Gardens are ephemeral. That’s a simple fact, and one I was quickly made aware of by my first job after horticultural school. I was hired by Columbia University to restore, as best I could, the landscaping on a historic Hudson River estate it had turned into a research campus some 30 years previously. What shocked me when I dug in was how little of the estate’s elaborate landscaping had survived. Many of the trees were clearly survivors of the former regime, but aside from some stone pathways, walls and trellises, little else had survived.
Eventually, thanks to a copy of an old drainage plan preserved by the Buildings and Grounds Department, I was able to identify the landscape architectural firm — Olmsted Brothers — that had designed and installed the estate plantings. I tracked down its successor and succeeded in obtaining copies of a dozen planting plans. These made sobering reading. It was as if someone had gone through them with a big eraser, wiping out tens of thousands of perennials, bulbs and shrubs. A generation of neglect had removed them without a trace.
Or so I thought at the time. I wish I had known then Dr. Chantel White of the University of Pennsylvania. White is an archaeobotanist, a scientist who applies the techniques of archaeology to recovering and identifying plant remains from archaeological sites. Often, these sites are quite old. She is currently working on one Middle Eastern site that is 5,000 years old, for example. However, she is also applying her skills to a more recent site, the garden John Bartram established on what were then the oustskirts of Philadelphia in 1728 to house the North American plants that he and his sons collected for export to wealthy gardeners in Europe. Considered the oldest surviving North American botanical garden, this 46-acre tract contained in its day the most diverse collection of native North American plants in the world. It remained in the hands of John Bartram’s descendants and continued as a supplier of native plants until it was sold by Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr, and her husband, Col. Robert Carr, in 1850. Maintained as a private estate for some four decades, the garden was donated to the city of Philadelphia in 1891, since when it has been preserved as a public park and green museum.
When I contacted White a couple of weeks ago, she consoled me on the lack of plant remains in Columbia’s Hudson River estate, noting that not only are garden plants frequently short-lived, but fertile garden soils also hasten the decay of any remains. What she typically recovers are seeds, plant parts and wood fragments that have been carbonized in fires, often during cooking. Even Bartram’s Garden boasts just a couple of trees remaining from its heyday as a botanical garden. When White and her students visited the garden a couple of years ago, however, she was given access to a collection of plant remains that had been found by architectural historians under the attic floorboards of John Bartram’s house back in the 1970s. The remains — plant parts and other debris — had been a rat’s nest that, judging from the age of the materials, dated to the time of the Bartrams’ occupancy.
Among the plant remains were corn cobs that an expert in heirloom plants recognized as belonging to a strain of white flour corn cultivated by the local Lenape Native Americans, and the shells of some kidney and lima beans. Whether the rats gathered these from the kitchen or a nearby kitchen garden isn’t clear, but either way, they shed light on what the Bartrams were eating.
The corn cobs also suggest that, in addition to finding plants in the wild, the Bartrams may have collected some of their plants from the indigenous peoples, which provides an additional and interesting perspective on their work.
Who would have thought that rodents could be such useful allies in reconstructing garden history? But, says, White, she has recently been given access to a similar stash of material from the cook house of an antebellum mansion in Charleston, S.C. She has high hopes for what it will reveal about the diet and perhaps other aspects of the life of the people who worked there.
To hear the rest of my conversation with White, go to that episode of the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at: www.thomaschristophergardens.com.