A Historical Look at Heirloom Gardening in America

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Herb gardeners often are invited to help plant
and tend public and private historic community properties.
Sometimes though, resources to direct such an effort with
historical accuracy are sparse. Two newly published heirloom
gardening books offer fresh guidance (Restoring American Gardens,
, by Denise Wiles Adams, and Gardens and Historic Plants
of the Antebellum South
, by James R. Cothran) and they promise to
be as useful to herb growers as they are to heirloom

Adams’ book covers the whole country and all ornamental plants —
not just herbs — grown from 1640 to 1940. But her content, from the
initial chapter on “Reading the Historic Landscape,” to her
outlines of historic U.S. garden design and plant lists, can help
keep you on the correct historic path with your herbs.

In any such planting project, it’s important not to destroy
history in the process of interpreting it; Adams gets right to the
heart of that subject in Chapter One of her book. Later, she
provides lists of historic commercial nurseries, which may provide
clues to your own local historic resources that are yet to be
discovered — one of the most exciting aspects of this relatively
young field of historic American gardening. Adams also gives
contemporary sources for purchasing true historic plants today.

Cothran takes the regional approach, mining the South’s rich
garden history in fine style. Many of the influences he writes of
were felt in the North, too, so don’t dismiss the book out of hand
if you’re not exactly living in Dixie. The period incorporated is
shorter, 1820 to 1860, which allows him to delve deeper than Adams
into the cultural pressures that helped shape gardening trends.
Those years were also very active on the frontier, and as
Southerners moved westward, they took their gardening culture with
them, if not always their more-tender plants.

Like Adams, Cothran incorporates historic information on herb
growing as part of his general overview, and the information he
includes gives accurate direction if you’re trying to figure out
how to incorporate herbs in a historic planting today.

Both writers elaborate on the links between early American
gardens and the English gardening world, out of which so much of
today’s herbal traditions grew, and Cothran does a great job of
giving stateside historical context, too, from the Eastern seaports
to the Southern frontier. “Given a conductive climate, long growing
season, fertile soil and traditional ties of its people to the
land, it was inevitable that an abiding interest in and love of
horticulture and gardening would develop throughout the region,” he

Individually, these books make fine additions to the historic
gardening literature of the United States; coming together as they
have, they are a great bonanza. The enthusiasm they are bound to
generate may trigger a new wave of interest in historic plantings
and their preservation. Any gardener who understands that plants
are more than just pretties in our plots — that they are links
across time with gardeners of yesteryear, through which we can
better understand our own places in history — will love both these
books. Anyone involved with a historic planting project needs them;
they’re simply the best and most current information on the

Nancy Smith, managing editor of Mother Earth News magazine,
writes and gardens at her home in Leavenworth County, Kansas.

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