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Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640–1940

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Denise Wiles Adams, Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640–1940 (Portland: Timber, 2004), 419 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £29.99 (hbk), ISBN 0-88192-619-1

Accurate period garden restoration is probably not at the top of many Americans’ to-do lists. While most American heritage organizations are concerned with the historical accuracy of the landscapes and gardens at the properties they own, the idea of creating a garden consonant with the date of a privately owned house is not yet popularly practised. Not withstanding the This Old House phenomenon in the USA, which jump-started recent regeneration schemes and heightened the profile of historic conservation, treating a landscape historically is still uncommon (even, I might add, on This Old House).

Denise Wiles Adams’s Restoring American Gardens may not signal a change in this trend; however, it is an important contribution in that direction. As the subtitle notes, the largest section of Adams’s book is an encyclopaedia of historic plants. But the book also includes sixty pages of introduction to the subject of historic garden restoration and, importantly, advice on how to go about researching the history of a particular garden that advocates careful notation of what still exists on the ground and in the current plantings. She is careful to remind that there are some regional differences among design practices, but particularly between regional plant choices since climates in the USA vary widely; she deals with such regional differences in a separate section of the introduction. She also offers information about historic gardening styles throughout the country and also how to choose a design appropriate to the period and architecture of a particular house. Although Adams spends very little time on the very earliest US periods, that may be appropriate since fewer of those structures exist than, for example, nineteenth-century houses or 1930s suburban architecture, both of which are prominent in her text.

Adams includes approximately one thousand ornamental plants in the encyclopaedia: trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, tropicals, annuals, bulbs, and a separate section on heirloom roses. Unlike bare lists found in books such as Anne Leighton’s American Gardens books or the Favretti’s Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings (1978), Adams gives a variety of information for each plant she includes. Common names, heirloom varieties, introduction dates, historic descriptions of the plant’s design uses and historic availability are represented for each plant. For some plants she even gives dates of introduction for various cultivars, though that information is not included for many of the plants, nor for all cultivars of a given plant. Particularly helpful is the section on heirloom roses. Many photographs and nineteenth-century illustrations make identifying these roses possible; synonyms are also given for rose cultivars so that one can track the different names one cultivar might have.

The appendices give contemporary as well as historic commercial sources for the plants in the encyclopedia, and lists the plants regionally by period of use. Importantly, there is also a list of invasives and the regional recommendations for handling existing plants which also offers potential alternatives.

Adams’s book is a very useful tool for Americans wanting to create an historically inflected garden at their own property with attention to which plants were actually grown and what their design uses were. No doubt purists for historical accuracy will be put off by Adams’s suggestion that ‘the new owner of an 1840s Greek Revival home in Ohio’s Western Reserve might like to grow a few appropriate plants, combining them in a mixed period design to enhance the architecture’ without a comprehensive design plan. Those interested in perfectly accurate garden restoration will need to augment the information collected here, but Adams’s bibliography and her persuasive use of historical materials are excellent starting points. An important function of Adams’s book is to underscore the possibility of planting historically accurate gardens in the USA. The American understanding of garden restoration undeniably lags behind that in Britain, but Restoring American Gardens shows that the information is accessible should one wish to find it. No doubt, implementing such information will only become easier and more accurate because of work like Adams’s.

Erika Mae Olbricht
Program in Agrarian Studies, Yale University

35:1 (Summer 2007)

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