Last month, a reader asked if the Landreth Seed Company was the earliest garden seed company in Philadelphia. He also wanted to know if Landreth sold hot pepper seeds in those early years.

What triggered the query was this advertisement published in 1792 in Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser, one of dozens of Philadelphia newspapers published at that time.

Garden historian Barbara Wells Sarudy writes about the origins of such seed dealers and nursery owners like David Landreth on her blog Early American Gardens as well as in her book Gardens and Gardening in the Chesapeake 1700-1805.

David Landreth

David Landreth

She writes: “The method of selling seeds and plants changed dramatically in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper South after the Revolutionary War. The growth of urban economies gave rise to new commercial gardening ventures, nurseries and seed stores, operated by professional gardeners who initially imported and then grew their own seed and plant stock.”

David Landreth was one of dozens of seed men in America in the early 1800s. But seeds and all varieties of plants and trees were grown, traded or sold by a number of garden suppliers long before Landreth. The most famous of those collectors and suppliers were Philadelphia botanists John Bartram and his son William Bartram from their Kingsessing farm. Another early gardener was James Alexander, who sold vegetable and herb seeds imported from London in Philadelphia in 1751. But the most successful seed merchant of all was a Welsh woman, Hannah Davis Dubre of Northern Liberties, who kept the business going and expanded it after her husband’s death in 1768. To accommodate customers who didn’t want to trudge out to her remote plantation, she introduced the idea of relying on agents in town to sell and supply to retail and wholesale customers, including international traders.

William Bartram (April 20, 1739 — July 22, 182...

William Bartram (April 20, 1739 — July 22, 1823) was an American naturalist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Shakers too built a substantial business selling seeds in the 18th Century, and were the creators of a most important innovation in seed trading, the seed packet!

Seed merchants often supplied wealthy landowners like William Hamilton of the Woodlands, whose mansion still stands in West Philadelphia, and Robert Morris, who owned a large estate on the Schuylkill, today’s historic Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park. Both men had huge gardens and greenhouses. The breadth and exoticism of their botanic collections rivaled those in Europe. They also supplied seeds and plants from their working estates to agents like Landreth and others.

However, it’s Irish immigrant Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia, trained by Landreth, who is credited with printing the first seed catalog in 1804 and making it widely available to the public. Just two years later, in 1806, he would publish the first-ever book on gardening in the US. The America Gardener’s Calendar is still a very useful guide to planting, caring for and harvesting one’s garden and can be read in its entirety online.

M’Mahon, also spelled McMahon, says in the preface of his book that “he is constantly supplied, at his Seed Warehouse in Philadelphia, with a general assortment of Garden Seeds, suitable for cultivation, in the United States, and in the West Indies; Grass seeds of every important and valuable kind; an immense variety of Tree, Shrub and Flower seeds and roots, procured from various parts of the world, with which the enterprize of American commerce has any connection, as well as from the different State and Territories of the Union….”

He adds that he supplies “at the most moderate terms every convenience for gardening, from spades and shovels to bulb glasses and glass suitable for hot-bed lights and other forcing department.”

So, did Landreth or others also sell hot peppers in those early years? They most certainly did!

Cayenne pepper was a popular spice and was often brought into Philadelphia ports from the Caribbean and is even noted in a merchant shippers ad from a 1723 edition of the American Weekly Mercury newspaper.

M’Mahon’s 1806 catalog notes three classic Central and South American hot pepper varieties  – capsicum baccatum, a South American sweet hot that resembles a Bishops Crown; capsicum frutescens, a small chile like the Bird Pepper, and capsicum sinesen, probably an early Habanero variety.

Landreth and other seed merchants would soon follow with their own catalogs.

Additional Reference:
The 225th Anniversary Commemorative Newsletter Series, “A History of American Vegetables, Herbs and Flowers, From the Landreth Perspective 1784-1950,” Volume 5, Issue 2, February 2009.
Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project
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Hot Water

March 10, 2012

2011©Nick Blank Photo

This hot pepper was not on display at this year’s annual International Flower Show, hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society at  Philadelphia’s Convention Center, even though this year’s theme was “Hawaii: Islands of Aloha.”

Former Philadelphian Nick Blank, who lives in Honolulu, sent this photo of a Hawaiian Chile Pepper, a very common hot ornamental that grows with abandon in his and many neighbors’ backyards. Dozens of other hot pepper varieties also grow all over the lush Islands.

Nick’s neighbor, Lynn, is native Hawaiian and her husband is Japanese. They use this particular pepper to make “Pepper Water,” a popular condiment that’s splashed on just about everything to give foods additional tang and kick.

Lynn’s recipe is simple: Add boiling water to some dried hot peppers in a clean, sterilized jar. Let cool, cover and refrigerate.

Like most things in Hawaii, these peppers are not a native species. In a land with a 12-month growing season, perfect weather – even when it rains – and near perfect soil conditions, Hawaii has long been an easy landing strip for introducing all manner of plants and produce from other parts of the world.

In the olden days, smart world adventurers brought their own food with them when headed for parts unknown. Polynesians came to the isolated archipelago possibly as early as 300-500 A. D. and soon colonized it with taro, sweet potato and yam, breadfruit and bananas, coconuts and sugarcane, as well as pigs, chickens and dogs.

Much later, in the late 1700s, roving seafarers like Captain Cook brought European animals and seeds. Another sea captain, George Vancouver, gifted a few longhorn cattle to Hawaiian King Kamehameha I, who allowed the critters to run wild on The Big Island, safe from all predators, including man. The lusty cattle begat unchecked until the King hired John Parker in 1809 to capture and domesticate the feral beasts. By 1830, beef was soon added to local menus and salt beef became a major export. To this day, the Parker Ranch on the island of Hawaii is one of the largest free-range beef cattle ranches in the US.

253Pineapple, from Brazil originally, wasn’t cultivated here until after 1813. In the mid-1800s, Hawaii’s bounty supplied California’s 49ers with Irish and sweet potatoes, onions, pumpkins, oranges, molasses, and coffee.

By the late 1800s, as certain commercial food growers became more dominant, Hawaii’s ruling monarchy was deposed by European and American business interests, with support from some US government agencies. Plantation crops of pineapple and sugarcane for export took over much of the agricultural landscape on the Islands. Hundreds of Asians and other ethnic groups immigrated to work on the plantations, contributing even more culinary influences to Hawaiian menus. Puerto Rican and Vietnamese immigrants followed in subsequent decades.

Where does the hot pepper figure into all this diversity? No doubt many varieties of hot peppers arrived via various immigration channels over the years, but credit for the Hawaiian Chile Pepper is usually given to Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and the Azores, who arrived on the Islands in the 19th century to work the fields and ranches. They also introduced the ukulele, as well as Pão Doce, a traditional Portuguese sweet bread. The popular brand King’s Hawaiian is a staple in supermarkets everywhere.

Hawaii’s agricultural heritage continues to evolve. Over the past decade, the pineapple and sugarcane industries have relocated their operations to other shores, and the former growing fields lie fallow on the garden islands. Small organic farms and specialty growers of Kona coffee, Macadamia nuts, and Maui onion and limes continue to thrive, yet more than 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is still imported!

Meanwhile, five major companies that dominate the world seed industry are buying and leasing prime Hawaiian farmland. The latest agricultural frontier in Hawaii? GMO corn seed.

References:
History of Agriculture in Hawaii, State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture,
http://hawaii.gov/hdoa/ag-resources/history
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“King Corn Takes Root in Hawaii,” by Paul Voosen of Greenwire, published August 20, 2011, The New York Times.
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Anita Mc Kelvey © 2011-2016 The Philadelphia Pepper Project
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