Global Gardens: North American Gardening
Wildness to Restoration
This week, on our Global Garden tour, we will look at the fascinating history, influences, and diversity of our local plants here in North America.
In 1607, the first new world colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia. Early settlers were met with untamed wilderness filled with unknown creatures, deep forests and countless threats. Settlers quickly set about trying to tame the wilderness first by clear cutting forests and exporting this lumber. Life was hard in the new world. Settlers focused their efforts on survival which included learning about the new crops of the land. Corn, tobacco, indigo and other crops became lucrative products to ship back to Europe.
Most early American gardens consisted of crops rather than ornamental plants. Wealthy landowners and early immigrants, however, would bring some of their favorite plants from Europe such as horsechestnut trees, boxwoods, and English elms. Many settlers took comfort in seeing these familiar plants from their homelands and considered them to be a symbol of civilization. In 1728, the first Botanic Garden, Bartram’s Garden, was established outside of Philadelphia. This garden helped to broaden ornamental and exotic interest in plants. Bartram’s Garden still survives today.
In the 1840s, the amount of land controlled by the United States doubled. Government programs such as the The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged people to move west to settle and farm. These programs were aimed at settling the frontier to ensure that the land was occupied by Americans rather than native peoples and insurgents. These programs were also aimed at addressing the caloric deficiencies of most of the population who struggled to find food stability after the Civil War and the United States expanded. For decades, Americans struggled farming this new land which led to the establishment of state agriculture extension offices. These offices were aimed at developing best practices for regional farming and gardening. As part of the Department of Agriculture, the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction was formed in which botanist and explorer David Fairchild and his agents were responsible for introducing over 200,000 exotic plants to the United States. Some notable introductions include avocados, meyer lemons, seedless grapes, and quinoa in efforts to find new and pest resistant crops suited for farming in the United States. While these plants helped broaden American nutrition and economics, the introduction of exotic plants through this program and prior practices have led to the establishment of invasive species and pests throughout North America.
Americans have excelled at taming the North American wilderness and replacing local plants with ornamental European and Asian imports. This practice combined with lawn monocultures has resulted in the decline of insect, birds, and other wildlife populations. Many plants native to the United States are looked upon as weeds despite many of them being important ornamental members of their local ecosystems. In recent years, scientists have realized that not all plants are created equal in their ability to support wildlife and that locally native plants are critical to maintaining wildlife for future generations.
On your walk through the fountain area you will see beautiful specimens of butterfly weed, sneezeweed, coneflower, guara and hyssop. Not only do these plants provide beautiful blooms, but adding these plants to your garden will help benefit local birds, bugs, and other wildlife. Expect to see greater numbers of these plants in the Park perennial gardens in years to come.