowell: The Fringe Tree would be a good choice as an alternative to Crepe Myrtle, maybe. I think it would be a great tree. It probably blooms best in full sun, like, like most flowering trees. But it can also grow in deeper shade too.

Debbie Donley: And it does, too, create a dappled shade, which is really nice if you're putting it near your patio.

Peggy Cornett: Yes. It would be a great plant for a patio.

Debbie Donley: And then you get the scent as well.

Peggy Cornett: I need to go plant one right now.


Michael Tricomi: You know, I think that’s good advice for all of us—go plant a Fringe Tree right now!

Thanks for listening this month. We’ll be back in June to discuss a favorite topic: garden pests, historic and modern.

In the meantime, happy gardening!

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