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History of Early American Landscape Design

Elgin Botanic Garden

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[Introductory sentence]


Alternate Names: Botanic Garden of the State of New York
Site Dates: 1801-1811
Site Owner: David Hosack; The State of New York
Site Designer(s): David Hosack
Location: New York, NY
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  • Mitchill, Samuel Latham, 1794, report to the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture of New York (1792: xxxix-xlv)[1]
"The establishment of a Garden is nearly connected with the Professorship of Botany under the College, and the Lectures on that branch must be always very lame and defective without one…. A Botanic Garden is not only one of the genteelest and most beautiful [Hosack changed to: most useful and most important] of public improvements; but it also comprises within a small compass the History of the Vegetable Species of our own Country; and by the introduction of Exotics, makes us acquainted with the plants of the most distant parts of the earth. Likewise, by facilitating experiments upon plants at this time, when a true Theory of Nutrition and Manures is such an interesting desideratum, a Botanic Garden may be considered as one of the means of affording substantial help to the labours of the Agricultural Society, and be conducive to the improvement of modern husbandry. When these things are duly considered, it can scarcely be doubted, that a Botanic Garden, under the direction of the Society, or of the College, with a view to further the agricultural interest, will be set on foot and supported by legislative provision; to the end that young minds be early imbued with proper ideas on this important subject."

  • David Hosack, 1802, Description of the Elgin Garden (1802: 1-4)[2]
"The view from the most elevated part of Elgin-ground, is variegated and extensive. The East and North Rivers, with their vast amount of navigation, are plain in sight. Beyond these great thoroughfares of business, the fruitful fields of Long-Island, and the picturesque shores of New-Jersey, give beauty and interest to the prospect….

“The conservatory and hot-houses present a front of one hundred and eighty feet. They are not only constructed with great architectural taste and elegance, but experience has also shown, they are well calculated for the preservation of the most tender exotics that require protection from the severity of our climate. The grounds are also arranged and planted agreeably to the most approved stile of ornamental gardening. The whole is surrounded by a belt of forest trees and shrubs judiciously chequered and mingled; and enclosed by a well constructed stone-wall.

“The interior is divided into various compartments, not only calculated for the instruction of the student in Botany, but subservient to agriculture, the arts, and to manufactures. A nursery is also begun, for the purpose of introducing into this country the choicest fruits of the table. Nor is the kitchen garden neglected in this establishment. An apartment is also devoted to experiments in the culture of those plants which may be advantageously introduced and naturalized to our soil and climate, that are at present annually imported from abroad…

“The forest trees and shrubs which surround the establishment, first claim [the visitor’s] attention. Here are beautifully distributed and combined the oak, the plane, the elm, the sugar maple, the locust, the horse chesnut, the mountain ash, the basket willow, and various species of poplar. In front of these, a similarly varied collection of shrubs, natives and foreign, compose an amphitheatre, which, winding with the walks, presents at every step something new and engaging. On the other side the eye reposes on the green lawn which is occasionally intercepted with groups of trees and shrubs happily adapted to its varied surface.

“In extending his walks to the garden, on each side, he is equally gratified and instructed by the numerous plants which are here associated in scientific order, for the information of the student in Botany or Medicine. Here the Turkey rhubarb, Carolina pink-root, the poppy and the foxglove, with many other plants of the Materia Medica are seen in cultivation…

“As he proceeds he arrives at a nursery of the finest fruits, which the proprietor has been enabled to procure from various parts of the world, and from which the establishment will hereafter derive one of the principal means of its support.

“The visitor next comes in view of a pond of water devoted to the varieties of nymphoea, pontederia and other aquatics which adorn its surface, while the adjacent grounds which are moist afford the proper and natural soil for a great variety of our most valuable native plants. The rhododendrons, magnolias, the kalmias, the willows, the stuartia; the candleberry myrtle; the cupressus disticha, and the sweet-smelling clethra alnifolia, here grow in rich luxuriance, and compose a beautiful picture in whatever direction they fall under his eye…

“As he leaves this groupe, and passes to the higher situations of this delightfully varied surface, he finds a corresponding distribution of the numerous plants which compose this collection.

“Here a rocky and elevated spot attracts his attention, by the varied species of pine, juniper, yew, and hemlock, with which it is covered. There a solitary oak breaks the surface of the lawn; here a group of poplars; there the more splendid foliage of the different species of magnolia, intermixed with the fringe tree, the thorny aralia, and the snow drop halesia, call his willing notice.

“Entering the green-house, his eye is saluted with a rich and varied collection: the silver protea, the lemon, the orange, the oleander, the citron, the shaddock, the myrtle, the jasmine and the numerous and infinitely varied family of geranium, press upon his view, while the perfumes emitted from the fragrant daphne, heliotropium, and the coronilla no less attract his notice than do the splendid petals of the camellia japonica, the amaryllis, the cistus, erica and purple magnolia.

“In the hot-house he finds himself translated to the heat of the tropics. Here he observes the golden pine, the sugar cane, the cinnamon, the ginger, the splendid strelitzia, and ixora coccinea intermixed with the bread fruit, the coffee tree, the plantain, the arrow root, the sago, the avigato pear, the mimosa yielding the gum arabic, and the fragrant farnesiana.

“Here are also to be seen the succulent tribes of aloe, sedum, mesembryanthemum, the night blowing cereus, arid the cactus which feeds the cochineal, covered with its insects.

“In front of the buildings are several beautiful clumps composed of the more delicate and valuable shrubs intermingled with a great variety of roses, kalmias and azaleas. Their borders are also successively enamelled with the crocus, the snow drop, the asphodel, the hyacinth, and the more splendid species of the iris.

“Here also is viola tricolor… saluting the senses with its beautiful assemblage of colours but yielding in fragrance to its rival viola odorata which…also adds zest to this delicious banquet.

“Every tree, shrub, and herbaceous plant is labelled and designated by its botanic name for the instruction of the student.

Dr. Hosack has also connected with this establishment, an extensive Herbarium which contains not only a great variety of plants collected by himself in Great Britain, and in this country, but is also enriched by many valuable specimens furnished by the late celebrated Danish professor Vahl; by Curtis, and Dickson, and by duplicates from the Hortus Siccus of Linnaeus, presented by Dr. Smith, the learned president of the Linnaean Society, and the present possessor of the rich collections of the celebrated Swede.

“To this establishment Dr. H. has also added a well chosen Botanical Library, consisting of the most celebrated works, both ancient and modern, which are necessary to illustrate that science, as well as its application to medicine, to agriculture and the arts to which it is subservient.”

  • Hosack, David, 1811, explaining reasons for establishing Elgin Botanic Garden (1811: 6-7)[3]
"I now readily perceived that an abstract account of the principles of these sciences, as taught by books, coloured engravings, or even with the advantages of an herbarium, must necessarily be very imperfect and unsatisfactory, when compared with the examination of living plants, growing in their proper soils… and that a botanical establishment was indispensably necessary in order to teach this branch of medical science with complete effect.

"Influenced by these considerations, and persuaded of the advantages to be derived from the institution of a botanic garden, which could be made the repository of the native vegetable production of the country, and be calculated to naturalize such foreign plants are distinguished by their utility either in medicine, agriculture, or the arts, as well as for the purpose of affording the medical student an opportunity of practical instruction in this science, I, immediately after my appointment as professor [of botany and materia medica] in the college, endeavoured to accomplish its establishment."

  • Lewis, Morgan, governor of New York, January 28, 1806, (Hosack 1811: 12)[3]
"Application was made to the legislature at their last session, by a gentleman of the city of New-York, for aid in the support of a Botanic Garden, which he had recently established. At the request of some of the members, I, in the course of last summer, paid it two visits, and am so satisfied with the plan and arrangement, that I cannot but believe, if not permitted to languish, it will be productive of great general utility. The objects of the proprietor are, a collection of the indigenous, and the introduction of exotic plants, shrubs &c. and by an intercourse with similar establishments, which are arising in the eastern and southern states, to insure the useful and ornamental products of southern to northern, and of northern to southern climes. In the article of grasses, I was pleased to see a collection of one hundred and fifty different kinds. A portion of ground is allotted to agricultural experiments, which cannot but be beneficial to an agricultural people. When it is considered that this branch of natural history embraces all the individuals of the vegetable which afford subsistence to the animal world, compose a large portion of the medicines used in the practice of physic, and mam of the ingredients essential to the useful arts, its utility and importance is not to be questioned. But in a country young as ours, the experimental sciences cannot be expected to arrive at any degree of excellence without the patronage and bounty of government; for individual fortune is not adequate to the task."

  • Bard, Samuel, November 14, 1809, address delivered to the Medical Society of Dutchess County (Hosack 1811: 30)[3]
"By the purchase of the botanic garden, a national ornament and most useful establishment, already brought to a great degree of perfection, will be preserved: by which our medicine, our agriculture and our arts, the elegancies, and the conveniences of life will necessarily be improved."

  • Hosack, David, 1806, describing history of Elgin Botanic Garden (1811: 14-15)[3]
"I still, however, did not abandon the hope of ultimately obtaining legislative aid, and therefore continued, as before, my exertions to increase the collection of plants which I had begun, and to extend the improvements for their preservation. Accordingly, in 1806, I obtained from various parts of Europe, as well as from the East and West-Indies, very important additions to my collection of plants, especially of those which are most valuable as articles of medicine. I also erected a second building for their preservation, and laid the foundation of a third, which was completed the following year. In the autumn of the same year, 1806, I published a Catalogue of the plants, both native and exotics, which had been already collected, amounting to nearly 2000 species….

"I had now erected, on the most improved plan, for the preservation of such plants as require protection from the severity of our climate three large and well constructed houses, exhibiting a front of one hundred and eighty feet… The greater part of the ground was brought to a state of the highest cultivation, and divided into various compartments....

"The whole establishment was enclosed by a stone wall, two and an half feet in breadth, and seven and an half feet high… Add to all this… the additional costs for the continual increase in the number of plants, particularly of those imported from abroad, though in this respect I was liberally aided by the contributions of my friends, both in Europe and in the East and West-Indies…."

  • Newton, Joseph, Arthur Smith, John F. West, Timothy B. Crane, January 16, 1810, Estimate of the Buildings at the Elgin Botanic Garden (Hosack 1811: 45)[3]
"We, the subscribers, buildings, and residents of the city of New-York, at the request of doctor David Hosack, have valued the improvements on his land, near the four mile stone, called the botanic garden, to wit: the hot bed frames, the conservatory or green house, and its appendages, the dwelling house, the hot houses and their back buildings, the lodges, the gates and the fences around the land, including the wells, at the sum of twenty-nine thousand three hundred dollars.”

  • Hastings, John, Frederick Pursh, and John Brown, January 24, 1810, Valuation of the plants in the Elgin Botanic Garden (Hosack 1811: 53)[3]
“We, the subscribers, in committee assembled, for the valuation of the plants, trees, and shrubs, including garden tools and utensils, necessary for the cultivation of the same, as appertaining to the green house, hot houses, and grounds of the [botanic garden]], at Elgin, after a very particular inventory and examination of the improvements, are unanimously agreed, that, to the best of our knowledge and ability, we consider them to be worth the sum of twelve thousand six hundred and thirty-five dollars and seventy-four and half cents.

John Hastings, Nursery-man, Brooklyn, L.I.
Frederick Pursh, Botanist.
John Brown, Nursery-man.

  • Gentle, Andrew (“Botanist and Seedsman” of New York), January 22, 1810, Valuation of plants in the Elgin Botanic Garden (Hosack 1811: 53-54)[3]
“The sum of fourteen thousand three hundred and eighty dollars and fifty-nine cents, is, I believe, to the best of my judgment, the value of your indigenous and exotic plants, tools, & c. at Elgin."

  • Hosack, David, 1811, preface to enlarge edition of Hortus Elginensis (1811: v-x)[4]
“The establishment of a Botanic Garden in the United States, as a repository of the native plants of this country, and as subservient to the purposes of medicine, agriculture, and the arts, is doubtless an object of great importance. Impressed with the advantages to be derived from an institution of this nature, I have anxiously endeavoured ever since my appointment to the professorship of Botany and Materia Medica in Columbia College, to accomplish its establishment. Disappointed, however, in my first applications to the legislature of this State, soliciting their assistance in so expensive and arduous an undertaking, I resolved to devote my own private funds to the prosecution of this object; trusting, that when the nature of the institution should be better, and more generally known, and its utility fully ascertained, it would receive the patronage and support of the public.

“Accordingly, in the year 1801, I purchased of the Corporation of the city of New-York, twenty acres of ground… distant from the city about three miles and an half. The view from the most elevated part, is variegated and extensive, and the soil itself of that diversified nature, as to be particularly well adapted to the cultivation of a great variety of vegetable productions. The greater (vi) part of the ground is at present in a state of promising cultivation, arranged in a manner the best adapted to the different kinds of vegetables, and planted agreeably to the most approved style of ornamental gardening. Since that time, an extensive conservatory, for the more hardy green house plants, and two spacious hot houses, for the preservation of those which require a greater degree of heat, the whole exhibiting a front of one hundred and eighty feet, have been erected, and which, experience has shown, are well calculated for the purpose for which they were designed. The whole establishment is surrounded by a belt of forest trees and shrubs, both native and exotic, and these again are enclosed by a stone wall, two and an half feet in thickness, and seven feet in height.

“As it has always been a primary object of attention to collect and cultivate in this establishment, the native plants of this country, especially such as are possessed of medicinal properties, or are otherwise useful, such gardeners as were practically acquainted with our indigenous productions, have been employed to procure them: how far this end has been attained, will be best seen by an examination of the Catalogue.

“Although much has been done by the governments of Great-Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, and Germany, in the investigation of the vegetable productions of America: although much has been accomplished by the labours of [Mark] Catesby, [Pehr] Kalm, [Friedrich Adam Julius von] Wangenheim, [Johann David] Schoepf, [Thomas] Walter, and the Michaux [André and François André]; and by our countrymen [John] Clayton, the Bartrams [John and William], [Cadwallader] Colden, [Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst] Muhlenberg, [Humphry] Marshall, [Manassas] Cutler, and the learned Professor [Benjamin Smith] Barton of Pennsylvania, much yet remains to be done in this western part of the globe. The numerous articles of medicine which this country has already furnished; the variety of soils and climates which it comprehends, encourage the belief, that many more remain to be discovered, and that the Materia Medica may still be enriched by the addition of many indigenous plants, whose virtues yet remain undiscovered. (vii)

“Another object of importance is, to afford to students of medicine, the means of acquiring a knowledge of the natural history of plants, and the principles of botanic arrangement; a science intimately connected with their profession, as it not only enables them to distinguish one plant from another, but frequently leads to an acquaintance with their medicinal virtues. For this purpose the grounds are divided into different compartments, calculated to exhibit the various plants according to their several properties: and these again are so arranged as to afford a practical illustration of the systems of botany at present most esteemed, viz. the sexual system of Linnaeus, and the natural orders of [Antoine Laurent de] Jussieu.

“Hitherto the botanical gardens of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, London, Paris, Copenhagen, Leyden, Upsal, Goettengen, &c. have instructed the American youth in this department of medical education; and it is in some degree owing to those establishments that the universities and colleges of those places have become so celebrated, and have been resorted to by students of medicine from all parts of the world.

“Since the publication of the first edition of this catalogue, in 1806, this institution has been greatly improved…. It will also be perceived by a comparison of the present with the former edition, that very considerable additions have been made to the collection both of the foreign and indigenous (viii) plants contained in that establishment. Gratitude demands of me, on this occasion, an acknowledgment of the obligations I am under to many distinguished botanists, both abroad and at home, who have contributed to this institution. In this number are to be enumerated my much esteemed and respected friend and instructor, Dr. James Edward Smith, the learned President of the Linnaean Society of London; the late Professor [Martin] Vahl, and Mr. [Niels] Hoffman Bang, of Copenhagen; Mons. [René Louiche] Desfontaines and [André] Thouin, the celebrated Professors of Botany and Agriculture at the Medical Schools of Paris; Mr. [Richard Anthony] Salisbury, Proprietor of the Botanic Garden at Brompton, near London; the late Dr. [Giovanni Valentino Mattia] Fabroni, Director of the Royal Museum of Florence; Dr. [John] Bostock, the learned President of the Botanic Institution of Liverpool; Dr. [John Coakley] Lettsom, of London; Dr. Andrew Michaux, Editor of the Flora Boreali Americana, and Author of the very valuable History of the Forest Trees of North-America, now publishing at Paris; my much esteemed friend Dr. Alire Raffineau Delile, of the Institute of Egypt; Dr. Alexander Anderson, Superintendant of the Botanic Garden at St. Vincents; and [Eduard Freiherr von Schack] Baron Be Schack, of Martinique, From these gentlemen I have received many rare botanical works, and some of the most valuable plants in this collection.

“Nor must I be unmindful of the obligations I am under to several gentlemen in this country, distinguished for their taste and talents in this department of science. The Hon. Robert R. Livingston, our former Minister in France; Professor [Samuel Latham] Mitchill, of this city; John Stevens, Esq. of Hoboken; Mr. Bernard M'Mahon, of Philadelphia; Mr. Stephen Elliot, of Beaufort, South-Carolina; Dr. Darlington, and Mr. John Vaughan, of Pennsylvania; John Le Conte, Esq. of Georgia; Mr. William Prince, of Long-Island; and Mr. Andrew Gentle, seedsman, of this city; are also among the contributors to this institution. It is but justice to the merit of my nephew, Dr. Caspar Wistar Eddy, a young but accurate botanist, to add, that he has largely augmented (ix) the collection of American plants, especially of those of the island of New-York; some of which, viz. two new species of Gerardia, were first discovered by him in the vicinity of this city. From my other pupils now industriously prosecuting the study of botany and medicine, more especially Mr. John W. Francis, and Mr. Isaac Roosevelt, of this city, and Mr. Robert M. Barclay, of Orange county, I also anticipate many fruits of their labours in this department of science.

“It would be injustice to my late gardener, Mr. Frederick Pursh, who with a knowledge of the science of botany unites a very extensive and accurate acquaintance with the plants of this country, not to notice the very numerous contributions he has made to the collection, of the native plants of the United States, during the period he had charge of this establishment. The institution is also at present, and has been for some months past, in a very flourishing condition, under the direction of Mr. [Michael] Dennison, who has been very particularly recommended to me by Messrs. [James] Lee and [[Lewis] Kennedy, of Hammersmith. The present state of the collection is an evidence of his attention and skill, and from which I expect great improvements in every part of the establishment.

“I avail myself of this occasion to observe, that as soon as measures may be taken by the Regents of the University for the permanent preservation of the Botanic Garden, it is my intention immediately to commence the publication of AMERICAN BOTANY, or a Flora of the United States. In this work it is my design to give a description of the plant, noticing its essential characters, synonyms, and place of growth, with observations on the uses to which it is applied in medicine, agriculture, or the arts; to be illustrated by a coloured engraving, in the same manner in which the plants of Great-Britain have been published by Dr. J[ohn]. E[dward]. Smith, in his English Botany. Considerable progress has already been made in obtaining materials for this publication: many of the drawings will be executed by Mr. James Inderwick, (x) a young gentleman of great genius and taste, and others by John Le Conte, Esq. whose acquaintance with botany and natural history in general will enable him to execute this part of the work with great fidelity. In Mr. [Frederick] Pursh, whose name has already been mentioned, I shall have a very industrious and skilful botanist to collect from different parts of the union such plants as have not yet been assembled at the Botanic Garden....

“Since the foregoing Catalogue has been printed, I have received from that distinguished Botanist, M. [André] Thouin, Professor of Agriculture and Botany at Paris, a third collection of seeds [from the Jardin des Plantes], amounting to 30 species, of such plants as are not contained in this collection. The unceasing exertions of that gentleman, for the promotion of science in this country, as well as his own, deserve a greater tribute of praise than I am able to bestow.”

  • Spafford, Horatio Gates, 1813, A Gazetteer of the State of New-York (1813: 45-46)[5]
"BOTANIC GARDEN. The Elgin Botanic Garden, in the city of New-York, the first institution of the kind in the United States, is now the property of the state…. Among the distinguished friends and patrons of science in this state, a common sentiment had long prevailed, friendly to the establishment of a Botanic Garden. Several unsuccessful attempts had been made to engage public aid for this purpose; and their having failed, while it detracts nothing from the reputation of the state, has ensured a better success to the institution, growing up under the zealous efforts of individual enterprize, which will ensure lasting fame to its principal founder.… In 1801, having failed in all attempts for public aid, the zeal and enterprize of Dr. Hosack, determined him to attempt the establishment on his own account. Accordingly he purchased 20 acres of ground of the corporation of New-York…. The soil is diversified, and peculiarly well adapted to the cultivation of a great variety of plants. The whole was immediately enclosed by a stone wall, and put in the best state for ornamental gardening; and a conservatory was erected for the preservation of the more hardy green-house plants. A primary object was to cultivate the native plants, possessing any valuable properties, found in this country; and in 1805, this establishment contained about 1500 valuable native plants, beside a considerable number of rare and valuable exotics. In 1806, it contained in successful cultivation, 150 different kinds of grasses, and important article to an agricultural people.… A portion of ground was set apart for agricultural experiments; and all the friends to experimental science and a diffusion of knowledge saw that the institution promised all that had been expected from it; and that the professor’s knowledge and genius were occupied on a congenial field….

"The view from the most elevated part of Elgin ground, is extensive and variegated. The aspect of the ground, is a gentle slope to the E. and S. The whole is enclosed by a well constructed stone wall, lined all round by a belt of forest trees and shrubs. The conservatory and hot-houses present a front of 180 feet. The various allotments of ground, are chosen with as much taste as good judgment for the varied culture; — and the rocky summit, the subsiding plain, and the little pool, have each their appropriate products. The herbarium, the kitchen garden, the nursery of choice fruits from all quarters and climes, and the immense collection of botanical subjects elegantly arranged and labelled, display the industry, taste and skill of a master. A very extensive Botanical library belongs to the late proprietor, who is now a professor in the University, and delivers a summer course of lectures on Botany. .. The garden is now committed to the superintendence of the college of Physicians and Surgeons, without any charge to the state."

  • Spafford, Horatio Gates, 1824 Gazetteer of the State of New York (1824: 605)[6]
"Botanic Garden.— This is a very respectable establishment, situated on New-York Island, in the 9th Ward of the City, 4 miles N. of the City Hall. It was purchased by the State, in 1810, and is an appendage of the Colleges in New-York. It comprises 20 acres of ground, and embraces a great variety of indigenous, naturalized, and exotic vegetables. The situation is commanding, on the rising ground, which embraces a good variety of soil, aspect, and position, and Elgin Grove has as many visitants as the Botanic Gardens, chasing pleasure, or catching knowledge."







  1. "Introduction," Transactions of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures, Instituted in the State of New York 1 (1794), view on Zotero.
  2. David Hosack, Description of the Elgin Garden, The Property of David Hosack, M.D. (New York: The author, 1802), view on Zotero.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 David Hosack, A Statement of Facts Relative to the Establishment and Progress of the Elgin Botanic Garden: And the Subsequent Disposal of the Same to the State of New-York (New York: C.S. Van Winkle, 1811), view on Zotero
  4. David Hosack, Hortus Elginensis, or, A Catalogue of Plants, Indigenous and Exotic, Cultivated in the Elgin Botanic Garden, in the Vicinity of the City of New-York : Established in 1801(New-York : Printed by T. & J. Swords, 1811), 2nd edition enlarged, view on Zotero.
  5. Horatio Gates Spafford, A Gazetteer of the State of New-York: Carefully Written from Original and Authentic Materials, Arranged on a New Plan, in Three Parts (Albany: H.C. Southwick, 1813), view on Zotero.
  6. Horatio Gates Spafford, Gazetteer of the State of New York" (Albany: B.D. Packard, 1824), view on Zotero.

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