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Molly Beauchemin

Fourth of July at The Monticello Gardens

Thomas Jefferson wandered amongst the gardens of his home in Charlottesville, Virginia long before writing the Declaration of Independence on July 2nd, 1776– but when our nation’s founding document was approved by Congress two days later, he became the first avid gardener to also birth a nation.

In the early stages of the American Revolution, Jefferson began experimenting with Botany at his gorgeous mountain-top home, the now world-heritage estate known as Monticello, which has become a botanic laboratory of ornamental and useful plants from around the world. Many of the specimens on site are plants that Thomas Jefferson collected himself, in his travels to Europe and elsewhere. Jefferson grew 330 vegetable varieties in his 1000-foot-long garden terrace, as well as 170 varieties of apples, peaches, grapes, and other fruit that continues to grow plentifully in Monticello’s orchards to this day. The Grove at Monticello, which Jefferson also designed, was concieved as an ornamental forest where guests could visit his “pet trees”.

I never before knew the full value of trees. My house is entirely embossomed in high plane-trees, with good grass below; and under them I breakfast, dine, write, read, and receive my company. What would I not give that the trees planted nearest round the house at Monticello were full grown.

According to the archive at Monticello:

Jefferson exploited the ornamental qualities of 160 species of trees. He planted groves of native and exotic trees; “clumps” of ornamentals adjacent to the house; “allĂ©es” of mulberry and honey locust along his road network of Roundabouts; plantations of sugar maple and pecan; and living peach tree fences to border his fields.

While serving as Minister to France between 1784 and 1789 Jefferson proudly distributed seeds of choice North American trees to friends in Europe, continuing a tradition begun with the earliest European explorers in the New World. He has been described as “the father of American forestry” for an 1804 planting of white pine and hemlock. His commitment to tree preservation was strongly suggested by a statement he allegedly made during a dinner conversation at the President’s House: “I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, beautiful trees that are daily falling sacrifice to the cupidity of their owners, or the necessity of the poor. . . .The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries, seems to me a crime little short of murder.” Thomas Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the arboreal world was unrelenting. Two months before his death, at the age of eighty-three, he designed an arboretum for the University of Virginia. Such an epilogue to years of planting at Monticello was perhaps inspired by Jefferson’s own adage: “Too old to plant trees for my own gratification I shall do it for posterity.”

The gardens at Monticello continue to celebrate the cultural legacy of the nation’s first revolutionary gardener with annual apple tasting events, wine festivals, gardening workshops, and the Annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, which takes place this year from September 11-12, 2-15. But this July, the World Heritage Site brings back what is possibly it’s most popular annual tradition: the 4th of July fireworks celebration in which dozens of lucky individuals will be nationalized at the home of the nation’s founder himself– right inside the historic garden.

Governor Terry McAuliffe will speak to new citizens from around the world at the 53rd annual Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello, which is free and open to the public. The biggest draw of the day continues to be the garden in which the ceremony takes place–a gorgeous mountainside villa full of oval flower beds of new and old world plants.

One of Monticello’s prominent beds is planted with twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), which is a rare, woodland wildflower that was named in Jefferson’s honor in 1792 by Benjamin Barton, a noted early American botanist. Visitors can also wander amongst tulips, hyacinths, and anemones that were among the first flowering bulbs planted in 1807– including the “Columbian lily” (Fritillaria pudica), which was collected during the Jefferson-sponsored Lewis and Clark expedition, and the Cardinal Flower, which could have been found along the Rivanna River at the base of Monticello mountain during Jefferson’s time.

Foxglove, sweet pea, poppy, stock, larkspur, and calendula– all Jefferson’s favorites– can also be found on site, in a garden that sits on the slope side of one of several “mini-mountains” in the fertile Shenandoah valley. Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home on July 4th is not just an act of patriotism, but an opportunity to behold American history through a former president’s carefully-cultivated selection of plants (a collection that was gathered at the same time the nation was established) in a beautiful and uniquely-lush part of the country. Monticello is a must-see destination for any nature lover– a treasure trove of horticultural history from the nation’s first beloved gardener.

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