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Plant roots take wing

October 31, 2004|by Dorry Baird Norris

When our earliest ancestors turned from being hunter-gatherers to farming, they surely collected seeds from the wild and carried them from one place to another. The human-assisted migration of plants had begun.

Egypt's Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled during the 15th century BC, dispatched an expedition charged with collecting aromatic trees and spices to the land of Punt. Then, as the Roman Empire spread, so did plants. Lavender, dill, rosemary, chervil, lavender and cotton, among many others, appeared in Britain during the time when Roman culture flourished there.

The Crusaders (1095 to 1252) brought Middle Eastern floral treasures to northern Europe. During the Middle Ages, monks carried healing herbs from one monastery garden to another.

Gardeners then as now love familiar plants, but are most intrigued and tempted by the new and unusual. The first European arrivals in the Western hemisphere were no exceptions. The earliest explorers delighted their sponsors in Europe by sending back new foods like maize, potatoes, peppers, squash and chocolate. We know they were early arrivals because just a century after Columbus' first voyage John Gerard documented them in his "General Historie of Plantes" (1597).

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Englishman John Josselyn spent a decade examining native plants. His "New Englands Rarities Discovered" (1672) and "An Account of Two Voyages to New England" (1674) remained the definitive summary of North American flora for more than a century.

America's first native botanist was John Bartram (1699-1777) of Philadelphia. A farmer by trade, Bartram was fascinated with the vast selection of undocumented trees and flowers he saw around him in the Philadelphia area. This interest led to collecting expeditions from Maine to Florida. He established one of the first botanical gardens in this country. Bartram's Garden still thrives today.

Bartram shipped more than 400 plant samples and seeds from his North American travels to botanists and gardeners throughout Europe. Sir Hans Sloane included many of them in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of plant taxonomy, declared Bartram "The greatest natural botanist in the world." Splendid praise for an untrained Pennsylvania farmer.

I haven't found a list of the plants Bartram shared - however two hundred of those plant specimens can still be viewed at the Eccles Center for American Studies in London. I'm hopeful that next spring a trip to the archives of the Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia might yield the complete list.

North American plants quickly became favorites of English gardeners. After all, they were "exotics," and how we gardeners love the challenge of growing new plants from far away places.

A quick look through "The Colour Dictionary of Garden Plants" published by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1991 is like a tour around the fields and woods of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. I found at least fifty that they designate as having come from North America.

On my first trip to England, I was astounded to find the goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), the wildling that covers our roadsides with yellow in August, holding a front row seat in the most elegant gardens. Walled gardens in Kent were buried in drifts of hardy Clematis virginiana, the delicate white-flowered vine that we call Virgin's Bower. On a spring trip, I witnessed continental gardens aglow with the purplish-blue of Virginia bluebells - Mertensia virginiana.

Our native Bee balm (Monarda didyma) both delights and challenges English gardeners. Plantsmen have labored to create plants that resist powdery mildew, a considerable problem in England's damp climate, as it has been in our wet summers.

Turtle head, tickweed, Black-eyed Susan, black snakeroot, Eastern blue-star (amsonia), goat's beard and false indigo (Baptisia australis) are all listed in the RHS guide.

Strolling through a London park I was not a little surprised to find a sunflower and several stalks of corn poking up amidst the flowers in a cottage-like garden setting. A chat with the gardener revealed that he had spent a number of years working in the United States - his last job was as a gardener at Opryland in Nashville - and he had a fondness for American flowers.

The trick to discovering the North American identity of some plants lies in the species name virginiana, of course, comes from Virginia, marilandia from Maryland, and so on. The tricky one is New York (novae-belgii) as in Aster novae-belgii.

This trafficking in plants has not just been a round trip between North America and Europe. It might better be called an around-the-world cruise. Our gardens have become a United Nations of flora.

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