Historic Gardens and Plants

Thomas Jefferson's Center for Historic Plants: A Hotbed for Old House Gardening

By capturing and maintaining the features of the past we gain a fuller picture of how our ancestors thought and felt. What can be more tangible than the living antiques of the garden, plants that have the ability to connect us to the people, places, and events of the past?

Two decades ago, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (Charlottesville, VA) made a commitment to this natural legacy by establishing the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants (CHP), a unique program dedicated to collecting, preserving, and distributing historic plant varieties and to promoting a greater understanding of the history of gardening in America. The CHP reflects Jefferson’s lifelong work in preserving and distributing rare and useful plants. Monticello - classically designed by Jefferson in 18 - is uniquely equipped to address the real need, especially among historic restorations, for an organization dedicated to disseminating "what might be called heritage plants - from seedlings of our original trees to ancient cultivars of carnation to 18th-century roses and species narcissus," according to Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Jefferson’s Monticello. "For a visitor to depart Monticello with a living scion of Jefferson's gardening efforts - perhaps a seedling of his original tulip poplar - seems the ultimate fulfillment of our educational mission."

Tufton Farm, one of Jefferson’s five satellite farms in Albemarle County and within sight of Monticello, is the site for the CHPS’s three-acre nursery and headquarters, housed in a refurbished barn on the property. It includes a large production greenhouse, cold frames, lath house, and stock beds.

The publication in 1987 of the landmark book Plants from the Past by Scottish nurserymen David Stuart and James Sutherland prompted the expansion of the CHP’s direction beyond the core collection of Jefferson-related plants from the Monticello gardens. Stuart and Sutherland articulated a compelling argument for preservation, stressing that the long and fascinating histories of garden plants are every bit as important and as much a part of our past as more obvious antiques such as furnishings, paintings, and houses. When such plants go out of fashion, and subsequently out of cultivation, they can quickly become extinct, for their very existence is completely dependent upon the gardener.

Today, among the hundreds of plants under cultivation at Tufton, are exclusive collections of heirloom roses, dianthus, iris, and peonies containing rare and, in some cases, one-of-a kind specimens. In the spring of 1998 - thanks to a donation from Louis Bell honoring his late wife L'onie Bell, an author, editor, plant illustrator, and rose authority - a separate garden was installed for a significant collection of Noisette roses. Considered among the first rose hybrids in America, the Noisettes tell the fascinating and complex story of 19th-century rose breeding and development. The octagonal-shaped garden, designed by landscape architect C. Allan Brown, contains nearly 40 different varieties, including roses propagated from specimens documented to the early 1800s.

The CHP's nursery propagates more than 600 different varieties of plants annually - including bulbs, perennials, herbs, wildflowers, houseplants, shrubs, trees, and fruit trees - for the Garden Shop at Monticello, Monticello’s mail-order gift catalog, and its online shop. Seeds packaged by Monticello and the CHP gardeners are perennial favorites, and the seeds exclusively collected from the Monticello gardens are popular mementos. Each year, close to 50,000 individual packets are produced and distributed.

While the CHP’s primary goal is to locate, preserve, and propagate these increasingly rare heirloom horticultural varieties, it also serves a vital educational role by fostering a dynamic network among historic landscape preservationists, national and international public garden associations, plant societies, seed-saving organizations, specialty nurseries and seed dealers, private collectors, and other historic sites. Via the Internet, the CHP receives scores of queries and requests for information from around the globe. Twinleaf, the program’s annual journal now in its 18th year, provides original research and substantive, in-depth articles on a host of topics pertaining to Jefferson and his lifelong interests in botany, horticulture, gardening, and natural history. The series of essays from this publication are accessible through Monticello's Web site.

For more information, call (434) 984-9822 or visit www.monticello.org/chp/index.html


Peggy Cornett is director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, a position she has held since 1992.

Related link - www.southerngardenhistory.org