Magazine — 11.08.21
Gardens, In Americana
In American history, the concept of a botanical garden is intertwined with the infancy of the newborn republic. Victoria Johnson released a book in 2019, one called American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic, that would become a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In it, she describes the life of David Hosack, witness to Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s final duel, and the man who sought out to make America the land of botanical gardens.
I was nineteen years old when I began this book, waiting on an uncomfortable bench in Washington Square Park for a second date. The first botanical garden in American history was born on the land I was sitting upon. Hosack, the subject of the book, established the Elgin Botanical Garden in 1801 in Midtown Manhattan, exactly in the spot that is now Rockefeller Center. The country’s first botanical garden is now buried under cement and skyscrapers—fitting, I assume, considering how the world has changed.
Established in 1921, Longwood Gardens opened to the general public under the guidance of a member of the du Pont family, who had found their fortune in a weapon of destruction: gunpowder. The Lenape tribe had lived on this land for thousands of years, but the only nod to this was a plaque I stumbled upon in between the vast hiking trails of the meadow and birdhouse. It called out a woman called “Indian Hannah”, and I found myself wondering what her real name was. She was the last of the native Lenape tribe who had lived on these lands; she passed away in 1802. While there are many Lenape descendants still alive today, scattered throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, this area now is 1,077 acres of carefully cut shrubs, methodical fountains, gardens, and tourists.
Longwood is one of the biggest botanical gardens in the United States and is funded by their admissions charge, as their endowment ran out in the 1970s. Once, in our distant history, plants were only collected in this manner for medicinal and scientific purposes. In this contemporary era their focus has shifted to spectacle, entertainment for the masses, also accompanied by an educational component.
I grew up in a family of gardeners. Each year, my mother devotedly spent hundreds of dollars on flowers and vegetables, ones that could grow in Maryland summers: humid, dry, the occasional thunderstorm. I didn’t fall into the family legacy until the summer after I moved back from New York City, where I had begun to feel like I was suffocating and creatively burning out. My mother, clucking her tongue, dug me up two big squares in the garden. And then, I too, began to become preoccupied, tending to my herbs, strawberries, and peppers each day.
Visiting gardens on every vacation and seeking out every botanical garden in the country was a normal routine for us. And so, when my sister’s birthday passed and it was Mother’s Day, it seemed only natural we made the hour-long drive to Longwood Gardens. The wisterias were in bloom, and it wasn’t too hot of a day. We arrived at 10 am, in time to sweep the conservatory.
My sister’s favorite part of gardens was always the conservatory. Deep down, I too, had a soft spot for conservatories ever since visiting the botanical garden in Washington D.C., which has a lovely indoor section. Longwood Gardens, however, takes it to the next level. Wherever we gazed, plants and flowers familiar and old stretched throughout the greenhouse. As we wandered, my father would point at plants lining the walkways, saying to us, “We grew that plant back in Iran, where I grew up.” He said he was reminded of his childhood, the carefree one where there was a persimmon tree in the backyard, and our relatives owned the local orchards.
Studies have shown that gardening can help your mental health and decrease depression, as well as being in spaces that are abundant in nature and vegetation. Perhaps, when moving back from New York City after years of poor mental health there, it was the beauty of nature back home, of visiting the local botanical gardens and starting my own, that allowed my happiness to slowly bud and grow with my plants. For my father who is always searching for home, leading him to grow a persimmon tree in our backyard, as he found pieces of it on the sides of the conservatory, memories gathering with the dewdrops on petals.
Hosack was on to something in the way he methodically worshipped the land, horticulture, and the concept of public gardens. He abandoned his garden in 1810, lacking sufficient funds, and gave it to Columbia. Columbia did not want it. By 1879, it was turned into a residential area, and, in 1985, the university sold the land for $400 million USD. Hosack would be forgotten in American history, reduced to a stock character present during the final moments of Alexander Hamilton.
In the Lenape tradition, to balance the ratio of good and bad spirits on the earth, one must leave bundles of flowers and dried leaves in the resting place of the spirit to appease it. They considered themselves to be products of nature and that one must reside in coexistence with the earth during their lifetime.
Perhaps, in the end, it’s fitting that lands that historically belong to natives become gardens rather than industrial jungles. That these flowers and foliage, although quite unintentionally, are a peace offering to the spirits of the Lenape tribe. That despite the tragedy of what happened to their land and tribe, which can never be excused, it has become a force of good that embodies the spirit of their beliefs. Longwood offers extensive educational opportunities, ones often free, to learn to live with the land and teach the next generation to preserve and protect what we have left. It escaped the fate of its distant ancestor, the Elgin Botanical Garden, now buried under New York City.
My family and I left Longwood Gardens hungry and ventured to a nearby Italian restaurant. I returned home, gardens constantly on my mind. I wanted to write a poem, but couldn’t find the right words for such a beautiful and complex history. Perhaps that, too, will come with time. For now, I find myself more appreciative of the land we occupy and the ancestry in nature.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a writer and artist based in Baltimore and New York City. Her work often deals with intergenerational trauma, utilizing cinema from a cultural, sociological, and socioeconomic lens, and the impacts of urbanism and loneliness. An undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying International Trade, she hopes to advocate for sustainable and ethical practices in the global marketplace.
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