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History of Early American Landscape Design

Alexander Garden

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Alexander Garden (January 1730-April 15, 1791), a Scottish-born physician and naturalist, lived for many years in Charleston, South Carolina, where he pursued horticultural experiments in the garden of his town house and at his country estate, Otranto. Garden discovered several new genera of plants, and engaged in plant and seed exchanges with prominent botanists and plant dealers in Europe and America. The flowering shrub Gardenia was named in his honor.


While studying at Marischal College, Aberdeen, from 1743 to 1746, Garden served as an apprentice to Dr. James Gordon, professor of medicine, who introduced him to botanical studies and “tinctured my mind with a relish for them.” [1] He continued his study of botany while pursuing a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh, working under Charles Alston (1675-1760), professor of botany and medicine, as well as Keeper of the Garden at Holyrood and King’s Botanist.[2] Garden later recalled: “I then & even to this day remember every Genus nay Every Species that is either in the King’s Garden or in the Physic Garden. I could go to the very spot where it grows.”[3] In search of professional opportunities and a warmer climate, Garden set out in 1751 for Carolina, apparently stopping at Lisbon en route, where he purchased a four-volume Italian translation of Francesco Eulaio Savastano’s botanical treatise, Botanicorum seu institutionum rei herbariae (Naples, 1712), which he brought to America along with Alston’s catalogue of the Edinburgh Garden.[4] Within days of his arrival in Charles Town (modern-day Charleston), Garden began sending indigenous plants to colleagues across the Atlantic— a practice he pursued over the next two decades.[5]

Garden's contributions to scientific knowledge of American flora increased in the fall of 1752 when a fellow amateur botanist, the Carolina planter and politician William Bull II, lent him several foundational botanical studies, including John Clayton’s Flora Virginica (1739) (the first catalogue of plants indigenous to the American South) and Carl Linnaeus's Fundamenta Botanica (1736) and Classes plantarum (1738).[6] Guided by Linneaus’s books, Garden dissected 1,000 local plants and described several in Linnean terms, sharing his findings with European contacts.[7] The British merchant and naturalist John Ellis (c. 1710-1776) offered to present Garden’s descriptions of new plants to the Royal Society in London, and to have drawings made by the botanic artist George Dionysus Ehret. Garden reciprocated with "a pretty curious collection of seeds” which Ellis sent to be germinated by Christopher Gray (1693/4–1764), a professional London nurseryman with extensive experience in acclimating American plants to English conditions.[8]

During the summer of 1754 Garden traveled to New York, venturing as far north as Coldengham, the remote Hudson Highland estate of a fellow Scot, the physician and amateur botanist Cadwallader Colden.[9] Skilled in the Linnean method of plant classification, Colden and his daughter Jane had begun the systematic documentation of plants native to their region of New York. Garden exchanged plants and seeds with the Coldens for several years following his visit.[10] [view text] In 1756 he persuaded the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh to publish a new plant that Jane Colden had discovered and offered to name Gardenia in his honor— a tribute disallowed by Linnaeus, who considered the plant a known genus.[11] [view text] While at Coldengham, Garden met the Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram, who was collecting plants in the area. Garden visited Philadelphia before returning to Carolina and spent several days with Bartram, touring his Botanic Garden and Nursery and combing the surrounding countryside for unusual plants.

Despite the overwhelming demands of his medical work (which included introducing the smallpox vaccine), Garden continued to devote spare moments to collecting seeds and plants and penning scientific descriptions of new finds. Among his correspondents were several eminent European naturalists, including Linnaeus in Sweden and the Dutch botanist John Frederick Gronovius at Leyden, whom he promised to send “anything among the animals, vegetables or minerals which would be pleasing to you.”[12] As Garden’s correspondence grew, so did his reputation in Britain and Europe. Toward the end of his life, he was extolled by the English botanist James Edward Smith (1759-1828), founder of the Linnean Society in London, as “Dr. Garden, to whom Linnaeus was so much obliged in his last edition of the Systema Naturae that I think no name occurs more frequently.” [13] Through his European correspondents, Garden received the latest botanical treatises within months of publication, as well as rare books, such as Linneaus|Linnaeus’s Hortus Cliffortianus— one of the only copies in America at that time.[14] In January 1756 Garden “took the liberty” of honoring James Gordon and John Ellis by requesting the names Gordonia and Ellisiana for Carolina plants that he took to be new genera. Ellis returned the favor by obtaining Linneaus’s consent to the name Gardenia for a genus of flowering shrub recently introduced to England, and honor commemorated by a colored engraving of the flower drawn by Ehret.[15]

Garden established a botanical relationship with another Charles Town planter, Eliza Pinckney, whom he joined in experimenting with silk worm and indigo cultivation. [16]


"I have met wt very Little new in the Botanic way unless Your acquaintance Bartram, who is what he is & whose acquaintance alone makes amends for other disappointments in that way.... One Day he Dragged me out of town & Entertain'd me so agreably with some Elevated Botanicall thoughts, on oaks, Firns, Rocks & c that I forgot I was hungry till we Landed in his house about four Miles from Town....

"His garden is a perfect portraiture of himself, here you meet wt a row of rare plants almost covered over wt weeds, here with a Beautiful Shrub, even Luxuriant Amongst Briars, and in another corner an Elegant & Lofty tree lost in common thicket — on our way from town to his house he carried me to severall rocks & Dens where he shewed me some of his rare plants, which he had brought from the Mountains &c. In a word he disdains to have a garden less than Pensylvania [sic] & Every den is an Arbour, Every run of water, a Canal, & every small level Spot a Parterre, where he nurses up some of his Idol Flowers & cultivates his darling productions. He had many plants whose names he did not know, most or all of which I had seen & knew them — On the other hand he had several I had not seen & some I never heard of."

  • Ogilvie, George, 1776, describing Alexander Garden's villa, Otranto, in Carolina; or, The Planter: Written in 1776 (Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 352-57)
"And lo! my friend, where all the muse demands,
"On Goose-creeks banks thy own Otranto stands!
"Where pleas'd and wond'ring as we thrid the maze,
"We doubt what beauty first demands our praise
"The river bounded by the impervious shade,
"The smooth green meadow, or the enamel'd glade,
"Where all the pride of Europe's florist yields

"To the assembled wildings of our fields....

"Here Pales seems with Flora to have strove,

"To blend the beauties of the lawn and grove....

Bright as the blush of Venus when she loves,
"Sweet as the woodbine of her Paphean groves...
"From tree to tree the flow'ry tindrils rove
"Till one continu'd garland binds the grove
"Winding through shady walks, we slow descend,

"To skirt the mead, or trace the river's bend...

"There midst the grove, with unassuming guise
"But rural neatness, see the mansion rise!...

  • Garden, Alexander, July 24, 1789, to Cadwallader Colden ("The Letters of George Ogilvie and Alexander Garden," 1986: 117)[17]
"A few unconnected remarks on the situation and productions of Otranto [and] the Reasources of Carolina are inclosed. Such of them as you can weave into a description of that once beautiful and roman tick spot, may show what a Carolina situation ornamentted with only the natural productions of the Country can arrive at when so laid out.— The magical deception of the winding of Streight walks was not the least ornament of the garden for while walking in the garden you saw no straight walk & yet when turning and walking along the Bank of the river you saw none but Streight walks & not one of these winding walks thro the meanders of which you had visited all parts of the Garden while in it. And what is it now— possessed by a Goth! It sickens my soul to think of it.

"Diversified grounds— Hill & Dale— A fine winding River— The opposite banks covered with tall primaeval trees with many a flourishing shrub making the most picturesque background.....

"The house on the top of the hill commanding a fine prospect of the adjacent grounds and many different views of the meanderings of the River— guarded on the West from the afternoon's sun by two large Liriodendrons or Tulip trees full of foliage and beautiful Blossoms during May June and part of July. Remember the large Liriodendron between the fish ponds rising eighty feet without a branch then spreading out into a large head having a large opening in the middle thro which the full moon about an hour high was seen from the Piazza of the house — Never was Cynthia seen so much to advantage before having not the simple fig leaf that Mother Eve resorted to but a full grown beard of tulip tree leaves and flowers. Had Endymion seen her thus arrayed what would he have said?

"Near the house is a rural Library overshaddowed with an Umbrageous Catalpa & Lofty magnolia under Cover of which the first Company of the world reside ...[Milton, Tasso, Ariosto, Gay, Voltaire, Horace, Theocritus, Thompson] Lineaus & Bufon accompany you to the Fields — Sir Issac & Cassini to the Celestial dance.....

"The gently hanging garden where Art only gives easy access to the Various inimitable productions of Nature....

"...Aromatick and flowering shrubs give a lovely glow to the gardens of Otranto that your cold bleak gardens of Albion can never see or produce....

"Fair Peaches— the Kennedy Peach when full ripe exceeding in richness and flavour any other fruit or what even fancy can suggest&mash; a taste the cold clime of Albion with all her art can never Emulate.




  1. Alexander Garden to __, quoted in Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, Dr. Alexander Garden of Charles Town (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 10, view on Zotero;, 10,
  2. Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh (Edinburgh: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1921), 12: vii, ix; Berkeley, 1969, 15-20
  3. Garden to Charles Alston, February 18, 1756, quoted in Berkeley,1969, 24,
  4. Berkeley, 1969, 24-25, 27; see also Charles Alston, Index Plantarum, Præcipue Officinalium, Quæ, in Horto Medico Edinburgensis (Edinburgh: W. Sands, A. Brymer, A. Murray, and J. Cochran, 1740) and Francesco Eulaio Savastano, I Quattro libri delle cose botaniche del P. Francesco Eulalio Savastano,... colla traduzione in verso sciolto italiano di Giampetro Bergantini,... e colle annotazioni di esso autore ed altre aggiuntevi (Venice: P. Bassaglia, 1749).
  5. Berkeley, 1969, 29, 35-39, 185-86,
  6. Berkeley, 1969, 33,
  7. Berkeley, 1969, 35, 66,
  8. Berkeley, 1969, 54. Joyce D. Chaplin, “A Skeptical Newtonian in America,” David R. Brigham, “The Patronage of Natural History,” and Therese O’Malley, “Mark Catesby and the Culture of Gardens” in Amy R. Meyers and Margaret Beck Pritchard, eds., Empire's Nature: Mark Catesby's New World Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1998), 77, 129-30, 151,
  9. Raven, 2002, 73, 223, view on Zotero; Meroney, 1991, 52, 56, [view on Zotero; Hoffmann and Van Horne, 2004, xx,view on Zotero; Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 33, 35, 53, 42-46, view on Zotero.
  10. Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 43-45,
  11. The plant is now most commonly known as Virginia marsh-St. John's-wort (Triadenum virginicum). See Alexander Garden [and Jane Colden], "The Description of a New Plant; by Alexander Garden, Physician at Charleston in South Carolina," in Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary (Edinburgh: G. Hamilton and J. Balfour, 1756), 2: 1–5, view on Zotero; see also Colden, 1923, 5: 10, view on Zotero. Daniel J. Philippon, "Gender, Genius, and Genre: Women, Science, and Nature Writing in Early America," in Such News of the Land: U.S. Women Nature Writers, ed. Thomas S. Edwards and Elizabeth A. De Wolfe (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New Hampshire, 2001), 24-25, view on Zotero; James Edward Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, and Other Naturalists: From the Original Manuscripts, 2 vols. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821), 1: 366-67, view on Zotero; Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 53, 74, view on Zotero. Berkeley, 1969, 51-52, 69, 96
  12. Alexander Garden to John Frederick Gronovius, March 15, 1755, quoted in Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 52-53; for Garden’s plant and seed exchanges, see also 54-61, 69, 71-73, 76, 86, 91-92, 96, 98, 99, 104-05, 133-35, 213, 348-52, .
  13. Sir James Edward Smith, “Introductory Discourse on the Rise and Progress of Natural History,” April 8, 1788, quoted in Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 329
  14. Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 90-91, 112
  15. Berkeley and Berkeley, 1969, 74-78, 113, 158-62; see also 114-19, 128-29 for Garden’s subsequent attempts to have a plant named Ellisia in Ellis’s honor,
  16. Berkeley, 1969, 34; Feeser, 2013, 101, view on Zotero; Ben Marsh, "Silk Hopes in Colonial South Carolina," Journal of South History, 78 (2012): 807–54 passim, view on Zotero; Ravenel, 1896, 102, 130-31, view on Zotero.
  17. "The Letters of George Ogilvie and Alexander Garden," The Southern Literary Journal, 18 (1986): 117–34, view on Zotero.

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Alexander Garden," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Alexander_Garden&oldid=12898 (accessed November 30, 2021).

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