University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Boone & Winnebago Counties

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Immigrant Plants

Most Americans emigrated from other lands. Many brought favorite plants from home, changing the land forever. The following are the stories of a few well-known plant immigrants to America.

Daylilies were cultivated in China in early times. Daylilies traveled by caravan to Europe from the Far East. Beloved by English gardeners, daylilies were among the first flowers brought to the colonies. By 1695, daylilies could be found near doorways from New England to Virginia. The tough fibrous root system made daylilies easy to carry over the Appalachian Mountains, through the Midwest, and into the plains. Along with lilacs, daylilies are often the remaining trace of pioneer homesteads.

The United States Patent Office introduced crabgrass in 1849 as forage for cattle, sheep, hogs, and horses. The experiment failed, but crabgrass got another chance 50 years later when Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, and Hungarians brought the New World a foolproof grain to feed their families. Manna grits, as they called crabgrass, was a form of millet native to central Europe. It had the great advantage of producing a large crop on any soil even when planted late in the season. The new immigrants rapidly discovered that wheat and corn could be grown as easily and sold for more money. Within ten years crabgrass was abandoned as a crop but had escaped to roadsides and waste areas to become a common weed.

Dandelions originated in Asia Minor but spread throughout the Old World in ancient times. Dandelions were considered so essential for cooking and medicine that every Puritan woman brought seeds to the New World. The Puritans were not the only group to bring dandelions to America. German, French, and Dutch colonists grew this valuable plant in their kitchen gardens. When the Eastern forests were cut down dandelions moved into the open spaces. They quickly spread across the prairies ahead of the pioneers. Some Native Americans learned the dandelion's worth and included it in their diets.

Lettuce developed in Egypt and was cultivated in Greece 500 years before Christ. Columbus is credited with introducing lettuce, peas, and beans to the New World in 1493. The French, Dutch, Swedes, and English added it to our country's diet. The Shakers especially extolled the virtues of lettuce and by 1840 were selling thousands of lettuce seed packets per year to the growing country.

Although there are many stories about the introduction of lilacs to America, one of the most likely concerns an English sea captain. This sea captain decided to retire from the sea and settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1695. He brought lilacs from Persia to grow near his front door. In 1750, the captain presented lilac cuttings to the colonial governor in Portsmouth, which were planted at the governor's mansion. At the end of the Revolutionary War cuttings were sent to George Washington for his home at Mount Vernon. Many garden records and diaries of the period mention lilacs. Plant peddlers followed the pioneers across the country selling lilacs as reminders of their homes in the East.

During colonial times wealthy landowners felt it was their duty to introduce new plants to their estates. Martha Washington's father-in-law, John Curtis, recorded the first planting of a horsechestnut tree in 1736. That tree did not survive, but in 1763 a Pennsylvania gentleman announced he had the first blooming horsechestnut tree. The large showy flowers made the tree a hit after the Revolutionary War and horsechestnuts became common on Southern plantations. In the Midwest, the horsechestnut became a symbol of stability and prosperity. The native buckeye, which is closely related to the horsechestnut, was never valued as much as the immigrant plant.

Another colonial era favorite was the herbaceous peony. Brought to Virginia in the 1600s, it was a feature plant in Williamsburg gardens. Jefferson and Washington favored peonies. Rural Americans planted "piney's" around their farmhouses and took them west across the Great Plains in covered wagons.

Like human immigrants to our country, plants have arrived at different times and for different reasons. Some have adapted remarkably well while others struggled for a place, but they have added to the richness of life we enjoy as Americans.


June - July 2001: Summer Mole Problems | Summer Lawn Care Tips | Immigrant Plants | FAQ's On White Grubs in Lawns

Past Issues

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