Seeds of Survival, Bernard McMahon’s Contribution to America
I started to write this post about the gardens of Monticello, located near Charlottesville, VA, and home of our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. But the more I read about how his vast estate evolved into a botanical paradise, I was intrigued by one of the men Jefferson leaned on for aid and support. Allow me to introduce you to Bernard McMahon.
Mr. McMahon was born in Ireland in 1775. By 1796, he had relocated to America to escape the political turmoil in his homeland. Coming from a country where only nobility owned land and all crops were taxed, imagine his amazement when he realized that any man willing to do the work could carve out a farm in this country. And imagine how appalled he became by how little farming was being done, not due to a lack of honest men and women willing to do the work, but due to the lack of seeds and information about what to do with them.
After all, America’s earliest settlers had been Indians, nomads who followed herds of bison and deer for nourishment. There were a few who did stay in one place and grew some crops, but not the majority. Early immigrants to this country were either from the upper classes, or the very poor, neither of which had much farming experience.
Realizing a need and acting upon it, by 1802 McMahon began his nursery and seed business, publishing his Catalogue of Garden Grass, Herb, Flower, Tree & Shrub-Seeds, Flower Roots, etc. which described over 720 species and varieties of seeds. This was the first compendium of its kind published in the United States. His more refined list of native American species soon followed.
Jefferson was so impressed by the Catalogue that he selected McMahon as one of only two nurserymen to serve as curators for the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition and to receive and cultivate the seeds and plant roots collected on their exploration into the unknown. They were entrusted with the care, growth and propagation of these important finds, which would then be shared with the country’s newest farmers. Jefferson also relied on McMahon to help create the wonderful variety of flower beds and vegetable gardens included on this estate. Letters were exchanged between Jefferson and McMahon for a number of years.
McMahon continued to publish important gardening information for Americans who were, for the most part, novices in all manners of farming in the early days. His American Gardener’s Calendar: Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States helped men and women in this new country grow the crops necessary to feed generations of men, women, children and animals and help make the country strong. This calendar went through eleven printings between 1806 and 1857 and was reissued in 1976. Jefferson was impressed by the calendar since it attempted to address some of the botanical problems unique to American gardening. McMahon was especially entranced by the various American wildflowers and urged gardeners not to treat them as wild weeds, but to cultivate them, since they were able to survive the hot summers when most flowering English stock dried up.
In 1808 McMahon set up a greenhouse and experimental botanical garden in the north end of Philadelphia on twenty acres of land in addition to a nursery located on South Second Street. Even though he died in 1816, at only 41 years of age, the business passed on to his wife and son Thomas McMahon, who operated it successfully for many years.
There is only one picture of Mr. McMahon, and it is copyrighted. You can view it on this website: https://www.lawyernursery.com/PDF_static/articles/2015_Nov_Seeds_of_Discovery_Bernard_McMahon.pdf
While it is impossible to authenticate the portrait, which is in the possession of a descendent of Mr. McMahon, Peter J. Hatch, Director of Monticello Grounds in 1993 made this observation. “The force of his surprisingly powerful gaze suggests a certain wily intelligence. Here, we suspect, is a sensibility worthy of the responsibility for the Lewis and Clark botanical collection.”
I think Mr. McMahon would be proud if he returned to America today, especially in the bread-basket farming states of the midwest, and witnessed mile after mile of corn and soybeans, and the orchards supplying apples, pears, grapes, peaches and the like to a hungry nation.
Regardless of the time of year you plan your visit to Monticello, you’ll be entranced by the thousands of different plants in bloom. The rose beds alone have over 70 varieties of roses, all dating back to the early 1800s.
If you are fortunate enough to visit, you can purchase seeds from Mr. Jefferson’s gardens, carrying on the tradition begun in the 1800s. Who knows, maybe some of what you buy is a descendent of what was supplied originally to Mr. Jefferson from the McMahon nursery of long ago.