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.
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