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Collection and colonization went together — the empires always explored to exploit the wealth of the conquered. Indeed many imported products have become associated with their destinations rather than their origins: cocoa with Holland, tomatoes with Italy, potatoes with Ireland. Medieval English monks gathered herbs as they traveled. In the Age of Exploration, the Spanish collected plants in Central and South America and, to a certain extent, in western North America. The French sent back plants from China, and later from North America, and the Dutch concentrated on the East Indies and Japan.
Most of the earliest introductions to the original North American colonies came from Europe, often with the English settlers. At first, the plants they brought were economic crops — food and medicinal plants. As the culture grew, the ornamentals, such as viburnums, lilacs, laurel, boxwood, heathers, heaths, and, of course, roses arrived.
Some of these immigrants, such as garden buttercups, thrived so well in their new homes that they became naturalized citizens growing in fields, marshes, and along the roadside. Some of the plants that seem quintessentially American are not indigenous at all: daisies, daylilies, and Queen-Anne's-lace, for example. Even the edible apple was imported by the settlers, who quickly cultivated 150 varieties.
In turn, the British brought back plants from the New World, including the potato, tobacco, corn, and sunflowers. The most influential transatlantic plant trader was Henry Compton, named bishop of London in 1675. The missionary John Banister also collected in Virginia, as did the scientist Mark Catesby, who later traveled south and wrote Natural History of Carolina.
Another collector in North America was Andre Michaux, who arrived from France in 1785. The explorations of Lewis and Clark also brought plants from across the continent, which was often treacherous work. Thomas Nuttall's name can be found in the species epithets of many Western natives such as Cornus nutallii (Pacific dogwood), as can the name of David Douglas.
The Royal Horticultural Society sent Douglas to the Northwest in 1825, and he spent most of his life collecting plants there. The shrub Ribes sanguineum, the flowering currant that is immensely popular in Europe, was his discovery, as were countless Western wildflowers such as Eschscholzia californica (California poppy), Nemophila, Godetia, as well as Limnanthes douglasii (meadow foam), Just one of the plants that bears his name. The Douglas fir and the Douglas iris are his discoveries, too. Like so many hunters, he came to a tragic, if adventurous, end, gored to death by bulls in Hawaii.
One of the first nurseries in the colonies was begun by Robert Prince in Flushing, New York. Others followed as landowners began to develop estates in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas, and frequently imported plants via England, such as the Chinese camellias, to grow among the native oaks and magnolias.
China has played a big role in horticulture, but the opening of Japan in 1852 by Admiral Perry introduced what was probably the most important source of plants for North American gardens. The resource is so vast that it was not until the twentieth century that it was appreciated. Not only does Japan have more than 6,000 native trees to consider, but also the Japanese have an ancient history of cultivating ornamental plants.
Japan has similar habitats to the United States, too. Japanese woodlands produced pines and wild gingers, and many shrubs, including rhododendrons (evergreen azaleas) and hydrangeas — not so different from the mix in the United States. The same forests also yielded what became one of the most popular garden plants in the United States today — the hostas, arguably more popular in the United States than in their homeland. Recently, there has been a lot of interest in parallels between the plants of the eastern United States and those of Japan. The eastern United States is considered to be among the richest areas in plant diversity of the temperate world (second only to China), but there are some 90 United States genera that have analogous species in Japan. The list includes Cornus florida, our dogwood, and C. kousa, theirs; as well as many of the Pachysandra, Hydrangea, Mahonia, Athyrium, and Hamamelis genera.
Gardeners in the United States, with its diverse climates, have always had to be more selective than British gardeners, for example, who live in a welcoming moderate Zone 8. Still, there are many places around the world that have climates that are similar to one part of our country or another.
For warmer areas of North America, the Mediterranean region has been a popular source, but many of those plants came via British collectors. Tomorrow's favorites will come from Mexico, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The last two countries are making conscious efforts to introduce their plants through commercial enterprises, because hunting can be big business.
Some of the test contributions to American horticulture were made with the help of Professor Charles Sprague Sargent, an aristocratic Bostonian who founded the Arnold Arboretum and was its director for fifty-four years. Between 1891 and 1902, he wrote the fourteen-volume work, The Silva of North America. The Sargent hemlock (Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula') is a glorious weeping form of our native — originally found in Beacon, New York, in 1870, and still treasured by landscape architects and designers. He traveled to Asia and discovered flowering cherry, Prunus sargentii, and crabapple, Malus sargentii, in the early 1890s. Perhaps Sargent's best acquisition was E. H. Wilson, who eventually became the Arnold's keeper and then Sargent's successor.
Ernest Henry Wilson was a student of the Royal College of Science at South Kensington, England, when the great British nurseryman Henry James Veitch engaged him to lead an expedition to collect seeds of the dove tree, or handkerchief tree — Davidia involucrata — in China. The plant had been discovered by the missionary Père Jean-Pierre-Armand David, in 1866. Veitch's operation was huge, and he often employed as many as twenty hunters traveling around the world at one time. He suggested that Wilson visit Sargent on his way to China.
Sargent recommended that Wilson see Dr. Henry Augustine, a customs officer employed by the Chinese in Ichang, who had seen the dove tree. Augustine himself had discovered several plants including Lilium henryi and Rhododendron augustinii. Augustine witnessed the destruction of entire forests by the Chinese and was eager to promote plant hunting while there was still time. He gave Wilson a rough map of a large area where he recollected seeing the tree. Wilson finally located the area in 1900, but he discovered that the tree had been cut down for its wood.
When Wilson went to China, he was instructed to search only for the dove tree — there wasn't anything else of interest still there. Wilson found many other plants through his travels, however, up to the time he joined the staff of the Arnold Arboretum in 1927. He collected around 100,000 specimens of more than 5,000 species, and 60 plants were named for him. After first discovering a dove-tree relative, Davidia laeta, he finally did find the one he originally sought, D. involucrata, and collected its seed. Perhaps he is best known, though, for finding Lilium regale, the regal lily. "'Tis God's present to our gardens," he wrote, "Anybody might have found it, but — His whisper came to me."
Wilson survived hazardous trips to the Orient, including one when he broke a leg in a landslide. Sargent died in 1927, and Wilson succeeded him until 1930, when he and his wife were killed in a car accident. He was fifty-four years old.
The work at the Arnold continues today with hunters and curators such as Peter Del Tredici, Assistant Director for Living Collections, and Gary Koller, Senior Horticulturist. Arnold Arboretum is a member — along with several other United States institutions and a Canadian botanical garden — of the North American Plant Exploration Consortium. Organization members make yearly trips to China, so the tradition of Wilson is still alive.