Before the Seed Sellers - Acquiring Seeds & Plants in Early America
In the 17C & 18C British American colonies, families had to plan, plant, & maintain garden seeds in a kitchen garden in order to produce the food that sustained their lives from day to day. Seed saving was a necessity. Gardeners & farmers carefully selected & stored the best seeds from their harvests, ensuring they had seed for planting in subsequent years. The knowledge of pollination, purity, harvesting and storage of seeds was all part of survival & learned within the family & community.
When the colonial family finally could produce enough to support & maintain their everyday lives, they turned to the seeds of flowering plants to ornament their surroundings & to impress their neighbors. This essay will follow the story of their seed suppliers from purveyors of basic survival to savvy promoters of luxury & status.
Seeds of Chives
Garden seed basics (very, very basic)
Garden seeds are living plants in a resting embryonic state carrying on metabolic activity. Some seeds rely on wind or insects for pollination, while others are self-pollinating.
Annuals are plants which grow from seed to maturity in a season. Kitchen garden plants such as corn, cucumber, melons, pumpkins, and squash are annuals. Pole beans were favored for the ease of drying the pods.
Biennials are plants that need to be stored over a winter season, before they flower & go to seed the following season. Cauliflower, beets, cabbage, carrots, onions celery, & turnips are among these biennials. Some plants, such as some varieties of cabbage, may need to be grown to eating size before wintering over. If they are not sufficiently mature, they may not flower in the spring or seed reliably.
Perennials are plants that return each year such as rhubarb & asparagus. If planted from seed, they begin producing seed a year or two later.
Saving delicate seeds from season to season
Seeds were one of the colonists' most precious possessions. They saved each fall's seeds to plant the coming spring. Seeds were often saved in bags & nailed to a rafters to keep them high enough to protect them from hungry rodent interlopers.
In January of 1773, George Washington signed a 1 year contract with his gardener David Cowan (1742-1808). The contract listed some of the work to be completed & deliberately detailed his seed-saving duties, "he will, work dully & truely, during that time at the business; as also when need be, or when thereunto required, at the businee, empoly himself in Grafting, Budding, & porining of Fruit Trees and Vines-likewise in Saving, at proper Seasons, and due order, Seeds of all kinds." For this he was to receive "Washing, lodging, and Diet."
Cowan was a Scottish-born gardener who came to the colonies to serve Washington at Mount Vernon in 1770; but when the Revolution started, Cowan served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He went on to serve in the Provincial Marine for upper Canada, commanding ships in the Great Lakes, where he later served in the legislature.
The process of saving seeds was never the same from year to year, as it depended on the weather; & there was always an element of risk involved. Excessive warmth & moisture could destroy seeds that had been dried to save overwinter. Heat & high humidity encourage fungi, molds, & bacteria which destroy the seeds' viability.
Colonial families grew most of their vegetables & herbs in the kitchen garden. In the spring & again in the fall, they planted the seeds of their cool weather crops such as broad beans, cabbages, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, parsnips, peas, radishes, spinach & turnips. As the warmer months approached, they set out seeds for their summer crops such as pole beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, okra, potatoes, muskmelons & watermelons, as well as seeds for their fall crops of squash & pumpkins. Seeds of perennial herbs were tucked here & there in the garden for flavoring food & fighting disease.
The period from the end of January until the middle of March was sometimes referred to as the Six Weeks of Want. Some years this precarious span of time lasted much longer than 6 weeks. By this time, most stored vegetables had been eaten, but planting had not yet begun.
Early spring greens, both cultivated & wild, could satisfy the family's craving for something fresh after months of pickled & salted foods. Throughout the entire growing season, the family preserved vegetables for the winter hoping they would last until the new plants began to appear.
Almost any vegetable could be pickled in a vinegar or salt brine with spices. They preserved some vegetables, like peas & beans, simply by drying them. Most root crops like carrots, beets & parsnips could last for months buried in damp sand in a cellar or yard, if squirrels & rodents did not discover their existence. Pumpkins, squash & onions could be stored in a clean, dry place such as the loft in the farm house, where next year's seeds might also hang in bags waiting for the spring season.
Because seeds from this period were not hybridized, but reproduced naturally through pollination, colonial gardeners attempted to keep their seeds pure & prevent cross-pollination with other species.
Ordering seeds & plants from English factors
Before the Revolution, many well-to-do colonial gardeners depended on England for much of their seed & plant materials, which the gentry often ordered through British agents in trade for tobacco or other goods, which they had produced & sent to England. One Marylander who ordered his seeds from his English factor was Charles Carroll, Barrister, (1723-1783) who married Margaret Tilghman in 1763. He was 40, she was 21. It was the 1st marriage for both. He had studied law in England, returning to Maryland in 1755 to practice law in Maryland's capitol at Annapolis. Three months after his arrival back in the colonies, Carroll's father died. Carrol inherited 800 acres on the Patapsco River in what is now Baltimore. He began constructing his home, Mount Clare, there in 1756. While he was alive, the Carrolls used Mount Clare as a summer home, living in Annapolis most of the year. But they planted Mount Clare for both food and pleasure. The work was done by some of the 200 slaves they owned. This is a portion of the order list Carroll sent to England in 1774.
1 Shillings worth of Clary (a spice used to flavor wine)
1 Oz best true Cantlilupe (cantaloupe)
1 Oz best black Galloway mellon (melon)
2 Oz Leopan Lettuce
1½ Oz double violet for Edging
½ Oz of the Painted Lady Gumsartisius
3 lbs best Lucern (alfalfa)
Some broad beans
4 Oz best Spinage (spinach)
1 Oz best Colliflowers (cauliflowers)
1 Oz Cress (plant used in salads)
2 Oz Salmon redish
2 Oz best fresh Early York Cabbage
Buying seeds from arriving British ships
Although the process was never predictable, farmers, shopkeepers, & craftsmen could buy seed, when it arrived in a general cargo shipment from England from local merchants.
Trading seeds & plants with other colonial gardeners
Gardeners interested in botany exchanged seeds & plants early within the colonies & across the Atlantic. John Custis (1678-1749) lived & gardened Williamsburg. John Bartram (1699-1777), the Philadelphia gardener, explorer, & botanist, wrote to English merchant & botanist Peter Collinson (1649-1768) that Custis’ Virginia garden was second only to that of John Clayton (1694–1773), the English-born Virginia naturalist of Gloucester County. Collinson corresponded & exchanged plants with several American naturalists. His famous garden at Mill Hill contained many American plants, obtained from both Bartram & Custis.
Both gentry & middling gardeners depended on trading plants & seeds with others to keep their gardens growing. Even the wealthy Virginian William Byrd (1674-1744) wrote in 1721, “I went to see the Governor to beg that he spare me some bulbs for my garden.”
William Byrd II, like his father, Colonel William Byrd, Byrd was a wealthy planter on his inherited plantation Westover, on the James River in Charles City County. He served as president, of Virginia's Governor's Council, as did his father. He recorded his observations on natural history as well as life in colonial Virginia. Wealthy gentleman gardener Byrd was looking to decorate his grounds, but most gardeners of this period were still simply trying to plant enough edible stock to survive.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Vaughan Philadelphia May 11. 1791, about some seeds Vaughn had sent him. "Dear Sir, It is rare that my public occupations will permit me to take up the pen for my private correspondencies however desireable to me. This must be my apology for being so late in acknowleging the reciept of your favors of Sep. 21 Oct. 21. Dec. 2. and 16. and Jan. 6. The parcels of Mountain rice from Timor came to hand too late in the last season to produce seed. I have sowed this spring some of the same, but it has not yet come up. I was fortunate in recieving from the coast of Africa last fall a cask of Mountain rice of the last year’s growth. This I have dispersed into many hands, having sent the mass of it to S. Carolina. The information which accompanied this cask was that they have there (on the coast of Africa) 3. kinds of Mountain rice, which sowed at the same time, comes to harvest a month distant from each other. They did not say of which kind that is which was sent to me. The kind which ripens quickest will surely find sun enough to ripen it in our middle states...I am Dear Sir with sincere attachment Your most obedt. & most humble servt, Th: Jefferson"
Seed trading went on throughout the 18C & well into the 19C. Rosalie Steir Calvert (1778–1821) of Riversdale in Prince George's County, Maryland, exchange seeds & plants with her father who had returned to Europe.
In 1806, Rosalie Calvert asked for “some offshoots of your tulips, and above all, some rose bushes.” In 1807, she wrote for, “the double violet, the white and the blue...You have a superb collection of double poppies at the Mick—would you send me some seed? It is such a small grain that you could slip it in a letter.”
The following year, she desired, “the double yellow wall-flower and some little double pinks, too...they make a very fine display.” Of the yellow & puce mallows growing from seeds her father sent, she wrote they were “extremely beautiful and admired by all.” In 1803, Rosalie Calvert also planted a hydrangea from her uncle Joseph, which had not “bloomed yet, but I think I am going to have three small ones.” She also mentioned importing some hyacinths herself directly from Haarlem in 1807.
Seeds went both ways across the ocean, as Mr. Stier requested some American varieties. In 1803, Rosalie Calvert sent her father “some seeds of the tulip-poplar and red cedar trees,” and in 1807, she sent additional tulip-poplar seeds and acorns, and “a few seeds of the fragrant white azalea...the most beautiful wild shrub in Maryland.”
In 1809, she was not able to send tulip-poplar seeds, because of the American government’s embargo on trade with Europe. Somewhat disparagingly she wrote, "Do you still admire this tree more than any other? We don’t find it worthwhile to plant here. For wood for carpentry, it is only good when it is in large forests; trees that have been exposed to the wind are worthless, and they are not beautiful when they are old, having few branches and fewer leaves."
She also offered to “Try to get you the catalogue of Bartram of Philadelphia, who every year gathers seeds of different plants and trees of this country for sale.” She traded bulbs or seeds with her neighbors & friends as well.
In 1806, she wrote that Richard Tasket Lowndes of Blenheim, Bladensburg, & of Bostock House, also in Prince George's County, Maryland , had a “fine collection” of hyacinths and “each year we exchange some.” She noted in 1809, that Benjamin Ogle II, of Belair, in Bowie, Maryland, “always has a nice collection and we frequently exchange.” She also gave her father’s old friend, Dr. Upton Scott of Annapolis, one of her favorite tulip bulbs, the Marshal of France, in 1806. Scott also traded seeds & bulbs & plants with his watchmaker neighbor William Faris.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was interested in receiving new plants, whether from the far off travels of Lewis & Clark or from a Virginia neighbor. He wrote a letter to W. Fleming on November 28, 1809. "I have received safely... the foliage of the Alleghany Martagon. A plant of so much beauty and fragrance will be a valuable addition to our flower gardens."
Collecting specimens from the surrounding countryside
Shopkeepers & gentry alike also collected alluring specimens for their gardens from the surrounding woods & meadows. Gentlemen gardeners would send their slaves & servants out to collect new plant species for their gardens. They might be sent out to collect raspberries & other edible wild fruit in the proper season.
And finally, buying seeds from large seed sellers by the end of the 19th-century
By the end of the 19th-century, commercial seed sellers had huge operations to save seeds for American farmers and gardeners.