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Montpelier’s Edible Alphabet

In the spirit of the harvest, the Montpelier Research Department presents an Apples-to-Yams guide to the food crops that enslaved laborers grew at Montpelier, mainly for the Madisons and guests to eat, and in some cases for themselves and their own families as well. A wide variety of foods show up in the documentary record. Letters between James Madison and his father often discussed the status of crops. Travelers to Montpelier mentioned fruits and vegetables they saw in the garden or on their dinner plates. A surviving 1791 seed order provides detailed information on vegetable varieties. Additionally, the Madison family kept weather journals from 1784 to 1801, often mentioning fruits and vegetables as signs of the changing seasons. The following list includes at least one mention of every food crop that has been documented at Montpelier so far, with the help of the Montpelier Research Database.

A is for …
Apples, Artichokes, Asparagus

In 1790 James Madison left instructions for enslaved overseer Sawney “To plant about 200 apple Trees either before Christmas or very early in the Spring, in the little field on the top of the Mountain.” Madison suggested two varieties: “limber twigs or Rawle’s Jenniting.”1 The Limbertwigs apple gets its name from the drooping branches of many of its varieties. “Rawle’s Jenniting” was probably the apple called Ralls Janet or Jannetting, grown by an Amherst county, Virginia nurseryman named Caleb Ralls in the 1790s.2 The fact that Madison was aware of this new variety is in keeping with his ongoing interest in agricultural improvement.

Swiss traveler Lukas Vischer noted during his June 1825 visit, “We had a good, neat little dinner at noon, with artichokes and other vegetables.”3

The Madison weather journals typically mentioned asparagus in late March or April.4 No wonder Dolley was astonished in January 1819 when she wrote, “this winter—it has been so mild—& for the last ten days, the weather has been, that of May … we have had three dishes of Asparagus & our Lalacks are in bud!”5

B is for …
Beans, Beets

Beans appeared in 42 entries in the weather journals and were noted in 14 of 17 growing seasons. (Peas were the only vegetable mentioned more frequently.) From 1784 to 1788, windsor beans (a type of fava bean) were the only variety noted. Other varieties were added in 1789, including toker beans and green non-pareil beans (both of which are fava beans); white beans (“from Mount Vernon”), speckled beans, and snap beans (all three of which are kidney beans); and lima beans. From 1792 to 1800, windsor and snap beans were almost the only beans noted in the journals.6 Either the Madisons were cultivating fewer varieties, or they found that tracking one or two beans was enough to supplement the daily weather data.

Beets occasionally appeared in the weather journals starting in 1790. In 1811 Joel Barlow sent Dolley Madison a 14½-pound sugar beet root from France, suggesting that rather than making sugar from it, she could plant it “to eat & feed our sheep & cattle.”7

C is for …
Cabbage, Cauliflower, Carrots, Celery, Cherries, Chestnuts, Corn, Cress, Cucumbers

The weather journals mentioned cabbage in various stages of cultivation in several years including 1788, when enslaved gardeners planted an impressive 517 plants on May 1.8 In 1791 Madison Sr. received a large order of many varieties of seeds from Philadelphia nurseryman George Morris, including Battersea, Green Savoy, and Large Late Cabbage.9

Madison Sr. also ordered cauliflower seeds from Philadelphia in 1791.10 He noted in the weather journal on May 4, 1791, “Sowed Collyflowers by the Bee House.”11

There are several references to planting carrots in the Madison weather journals in the 1790s. On April 28, 1791, enslaved gardeners “Sowed … Orange Carrots & Parsnips in the Back Gardens,” and on April 2, 1792, they “Sowed 6 rows of Orange Carrots S.E. side of Garden.”12 The Back Gardens were probably right behind the main house during James Madison Sr.’s time, in the area where enslaved laborers later created the level lawn after President Madison inherited the plantation.

Madison Sr. obtained one ounce of “Solid Celery” seed as part of the large Philadelphia seed order in 1791.13 The weather journal noted on April 30, 1791, that all the seeds from that order had been planted, “except Lettuce, Cellery, Turnip Cabbage & Savoy.” There were no entries to indicate whether the celery seed was planted later.14 Madison jotted a list including “Solid Cellery” seed in 1792, so his father may have wanted more celery seed by then.15 (The celery we eat today, incidentally, is the solid-stalked variety. Hollow-stalked varieties were also available until the 19th century.)16

Cherries must have been a Madison family favorite, mentioned 23 times in the weather journals as they blossomed, when they were damaged by late frost or snow, and as they reddened, ripened, and were “eatable.”17 In February 1798, when James and Elizabeth Monroe returned from France, James and Dolley Madison sent them a gift of pickles and preserves, including “a bag of dried cherries, which will not be wanted by us till another season will afford a supply.”18 Unfortunately the next season was not good for cherries; in late April 1798 the temperature dropped to 24 degrees overnight, and Madison noted the “Cherries appear to [be] totally destroyed.”19

There’s no record whether anyone roasted chestnuts by an open fire at Montpelier, but Jefferson’s granddaughter Mary Randolph mentioned “listening to the dropping of the chestnuts which every wind brought down in showers from the boughs of the old trees” when she walked through the Montpelier grounds in 1826.20 In 1834, Dolley Madison tried to send her niece “5 gallons of very large chesnuts I put up for you,” but they were shipped to the wrong location, “which I regretted as I picked them from bushels of others to give you the largest.”21

Enslaved field workers raised corn to be used for livestock feed, to be ground into cornmeal, and to be served as a vegetable. The Madisons apparently looked forward to the first corn of the season, making notations in the weather journals such as “Young Corn first at Table” on July 23, 1800.22

Garden cress, also called peppergrass, was one of the four main culinary cresses, along with water cress, winter cress, and Indian cress. It was typically used as a salad green in winter and spring.23 Four ounces of “Garden Cress seed” was included in the 1791 seed order from Philadelphia.24 One of the Madisons noted in the weather journal on April 28, 1791, “Sowed Cresses & Parsley by the Alley to the Lumber House.”25 A lumber house was a general storage building; its location at Montpelier is uncertain.

Cucumbers were mentioned in 12 of the 17 growing seasons covered in the Madison weather journals, including an April 1791 entry when enslaved gardeners “Planted cucumbers on the hot Beds.”26 Hotbeds used compost or manure that generated heat as it decomposed, and were a holdover from English gardening practices.27

D is for …
Didn’t find any

These may not start with D, but they do look tasty, don’t they? W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Abridged Catalogue of Burpee’s Novelties and Specialties in Seeds (1890), Philadelphia, PA, Smithsonian Institution Libraries Catalog Number 09537.

E is for …

The only reference to eggplant at Montpelier was in 1827, when James Madison acknowledged a gift of “seed of the Egg plant.” James extended his wife’s thanks for the seeds, implying that Dolley supervised the enslaved workers who cultivated the vegetable garden.28 Eggplant was still fairly novel in Virginia in the early nineteenth century. Mary Randolph included two eggplant recipes in her 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife.29

F is for …

Figs were another prized treat from Montpelier’s gardens. “I will take care of my best prunes and figs for you,” Dolley Madison promised her aunt Lucy Coles Winston ca. 1807.30 As Dolley’s niece Mary Cutts described the garden, “figs bore their two crops every summer, which Mr. Madison liked to gather himself.”31

G is for …
Gooseberries, Grapes, Gourds

The weather journal made only one mention of gooseberries; the gooseberry bushes were “in blossom” on April 23, 1785.32 Gooseberries apparently continued to grow at Montpelier, since the Madisons included “half a dozen bottles of Gooseberries” among the preserved foods they sent to the Monroes in February 1798.33

Grapes appear once in the Madison weather journals, in 1792: “Planted wild Grapes in Garden.”34 James and Dolley Madison also received imported grapevines from Madeira in 1808 and Algiers in 1810.35 Swiss visitor Lukas Vischer noted in 1825 that James Madison “showed us around his garden, which was full of beautiful grapevines, but he lamented that the grapes usually withered before ripening, and said that even such a man as Gnl. Washington had tried in vain to introduce viticulture in Virginia.”36

The weather journals indicated that “Gourd Seed” was sown in March 1792, and “long neck Gourd seed” in March 1800. These were probably the type of gourds in the same family with pumpkins and squash. Gourds could be used to make dippers and other utensils.37

H is for …

Lavender was the most frequently-mentioned herb in the weather journals, noted in 1787, 1789, and 1790. “Tansy, Sorrel, Lavender, & Hysop” were sown at the same time on March 14, 1787. The herbs were apparently not in a separate herb garden; in 1789 the weather journal noted that rows of two different varieties of peas were sown “next to the Lavender.”38

I J K is for …
I Just don’t Know any

I don’t know of any I’s, J’s, or K’s in this group, but they’re lovely nonetheless. Storrs & Harrison, Co., Spring 1896 (1896), Painesville, OH, Smithsonian Institution Libraries Catalog Number 09309.

L is for …

Several varieties of lettuce can be documented at Montpelier. The seeds ordered from Philadelphia in 1791 included white coss lettuce (an upright leaf lettuce like romaine), Silesia white lettuce (a light green lettuce with loose heads and crimpled leaves), and six sorts lettuce (a large headed lettuce variety).39 In 1792, the weather journal noted Dutch lettuce (possibly Brown Dutch, a small, loose-headed winter lettuce), coss lettuce, and “best head Lettuce.”40 In 1823 Mary Randolph requested that Dolley send her “ice lettuce seed” and “corn lett[uce].” This may refer to corn salad, a small-leafed winter salad green also known as lambs lettuce.41

M is for …

There’s almost a little tone of surprise in the August 18, 1789 weather journal entry: “Sowed Turnip & Mustard seed, which came up in 2 ½ days.”42 That was the only reference to mustard. White mustard was commonly planted in colonial Virginia; its leaves were used as a salad green and its seeds were the source of the spice mustard. Despite the similar name, mustard is a different plant than what is now called “mustard greens,” which is actually a member of the cabbage family.43

N is for …

We don’t know whether nectarines were successfully cultivated at Montpelier, but we do know that in 1806, kinsman James Taylor wrote to James Madison from Kentucky, “Agreeable to my promise I now send you … some grafts from my Nectarines, among the slips I have put two twigs of what is here called, the Magdaline peach, these can be easily distinguished, as the bark is quite yellow.”44

O is for …

There are a few references to planting onions in the Madison weather journals. Not all attempts were successful. The April 29, 1791 entry mentions planting “White Onions & Leeks from Philadelphia” (the George Morris seed order mentioned previously). Someone later squeezed in a note that “Onion & Leek did not vegitate.”45

P is for …
Parsley, Parsnips, Peaches, Pears, Peas, Peppers, Plums, Prunes, Potatoes

The weather journal mentioned the sowing of parsley in 1790, 1791, and 1792. The parsley sown in late April 1791 came from the George Morris seed order, and was planted along with garden cress “by the Alley to the Lumber House.”46 A lumber house was a general storage building; its location at Montpelier is uncertain.

Parsnips were mentioned in the weather journals only in 1791 and 1792. Parsnips were sown in March 1791, before the George Morris seed order was sent from Philadelphia. The Morris order included additional parsnip seed, which was sown in the “Back Garden” with the orange carrots in late April.47

Enslaved workers planted at least 200 peach trees on a property rented by James Madison Sr. from 1754-1785; planting the orchard was one of the conditions of the 31-year lease.48 Peaches were likely the main ingredient in the brandy Madison Sr. sold from his three stills.49 Peach trees also grew in several places on the Montpelier plantation. A weather journal entry for March 18, 1793, mentioned peach trees blooming “in e. yard,” presumably behind the west-facing main house.50  President Madison’s terraced garden also included peach trees, according to the recollection of one local man who told a newspaper writer in 1871, “I have a very distinct recollection of the trained peach trees and the luscious grapes” in the garden.51

Dolley Madison’s niece Mary Cutts recalled that at Montpelier, “The choicest fruits, especially pears, were raised in abundance.”52 Francis Taylor, a relation of the Madisons living in Orange county, recorded in his diary two times in the fall of 1799 when James Madison Sr. or Nelly Madison sent him pears, and he reciprocated with baskets of peaches.53President Madison received seckel pears, probably in the form of twigs to be grafted, as a gift in 1823.54 A Confederate soldier whose regiment camped near Montpelier in 1863 wrote of the garden, “O the good things that I saw there. The bloodgood, the seckle, the nonpariel and many other kinds of that most delicious fruit [pear].”55 The seckel pears could have dated back to the Madison era, but the nonpareil pear was considered new in 1854.56

Peas were the vegetable most frequently mentioned in the weather journals, with an impressive 79 entries, appearing in all 17 of the growing seasons represented. As many as 19 named varieties of peas were listed: dwarf marrow peas, early Charlton peas, early hotspur peas, English peas, fan peas, field red peas, forward (presumably early) peas, forward black-eyed peas, forward French peas, French black-eyed peas, garden peas, Indian peas, May peas, morrock peas, non-pareil peas, pearl nonesuch peas, six weeks peas, Spanish marrowfat peas, and Spanish Moratte peas.57 Clearly the Madisons liked their peas!

The Madisons’ letters also imply that fresh peas were a favorite seasonal treat. When James and Dolley Madison were in Washington in April 1805, niece Nelly Willis reported that Joe, an enslaved gardener, “has paid great attention to the Garden every thing in it looked flourishing when I saw it last – your Peas were growing away finely so you must make haste home to eat them.”58 In March 1830, Dolley wrote a niece: “Imagine if you can, a greater trial of patience than seeing the destruction of a radiant patch of green peas, by frost! It came last night on the skirts of a storm, and while I was lamenting that our dear midshipman, should ever be exposed in such wailing winds, my young adventurers were wrecked off their moorings! but away with complaints, other patches will arise, and I will mourn no longer, over a mess of peas or of pottage.”59 No other vegetable in the Madison garden is documented to have met such a melodramatic end.

“15 Peppers” were on the list of seeds shipped to Madison Sr. from Philadelphia seed merchant George Morris in March 1791.60 These may have been pepper plants rather than seed, since all the other vegetables were listed by ounces of seed. The weather journal did not mention the peppers specifically, but they may have been included in the broad entry of April 30, 1791: “Sowed each sort of Seeds, that came from Philadelphia (except Lettuce, Cellery, Turnip Cabbage & Savoy.”61

Plums and Prunes
A plum tree is mentioned only twice in the weather journal, when it began to leaf and when it began to blossom, in April 1785.62 Apparently plum trees continued to be cultivated at Montpelier, since Dolley Madison mentioned prunes (dried plums) ca. 1809, promising her aunt Lucy, “I will take care of my best prunes and figs for you—”63

In 1790 James Madison directed enslaved overseer Sawney “to plant all the Tobo. [tobacco] ground on the top of the Mountain in Irish Potatoes; and as much more as he can find that is worth planting,” while another overseer, Mordecai Collins, was “to plant as many Irish potatoes as he can find Ground & seed for.”64 Mordecai Collins and Sawney apparently continued growing potatoes. In 1796 Madison commented on “the crop of Irish potatoes at Black Meadow as well as Sawney’s” and asked his father “to direct large crops of this article to be planted at both places, the ensuing season.” He added that brother-in-law Isaac Hite had had success planting potatoes in exhausted land fertilized with manure, and suggested that his father consider “whether you had not better apply your crop of manure to potatoes than to corn.”65

Q is for …

Madison’s only mention of quince is in his 1818 Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, in which he discusses which fruit trees may be grafted onto another type of tree: “The Apple Tree may be planted on the Pear or the Quince.”66  Possibly Madison observed this kind of grafting with quince at Montpelier.

R is for …
Radishes, Raspberries, Rice

The typical radish of the Madisons’ time looked long and slender, like a carrot.67 But in a November 1784 weather journal entry, a Madison family member noted a radish of unusual size: “Had a Reddish 15 ½ inches round & above 18 in. long.”68 Three varieties of radish seed were included in the Philadelphia seed order in late March 1791 (salmon, short roptly, and black Spanish),69 and each variety was mentioned by name in the April 28, 1791 weather journal entry: “Sowed … Short ropt. Radish, next the House; and Salmon, on the upper part & across, & Spanish, Radishes, on the lower part of the same Bed.” Two of those varieties appeared again in March 1792: “[Sowed] at the end of House, Spanish & Salmon Radishes…”70 The final weather journal entry mentioning radishes was on July 3, 1800, when they were “first at Table.”71 This irregular pattern of entries, where radishes were noted when sown in some years, and noted when harvested in others, suggests that enslaved gardeners may have grown them routinely, and the radishes only merited a journal entry when the size or variety was unusual.

Both black and red raspberries grew at Montpelier, usually appearing from early to mid-June through early July. The weather journal noted their first or last appearances at table in six different years, and marked the sowing of “Rose Rasberrys” in 1790.72 In July 1833 Dolley Madison confessed to a friend that she had overindulged in fresh raspberries and milk,  bringing upon herself a “violent, tho’ short illness.”73

On June 13, 1790, Madison sent his father a few grains of upland rice with an intriguing backstory. Captain Bligh of the H.M.S. Bounty had collected the rice in Timor, and had escaped with a small amount after his crew mutinied. Madison recommended starting the rice in flower pots, but added, “A few of the grains may be tried at once in the garden in a strong soil.”74 Madison Sr. apparently followed directions, as the weather journal noted “Sowed 10 Grains of Upland Rice, (in the Garden by the Beets)” on June 29, 1790. On April 29, 1791, the weather journal recorded, “Sowed a few Grains of Rice from Timor, by the Red Beats.”75 This may have been from the rice that was started in pots in 1790.

The 1790-91 rice experiment included two other types of rice. The weather journal entry for May 11, 1790 noted “Sowed Rice” of an unspecified variety, a month before Madison Sr. received Captain Bligh’s grains. In April 1791, a day before planting the last of the Bligh rice, Madison Sr. wrote “Sowed Rice from Guinea,” apparently a different strain. Neither attempt was successful. Someone later added to the April 29 weather journal entry, “The Rice did not come to perfection.”76

S is for …
Sea Kale, Serviceberries, Squash, Strawberries

Sea Kale
Sea kale, with its asparagus-like shoots and kale-like leaves, grew wild along European sea coasts and is considered by botanists today to be the ancestor of modern cabbage varieties.77 Madison mentioned sea kale only once in his correspondence. In 1823 he sent “a few seeds of the Sea Kale, saved from the small stock in my garden,” to John Stuart Skinner, publisher of the journal The American Farmer. Madison noted his “limited experience” with sea kale, but considered it “well deserving a place in our culinary list of vegetables.”78 Sea kale provides a good illustration of Madison’s willingness to try out unfamiliar fruits and vegetables in the Montpelier garden, whether or not he continued to grow them.

Serviceberries tasted similar to blueberries, with almond-flavored seeds. They could be eaten raw, or used for pies and jams.79 Dolley Madison’s niece Annie Payne wrote from Montpelier in 1836, “Do you not wish for service berries – we shall have some in May – I hope.”80

Both squash and cymblings81 (scalloped or patty pan squash) are mentioned in the weather journals. Cymblings were served at table in July 1785 and July 1799, and “Squashes from N. York” were planted in the “back Garden” in May 1791.82 This is another example where the weather journal did not consistently record each time that fruits and vegetables were planted and were harvested, leaving open the possibility that they were grown in other years as well.

Strawberries were mentioned 24 times in the Madison weather journal, in 15 of the 17 years covered by the journal. In several growing seasons, such as 1786 and 1787, the writer noted the berries multiple times: when they were reddening, when first served at table, and when last served at table, hinting at the Madisons’ eager anticipation of strawberry season.83

James and Dolley Madison occasionally exchanged gifts of strawberry plants with their friends, mentioning specific varieties84 in the accompanying letters. In 1806 James Taylor sent vines and seeds for what he called “the monthly or alpian strawberry,” probably referring to one of the everbearing Alpine strawberries.85 In 1819, Madison sent George Divers some hautboy strawberry plants (a European strawberry with a musky aroma, large purplish-red berries, and tall stems). Divers, who lived near Charlottesville, reciprocated with a Virginia strawberry variety called Hudson Bay.86 In 1831, William Maury sent a basket containing several varieties of strawberry vines from Liverpool “for Mrs Madisons garden.” One of the varieties, Wilmot’s Superb Strawberry, was a recent hybrid developed in England in 1821. It was known for its large, pale scarlet berries, which Maury described “as like an artificial strawberry as any thing can be…”87

T is for …
Tomatoes, Turnips

There is only one reference to tomatoes growing at Montpelier during the Madisons’ ownership. Mary Randolph visited in autumn 1826, and described “the garden which gives promise of a great abundance of fruit and vegetables in their proper seasons, though when I saw it … the tomatoes whose green and flourishing appearance I so much admired one evening were found blackening and falling in the [next] mornings sun, the work of a single night of frost.”88 Tomatoes were never mentioned in the weather journals. It is possible that the Madisons did not begin growing them until after the weather journals stopped in 1801. Jefferson planted tomatoes at Monticello every year beginning about 1809.89

The earliest mention of Montpelier turnips comes from the diary of the Madisons’ cousin Francis Taylor. In July 1787, Taylor sowed the upper part of his “Turnep patch” with seed provided by James Madison Sr., whose enslaved gardeners had likely been growing turnips for some time.90 The weather journals mention turnips six times. In 1789, for example, “Hanover & other Turnips” were sown on July 28, with “Hanover Turnips up” on August 1.91 Hanover turnips were large turnips with long roots, often used to feed sheep, cattle, and horses. Another variety generally used as livestock feed was the Decanter turnip, also called Oblong or Tankard.92 After a visit to the prominent English agriculturist Thomas William Coke in 1824, John D. Hunter sent Madison seeds for White Decanter turnips, noting, “Many of the turnips measured thirty inches circumference.”93

Enslaved gardeners at Montpelier also grew turnips for table use. Samuel Pomeroy, a Massachusetts agriculturist, sent Madison seeds of the Yellow Aberdeen turnip in 1821, reporting that “it is a new & Superior variety for the Table, retaining its sweetness & keeping good nearly as long as the Rutabaga.”94 In 1835, visitor George Shattuck described a dinner that included “soup, a roast turkey, boiled beef, chicken pie, potatoes fried with grease, turnips.”95

U V is for …
Unknown Vegetables

Since we don’t have complete records of the operation of the Montpelier plantation (see Where Have All the Papers Gone?), it’s very possible that additional fruits and vegetables were grown here, that are not mentioned in surviving papers. For example, there are no references to growing pumpkins at Montpelier, although Jefferson, in a 1793 letter to Madison, suggested pumpkins as a supplemental planting in a crop rotation plan.96

It’s unknown whether there are any U’s and V’s in this charming group. Brotherton & Sons F.R.H.S., Spring Catalogue (1897). Leeds, England, Smithsonian Institution Libraries Catalog Number 09470.

W is for …

Watermelons are mentioned only once in the Madison correspondence. Dolley Madison teased her young nephew Richard Cutts before his visit that “Your Unkle [says] you need not take the trouble to bring your appetite for bacon & chicken, nor for Warffle Butter, Custard nor hony—you’d better leave behind, your relish for grapes figs, & waterMellons.”97 The teasing tone of the letter suggested that these were the favorite foods Richard associated with his visits, which would imply that watermelon was readily available at Montpelier.

X is for …
an unknown quantity of fruits and vegtables

An unknown, but large, quantity of fruits and vegetables. Alneer Brothers, Seed & Plant Catalogue for 1897 (1897), Rockford, IL, Smithsonian Institution Libraries Catalog Number 10859.

Y is for …

In the little time they had to themselves, members of the enslaved community raised sweet potatoes and other vegetables for their own use, in garden plots near their dwellings. As Dolley’s niece Mary Cutts recalled, “‘Old Sawney’… had his house and ground, where he raised his favorite vegetables, cabbages and sweet potatoes.”98

Z is for …

The search for Z’s proved as fruitless as this image is fruitful. Green’s Nursery Co., Green’s Fruit Instructor (1894), Rochester, NY, Smithsonian Libraries Catalog Number 33151.

While James Madison is credited for his keen interest in agriculture and progressive farming, it took more than ideas to produce crops at Montpelier. The labor of Joe and unnamed enslaved gardeners brought a remarkable harvest to the Madisons’ table, while the work of Sawney and other members of the enslaved community gave more variety to the foods on their own families’ plates. Despite gaps in the documentary record, researchers can still harvest enough evidence to appreciate the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables raised by the enslaved workforce at Montpelier.