18th century England collected American plants
It is June and the flowers of the rhododendron seem to be putting on an extraordinary show this year.
In fact wherever I see rhodies right now, the flowers are stunning.
At one time the English garden included a special area called the “American garden” where such plants as our rhododendrons took center stage. The English loved them.
American plants filled this garden.
Mark Laird writes in the book Flora Illustrata, “[From the eighteenth century] the impact on gardening in England was profound and led, among other things, to shrubberies – eventually called ‘American gardens.’ These were ‘theatres’ or display plantations of acclimatized woodsy plants, especially ericaceous plants such as Rhododendron and Kalmia.”
In both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries the English sent plant collectors around the world in search of plants for their gardens.
Ships sailed to South America, Africa, Asia, and of course, North America carrying horticultural collectors in search of new and unusual plants.
Laird writes that the exchange of plants with England effected the nursery business in this country. If the English liked the plant, it was more likely to appear in the nursery trade here.
He said, “The introduction of American plants to Europe changed the nature of landscape gardening in England, with explorations having an equally profound effect on the nursery trade and horticultural activities in the early Republic.”
Though the English loved and knew our plants, that was not the case with American gardeners.
Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870: “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”
So you might say that at one time American plants were treasured more by the English than the American gardener.