On May 24, 1778 Thomas Jefferson noted in his Memorandum Book, "pd a gardener at Greenspring for two Acacias. . . ." Green Spring, the family residence of Governor Sir William Berkeley, was a frequent side-trip for Jefferson while en-route to Williamsburg. There he could admire the estate's three extensive orchards, its vegetable garden, field of indigo, and orangery or greenhouse. The Acacias (Acacia farnesiana) Jefferson acquired had surely spent the previous winter in the Green Spring orangery, as he recorded later in his Garden Book, "they are from seeds planted March 1777." Although this tender species has a somewhat straggly habit, formidable thorns and malodorous roots, its small, yellow pom-pom like blossoms are extremely fragrant, and Jefferson would later describe the Acacia as "the most delicious flowering shrub in the world." Unfortunately, it is doubtful Jefferson's young plants thrived beyond September when he measured their heights at 18 and 23 inches, since he, at the time, lacked an appropriate structure to sustain them.
Jefferson would often return to the idea of growing tender plants in a glass enclosure and he was well acquainted with the possibilities such structures could afford. Since the early eighteenth century, freestanding greenhouses (later known as orangeries) were important and highly visible architectural features in gardens of the elite in Europe, Britain, and, to a lesser extent, North America. Throughout his lifetime, Jefferson encountered a number of them, both in America and abroad.
By the 1790s his trips to Philadelphia included periodic visits to the Woodlands, William Hamilton's country estate on the banks of the Schuykyll River. Within the Woodlands' expansive gardens, which Jefferson would describe as "the only rival which I have known in America to what may be seen in England," stood an enormous greenhouse measuring one-hundred-forty feet in length and divided into a series of compartments. Hamilton was an insatiable collector and, at its peak, his carefully arranged collection was estimated to contain ten thousand plants from every explored corner of the globe, including the East Indies, Botany Bay, Japan, and the Cape of Good Hope. He went to great lengths to procure some of the most unusual and rare plants of his time, and, apparently he had the reputation of being quite protective of them. Although Jefferson, on several occasions, requested seeds of various greenhouse plants, including the Sweet Acacia and Venus's Flytrap, he would eventually admit "I have from time to time given Mr. Hamilton a great variety of plants, and altho' he is in every other respect a particular friend of mine, he never offered me one in return."
There were also other large estates with greenhouses in the tidewater regions of Virginia and Maryland besides Green Spring -- most notably George Washington's home, Mount Vernon. Washington's substantial orangery was, in turn, inspired by Margaret Carroll's greenhouse at Mount Clare, outside Baltimore. In 1789, upon the completion of Mount Vernon's structure, Mrs. Carroll sent President Washington pots and boxes of oranges, lemons, "one fine balm s[c]ented shrub," aloes, and tufts of knotted marjoram. Other references indicate that Washington also grew what he called the "opopantax," or Sweet Acacia. Jefferson's visits to Mount Vernon during the 1790s coincided with this active period in Washington's orangery.
Jefferson had twice envisioned a greenhouse for himself at Monticello. A free-standing, two-story structure on Mulberry Row was first designed during the late 1770s and again, c.1805. His second, more elaborate design included a terrace on the kitchen garden side and an entrance on two levels. Ultimately, however, Jefferson decided to incorporate his greenhouse within the body of Monticello as a small, glass-enclosed arched loggia, which he called the South Piazza, and it was not until shortly before his final retirement to Monticello that his dream was realized. Construction began in October 1804 when he contracted James Oldham of Richmond to build five semicircular sashes and five pairs of square sashes "for the South Piazza as a Green house," which were sent by boat to Monticello in April 1806. The double-sashed windows functioned as doorways, opening onto the South Terrace and to the East and West Fronts. Jefferson's simple yet elegant enclosure was balanced by an open gallery on the north end of Monticello.
While the completion date for the greenhouse is not known precisely, the event was anticipated by 1807 when Jefferson's granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph wrote from Edgehill to him in Washington: "Ellen and myself have a fine parcel of little orange trees for the green house against your return." A year later, however, after which time the oranges had been ravaged by grazing sheep, Anne Randolph reported that "the green house is not done." It was not until 1809 that Jefferson's South Piazza seemed complete, according to Margaret Bayard Smith. Mrs. Smith was a noted Washington socialite and close friend of Jefferson's during his presidential years. She was particularly fond of the plants Jefferson kept while in Washington, especially his pot of geraniums, which she entreated him to leave with her in 1808 upon his retirement to Monticello, writing: "I cannot tell you how inexpressively precious it will be to my heart." Jefferson obliged her with the geranium in March 1809, apologizing for its neglected condition, but assured of her nourishing hand, observing, "If plants have sensibility, as the analogy of their organisation with ours seems to indicate, it cannot but be proudly sensible of her fostering attentions."
Mrs. Smith gave a lengthy account of her visit to Monticello that summer in which she described Jefferson's "suite of apartments" consisting of the library, his cabinet, and "a green house divided from the other by glass compartments and doors; so that the view of the plants it contains, is unobstructed. He has not yet made his collection, having but just finished the room, which opens on one of the terraces." Mrs. Smith also described a walnut and mahogany seed press, crafted in the Monticello joinery, which stood in Jefferson's cabinet adjacent to the greenhouse, noting: "He opened a little closet which contains all his garden seeds. They are all in little phials, labled and hung on little hooks. Seeds such as peas, beans, etc. were in tin cannisters, but everything labeled and in the neatest order."
Jefferson's "collection" of greenhouse specimens was never as extensive or elaborate as that of his colleagues. Indeed, in a letter to Thomas Lomax written before leaving Washington, Jefferson reasoned that the Acacia "is the only plant besides the Orange that I would take the trouble of nursing in a green house. I rely on the garden & farm for a great portion of the enjoyment I promise myself in retirement." Nevertheless, Jefferson apparently did try to start a variety of seeds in wooden boxes and to attend plants in his South Piazza. The "several sprigs of geranium [stuck] in a pot" that he sent to his daughter Martha in 1807, likely taken from the very plant given to Mrs. Smith, were surely intended for the greenhouse. In November 1809 he tried again the delicious but temperamental Acacias, along with an orange and a lime. That same year another noteworthy Garden Book reference regarded his planting of fourteen Goldenrain Tree seeds (Koelreuteria paniculata) in boxes and pots. The seeds of this small Asian tree, which bears lovely spikes of yellow blossoms in mid-summer, were sent to him from France by his good friend, Madame de Tessé. The tree was introduced to Europe in 1753, but was not likely grown in America until Jefferson's successful planting. By year's end, he happily announced to his granddaughter, Anne Bankhead, "the plants in the green-house prosper."
Jefferson's long association with Philadelphia seedsman and gardening writer Bernard McMahon yielded more opportunities for greenhouse plants. With the publication of his book, The American Gardener's Calendar in 1806, McMahon became Jefferson's gardening mentor and major source of seeds, bulbs, and plants for his gardens. Jefferson studied McMahon's monthly instructions carefully and directed his family to follow them as well in their gardening endeavors at Monticello.
McMahon's Calendar was quite precise in distinguishing the essential differences between greenhouses, hot-houses or stoves, and conservatories. He specified that the "Green-house is a garden-building fronted with glass, serving as a winter residence, for tender plants [that] require no more artificial heat, than what is barely sufficient to keep off frost, and dispel such damps as may arise in the house." The hot-house, according to McMahon, required continual heat for the survival of its tropical flora. Furthermore, whereas the hot-house was designed to maintain humidity, the greenhouse was meant to dispel it.
The conservatory, on the other hand, was something entirely different, as McMahon explained: "In the Green-house, the trees and plants are either in tubs or pots, and are placed on stands or stages during the winter . . . . In the Conservatory, the ground plan is laid out in beds and borders, made of the best compositions of soils that can be procured, three or four feet deep."
This distinction is important for understanding that Jefferson never intended his South Piazza to be anything more than a greenhouse in the purest sense -- an area for growing in pots "some oranges, Mimosa Farnesiana [Acacia] & a very few things of that kind." In fact, McMahon must have realized that Jefferson's greenhouse could potentially provide an environment perfectly suited to the needs of many semi-arid South African species, which, in America were still considered novelties from abroad.
Unusual species from the Cape of Good Hope filtered into Europe by the 1500s, after the Portuguese sailor, Bartolomeu Dias first rounded the Cape in 1488. Some of the earliest were grown by British herbalist John Gerard in his London garden during the late sixteenth century. By the mid-seventeenth century the Dutch had established a trading post on the Cape and plants began to reach Amsterdam. The eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who developed the binomial system of nomenclature used internationally in the biological sciences, described this rich floristic region as, ". . . that paradise on earth, the Cape of Good Hope, which the Beneficent Creator has enriched with His choicest wonders."
Exploration of this region accelerated during the 1770s when a great wave of botanical discovery was issued by London's Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, shortly before Jefferson's tour of English gardens in 1786. Under the direction of Sir Joseph Banks, plant collectors sent from Kew imported beautiful and extraordinary specimens from South America, Mexico, and western North America. But, it was the species from South Africa that garnered particular interest. The most familiar plants from this region are our common garden and scented geraniums (Pelargonium sp.), but other species such as heaths and a great multitude of bulbs also intrigued garden enthusiasts. Scottish botanist Francis Masson, the first plant collector engaged by Banks in 1772, made his maiden voyage to the Cape of Good Hope aboard Captain James Cook's ship, the Resolution. Two Swedish plant collectors -- Anders Sparrman and Carl Peter Thunberg -- arrived at Cape Town at the same time and, among the three, they discovered most of the Cape bulbs known today. Their introductions fostered a new fashion in British gardening, and inspired plant devotees such as William Curtis of London, who featured them in his highly influential Botanical Magazine.
In February 1812, McMahon sent to Jefferson a particularly significant shipment of bulbs and plants. Among the various European perennials and the currant and snowberry bushes from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, McMahon included in the box "2 Roots Amaryllis Belladonna" from the Cape of Good Hope.
The Amaryllis belladonna, or Cape Belladonna, was first introduced into Britain by way of Portugal in 1712, but was not likely available through American nurseries until after 1800. By the nineteenth century it was cultivated abundantly in Italy and exported to northern Europe. Linnaeus gave this lovely bulb the species name, belladonna, or beautiful lady, for the "exquisite blending of pink and white in that flower, as in the female complexion." Because the foliage, following the rhythms of the southern hemisphere, grows throughout the winter months and dies to the ground by late summer when the leafless, bronzy green flower stalks emerge, the bulb is most commonly known as Naked-lady Lily. Throughout the arid, mountainous regions of the southwestern Cape Province, these heavily-scented blossoms burst suddenly from the heat-baked soil in just a few days during early spring, corresponding with early fall in North America. Thus, when McMahon sent a second parcel of three more "roots" of the "Belladonna Lily" in October his directions noted: "if their strong succulent fibers or roots retain their freshness on receipt of them, do not have them cut off, but let them be planted with the bulbs in pots of good rich mellow earth; the flowers are beautiful and fragrant; their season of flowering is Septr. and Octr." indicating that the fleshy roots were still actively growing and that they had likely just finished flowering.
McMahon's packages to Jefferson sent on October 24 contained other South African bulbs as well. "With this letter" he wrote, "I expect you will receive a small box containing, 6 Roots Watsonia Meriana . . . 6 do. Trittonia fenestrata [T. hyalina] . . . 6 Morea flexuosa [Hexaglottis longiflora] All Cape of Good Hope bulbs and consequently, with you, belonging to the Green-house department." The three somewhat obscure species are all members of the Iris family. Of the three, the Windowed- or Open-flowered Tritonia was the most recent introduction, having just arrived from the Cape in 1801. The flowers of this species are widely cup-shaped and bright, fiery orange-red. What is most intriguing is the base of each petal, which is nearly translucent, like a clouded glass.
In an earlier shipment that fall, McMahon also sent "3 Roots of Antholyza aethiopica [Chasmanthe aethiopica], a Green House bulb," again, another South African Iris species. This particularly stately plant forms a lush stand of sword-like leaves two to three feet tall. Its curved and hooded, scarlet and green flowers open like the mouth of an enraged animal, hence the derivation of its genus name, from the Greek chasme, meaning "gaping." If Jefferson had any success with his South African bulbs, it would surely have been with this species, for it grows so easily and abundantly that it is today considered a weed in southern California.
Whether or not these strange species from a distant land thrived or were even planted remains a mystery. As with a multitude of plants Jefferson received from his friends throughout his life, he did not record their fate. What Jefferson did record made the prospect of maintaining any sort of tender plant doubtful. His weather observations from January 1810 noted his bedroom temperature at 37 degrees Fahrenheit and the greenhouse at 21 degrees. In April 1811, a year before the Cape bulbs arrived, he wrote to McMahon:
"You enquire whether I have a hot house, greenhouse, or to what extent I pay attention to these things. I have only a green house, and have used that only for a very few articles. My frequent and long absences at a distant possession render my efforts even for the few greenhouse plants I aim at, abortive. During my last absence in the winter, every plant I had in it perished."
Jefferson's admission to McMahon himself of this inhospitable environment suggests that perhaps McMahon was encouraging Jefferson to make an effort to provide some heat. In any case, by 1816 most references to plants for the "green house department" were in the distant past. Jefferson's South Piazza was serving more as a storage space and utilitarian room where he kept his large rectangular work bench and chest of tools that he had acquired in London. On November 16 Jefferson wrote to his daughter Martha from Poplar Forest, directing her to "tell Wormley also to send . . . about a bushel of Orchard grass-seed out of the large box in the Greenhouse."
Correspondence between Jefferson's granddaughters in later years indicated that plants were actually removed from the frigid greenhouse during winter months. Cornelia Randolph wrote to her sister Virginia on December 1, 1820, "I had all our plants moved into the dining room before I left home and yours along with them. I hope they may be able to bear this bitter cold weather." Again, on October 31, 1825, Cornelia would write, this time to her sister Ellen, "Mary and myself are established in mama's room with all her furniture and the sunny window in which I shall range my green house plants when the weather is cold enough to take them in . . ."
By the end of his life, Jefferson's greenhouse appears to have functioned more as an enclosed porch. Seven months after his death, Mary Jefferson Randolph wrote to Nicholas Trist that "the green house had been used so long as a common sitting room for the whole family that there were many of our things in it and in packing up some may have escaped our observation." The following year she described again the transformation of the greenhouse space in a letter to Ellen Randolph Coolidge: "How often I wish I could see your two sweet babies, added to the four that now run about the house or roll and tumble on the floor in the green house, which serves as a very pleasant little sitting room for us, during a part of the day (when the sun does not shine upon the windows) and is at all times a favourite play place for the children."
Peggy Cornett, Director Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants 1997