The LuEsther T. Mertz Library


In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, three New York sites had heated greenhouses with an extensive selection of tender exotic plants that could not survive the winter outdoors. They were the Elgin Botanic Garden, the Linnaean Botanic Garden and the Manhattan business of an unidentified plantsman.

The winter horticultural offerings in early New York were both unique and outstanding. Dr. David Hosack established the Elgin Botanic Garden in New York, with an emphasis on science, "as a repository of native plants, and as subservient to medicine, agriculture, and the arts." The Linnaean Botanic Garden, owned and operated by William Prince, was started before 1770 and was the leading nursery in New York and probably the United States for more than 100 years. It was easily accessible, located 10 miles from the city of New York, and "two stages and a steam-boat go and return daily." His catalog claims to have most of the "celebrated fruits of Europe and Asia, but can also boast the origin of many which rival those of the old world . . .." The commercial plantsman bought and sold sundry plants and afforded his clients the service of keeping the plants for the winter, in his greenhouse. The horticulture practiced in early New York provided a sophisticated array of plants that truly illuminated winter in New York City.

[NYC Plantsman's Ledger, 1793–1795]

Anonymous plantsman from New York City

This significant primary source on the history of horticulture in New York includes documentation in May 1793, of "keeping sundry plants the winter." It is probably the first American citing of a commercial nurseryman charging a fee for wintering plants in a greenhouse.
The plantsman was located in lower Manhattan and his ledger documents accounts of familiar New York names, including "Coln" (Aaron) Burr and "Chancelor" (Robert) Livingston. On January 23rd 1795, Mr. John Harvey bought a "barrel apples" and "6 Hyacinths with glasses."

"Geranium fothergillum"
Henry Charles Andrews
Hand-colored engraving
from Henry Charles Andrews (fl. 1799–1828)
London: the author, 1805
These tender plants were over-wintered in a greenhouse by the "plantsman", the Prince nursery (66 pelargoniums listed in catalog) and the Elgin (26 listed in catalog).
Andrews is known for the originality of his illustrations, and for his vivid use of color that is especially appropriate for this geranium. This work includes 128 plates of pelargonium species from South Africa

[Plant List]

David Hosack, M. D. (1769–1835)
A catalogue of plants contained in the botanic garden at Elgin, in the vicinity of New-York, established in 1801
New York: Printed by T. & J. Swords, 1806

Winter visitors to the greenhouse and hot house at the Elgin were enthralled with the sight and scents of the plants. In 1805, at the Elgin garden, there were 1500 native plants in addition to "rare and valuable exotics". In 1806, the catalog listed 2000 plants under cultivation, including 150 different grasses, and also the insectivorous plants, Drosera (sundew), Sarracenia (pitcher plant), and Dionaea (Venus fly trap).

"Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis"
Sydenham Edwards (1769?–1819)
Hand-colored engraving
from William Curtis (1746–1788)
The Botanical magazine, or, Flower-garden displayed
London: Stephen Couchman for W. Curtis. 1791

The Prince and the Elgin catalogs each listed ten tropical hibiscus that were grown in their greenhouses.

Edwards was Curtis’ companion on botanical expeditions, and made most of the drawings for the plates of The Botanical magazine…from 1788–1815. He started the Botanical Register and also did illustrations for Flora Londinensis, and McDonald's A Complete Dictionary of Practical Gardening.
L. Simon
Photograph of etching
The Medical Repository Volume 13
New York: Collins & Perkins, 1810
After failing in his attempts to gain public funding for the Elgin Botanic Garden, David Hosack purchased 20 acres of land in 1801, and established the garden (on the site where Rockefeller center is now located) with his own funds. Dr. Hosack had an extensive botanical library, and the Elgin housed a herbarium, conservatory, hothouses and gardens.


The Elgin Botanic Garden was such an expensive undertaking that Hosack sold it in 1810. In this document from the office of the Secretary of New York State, Cadwallader D. Colden, Hosack deeded the property to the state of New York for the amount of "seventy four thousand two hundred and sixty eight dollars and seventy five cents." The garden was neglected, so that by 1817 it was no longer functional and only the conservatory remained.


"Camellia Hosackia"
J. J. Jung
Stipple engraving, hand finished
from Lorenzo Berlèse (1784–1863)
Iconographie du genre Camellia…
Paris: H. Cousin, 1841–1843
Camellias bloom in winter, and thrive in cold greenhouses where they were found at the Elgin, and Prince’s nursery, with 20 varieties listed. M. Floy of New York planted the seed that grew into this camellia. It first flowered in 1827, and was named for David Hosack.
Lorenzo Berlèse, an Italian abbot, was passionate about the camellias that he cultivated and studied, claiming "It sparkles in the first rank… the camellia has become a cosmopolite."
"Gardenia Crassicaulis"
William Hooker (1779–1832)
Hand-colored stipple engraving
from Richard Anthony Salisbury (1761–1829)
The Paradisus Londinensis…
London: Printed by D.N. Shury, and published by William Hooker, 1806-1807
Two tropical gardenias bloomed in winter at the Elgin greenhouses and Prince’s nursery had seven listed in their catalog.
"Plant List"
William Prince (1766-1842)
Catalogue of fruit and ornamental trees and plants, bulbous flower roots, green-house plants, &c. &c., cultivated at the Linnaean Botanic Garden, William Prince, Proprietor, Flushing, Long Island, near New York.
New York: Swords, 1823
Among the many items listed in this catalog, are 20 varieties of winter blooming camellias and 66 pelargoniums. Additionally, there are 107 varieties of pears, and 114 varieties of apples, many of which were stored for winter use. This 1823 catalog of Prince’s nursery lists more than 4,000 species and varieties. William Prince wrote the first treatise on fruit in New York, and exported native plants to the "governments of Europe."
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