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History of Early American Landscape Design

Robert Buist

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Robert Buist (November 14, 1805–July 18, 1880) was a Scottish-born nursery- and seedsman based in Philadelphia. Through his businesses and his garden manuals, Buist became one of the most influential figures in American horticulture during the 19th century.


Robert Buist was born in Cupar Fyfe, Scotland, on November 14, 1805 [Fig. 1]. Though little is known about his early life, he is believed to have trained as a gardener with William McNab, who served from 1810 until 1848 as the Principal Gardener of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. McNab was known for his careful relocation of the garden to its present site at Inverleith, with much of the transfer of plants occurring between 1821 and 1823, possibly during Buist’s tenure there.[1] Buist later moved to Derbyshire to work in the gardens of General Charles Stanhope, the 3rd Earl of Harrington, at Elvaston Castle, before immigrating to the United States in August 1828.[2] On arriving in Philadelphia, Buist quickly immersed himself in its horticultural community, working briefly at David Landreth’s nursery in Moyamensing before becoming the gardener of Henry Pratt’s Lemon Hill [Fig. 2]. In June 1829 he participated in the first exhibition of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, with which he maintained a lifelong affiliation.[3]

By September 1830 Buist had left his post at Lemon Hill to go into business with the nurseryman Thomas Hibbert, whose greenhouses were located on 13th Street between Lombard and Cedar (now South) Streets. As part owner, Buist had a degree of autonomy that he likely lacked in his earlier positions—he described his situation at Landreth’s, where he was relegated to hoeing weeds, as especially dismal.[4] Within his first year of joining Hibbert, the pair considerably expanded the nursery by purchasing Bernard M’Mahon’s former botanic garden, Upsal, and Buist travelled back to Scotland and England “to make arrangements . . . to receive continued supplies of all kinds of new and desirable Plants and Flowers.”[5] While abroad, Buist also paid a visit to J. C. (John Claudius) Loudon—the preeminent horticulturist in England—and returned to Philadelphia in November 1831 with his longtime friend, the architect John Notman.[6] Buist’s travels yielded some fine stock, particularly of dahlias, which was described in the May 15, 1832, issue of the National Gazette and Literary Register as boasting “upwards of fifty of the most distinct [dahlias] in color and the largest in size; some of them Glob[e]-flowered, and Anemone-flowered, which are considered beautiful and rare.”[7]

The partnership of Hibbert & Buist was successful but not long-lived; Thomas Hibbert died on May 11, 1833, just a year after the National Gazette’s report.[8] Hibbert’s widow determined to carry on her husband’s business while Buist struck out on his own, using part of the Hibbert & Buist stock to open his own independent nursery on 12th Street [Fig. 3] and a seed warehouse on Chestnut Street.[9] “R. Buist’s Exotic Nursery” featured a greenhouse 150 feet in length, 18 feet wide, and 15 feet high, that was divided into five compartments to accommodate the different plants he stocked. The front compartment was referred to as the “New-Holland House” and featured various species of Banksia—which Buist likely learned to cultivate while working with McNab, who specialized in the plant[10]—and was followed by the hothouse or stove, which featured the canary bird flower (Tropaeolum peregrinum), petunias, ficuses, and other rare plants. Toward the rear Buist created compartments dedicated to specific types of flower, including the Geranium House, the Camellia House, and the Rose House.[11]

Buist’s nursery and seed warehouse throve finely during the 1830s and 1840s, allowing him to expand his business significantly. By 1837 he had built a separate camellia house and small stove at 12th Street [Fig. 4], and by 1849 he had established a nursery for fruit and ornamental trees southwest of Philadelphia, called Rosedale, where he eventually consolidated all but his seed business in 1850.[12] During these decades Buist remained an active member of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, gaining recognition for his introduction of verbenas and the poinsettia to North America, and helped found the American Pomological Society.[13] He also authored three frequently reprinted gardening manuals—The American Flower Garden Directory (1832), The Rose Manual (1844), and The Family Kitchen Gardener (1847)—which helped make him one of the most recognizable figures in American horticulture.[14]

Even in the midst of these professional accomplishments, Buist suffered various familial challenges in the 1840s. His wife, Jane Menzies Buist—the mother of his sons, John and Robert Jr.—died from tuberculosis on July 12, 1840, and Buist remarried shortly after to Ellen Chambers (née Stephens), with whom he had one daughter.[15] During this period he also lodged two lawsuits against his brother William, who had established a nursery in Washington, DC, and who may have tried to bolster his business by trading on Robert’s success.[16] Though the court cases remain obscure, the results are not: in September 1847 Alexander Hunter, the marshal of Washington, DC, seized William’s nursery “to satisfy judicials . . . in favor of Robert Buist against said Wm. Buist.” Bankrupt and out of business, William died in July 1850.[17] Robert’s home and business, in contrast, was full to brimming at this time: according to the 1850 federal census, taken in July that year, Buist was supporting not only his new wife, daughter, and son Robert Jr., but also members of his wife’s extended family and about 20 servants, laborers, and gardeners, all from Scotland and Ireland.[18]

The number of gardeners and laborers Buist brought over from Britain and Ireland greatly enhanced botanical knowledge in the United States. His service to American horticulture was described as twofold—Colonel Marshall P. Wilder of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society noted that “he not only introduced rare plants, but rare men.”[19] Buist remained active in the plant trade throughout the 1850s, 60s, and 70s, and the value of his businesses increased considerably: the 1850 census notes the “value of property owned” as $35,000, and the 1860 census indicates a personal worth estimated at $45,000, exclusive of the impressive $125,000 Buist owned in real estate.[20] It may have been his financial success that allowed Buist to relinquish control of the seed warehouse to his younger son, Robert Jr., by September 1861, and to direct his attention largely to floriculture. Robert Buist fully retired from the nursery business in 1876 and died four years later, at the age of 74.[21]

Elizabeth Athens

  1. “Principal Gardeners—William McNab,” Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 3, part 15 (March 1908): 303, 306–7, 319.
  2. Thomas Meehan, “Robert Buist,” Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist 22, no. 264, ed. Thomas Meehan (December 1880): 372.
  3. James Boyd, A History of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 1827–1927 (Philadelphia: Printed for the Society, 1929), 36.
  4. Meehan 1880, 372.
  5. “Hibbert & Buist,” Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (September 17, 1831): 4.
  6. For Buist’s visit to Loudon, see William Wynne, “Some Account of the Nursery Gardens and the State of Horticulture in the Neighbourhood of Philadelphia,” Gardener’s Magazine, and Register of Rural & Domestic Improvement 8, no. 30, ed. J. C. (John Claudius) Loudon (June 1832): 273. Buist would be essential in securing Notman’s 1856 commission for the entrance gate of Philadelphia’s Mount Vernon Cemetery, where Buist was treasurer. Constance Greiff, John Notman, Architect: 1810–1865, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 1979), 18, 215.
  7. National Gazette and Literary Register (May 15, 1832): 2.
  8. “Died,” Philadelphia Inquirer (May 13, 1833): 2.
  9. C. M. H. [C. M. (Charles Mason) Hovey], “Notices of Some of the Gardens and Nurseries in the Neighborhood of New York and Philadelphia,” American Gardeners’ Magazine, and Register of Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Horticulture and Rural Affairs 1, no. 6, ed. C. M. (Charles Mason) Hovey (June 1835): 203. Buist’s nursery extended from 12th Street along Cedar, abutting the Hibbert nursery on 13th Street.
  10. “Principal Gardeners” 1908, 303, 307–8.
  11. Descriptions of the nursery layout can be found in the National Gazette and Literary Register (December 19, 1833): 2, and Hovey 1835, 203–6.
  12. [C. M. (Charles Mason) Hovey], “Notes on Some of the Nurseries and Private Gardens in the Neighborhood of New York and Philadelphia, visited in the early part of the month of March, 1837,” Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs 3, no. 6, ed. C. M. (Charles Mason) Hovey (June 1837): 202.
  13. Meehan 1880, 373.
  14. All three books went through numerous editions and reprints: American Flower Directory went through 6 editions and at least 19 reprints between 1832 and 1865; the Rose Manual went through 4 editions between 1844 and 1854; and the Family Kitchen Gardener went through at least 19 reprints between 1847 and 1867.
  15. Jane Menzies’s death is noted in the July 14, 1840, issue of the National Gazette. Her cause of death was “pthisis pulmonalis”; see “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803–1915,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JKS8-DJM : 8 March 2018), Jane Buist, 13 July 1840; Philadelphia City Archives and Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; FHL microfilm 1,976,401.
  16. William Buist’s Washington, DC, nursery was advertised as early as May 1837 and was the subject of a notice in the Magazine of Horticulture in 1842; see the Daily Globe (May 3, 1837): 2, and “Nursery and Flower Garden of Mr. Buist,” Magazine of Horticulture Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs 8, no. 4, ed. C. M. (Charles Mason) Hovey (April 1842): 123–25.
  17. “Marshal’s Sale,” Daily Union (September 22, 1847): 2, and “Deaths,” Daily National Intelligencer (July 6, 1850): 4.
  18. “United States Census, 1850,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M4CD-WP3 : 12 April 2016), Robert Buist, Kingsessing, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States; citing family 93, NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
  19. Quoted in Meehan 1880, 374.
  20. See “United States Census, 1850,” and “United States Census, 1860,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MXRX-SZR : 13 December 2017), Robert Buist, 1860.
  21. Meehan 1880, 373. By September 1861, the proprietor of 922 Market Street—where Buist had eventually relocated his seed warehouse from Chestnut Street—was identified as Robert Buist Jr. See The Press (September 2, 1861): 3.

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