Gardens and Herbaria: Colonial America

Acer saccharinum by Redouté from Michaux’s The North American Sylva, Biodiversity Heritage Library

In this series of posts on gardens (1,2,3), I’ve written primarily of British gardens and gardeners:  women, nurserymen, and acclimatization of exotics in colonial botanical gardens.  Now I want to turn to a subject that combines the themes of these earlier posts:  North American colonial gardens.  Just as the European colonial powers moved plants around the globe, with Brazilian rubber ending up in Malay Peninsula plantations and Asian breadfruit in the West Indies, American colonists were eager to grow European plants and other exotics.  This side of the bilateral trade has been less emphasized than the many North American plants that became prized items in European gardens such as magnolias, kalmias, and tulip trees.

The Philadelphia farmer John Bartram was a well-known exporter of seeds and seedlings of such species to the British textile merchant Peter Collinson, the middle man in dealings with wealthy British gardeners who awaited Bartram’s yearly boxes of botanical treasures.  Collinson also sent seeds and seedlings in return, including fruit trees.  He even shared seeds of a Chinese aster species that had been collected by French Jesuit missionaries and sent home where its seeds were propagated and passed from France to England through the eager network of botanists that existed at the time.  Trading was a way to insure that one was on the receiving end of the next interesting exotic to come along (O’Neill & McLean, 2008).

One of Bartram’s cousin, Humphry Marshall, had a farm in the Brandywine Valley where he created a botanical garden and also an arboretum.  He specialized in exporting tree seeds and seedlings of native trees to such British customers as Joseph Banks, but Marshall also imported European species for local customers.  After the Revolution they were interested in enriching their properties in the new nation with botanic novelties (Harshberger, 1903).  In 1785, Marshall produced the first botanical book about native plants written by an American and published in America, Arbustrum Americanum: The American Grove.  In the same year, a French botanist with an interest in trees, André Michaux, arrived in the United States, sent by the French government to set up a more formal plant exchange than that between Bartram and Collinson.  Michaux brought European plants with him to sell and to trade with collectors.  He set up a nursery in New Jersey where his assistant could grow seedlings from the plants he collected and then send them to France.  Michaux went on to Charleston, South Carolina, which had long had a French flavor because of its Huguenot population, Protestants who had fled Catholic France years before.

By this time the botany of the Carolinas was relatively well known in Europe thanks to Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and Bahama.  Even earlier, James Petiver had a number of collectors who either visited or lived there.  Alexander Garden, a Scottish physician, set up a practice in Charleston in 1752.  He was an enthusiastic botanist, collected in the area and sent plant and animal specimens to John Ellis in England and Carl Linnaeus in Sweden.  Garden corresponded with John Bartram, visited him in Philadelphia, and hosted him on his trip to Charleston.  Bartram was encouraged by Collinson to collect broadly, hence his travels that took him from northern New York to Florida.  In Charleston he met not only Garden, but Martha Logan, a nurserywoman who too was involved in sending and receiving seeds and bulbs (Stearns, 1970).

Michaux’s work for the French government was on a larger scale.  Unlike Logan who had a small plot, he bought over 100 acres outside Charleston, and employed enslaved people to clear the land in preparation for the plants and seeds he began collecting.  He had brought his teenage son, François André, with him and together they explored not only around Charleston but went on more extended trips.  His son returned to France for further education, while Michaux continued to explore and collect plants.  He sent specimens back to botanists at the Paris botanical garden, and also cultivated thousands of plants, shipping them to France.  Most did not survive, which he discovered when he returned to France after 10 years in the United States.

Michaux worked on his specimens at the Paris garden and a few years later was part of an expedition to Africa where he died in 1802.  His son François André Michaux returned to the United States to dispose of the two nurseries and spent time collecting as well.  He traveled to Mexico and around the United States, so he added many species to the ones his father collected.  From 1810 to 1813 he published three volumes of what was translated as The North American Sylva.  The original edition had illustrations by the noted botanical artists Pierre-Joseph Redouté and Pancrace Bessa (see image above).  In 1853 there was a supplement produced with more species, including ones from the West, collected by Thomas Nuttall (Savage & Savage, 1986).


Harshberger, J. W. (1913). Exercises in memory of Humphry Marshall and William Darlington, at Marshallton, Pa., September 27, 1913. Hickman.

O’Neill, J., & McLean, E. (2008). Peter Collinson and the 18c Natural History Exchange. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Savage, H. Jr., & Savage, E. J. (1986). André and François André Michaux. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Stearns, R. P. (1970). Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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