Mid-Atlantic: Digging History

 Hayes. Virginia. USDA Zone 7

Pieces of the puzzle of renowned colonial botanist John Clayton’s life have been turning up in the soil where his home once stood. Robert and Lisa Harper, who directed an ambitious dig at Clayton’s old tidewater Virginia homestead, are filling holes in Clayton’s story that have stumped historians for more than 200 years.

Clayton (1694–1773) was Gloucester County’s Clerk of Court for 53 years. He also owned a 450-acre tobacco plantation on the Piankatank River, but his official duties and private obligations never seem to have kept him from his botanical pursuits. He collected plants at least as far as the Blue Ridge. He exchanged seeds, cuttings, and observations with some of the leading naturalists of his day—John Bartram, Mark Catesby, Peter Collinson, and Linnaeus himself.

He sent hundreds of dried plant specimens to Holland, to the natural historian Gronovius, who published Clayton’s formal descriptions of plants under the title “Flora Virginica” in 1739. Between the inky lines of Latin, it is possible to glimpse the wild landscapes and gardens of yesterday and today: Clayton was perhaps the first to collect Halesio, Hamamelis, Chionanthus, and the sparkling spring beauty that Linnaeus named Claytonia virginica.

When Clayton died, his garden is thought to have disappeared rather quickly, and his personal papers and correspondence were lost. The home is long gone. Until the Harpers received permission to dig in 2002, historians couldn’t be certain that the homesite known as Windsor really was where Clayton lived.

Among the 350,000 artifacts recovered in the course of the three-year dig, the Harpers and their team of volunteers found a silver cuff link engraved with Clayton’s initials and a monogrammed spoon handle. “We are satisfied, with what we have now,” Harper says, “that we can put the shadow of doubt to death about whether this was John Clayton’s home.”

The Harpers know where Clayton’s formal garden was. They found garden paths of oyster shells, the remains of old cedar posts, and the actual holes in which they think Clayton planted some of his prize shrubs. Clayton nurtured wild-collected specimen plants grown from seeds sent to him by Bartram in Philadelphia and Collinson in England. His garden was described by Bartram in 1739 as one of the “best furnished with variety of plants” of any he had seen on his travels.

So much of a gardener’s work is ephemeral. Flowers bloom and die. Garden notebooks disappear. The trees we plant for our grandchildren are cut down to make room for what passes for progress. Clayton’s pressed plants, faded and fragile, are preserved in the Natural History Museum in London, England. (Visit www.nhm.ac.uk and search for John Clayton Herbarium.) Many are embellished with a gay ribbon, drawn with a fine nib around the dry old stems. Now we have his cuff link, too, shiny and tangible, and fragments of flowerpots, broken bell jars, the rusty heads of eighteenth-century hoes, teacup handles, and bottle seals—bits and pieces, to be sure, but from all these clues and traces, a moody picture of John Clayton’s remarkable old garden begins to emerge.

TO DO IN THE GARDEN: Autumn

As soon as the weather turns cooler, it’s time to plant a fall vegetable garden. A nine-pack of ‘Packman’ broccoli plants does not demand much space. You can grow a small crop of kale, spinach, and salad greens in rows just three feet long; you’ll have delicious fresh lettuce until Christmas and greens from October (when they’re still small and tender) until spring. If you plant lettuce in August, choose a heat-tolerant mix like Burpee’s Looseleaf Heatwave or Park Seeds’ Summer Glory Blend.

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