Thomas Jefferson: The Not-So-Hidden Botanist

By Heather E. Walton, VCE Program Assistant

Thomas Jefferson Garden

Oval bed west lawn

Since its restoration in 1923, Monticello has opened its hospitable doors to over half a million guests per year. Regardless of their initial reason for visiting, there has never been a single guest that has not loved the gardens. Jefferson, coming late to the horticulture community during his 15 years of retirement, sought out the best varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables to fuel his plantation. The fragrant and rainbow-colored winding walk and the large vegetable garden on the southern slope are hard to miss, and even harder not to explore.

But, what many visitors may not be aware of is the amount of research the historians, curators and gardeners have conducted to ensure the historical authenticity of the grounds.

Love Lies Bleeding

Love Lies Bleeding

Most of the flowers in the winding walk are ones that Thomas Jefferson grew when he owned the property. How do we know this? Jefferson was a meticulous note taker in his garden, and most of the flowering plants that we know he grew were listed in note entries where he stated what was in bloom, and when and where it was planted. These include most of his tulips, (which now the garden grows over 8,000 in dozens of varieties every spring), and Balsam Apple (Momordica balsamina). For what wasn’t recorded, curators used historical context.