Loading

Cultivating History: Food, Crops, and Art

The plants we use:

Do you know where they come from?

Our plants come from around the globe. The United States today is home to people from many different cultures––from Native Americans to immigrants from all over the world. The plants we use have equally diverse origins. In Virginia, many of the crops that we think of as Virginian––such as tobacco and apples––are not actually native to North America. Nevertheless, these crops have become part of our daily lives and important to our economy. The diversity of our plants reflects our own collective, complex identity. By understanding their stories, we can also trace our own history.

Thomas Jefferys 1719 - 1771 The West-India Atlas London, England, 1775 Engraving 19 ½ x 24

This atlas shows the continents around the Atlantic Ocean––the Americas, Africa, and Europe. You can also see the shipping routes that enabled the exchange of goods and cultures between the New World and Old World.

After Europeans came to the Americas their crops and foods followed along. Some of Virginia’s most important crops came directly from Europe and the Mediterranean region. Others came from as far away as Asia. Europeans also brought North and South American plants, such as maize, tobacco, and pineapple, to the Old World.

Thomas Jefferys created this map to accurately show the connections across the Atlantic. His maps were in high demand because of the increasing interchange between Europe and the Americas.

Left: Basilius Besler 1561 - 1629 Hortus Eystettensis, Ingolstadt, Germany, 1713 Engraving, hand-colored 21 x 16 3/4; Right: Robert John Thornton 1768? - 1837 New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus, London, England, 1807 Stipple engraving, aquatint and mezzotint; printed in color and finished by hand 23 x 17

People have always depended on the natural world. Native Americans were already using the sunflower––one of the few crops native to North America––almost 3,500 years before Columbus set foot in the Americas. The plant was domesticated by native peoples who took advantage of its several uses: sunflower seeds can be eaten raw or roasted, ground into flour, or pressed for oil.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they were attracted to the sunflower for both its beauty and for its uses. In Hortus Eystettensis, the sunflower is presented as a source of beauty. In New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus, details of the flower are shown separately for scientific purposes.

These images reveal the transatlantic exchange made possible by European immigrants who now had access to a crop once found only in North America. By the early 17th century, sunflowers were grown widely across Europe.

What's that plant?

Helianthus annuus

Native to North America

Mostly grown today in Ukraine, Russia, and Argentina

Matthieu Bonafous 1793–1852 Histoire Naturelle, Agricole et Économique du Maïs Paris, France, 1836 Stipple engraving, hand-colored 19 ¾ x 13 ½

Native Americans were as skilled at cultivating crops as they were at hunting, or gathering plants in the wild. Early trade brought maize from what is now Mexico to the attention of North American tribes. Maize replaced the sunflower as a staple of the native diet. Tribes like the Iroquois inter-planted maize with its “sisters,” squash and beans, and found that all three grew better when planted together. For example, the tall stalks of maize gave support to beans that grew as climbers.

What's that plant?

Zea mays

Native to Mexico

Mostly grown today in the United States, China, and Brazil

Cantonese Artist Indian Corn (Zea mays) Canton, China, c. 1805-1810 Watercolor and gouache 17 ⅛ x 14

The maize plant captured in this watercolor was a long way from its native home. The image was produced by an artist in southern China. In the wake of expeditions by Columbus and others, Europeans brought the plant to Spain as early as 1493, from where it was taken all around the world. The Chinese were cultivating maize as early as 1585.

At first Europeans were uncertain about the plant’s usefulness, but maize proved to be useful for both livestock and humans. Maize kernels were easy to store and could last for months, a quality which originally proved useful for Native Americans and later during long sea voyages that were unfortunately associated with the slave trade.

What's that plant?

Zea mays

Native to Mexico

Mostly grown today in the United States, China, and Brazil

Miss Gough An Album of Indian Plants, Fruits, Birds, and Insects Madras, India, 1840-1843 Watercolor and gouache of tobacco plant 22 ½ x 30

As one of the world’s most widely used drugs, tobacco has been eagerly produced and shared by people for millennia. The plant was introduced to Native Americans by trade from the Andes. Native peoples believed tobacco had healing properties and cultivated the plant for medicinal, ceremonial, and recreational uses. In early versions of cigars, both maize leaves and palm leaves were used to wrap tobacco into a smokable form. After explorers brought tobacco across the Atlantic, many in Europe and Asia quickly became addicted. This tobacco plant was drawn in India, far from its original home in the Andes, by the little-known artist Miss Gough.

What's that plant?

Nicotiana tabacum

Native to South American Andes Mountains

Mostly grown today in China, India, and Brazil

J. Pean Tobacco Labels and Wrappers Mülheim am Rhein (Germany), Rotterdam and Amsterdam (Netherlands), c. 1850 Wood engravings, printed in black and blue 5 ¾ x 3 ¾, 3 ¾ x 6, 6 x 3 ¾

These tobacco labels from Germany and the Netherlands were made by the merchant J. Pean. They depict a war scene, a European in “Portorico”, or Puerto Rico, and a pipe-smoking Native American. All three represent the plant’s wide reach and complex cultural history.

Its huge popularity made tobacco vital to the European economy. Early Virginians made growing the “cash crop” a priority. Tobacco production depleted once-rich soils and encouraged farmers to move into land in Native American territories. Such expansions fueled conflicts between settlers and Native Americans.

Tobacco production also required abundant, cheap labor and encouraged the slave trade. Enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to North America as a captive workforce. Tobacco harvested by slaves was part of what made Virginia––and the United States––a powerful economic force. The value of tobacco and other crops encouraged Britain to hold onto its colonies, but also gave Virginia the financial means to help stage the American Revolution.

What's that plant?

Nicotiana tabacum

Native to South American Andes Mountains

Mostly grown today in China, India, and Brazil

The produce aisle at your grocery store is a glimpse into many different environments.

From the tough leaves of the pineapple to the soft fuzz of peaches, our crops come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. They also come originally from many different places and require very different environments in order to grow. The fruits and vegetables in our supermarkets, and that we grow in Virginia, come from all over the world and reflect the complexity of human history.

Thomas Jefferson 1743 - 1826 Notes on the State of Virginia London, England, 1787 Engraved folding map delineated in green, yellow, and red 25 x 24 ⅛

This map from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was written in the early 1780’s while Jefferson was Governor of Virginia. It is one of the earliest visual representations of Virginia’s landscape. The book containing this map answers further questions about the geography, plants, and animals of Jefferson’s home, including environmental conditions and Virginia’s early agricultural practices.

Jefferson’s thorough documentation of Virginia quickly became popular in Europe. The book and accompanying map were printed in London, Paris and elsewhere, sometimes without Jefferson’s permission. The entire work demonstrates the strong urge on both sides of the Atlantic to understand the New World and its natural resources.

Maria Sibylla Merian 1647 - 1717 Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium Amsterdam, Netherlands, [1719] Engraving, hand-colored 20 ¾ x 13 ⅞

Pineapple is one of the fruits we enjoy that originally came from tropical South America, but it did not always have the same look and taste. Wild pineapples from the savannas of Brazil were small and not good for eating. Over thousands of years, native peoples selected varieties with the large fruits and sweetness we know today.

The pineapple in this image came from Suriname, a country in northeastern South America. The artist, Maria Sibylla Merian, travelled to Suriname in 1699––a dangerous expedition at that time for men and women alike. As Merian created her art, she also observed the insects on the plants she was depicting, which added to scientific knowledge about how caterpillars turn into butterflies.

What's that plant?

Ananas comosus

Native to Brazil

Mostly grown today in Costa Rica, Brazil, and the Philippines

Left: John Giles c. 1725 - 1797 Ananas: or, A Treatise on the Pineapple London, England, 1767 Engraving by John Lodge 8 ⅜ x 4 11/16; Right: John Abercrombie 1726 - 1806 The Hot-House Gardener on the General Culture of the Pineapple London, England, 1789 Engraving, printed in red and hand-colored 9 ⅞ x 5 ¾

With its sweet taste, high price, and exotic appearance, the demand for pineapples created an industry and new agricultural practices. Since pineapples had to be shipped from places with tropical climates, gardeners in Europe and North America had to invent new ways to grow the plant, including through an early form of the greenhouse––the hothouse.

On the left, John Giles diagrams the layout of a hothouse, which used stoked fires and windows to maintain enough heat for the plants. On the right, John Abercrombie illustrates the pineapple as part of his instructions for growing the fruit in Europe.

What's that plant?

Ananas comosus

Native to Brazil

Mostly grown today in Costa Rica, Brazil, and the Philippines

Cantonese Artist Pine apple Canton, China, c. 1850 Watercolor and gouache 7 ⅜ x 13 ⅞

In Virginia, the pineapple became a cultural symbol of hospitality. Pineapples were costly because they had to be shipped from the tropics and could easily rot on the journey. Those who could afford to have a pineapple on their table were regarded as some of the best hosts. Representations of the pineapple began appearing on all luxuries of all kinds, from designs on expensive fabrics to architectural flourishes.

The pineapple is still an icon of hospitality in Virginia and we continue to enjoy their unique flavor. The early history of the pineapple in Virginia is mixed, however. Much of the early wealth that purchased these exotic fruits came from the grimly profitable institution of slavery.

What's that plant?

Ananas comosus

Native to Brazil

Mostly grown today in Costa Rica, Brazil, and the Philippines

Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau 1700 - 1782 Traites des Arbres Fruitiers Paris, France, 1768 Etching, hand-colored in watercolor and gouache after drawings by Claude Aubriet, Magdeleine Basseporte, and René Le Berryais, and colored by Jeanne Françoise Parrocel 13 x 9 ⅝

The peach is another fruit with its native home far away, and when Europeans brought the peach from China, they had to work hard to grow it. Like the pineapple, peach trees in northwestern Europe were grown in hothouses. In North America, however, the similar climate to its native China made peaches easy to grow. Virginia farmers found that peaches thrived on their farms and peach orchards soon became common in the colonies. Peaches were used to make cider, wine, juice, and were also eaten as a dessert fruit. Peaches became so common that they were even fed to hogs.

What's that plant?

Prunus persica

Native to Northwestern China

Mostly grown today in China, Italy, and Spain

Left: Isaac Pim Trimble 1804 - 1890 A Treatise on the Insect Enemies of Fruit and Fruit Trees New York, United States, 1865 Lithograph, hand-colored 11 ½ x 9 ¾; Right: Hugh Ronalds 1759 - 1833 Pyrus Malus Brentfordiansis: Or, A Concise Description of Selected Apples London, England, 1831 Lithograph, hand-colored Illustrated by Elizabeth Ronalds 12 ½ x 9 ¾

The apple is a fruit of the American melting pot. Thought to be essentially American, it is actually an “immigrant” from the fruit forests of Central Asia. By the time that European colonies were created, the crop was already popular in Europe. Apples were one of the first Old World plants to come to the New World.

Apples grew well in the soils of Virginia, but overproduction can drain the land. Plant diseases and pests also interrupt cultivation. In A Treatise on the Insect Enemies of Fruit and Fruit Trees, Isaac Pim Trimble describes the fruit’s pests and some strategies to combat them. Protecting orchard yields was important to maintaining the apple’s role in the economy.

Hugh Ronalds describes some 300 varieties in his volume on selected apples. Most of the fruits in the book are now extinct, but the Newtown Pippin, or Albemarle Pippin, are still grown. Albemarle was one of four varieties produced by Thomas Jefferson at his Virginia home, Monticello, and is still grown there today.

What's that plant?

Malus

Native to Central Asia

Mostly grown today in China, the United States, and Turkey

The Oak Spring Garden Foundation

This exhibit was created by the Oak Spring Garden Foundation (OSGF) using artwork housed in the Oak Spring Garden Library. The mission of OSGF is to support and inspire fresh thinking and bold action on the history and future of plants, including the art and culture of plants, gardens and landscapes. Learn more at www.OSGF.org.

Credits:

All images are the property of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation. All text was provided by staff, interns, and volunteers of Oak Spring Garden LLC, who also curated the exhibit.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.