Is there a relationship between patriotism and the preference for native plants?

Drawing from a book by Andrea Wulff (1), we recently told our readers about the enthusiasm of the British for exotic plants from all over the world, particularly American plants.  Andrea Wulff has recently published a second book (2) which informs us that while American plants made the journey to Europe, this botanical transfer was not reciprocated by early Americans. 

Signing of Declaration of Independence, painting by John Turnbull, 1819

Our founding fathers were reluctant politicians, but devoted gardeners and professional farmers.  Although they grew many non-native plants for food and other practical purposes, they used almost exclusively American trees and shrubs when landscaping their properties.  The historical record suggests that this was a conscious choice on their part and a reflection of their patriotism.

Although George Washington was able to visit his home at Mount Vernon only once during the eight-year Revolutionary War, his correspondence suggests that it was always much on his mind.  As the city of New York prepared for the onslaught of British troops and warships in 1776, Washington wrote to his estate manager by candlelight, “Only American natives should be used, he instructed, and all should be transplanted from the forests of Mount Vernon…Washington decided that Mount Vernon was to be an American garden where English trees were not allowed.

As a farmer, Washington was innovative and practical.  He experimented with various methods of fertilizing and crop rotation.  He imported food crops and fruit trees from all over the world.  But when landscaping for ornamental purposes, he planted exclusively American plants which “…carried a symbolic message that this new nation would be independent, self-sufficient and strong.”

Shortly after Americans won their independence from Britain, our second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, went to Britain hoping to negotiate a trade treaty with their former rulers.  This was a frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful effort, but while waiting in vain for a response to their proposal, Adams and Jefferson toured many of the famous gardens of England.  They were both avid gardeners and farmers and could think of no better use of the idle time imposed upon them.  They were proud to learn that the most lavish private gardens of England were composed predominantly of American trees and shrubs.  As we reported in our earlier post, these plants had been laboriously imported to England earlier in the 18th century.

Returning home, their horticultural choices were similar to Washington’s.  They made utilitarian choices when farming, but their ornamental choices were exclusively American.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home

 Jefferson brought vegetable seeds from all over the world to his vegetable garden.  He kept meticulous records which enable us to marvel at the international population of vegetables in his garden during the first year of his retirement from the presidency:  “African early peas,” “Windsor beans,” “solid pumpkin from S. America,” “long pumpkin from Malta,”, “Lettuces Marsailles,” “Chinese melon,” “Spanish melon,” “Broccoli Roman,” “Kale Malta,” “Kale Delaware.” 

As the first American president to spend his entire term in residence in the White House (actually not yet named the White House), he was responsible for designing its first landscape:  “He envisaged an all-American garden…planted  ‘exclusively with Trees, shrubs, and flowers indigenous to our native soil.’”  When returning home to Monticello, he made the same ornamental choices for his own property.

Peter Coates, a British historian, examines the historical record of American fears regarding non-native species of plants and animals in his book, American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species (3), looking for a relationship between nationalism and those fears.  Although he finds many examples of similarity in the language used to describe human and non-human immigrants, he ultimately concludes that human xenophobia is not necessarily the source of anxiety about non-native plants and animals. 

One of the episodes in the historical record which Coates reports, is a long correspondence between Charles Darwin, the British scientist and his American counterpart, Asa Gray.  They engaged in a chauvinistic rivalry about the hardiness of their native plants.  Darwin jokingly asked, “Does it hurt your Yankee pride…that we thrash you so confoundedly?  I am sure Mrs. Gray will stick up for your own weeds.  Ask her whether they are not more honest, downright good sort of weeds.”  Gray replied that his wife, “allows that our weeds give up to yours,…[they are] modest…retiring things, and no match for the intrusive, pretentious, self-asserting foreigners.”

In this exchange, Darwin and Gray are referring to a botanical conundrum:  “The asymmetry between the preeminence of Eurasian weeds in North American and the weak presence of North American weeds in Eurasia has engrossed botanists on both sides of the Atlantic since Darwin and Gray’s exchanges.”  (3)  It is an intriguing question which we have considered in earlier posts, but cannot answer. 

The historical record suggests that there is an element of patriotism in Americans’ preference for our native plants and trees.  On the other hand, maybe our plants and trees are just more handsome!  But when plants perform a function—such as feeding us—Americans revert to their utilitarian ideals, abandoning natives if introduced plants are superior. 

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 (1) Andrea Wulff, The Brother Gardeners, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008

(2) Andrea Wulff, The Founding Gardeners, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

(3) Peter Coates, American Perception of Immigrants and Invasive Species, UC Press, 2006.