Money was a motivator for botanical exploration
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in an October 2003 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.
The economic considerations behind the botanical exploration of the southern mountains have been generally neglected. But money makes the world go round. An almost insatiable desire on the part of Europeans — especially in England — for American plants emerged during the late 18th century. There was even a faddish vogue that involved growing North American species together in areas designated as “American gardens.”
John Fraser (1750-1807), a Scotsman from Inverness-shire, was one of the European plant hunters most closely associated with the Southern Appalachians. His contemporary Andrew Michaux is better known, but Fraser was almost equally adept at discovering and/or introducing scores of Southern Appalachian plants into horticulture.
New publications like the Botanical Magazine featuring hand-colored plates found a ready audience of home gardeners in England who were motivated to acquire American oddities. Accordingly, commercial nurseries were founded that vied with one another for the introduction of choice plants. The point men for the nursery owners were the plant collectors who traveled far and wide in a competitive hunt for new plants.
Fraser acquired an interest in plants at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London and subsequently established his own nursery business. Plans for an initial collecting trip to Newfoundland were encouraged and perhaps financed in part by William Aiton, head gardener of Kew Gardens, and Sir James Smith, president of the Linnean Society.
The plant collector visited the Southern Appalachians, including sites in Western North Carolina, on numerous occasions during the years from 1786 to 1807. He was renowned for his expertise at successfully shipping plants to Europe. It’s been speculated that he may have initiated the practice of utilizing the moisture-holding properties of sphagnum moss as packing material.
His plants were sold far and wide, including a collection that Empress Catherine of Russia purchased in 1796 for her garden in St. Petersburg. This relationship was expanded when Fraser was subsequently named botanical collector for Russia. He died in 1811 as a result of severe injuries resulting from a fall from his horse.
The most famous of the Scottish botanist’s plants today are Fraser magnolia (Magnolia fraseri), Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), and purple rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense). The beautiful Fraser magnolia is the most common of the three deciduous magnolias native to WNC. Fraser fir is an endemic species restricted to the high elevations of southwestern Virginia, east Tennessee, and WNC. As the Christmas tree of choice throughout the southeastern United States, it plays a significant role in WNC's ornamental plant industry.
The honor for first discovering purple rhododendron goes to Michaux. But it was Fraser who first promoted its horticultural use in England. Accompanied by his son, John, he first encountered the plant on Roan Mountain during his last foray in North America in 1807. By 1809 nurserymen and gardeners in England were experimenting with living plants of this wonderful shrub. The long-reaching results of this experimentation are described by Stephen A. Spongberg, horticultural taxonomist with the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts, in A Reunion of Trees: The Discovery of Exotic Plants and Their Introduction into North American and European Landscapes (Harvard University Press, 1990): “Once in the hands of English horticulturists, this hardy Appalachian species provided a genetic matrix that was quickly appreciated by plant breeders, and a raft of garden hybrids … were produced. This group, frequently referred to simply as ‘catawbiense hybrids’ — or ‘iron clads,’ owing to their hardiness — has provided cold-tolerant cultivars with flowers that range in color from creamy white and pink through crimson to deep, bluish purple.”
These cold-tolerant hybrids of our native purple rhododendron returned to America as cultivars that could then be marketed far and wide, including such profitable areas as New England and other northern climes. As previously noted, it’s money that makes the world go around, even when it involved the early plant exploration of the Southern Appalachians.