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A Paradise of Roses: Flowers at Montpelier

The choicest fruits, especially pears, were raised in abundance, figs bore their two crops every summer, which Mr. Madison liked to gather himself, arbors of grapes, over which he exercised the same authority. It was a paradise of roses and other flowers, to say nothing of the strawberries, and vegetables; every rare plant and fruit was sent to him by his admiring friends, who knew his taste, and carefully studied and reared by the gardener and his black aids.
Memoir by Dolley’s niece Mary Cutts1

James and Dolley Madison’s terraced garden, laid out by the French gardener Charles Bizet, incorporated fruits and vegetables, as well as ornamental flowers. As described by Dolley’s niece Mary Cutts, the garden not only produced pears, figs, grapes, and strawberries, but was “a paradise of roses and other flowers.” In this post we’ll look for references to some of the “other” flowers that grew at Montpelier – in Madison’s father’s gardens, in the terraced garden, and at other locations on the property. (For the fruits and vegetables grown here, see Montpelier’s Edible Alphabet).


The Weather Journals

Most of what we know about the gardens in James Madison Sr.’s time comes from side comments in the weather journals kept by the Madison family between 1784 and 1801. (There are no complete farm or garden journals for Montpelier; see Where Have All the Papers Gone?) It was James Madison Jr.’s idea to log daily weather conditions at Montpelier (prompted by a suggestion from Thomas Jefferson). Although Madison Jr. made entries when he was home, it was James Madison Sr., assisted by other family members, who kept the weather journals going for a decade and a half.

The purpose of keeping weather journals was to build a record of daily weather data: temperature, wind direction, precipitation, and other weather conditions, which were logged in the morning and the afternoon. Garden observations sporadically appear in a column of miscellaneous notes. These were recorded as markers of the changing seasons – blossoming trees, migrating birds, and the progress of fruits, flowers, and vegetables – and were not entered consistently.

Iris bloomed at Montpelier between late February and mid-March according to the Madison weather journals of 1789, 1790, and 1791. Kendall Madigan photo, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.

Flowers, in fact, were mentioned only in the years 1784-1786, and 1788-1791. James Madison Jr. included flowers in the entries he penned in the springs of 1784, 1785, and 1786. In the 1790s, most of the flower-related entries appear to be in a different handwriting than the observations on the weather and edible garden produce. Perhaps the flower observations were written in by a family member who had greater interest in that aspect of gardening (a woman?), while another family member was the primary recorder in the weather journal at that point. None of the weather journal entries give any clues to the location of the flowers. Possibly they were in the various garden patches located to the north and east of the main house during James Madison Sr.’s time.2

The Madison weather journal reported “Snowdrop in blossom” on May 11, 1785. Beth Bass photo, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.

Spring bulbs such as hyacinths (blue and white), tulips (red, yellow, and white), iris, snowdrops, and daffodils were noted when they blossomed. Although the terms daffodil, jonquil, and narcissus are somewhat interchangeable, all three terms appear in the weather journal. This suggests that the Madisons were distinguishing among different sizes or varieties of the flower. “Jonquil” is often used for daffodils that have clusters of blooms on each stem, while “Narcissus” is typically applied to small white daffodils such as paperwhites. (The weather journal entry of May 5, 1789, for example, noted “White Narsissars Bloom’d.”)3

Other perennials mentioned in the weather journal included peonies (“Pionys”), primroses, hollyhocks, and lilies. Two members of the genus Dianthus are represented: Sweet Williams and pinks. Pinks are named for their jagged, “pinked” edge and are not necessarily pink in color; “a red & white double pink full blown” was noted on June 11, 1785. “Purple in the Shade” and “Twelve O’clock Bells” bloomed in May 1784. These were probably common names for flowers based on their characteristics; “Twelve O’clock Bells” may have had blossoms that opened midday. Based on its late spring blooming time, it is probably a different flower than the “Bell flower” that bloomed along with jonquils in March 1790. Damask roses were noted as blooming in 1785 and 1789; white roses also bloomed in 1789.4

According to the Madison weather journal, “Pionys” (peonies) were in bloom at Montpelier on May 10, 1785, along with primroses and monthly honeysuckle. Peggy Harrison photo, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.

A List of Flowers

Another source of information is a list of flowering plants that James Madison Sr. jotted down in March 1791 on the back of a list of seeds that he ordered from Philadelphia seedsman George Morris. Most of the seeds were vegetables, but one item was “a Packet Flower seeds.” The flowers listed by Madison Sr. may have been the seeds included in the packet (assuming that the “packet” contained several different envelopes filled with seeds). It could also have been a wish list of additional seeds that Madison Sr. wanted to acquire:

Spanish [Thistle]
Sensitive Plant
Princes Feathers
10 Week-stock
China Pink
Love lies Bleeding Amaranthus
Brumton Stock5

Many of the plants on the list are described in The American Gardener’s Calendar, written in 1806 by another Philadelphia seedsman, Bernard McMahon.6 Spanish thistle could be Centaurea iberica, the Iberian starthistle. The “sensitive plant” (Mimosa pudica) has leaves that collapse when touched, as described by McMahon: “The sensibility of this plant is worthy of admiration, that not only in the evening, or towards night, but at all hours of the day, with the least touch, or concussion of air, the leaves just like a tree a dying, droop and complicate themselves immediately, and presently after recover, resuming their former position; so that a person would be induced to think they were really endowed with the sense of feeling.” (Look here for a video of a sensitive plant’s “sensibility.”)

McMahon recommended both mignonette and ten-week stock for flower gardens: “The ten-week stock is a beautiful annual; none makes a more agreeable appearance in pots, and in the borders, &c. and it continues a long time in blow [bloom]. The mignonette impart a sweet and agreeable odour, for which purpose it is extremely worthy of cultivation.” Both Prince’s Feather (Amaranthus hypocondriacus) and Love-lies bleeding (Amaranthus cauautus) appear in The American Gardener’s Calendar. Since Tricolor appears just after Princes Feathers on Madison Sr.’s list, it may refer to another member of the Amaranthus genus, Amaranthus tricolor. McMahon lists the China Pink (Dianthus chinensis), but not the Brumton (Brompton) Stock. Related to ten-week stock, Brompton stock is a fragrant variety of stock, named for London’s Brompton Park Nursery, where it was identified in the eighteenth century.)


James and Dolley’s Garden

We have now, beautiful weather, & our garden and grove begin to charm me with musick & flowers.

Dolley Madison, 18317

There are surprisingly few mentions of specific flowers in the terraced gardens designed for James and Dolley Madison by Bizet. Niece Mary Cutts mentioned only the roses and “other” flowers.8 A visitor account published in The Family Magazine in 1837 described the gardens in general terms, having “a great number of native plants and exoticks.”9 Dolley was no more specific when she told her friend Eliza Collins Lee about “my gardener busily planting in his ground all sorts of bulbes for my taste” in an 1840 letter.10 (For more on enslaved gardeners at Montpelier, see Putting People in the Picture. ) We do learn that Dolley had wildflowers transplanted to the garden; when thanking a friend for a gift of floral lithographs in 1844, she commented, “The flowers are familiar to me, having many of the species among our Mountains from whence I have several times transplanted them to my garden—”11

Montpelier’s terraced garden was “a paradise of roses and other flowers,” according to the Madisons’ niece Mary Cutts. Vivian Eicke photo, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.

Two plants mentioned in Madison correspondence were possibly grown at Montpelier. In 1823, Mary Randolph wrote to Dolley regarding seed for immortal flower (Gnaphalium orientale, called “immortal” or “everlasting” because its dried flowers could last for years).12 Mary complained, “The Lady who gave you the immortal flower seed put only the flower in the paper with out seed, I did not examine it until I got home—” It is not clear whether Dolley was simply the go-between, passing the paper of immortal flowers from “the Lady” to Mary, or whether she also obtained seed for herself and was raising immortal flowers in the Montpelier garden.13

Another flower possibly grown at Montpelier is Lupinus mutabilis, a lupin in colors varying from white to purple. William Maury, in September 1831, offered to “send to Mrs M some flower seeds this autumn, & if I can save it, some of the Lupinus Mutabilis, the most beautiful of that tribe of plants which has ever been seen & possessing a perfume as strong & fragrant as the Orange Flower; it also continues in Flower from June until the Frost.” We don’t know whether Dolley actually received or planted these seeds.14

Had you an april shower just now? We had & … many of our flowers are in bloom – and the green grass – looks like a velvet carpet at a little distance.”

Dolley’s niece Annie Payne Causten, 183615


The garden was not the only place to find flowers at Montpelier. Flowers grew wild, or had naturalized, across lawns and meadows. James Madison described the changing plant population at Montpelier to his visitor John Finch in spring 1824. “The Ex-President observed, that the common wild-flowers had certain periods during which they flourished, and then a new race appeared; formerly his plantation had been covered with the blue centaurea; the fields were now ornamented with the verbascum thapsis, or mullein.” Centaurea is a genus that encompasses hundreds of thistle-like plants. The “Spanish Thistle” listed by James Madison Sr. on his 1791 seed order, likely Centaurea iberica or Iberian star thistle, may have been the source of the flowers the former President recalled as having once grown freely.16

Mary Cutts mentioned wildflowers and invasive plants growing in the meadows and on the lawn. She had a sentimentalized recollection of enslaved children following Dolley Madison on her morning rounds, until she dismissed them by sending them on an errand: “in summer it was to gather her the beautiful wild flowers which adorned the vallies and meadows.” Mary Cutts also described tiger lilies sent as a gift by General Lafayette, which quickly invaded an area beyond the ha-ha at the back of the rear lawn, near James Madison’s prized “twin” tulip trees. The two trees “were still standing in fields, rendered useless by a present of the seed of the Tiger lilly; they were sent from France by Genl de la Fayette, with other esteemed flowers, and spread so rapidly that Mr. Madison found it impossible to uproot them — among the ‘other esteemed flowers’ was the common thistle which grows too luxuriously by our road sides, it was marked, very rare, and raised with care until it proved so unpopular a flower!”17 (Thistles again!)

During the exceptionally mild January of 1819, Dolley Madison wrote “for the last ten days, the weather has been, that of May … we have had three dishes of Asparagus & our Lalacks [lilacs] are in bud!”18 Jay Hirsh photo, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.

Roses and Jessamine

Close to the house were some of Montpelier’s most fondly remembered flowers: jessamine and roses. Anne Mercer Slaughter, who visited in 1825, recalled their scent wafting through the drawing room: “Into this lovely apartment came the sweet odours of the jessamine and roses, which twined around the pillars of the rear porch, and gave an air of indescribable charm to the whole scene, like a bit of fairyland in this prosaic world.”19 Visitor Lydia Sigourney composed a poem about Montpelier, including praise for

The curtaining jessamine, that showers,
Rich fragrance o’er the nightly bowers

When Sigourney published this poem in her volume Scenes in My Native Land, she added a few remarks about Montpelier, noting that “the jessamine climbed up to the sleeping apartments, diffusing its rich perfume, and the Multiflora on every side cheered the eye with its countless clusters.”20 She was probably identifying the climbing roses as Rosa multiflora, a rambling rose shrub that appeared on Thomas Jefferson’s plant list in 1819.21

Mary Cutts also noted, “The pillars of this South portico were twined with ever blooming roses and white Jessamine, which reached up to the terraces … Mrs. Madison brought the sweet briar also near; these were the only flowers allowed to approach the house, except green house plants.”22 Sweetbriar is another rambling rose (Rosa eglanteria or Rosa rubiginosa) and appeared on Jefferson’s plant list in 1771. 23

One of the plants near the house was “a superb Cape Jessamine.” Mary Cutts recalled Dolley’s habit of naming each bud for her husband, her son, her sisters, and other friends and guests: “each morning nay, more frequently, she would examine them, and it was almost distressing, should a favored one die without maturing!”24 In 1831 Dolley asked Mary Cutts to pass along several Cape Jessamine leaves to her friend Nicholas Trist, referring to the blossom as “his dear lady who is now blooming, when all her contemporaries have changed color and are passing away! emblematic of her good heart and disposition, whose fragrance will last until the end!” Dolley specified the names she had given to the blossoms associated with each leaf, including one for Trist’s wife Virginia. Clearly Dolley had an emotional attachment to the plant, and assumed that a friend like Nicholas Trist would enjoy knowing that a flower named for his wife was in bloom at Montpelier.25

The name “jessamine” applies to several varieties of flowering vines and shrubs, including gardenia. Because the jessamine at Montpelier bore white flowers and was a climbing vine, it was most likely Poet’s Jasmine (Jasminum officinale), a plant also cultivated at Monticello, where Jefferson called it “Star Jasmine.”26

A friend remembered the daisy as Dolley Madison’s favorite flower. Kendall Madigan photo, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation.

Dolley Madison’s sentimental attachment to her jessamine plant has led to an assumption that this was her favorite flower. However, an old friend of Dolley suggested otherwise. Writing Dolley in 1846, this friend mentioned that her own great-granddaughter was called Daisy, “and I love her the better as that used to be your favorite flower.”27 Perhaps the daisy was still Dolley’s favorite among flowers generally, or perhaps it had been her favorite until she encountered the jessamine plant.

No matter which flower was Dolley’s particular favorite, the Madisons and their guests could find beauty in the variety of blossoms throughout Montpelier’s gardens and grounds. From the spring flower bulbs that enslaved gardeners planted in the terraced garden, to the flowering vines twining along the back portico, to the thistles and tiger lilies running rampant through the lawn, most visitors could agree that Montpelier was truly a “paradise of roses and other flowers.”