Friday, October 8, 2010

There is no such thing as a too common plant...

Glowing white snowberries in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
While diving into the history of gardens and gardening here in Pacific Northwest, I constantly bump into old plant friends from the other side of the Atlantic. Little did I know how many of them originate from this area, and how already two centuries ago their seeds were exported by adventurous plant hunters to Europe and sold for high prices for the stateliest of gardens there. It is interesting to read how Mahonias, for example, were imported from nurseries in the eastern parts of the US until local nurseries started growing them here - all at the same time as they were happily carpeting the floors of the lush, evergreen forests of the area. And how they, together with another Pacific Northwest native, the flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, were favorite messengers of spring in the English gardens of the Victorian era, long before the permanent Euro-American settlement took roots in the areas they came from.
Some of the Northwest natives have become so common in the gardens of Europe, that we seldom think where they came from. A good example is snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus, a humble and hardy member of the honeysuckle family that arrived to Swedish gardens during the second part of 19th century and became one of the trendiest garden plants from 1930s to 50s. Today, it is considered almost a weed despite its actually quite distinguished history.
The snowberry was discovered in the Pacific Northwest by early American explorers Meriwether Louis and William Clark, who were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to find a river route from the eastern US to the Pacific Ocean. During their expedition in 1804-05, they collected seeds of hundreds of plants. Many of them were given to President Jefferson, who gave them to his nurseryman friend Bernard McMahon (after whom the Mahonia was later named). In 1812, McMahon presented Jefferson with several young snowberry plants. They were planted at Jefferson's home Monticello that became the first garden to grow them in America. Snowberries were famed for their slender stems and unusually white berries, and they became an instant success after being exported to England in 1817. From there, they rapidly spread to the finest gardens of continental Europe and Scandinavia.
In my garden in Sweden, there is a difficult spot where the garden makes transition into the surrounding parkland; a small slope, set against a group of young fir trees. Many times I have thought of planting there a clump of snowberries, being fond of the idea of the glowing white berries against the dark branches of the firs, but every time, I've written off them as far too boring and common. But as usual, the more you know about something, the more interesting it gets... and now I think that snowberries are exactly what I should grow in that spot. They will suit my 1930s house perfectly, and with their befitting origin and background, they'll be a wonderful reminder of these years in the Pacific Northwest.


Ruben said...

Tack för denna historia. Väldigt oväntat att det inte var en inhemsk Europeisk buske. Vi hade en dylik, som med fåglars hjälp hade slagit rot i berberishäcken. Sen ryckte jag upp, men hade jag vetat detta, hade jag tagit hand om den på ett bättre sätt! Att Jefferson var trädgårdsintresserad har alltid låtit så sympatiskt.
Ha det gott!
PS Fröerna är postade.

Garden Lily said...

I love the snowberry too, and keep a few in my garden which were growing "wild" on our property before it was developed. Although they have a tendency to form a thicket, not a single bush!