A. J. Downing Changed His View on Native Plants

At one time America’s most famous nineteenth century landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) recommended exotic trees and shrubs for the landscape.

Later in his life he changed his mind.

He realized that our native plants possessed their own special qualities that made them ideal for an American landscape.

Andrew Jackson Dowing

Andrew Jackson Downing, NY Nurseryman and Landscape Gardener

Downing reflected the thinking of John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) English writer, horticulturist, and landscape gardener. Loudon wanted a place for the hundreds of new plants that were arriving in England in the early nineteenth century. He advised to use them as the primary source for a landscape design.

Over time Downing however came to appreciate the trees and shrubs of the American hills and forest.

Judith Major in her book To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening writes, “Downing’s former encouragement of the use of exotics became an embarassment as he realized that adopting Loudon’s thinking in this regard made neither practical nor aesthetic sense in America.”

For example, Downing recommended bypassing the fast growing and ‘odorous’ Ailanthus, or Tree of Life, a plant imported from Asia to England in 1751 and then brought to America. Instead, he wrote about the need to plant America’s “more noble native trees.”

Downing wrote, “We look upon it [the Ailanthus] as an usurper in rather bad odor at home, which has come over to this land of liberty, under the garb of utility, to make foul the air, with its pestilent breath, and devour the soil, with its intermeddling roots.”

Today you can still see the Ailanthus growing in cities here on the East coast. It has however become a tree that we now avoid and find invasive. [below]

Ailantus Tree [courtsy of Wikimedia Commons]

The fast-growing tree Ailanthus can grow 80 to 100′. 

By the early nineteenth century the English had been cultivating America’s native trees and shrubs for decades. They planted them in a special garden in the landscape simply called the  ‘American’ garden.

Eventually many nineteenth century Americans came to appreciate native plants.

Downing too changed his view on native plants.

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