Most people know the founding fathers for their contributions to American independence, but only a few appreciate the things these historic figures did in their spare time. In fact, a lot of them were avid gardeners. Commander-in-chiefs like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson kept their own gardens to supply their kitchens with beautiful cut flower and bountiful harvests. Luckily, a lot of colonial crops can still be grown by us modern-day agriculture enthusiasts. Try planting some in your own yard!
Thomas Jefferson’s interest in and study of gardening has been well-documented by Revolutionary era historians — even to the point where they can determine the particular varieties he grew. The globe artichoke was one of the first vegetables Jefferson grew at his Monticello plantation back in 1770. Globe artichokes are also called "French" artichokes and tend to thrive in humid, subtropical areas. If you plan on seeding them in milder regions, you might find these tasty flowers to be pretty stubborn! Jefferson certainly did, as he had some trouble growing them in his estate's peculiar climate.
Though it's since become a controversial crop, tobacco used to be colonial farmers' main source of income. The plant was commonly grown for personal and trade purposes, and its economic impact was always heavily felt in the American South. To this day, tobacco can still be grown legally. Plus, there are tons of heirloom tobacco varieties out there — perfect for the history buffs among us.
Connecticut Field Pumpkin
Most contemporary gardens are still heavily influenced by Native American culture, mainly because they incorporate a lot of the varieties that the native people first gave to New England settlers in the 1600s. One such crop is the Connecticut Field pumpkin, which is famous for its lengthy lineage. These pumpkins are often heavier than 20 pounds, and while early Americans may have grown them for animal feed and pantry stock, Connecticut Fields also make for some great pies.
Mount Vernon, George Washington's famous home, received its first Carolina allspice shrubs as a gift from a South Carolina colonel. Washington planted them on the east side of his garden, and he would later receive more shipments of the crop from Thomas Jefferson. Carolina allspice is best known for the delicate, sweet scent it emits into the Southern air each and every spring.
Peas are characteristically fond of cold weather, and a lot of the coastal colonies have the perfect climate for growing several varieties of them at the same time. Today, capucijner peas, an heirloom breed that came to America in the late 1600s thanks to a group of Dutch Capuchin monks, are still grown at Mount Vernon. Their history there dates all the way back to the mid-1780s!
While parsley is known often used as a simple dish garnish, it served a medicinal purpose in the Revolutionary era. In fact, most 18th century Americans considered parsley to be a health tonic. The plant's roots were typically boiled and used to treat liver and digestive issues. In the kitchen, cooks added parsley to wild meats to mask their gamey flavor. Some historians even claim that its vibrant coloring was used to make dyes.
In reality, the colonists used catnip as a medicinal plant for themselves more than they ever did for their feline friends. Catnip is not native to North America, but biologists have dated its spread back to the late 1600s. By the mid-1700s, the plant had already found its way to the southern colonies. Catnip is still very easy to come by, and it features abundantly in a lot of modern-day gardens.
Bee balm had already made a name for itself among early settlers and colonists long before the start of the Revolution. They mainly used it to attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and pollinators to their gardens, but they also kept it in the kitchen as a cooking spice. This North American native plant became so popular at one point, it began to ship overseas to England, where it also became a garden staple.
You can still buy four o'clock seed packets at most nurseries and garden centers, though if there isn't a buzz around these flowering plants, it’s only because they've already been in America for over 200 years! Thomas Jefferson was just one of the many 18th-century Americans that planted these beauties in their gardens.
Though they're most likely native to West Africa, black-eyed peas and cowpeas are thought to have arrived in North America by around 1776. While farmers didn’t have much luck growing black-eyed peas in cooler areas like the upper Northeast, they became exceptionally popular in the colonies' warmer regions just after the war. In the early 1900s, scientist George Washington Carver would go on to explore the nutritional value of black-eyed peas and other legumes. Carver even discovered that beans could be used to add nitrogen back into previously-worked soil.
Feeling patriotic? Consider picking some of these varieties up at the store and incorporating them into your garden this year. Better yet, why not plan ahead to have your yard looking ultra-American for next year's Fourth of July?