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History of Early American Landscape Design


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The term grove referred to both natural and planted arrangements of trees, as indicated by Noah Webster’s definition of 1828. American gardeners such as Bernard M’Mahon (1806) realized the potential of indigenous vegetation and simply thinned existing trees to create so-called “natural” groves. Trees could also be planted where none existed to create “artificial” groves. Whether natural or artificial, groves of trees were an important element in the ornamental landscape, serving aesthetic and agricultural purposes. As Samuel Deane explained in the New-England Farmer (1790), groves could provide shade and windbreaks as well as syrup, firewood, and fruit. As a formal element, groves defined borders of gardens, created backdrops, and, as seen in the sketch of St. Augustine’s orange grove [Fig. 1], offered sites for collecting specific plants.

While generally composed of trees, groves sometimes included shrubs and flowers. These plants were also found in woods, shrubberies, and wildernesses, thus blurring the lines of distinctions between these features—several treatise writers and lexicographers defined groves, for example, as small woods. The overlapping and indistinct uses of the terms “grove,” “wilderness,” and “shrubbery” are exemplified by George Washington’s notations on the garden at Mount Vernon. In 1782, he wrote that he would immediately plant groups of “shrubs and ornamental trees,” and decide later which constituted “the grove and which the wilderness,” implying that the grove would ultimately be the less thickly planted of the two. To add to the confusion, Washington on another occasion referred to the arrangement of trees and shrubs just south of his house as both a grove and a shrubbery. Nineteenth-century texts mentioned shrubs and flowers in groves less frequently, because these types of plants were increasingly associated with shrubberies (see Shrubbery). Thus, as time passed, the distinction between the terms became more clearly drawn.

When attempting to distinguish groves from other features that employed trees (particularly woods and clumps), treatise writers often focused on the question of whether groves should contain undergrowth. Various opinions emerged. Batty Langley argued in New Principles of Gardening (1728) for the inclusion of flowering shrubs with evergreens and deciduous trees. Thomas Whately, however, in Observations of Modern Gardening (1770), believed that a grove consisted of trees without undergrowth in contrast to woods or clumps, which did contain undergrowth. Philip Miller, in The Gardeners Dictionary (1754), considered undergrowth as one factor that distinguished a “closed” grove from an “open” one. The “open” form of the feature was made by planting large trees at a distance that permitted tree tops to knit together to create a shady canopy for the walks below. The “closed” type was composed of a denser planting of trees, shrubs, and flowers that could be arranged in figures cut through and circumscribed by walks.

The appellations “open” and “closed,” however, were not common in American discourse, despite Noah Webster’s inclusion of such distinctions in his definition. Although these adjectives were not employed to a significant degree, groves fitting these characteristics can be identified. Thomas Jefferson, in his 1807 account of Monticello, described his intention to trim the lower limbs of the trees in his grove, composed of a mixture of hardwoods and evergreens, “so as to give the appearance of open ground,” suggesting an “open” grove [Fig. 2]. Eliza Lucas Pinckney, in 1742, evoked the sense of a “closed” grove when she delineated her collection of trees and flowers. Likewise, in 1776 George Washington suggested a similar type of grove for Mount Vernon, which he described as an arrangement of flowering trees and evergreens underplanted with flowering shrubs.

Washington’s account of this “closed” grove also provides a significant clue as to the arrangement of plants. In his 1776 letter to Lund Washington, he specified that the trees “be Planted without any order or regularity,” an aesthetic in keeping with the recommendations of Langley, whose treatises were owned by Washington. The texts of Langley and Miller exemplify the gradual shift away from formal or rectilinear arrangements of trees toward more irregular or “natural” designs. Seventeenth-century groves might be planted in geometrical, or otherwise such patterned figures as “the star, the direct Cross, St. Andrew’s Cross,” described by A.-J. Dézallier d’Argenville (1712). By contrast, Langley insisted that groves be planted with “regular Irregularity; not planting them . . . with their Trees in straight Lines ranging every Way, but in a rural Manner, as if they had receiv’d their Situation from Nature itself.” In contrast to authors of earlier treatises, nineteenth-century American writers, including Samuel Deane (1790), Bernard M’Mahon (1806) and the anonymous author of the New England Farmer (1828), advocated regular arrangements. Few if any signs, however, indicate that Americans made “closed” groves in geometrical figures, such as those described in James. Pierre Pharoux’s unexecuted plans for the new town Sperenza, N.Y. [Fig. 3], and for Baron von Steuben’s estate in Mohawk Valley, N.Y. [Fig. 4], are rare exceptions.

In either the regular or irregular arrangement, groves were often designed to accommodate garden structures or decorative elements. William Bentley (1791), for example, called attention to the pond with statuary found in the midst of the grove at Pleasant Hill, Joseph Barrell’s estate in Charlestown, Mass.; Margaret Bayard Smith (1809) recorded that Jefferson intended to place a monument to a friend in the midst of a grove at Monticello. William Russell Birch situated a Gothic chapel in the grove at Springland [Fig. 5].

In addition to providing settings for decorative objects, groves sometimes displayed rare or unusual tree specimens. At Mount Vernon, Washington contrasted his northerngrove, to be made up entirely of locust trees, with his southern grove, to be planted with “clever,” “curious,” and “ornamental” trees and shrubs. At the Woodlands, William Hamilton also filled his groves with rare ornamental trees.

Groves provided shade and settings for walks that linked buildings in a unified composition. They sheltered or highlighted important architectural features. Groves of evergreens or shade trees were well suited for graves and church settings because of the associations with perpetual life. Pinckney and Charles Willson Peale both spoke of the aura of solemnity found in the deep shade and quiet of their respective groves. Alexander Hamilton (1744) called the “darkened and shaded” grove very “romantick.” Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe depicted a temple deep in a grove, a scene that recalled idealized landscapes associated with the classical past [Fig. 6]. Funerary associations of the grove, dating back to antiquity, made the feature an especially appropriate setting for commemorative monuments and landscape cemeteries.

Groves also connoted cultivation and improvement. They were frequently featured in images, such as Christian Remick’s Prospective View of part of the Commons (1768) [Fig. 7].In Timothy Dwight’s descriptions of the cultivated American landscape, for example, he repeatedly called attention to groves as marking the transition from the wilder or unplanned landscape to the “improved” or worked landscape. Even A. J. Downing, who avoided the term in his treatise, found it useful in describing his ideal park for the city of New York in 1851.

-- Anne L. Helmreich






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