Skip to main content

Three Eighteenth-Century Gardens

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

It would seem trite to say that distances in the eight-

eenth century were measured not so much by miles as by

the difficulty in traversing them; the three gardeners we are to consider were, therefore, far apart indeed—in London, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Their interest in the gardens which became their hobbies surmounted mere difficulties and brought these three men, so different in their environment, into close friendship, though one of them never saw the other two.

Peter Collinson of London, born in 1693, was the son of a Quaker, a mercer whose silk shop bore the familiar name of Red Lion. Peter grew up at his grandmother’s modest home in Surrey, but moved to town at the death of his father, and with his brother conducted the shop in a businesslike way, even extending their clientele to the rich planters of America, among whom Collinson made many acquaintances that served him well in after years.

In his grandmother’s little garden began his interest in growing things. He wrote thus in his diary many years later: “Being sent at two years old to be brought up with my relatives at Peckham in Surrey from them I received the first liking to gardens and plants. Their garden was remarkable for fine cut greens, the fashion of those times, and for curious flowers. I often went with them to visit the few nursery gardens around London.” As he himself grew, his passion to discover and understand the secrets of nature increased, and finally led him away from his shop to seek the companionship of other Quakers who like himself were students of nature. Years of experiment and hard work made him an expert botanist and naturalist. Sir Hans Sloan, the founder of the British Museum, was his friend; Linnaeus, the greatest scientist of his day, sought his advice; and Benjamin Franklin had his attention first directed to electrical experiments by him.

In common with most scientists of his day, Collinson was deeply interested in the fauna and flora of America. Through this interest he became acquainted with several Americans, who, desiring to aid him, sent him plants and seeds from their homes. But the small quantity which reached him in good condition served only to whet his appetite the more. He deplored the attitude held by most colonists that there was nothing of special botanical interest in the new country. “What were common to them,” he wrote, “would very likely be rare in England, and many natural advantages might [thus] accrue in the two countries at a very slight cost.” After so long a time his friend, Dr. Samuel Chew, advised him to correspond with one John Bartram, and exchange with him plants and seeds for their mutual benefit. Bartram, acting on the advice of friends, consented to the plan.

John Bartram was a native of Pennsylvania. His education was of the most rudimentary kind, though in after years he taught himself Latin and Greek so well that he could converse in either language, and studied other subjects allied to his career as a botanist. He married early and labored on his small farm to support his growing family. His were the eyes of the naturalist, ever open to the beauty and wonder of nature and of the recurrent seasons. Many years later his son wrote of him: “While engaged in ploughing his fields and mowing meadows his inquisitive eye and mind were frequently exercised in the contemplation of vegetables; the beauty and harmony displayed in their mechanism, the admirable system of war which the great author of the universe has established throughout their various tribes and the equally wonderful powers of generation, the progress of their growth and the various stages of their maturity and perfection.” Benjamin Franklin, his friend and adviser, helped him to acquire the knowledge for which he thirsted.

When Bartram received Collinson’s request that he correspond with him in the interest of natural science, he gladly consented, after modestly confessing his ignorance of the science of botany and of all technical terms. Collinson undertook to instruct him, and thus began their correspondence and friendship which ended only with Collinson’s death in 1766. Under the tutelage of this friend, Bartram learned all he needed to know in order to collect, classify, pack, and ship various specimens of native plants to England. Collinson sent him many scientific books which he read with avidity.

Finally he became one of America’s greatest botanists. His son, William Bartram, who with his brother John continued the development of his father’s garden, came to have a wider popular fame than the elder Bartram. His “Travels” are still remembered, and his influence has been traced in the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, Emerson, and other English and American writers.


The correspondence between John Bartram and Collinson is filled not only with the details of their botanical work, but with confidences exchanged concerning personal affairs, their hopes for their children, and their bereavements. Collinson took a great interest in Bartram’s sons. He encouraged and criticised William Bartram’s drawing of natural objects until the boy became proficient in depicting the parts of a plant, or an insect, or shell. “Get all thy wits and ingenuity to work,” Collinson wrote the boy, “to gratify such a patron [Dr. Fothergill] eminent for his generosity and his noble spirit to promote every branch of natural history.” When Moses Bartram, another of John’s sons, visited England, he had him stay with him at Mill Hill, and assisted him in many ways. Of this boy he wrote Bartram: “I was delighted to see the son of my old friend, the honesty and good disposition of the youth pleases me as well as his industrious disposition.” At the time of Mrs. Collinson’s death Bartram wrote: “Dear Afflicted Friend, As I have been once near in some respects in the same gloomy disconsolate circumstances with thine, I believe I am in some measure qualified to sympathize with one of my dearest friends in his close and tender affliction.”

Among Collinson’s friends and patrons were the Prince of Wales, Lord Petre, the Duke of Norfolk, and others who were eager to beautify their estates with rare plants from America. Collinson induced them to order seed and plants from Bartram, who by this means augmented his slender income and was enabled to spend some months every year in making excursions into the woods and mountains of Pennsylvania seeking new specimens. For his use on such excursions a compass was sent him; he was instructed to keep a journal with the utmost care, to collect plants and seeds. A servant was to accompany him; a third horse was to be taken to carry the spare linen, the baskets and panniers provided to bring back the spoils. At first it was not thought that at the price of five pounds, five shillings a box a market could be built up for Bartram’s produce, but so rapidly did the orders come in that Collinson, through whose hands they passed, complained in his diary that this business took much of his time from his own garden. “I would take their orders for seed,” he writes, “I could not refuse their requests because I had the public good at heart—I forgot to mention that after I had supplied the several persons with seeds the next was, ‘Pray, sir, how and in what manner must I sow them, pray be so good as to give me some directing, for my gardener is a very ignorant fellow.’ “

The directions for crating and shipping which Bartram received were explicit. Plants were to be placed in a box two feet square and sixteen inches high, with a foot of earth for the roots. Slats were to be nailed carefully on top to keep the ship’s cat from hurting the roots; the boxes were to be placed under the captain’s bed or in the cabin. Even these precautions did not always keep them from disaster. Collinson wrote once to Bartram: “When I got to the ship, lo, behold, two nests of young callow rats were kindled there and what with their trampling every thing was destroyed. It grieved me to the heart to see so many curious things and so much labour and pains like to be destroyed by these nasty creatures and by the neglect of the captain.” The following letter shows how carefully Bartram prepared his shipments. “I will put on board the ship Beulah three boxes of forest seeds: # 1 for the Duke of Argyll; # 2 for Squire Hamilton; # 3 is for thyself—I have sent nothing for the Dukes of Richmond and Bedford this year for I have nothing new to send them.” On one occasion Bartram sent eight turtle’s eggs which hatched out the day after their arrival in England, much to the delight of Collinson and his friends who hastily congregated to watch the process. “Artfully they disengaged themselves from the shells,” he wrote Bartram, “and then with their forefeet scratched their eyes open.” It may have been one of these creatures of whom Collinson wrote later to Bartram. “I caught a perch in my pond and left half of it on the hook. The great mud turtle, whom I had not seen for two years, ate it, and now I know the poacher who has cleared the pond of fish—”

For himself Collinson desired butterflies, nests of birds, bees, hornets, and wasps, and the young Bartrams were set to collecting these homely objects for their father’s friend. Even the “mud-dauber” came in for his share of attention, and in the manner of the times a moral was drawn from the cycle of his lowly life. “That these creatures,” writes Bartram, “which are a common pest to mankind should have such wonderful instincts bestowed upon them raises our admiration. It may serve to abate our pride and conceit, when we see so much bestowed on these lower classes of being, which is not unworthy of our notice.” Among the “curiosities” which engaged the attention of these insatiable naturalists were the beds of shells and fossils found inland and on the plains. Their presence far from the sea required an explanation. To Collinson they were the evidences of the Deluge. Later, however, he believed the seas may have at one time “washed the feet of those hills.” He wrote Bartram: “We have a cliff in England near Lym-ington that abounds in such variety of shells. I have at least twenty different specie, large and small, all unknown to our coasts, being from the East and West Indies. What a renversment must this have been! The Productions of the South, East and West, thrown so far to the North!”

Among the gardens in England which were enriched and beautified at this time through the efforts of Collinson is the garden at Kew. At the time when the Prince of Wales and his wife were making their home in the palace on these grounds for most of the year, their interest in obtaining new and rare specimens of plants from America kept both Collinson and Bartram busy. All the plants and seeds sent to the King went to Kew; Collinson tells in his diary of being asked by the King to visit the gardens, adding, “the Princess of Wales favoured me with a particular invitation.” His memory and that of Bartram are still kept very much alive in the library and the botanical gardens at Kew.


Among the friends Collinson had made in the early days of shopkeeping, and later in the Royal Society, was Colonel Byrd of Virginia, a wealthy planter, himself interested to a marked degree in the plants indigenous to his native country. During a prolonged stay in England at the beginning of the century he became acquainted with Sir Hans Sloan and other scientists, with whom he corresponded from time to time after his return to Virginia. Being a Fellow of the Royal Society, he sent plants and objects of curiosity to his friends in the old country, and a few letters are still in existence explaining his finds. In one of them he tells of his enthusiasm over the ginseng and other medicinal plants. Of the former he wrote: “Never since the Tree of Life has been so carefully guarded has the Earth produced any vegetable so friendly to man. It warms the blood, frisks the spirits, strengthens the stomach and warms the bowels exceedingly.”

Colonel Byrd, a man of fortune and builder of the famous estate, Westover, had married the daughter of Daniel Parke of Virginia. Mrs. Byrd’s only sister was the wife of Colonel John Custis of the fine estate, Arlington, on the Eastern Shore, and John Custis is the other member of the famous trio of garden lovers. He was a man of stormy temper, of strong words and many enemies, yet he had in his heart a love for flowers and plants of every kind, and a thirst for knowledge of nature’s ways which denoted a less austere phase of his personality. As a Councillor in the General Assembly of the Colony, he found his home at Anlington too remote; so he built himself a house in Williamsburg with a large garden in which for twenty years he labored, furnishing it with many curious growing things from England as well as native trees and plants. At first Custis had no way of getting what he desired from England except to order through his merchants, who must have been a bit impatient of his desire for such things from the old country when the new world was full of rare and “exotic” plants. Custis in his letters to his merchants complains bitterly of the lack of attention which his orders received; he chafed under the stupidity of the ships’ captains who usually delivered the carefully packed tubs and boxes of plants with all their contents dead and dried. We will let John Custis speak for himself, quoting from his letter-book, kept with his own hand, and now preserved in the Library of Congress. The following letters are to his merchant in Bristol.

1721—”Gentlemen; . . . I never had goods delivered in so bad condition in all my life. Six rugs entirely rotten and most of the rest of my goods wett and damnified—the flowers you sent me were entirely lost and the greens not far from it . . .”

1725—  ”I should be very glad of some Layers of good flowers. I know they will live if the master takes care of them because I have had them come safe. I believe it would be safest to put them in a wooden thing because potts will be apt to break. I have a pretty little garden in which I take more satisfaction than in any thing in this world and have a collection of tolerable good flowers and greens from England, but have had great losses in their coming in. I had one hundred roots of fine double Dutch tulips sent me from one Jones, a gardener at Battersy but the ship came in so late that most of them sprouted themselves. Two or three came up which are now fine flowers. Any roots that are bulbous will come safe if the ships come in early. If you send any Layers, order the captain to put the box that contains them on the ballast of the ship, and now and then give them a little water . . .”

1726—  ”I have never seen anything you sent me by Capt. B. The garden truck were carelessly put into the steerage where, I was informed, a dog tore all to bitts. The box and gooseberry trees, some of them lived . . .”“. . . The tulips you sent by Cave are wretched stuff, none bloom. I have not so bad a flower in my garden as the best of them. Twas the double tulip I wanted. Those Rascalls they all [of] them think anything good enough for Virginia.” “I must now thank you for your kind present of the layers of carnations and auriculos; they all perished as Bradby tells me by the long passage and bad weather; he sent a tub of dirt, but not the least sign of a Layer. I am sorry I have given you this fruitless trouble twice—nothing comes safe but bulbous roots and those neither ignorance nor carelessness can destroy . . .”

1729—”You send me a thing called Machyne, I had it several months before any one could inform me what it was or what use it was for; at last the governor’s sister told me it was a French device to powder a beau’s periwig. I am very sorry I should be thought such an incipid [sic] part of creation as a Beau—I come now to thank you for your kind present of the yellow Jessamin and ever-flowering honeysuckle but I have my old fate, they are all dead. By ignorance or carelessness they were put on deck and I suppose the spray of the salt water came on them and killed them . . .

In 1730 Custis wrote to Mark Catesby, who visited in Williamsburg. “. . . You are pleased to compliment me concerning my garden which I assure you no way deserves it; my greens are come to perfection which is the chief fruit of my long and assiduous endeavors. We have had three or four bad winters, and hot and dry summers which demolished all my flowers, and a great many of my best Greens, so that I am out of heart of endeavoring anything but what is hardy and Virginia proof. Tho’ I must heartily acknowledge your kind offer, and if you will please to let me know in any thing that I can serve you here I shall cheerfully do myself the honor of serving you. I have given Mrs. Hollo-way some cat birds for you and send you some dogwoods from the old stump at the French Ordinary—You have much the advantage in sending all manner of trees and flower roots because the ships come here in Winter, but go from hence in summer, but we can send all manner of seed and the like safely.”


And now these three gardeners are to be brought into contact with each other through Sir John Randolph and his son, patrons and friends of the Collinson shopkeepers in London. On his return from his last visit to England, Sir John brought requests for some native Virginia plants from Collinson, which were given Custis to grant. In 1734 Custis writes thus to Collinson: “Sir John Randolph and Capt. Isham Randolph acquaint me that you are desirous of the mountain cowslip—I have but few roots in the world but have sent you half my store—I am very proud it is in my power to gratify any curious gentleman in this way, being myself a great admirer of things of that nature. I have a garden inferior to few in Virginia, in which, and in good planting my whole delight is placed, and have for several years evergreens, flowers, etc. but the Masters of ships are so ignorant and withal careless that it is rare to get anything safe except bulbous roots—I thank you for the horse chestnut you sent me which tree I never saw, though I was bred in England. They were all dry rotted . . .”

In a year’s time these two enthusiasts were corresponding regularly and exchanging specimens. This friendship seems to have lasted until the death of Custis. The following extracts are from two letters to Collinson, both written in 1735. “. . . Of the seeds you were so kind as to send me very few came up, crysanthemums, Arabian peas and two or three hollyhocks and two Clovy seeds came up and the Laburnum. I should have been glad of the honeysuckle and roses, especially the yellow province rose . . .” “. . . I have now supplied you myself carefully put up in strong casks—# 1 fringe trees and red bud, # 2 Ivy with blossoms and seeds in the cask, # 3 the pearl tree which is prodigiously grown in the cask. # 4 some chin-copin nut trees and red bud. ‘Tis a very improper season to send them but I must send when I can, for I assure you it is difficult to get any Master to carry them. I never saw the berries of the fringe tree red this year, it is now green, what color it will be with you I know not. The tree that bears them is forty miles from me in a swamp of my own. As for the dogwood, those in my garden are blossomed white which are much more beautiful than the other.” The next year Custis acknowledges similar presents from Collinson. “I am much obliged to you for the pretty presents and cannot express the grief I labor under when I found your good kind and most obliged endeavors fruitless and destroyed; nothing alive but four altheas, four laurells which I had a plenty of before, one red root, one guernsey lily and five small bulbous roots like hyacinths, which I know not what they are, and all the horsechestnuts were sound, but they were packed in so little room that the sprouts twined in one another like so many worms, and I planted them all and some are come up. A great many things you mentioned in the inventory were never put in, viz: but one Guernsey lily, you mentioned two; you mentioned six white double rockets, Jerusalem cowslips, one dozen gold flecked polyanthos, striped lillies, none of these were ever put up. Altho the strawberries were rotten they were whole and visible. One striped box has some life in it, I should have been glad of it, being a great admirer of all the tribe of striped gilded and varigated plants, and especially holly trees; I am told those things are out of fashion, but I do not mind that, I always make my fancy my fashion. I have planted the Pistacious Nutts and I think 1 shall allmonds. I have allmond trees that thrive well, but they bloom so early that it is not once in a great many years but the frost kills the blossoms. I had some trees very full of nutts, I have planted the dates, but I doubt they are too tender to do well here. I have planted the seeds of the Cedar of Lebanon. Most of the seed I planted last year never came up, the larch tree came up, but one seed, and that died. The Laburnum came up and are the quickest growth I ever saw. I have several trees four or five feet high already. As for those peas you call Italian beans we call them black eyed Indian peas, and I make yearly hundreds of bushels of them and ship them to the West Indies. I should have been glad if the yellow everlasting flower seeds had come up, we have the flowers from Madeira but could never get any of the plants or seeds. The tube roses came safe, they were very fresh and sound and sprouted. I put them immediately in the ground under a rough building and am in great hopes of their doing well, but you are misinformed that we have plenty of them here, I never saw or heard of any being here before and wish I knew the management of them. The Dwaft apple trees or Paradise stock came well and put out leaves . . .”

Like Bartram, John Custis did not confine his gifts to seed, but sent Collinson some shells and fossil bones which he had found at the bottom of a well that he was having dug. Collinson was curious about these and made some inquiry concerning them, to which Custis replied: “As to the shells in the smaller box, I sent you several species only very large. I cannot readily recall to mind what shells came out of the Mill dam, but I got [them] on the foot of a bank thirty or forty feet from the surface.” “The two nutmeg peach trees you sent me blow finely this year. I raised six grafts of the Katherine peach last year, grafted the latter end of February on our common peach stocks, and to my great surprise in one summer some of them grew nine feet high and big in proportion. The nutmeg grafted at the same time did not shoot two feet. The Katherine grew more in a month than the nutmeg in four—As for the shells dug out of the mill dam and the well, the places are at least fifty miles from the sea, which is marvellous. I shall endeavor to get a swallow’s nest. Every one destroys them with fire and smoke on their first coming into the chimneys.” Some of the shells mentioned in these letters are still to be seen in the museum at Collinson’s old home at Mill Hill near London.

Many such letters passed between these enthusiasts. We will read one more which gives the first intimation of the entrance of Bartram into Custis’s life. “. . . The gentleman you desired me not to be surprised at I have as yet heard nothing of, and do assure nothing suits my humor more than downright plainess, and as for his being a Quaker, that will not in the least lessen my esteem for him. I have always been a friend to that persuasion and think them a quiet zealous intelligible good natured people, I mean the sensible part of them, and if the gentleman comes where I have to do I shall show him the greater respect for your sake and assist him in his errands as much as in me lies.” Collinson had planned for Bartram a visit to Virginia and Maryland. In writing to him of the proposed excursion, Collinson said: “One thing I must desire of thee and do insist that thou oblige me therein: that thou make up thy drugget clothes to go to Virginia in and not appear to disgrace thyself or me; for though I should not esteem thee less to come to me in what dress thou will—yet these Virginians are a very gentle well-dressed people and look perhaps more at a man’s outside than his inside. For these and other reasons pray go very clean, neat and handsomely dressed to Virginia. Never mind thy clothes, I will send more another year.”

The momentous visit was made, and we gather from the reception Bartram received in Virginia that he appeared clothed as a gentleman should be. In reporting his visit to Collinson he writes: “I arrived about sunset at Co. Custis’s who received me very kindly for thy sake. The next day I went to wait upon the governor. He shew [sic] very kind and civil to me and invited me to dine with him the next day. I stayed about an hour with him and then went to Col. Custis’s ; this was the first day of rest since I left home—where I stayed at night. Next morning I left my dear friend Col. Custis who entertained me with extraordinary civility and respect beyond what ever I met with in all my travels before from a stranger. At night I reached Col. Byrd’s who received me very kindly and next day shewed me his Curiosities which indeed was very entertaining . . . “

Collinson was curious to know just what his letter-friend, Colonel Custis, was like, and before he received this letter he wrote Bartram: “I am informed my friend Col. Custis is a very curious man; pray what didst thee see new in his garden? But I am told Col. Byrd has the best trees.”

The following letters speak for themselves, and will finish our examination of this triangular correspondence.

Bartram to Custis, 1738: “Dear Friend Coll. Custis; I am safely returned home to my family—I can’t forget thy kind entertainment and it is with a great satisfaction and pleasure that I think upon the agreeable hours I spent in thy conversation as well as thy kind expressions at parting which have engaged my respect after a particular manner . . .

Custis to Bartram, 1740: “I have your two letters with an invoice of trees sent by Capt. Harding—The larch trees are dead, the roses are dead, except one monthly rose and the Monday rose both of which I have great plenty of; one yellow rose seems to have life in it but have little hopes of it. The Moss province and other yellow rose dead, the arbutos dead, all the honeysuckle dead except two Dutch; the white currants came best of anything. The Catherine peach is alive which I am very proud of. . . . ” After reading this list of casualties one feels grateful to the white currant and the Catherine peach for surviving the trip from Philadelphia.

Custis to Collinson: “Dear Sir; your friend Mr. Bartram has made me a visit, but it was my misfortune to be just crawled out of the grave so had not the happiness to go about with him. He stayed with me two nights and a day and I could by no persuasions keep him longer. He is the most taking facetious man I ever met with and never was so much delighted with a stranger in all my life. I have had a letter from him since he got safe home with his kind offers to send me some Dutch white currant bushes which would be very acceptable. I should be very glad to raise the silver fir, the spruce fir we have in great plenty. I have had gra,pes from England but never could catch any [sic] they do not run with us in hillocks as with you but take an unlimited ramble all over our grounds. I have raised ten fine horse-chestnut trees but the herds eat of the tender tops and buds two years running- I moved them in February last and I never saw trees easier to be moved in my life. Not one of them in the least flag, and this summer have made prodigious shoots . . .”


Near London is a small village called Mill Hill where Peter Collinson lived. Here he made his garden with the trees, plants, and flowers sent him from many countries and climes, here he spent the last years of his life drinking in the beauties of the thing he had created. His old house has now disappeared, but on its site has risen another called by the same name, Ridgeway House, and his memory, his garden, and his museum are cherished by the School which now owns the property. In the garden there is one stately tulip tree, and a cypress which came from America. Collinson was buried in the Friends’ Burying Ground in nearby Bermondsey; as was the custom of the Quakers, his grave was unmarked, and now the cemetery is a playground for the children of the neighborhood. But his name everywhere is recognized as that of one of the greatest naturalists of the eighteenth century.

On the banks of the Schuylkill Bartram lived and made of his place the first botanical garden in America. In it he had put trees, seeds, and plants from foreign and neighboring countries, and he delighted in their growth. He has been called the greatest botanist of America, and was raised to the dignity of the “King’s Botanist,” at a salary of fifty pounds per annum; in gratitude thereof, and in the simplicity of his soul, he sent packages of seeds to the King for his garden, a present which George Third was gracious enough to receive and express himself as being delighted with, passing them along to the gardeners at Kew. The anxiety resulting from the war between the colonists and their mother-country undoubtedly hastened Bartram’s end. He died at his home in 1777, and like Collinson lies in an unmarked grave in the Friends’ Burying Ground. His old home is now a park, belonging to the city of Philadelphia; here one may see remnants of his carefully planned garden, and the preserved trunks of large trees which have recently died. Here still flourishes one of the two true cedars in America.

John Custis moved from Williamsburg to his country estate, Arlington, where he died in 1749. An imposing tomb covers his grave as his will directed, with a long epitaph written by himself. He little realized that he would be chiefly remembered as the father-in-law of Martha Dan-dridge whose marriage to his only son he opposed. Martha Custis’s son Jack inherited the house and garden in Williamsburg, and after his widowed mother’s marriage to young Colonel George Washington, the family sometimes occupied the house during the sessions of the General Assembly, of which Washington was a member. The house has now disappeared, except a brick kitchen. The garden spot is included in the grounds of a State institution for the mentally afflicted. There are a few old trees left which are undoubtedly the scions of those which Custis planted and tended with so much care. School gardens, public park, and hospital grounds—the public now enjoys the labours of three famous gardeners of the eighteenth century.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading