The Secret Garden

Gardenia jasminoides at the entrance to Huntington’s Liu Fang Yuan. Cultivated by gardeners in China for centuries, naming of this plant (known to English and American gardeners as Cape Jasmine) reveals the sometimes-nearly-capricious decisions that produced today’s scientific nomenclature.

There’s a game show with doors #1, #2, and #3, the contestant’s challenge being to make a prize-winning selection, revealing secrets behind the doors. In a botanical context, we head to Charleston, South Carolina, where you, as the contestant, have three Gardens to consider. At door #1, we encounter Reverend Alexander Garden (1685-1756), a minister in the Church of England who moved to Charleston from Scotland in 1719. Standing by door #2 we have Dr. Alexander Garden (1730-1791) who arrived in Charleston from Scotland in 1752, serving the community as physician and developer until forced to leave after the Revolutionary War. Then, at door #3 we meet Major Alexander Garden (1757-1829), Revolutionary warrior, disowned son but residual heir of the banished Dr. Garden. The secret is that one of these people is botanically eponymous – which means that one of these Gardens was recognized by a plant name, in this case, the genus Gardenia. We have to investigate the secrets behind these doors to determine which Garden is the eponym (the person after whom something is named).

Garden #1 was a fascinating force in the evolution of South Carolina’s Anglican church. Sent to Charleston by the SPG (the Church of England Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts) to fill a revolving door of unpopular ministers, Garden’s job was not to save souls – but to promote Christian growth and maintain the Crown’s unifying presence.

Witzig’s 2018 book on Reverend Garden and his Charleston context

Soul-saving did come along during his tenure, with the “First Great Awakening” and the 1738 arrival in Charleston of populist firebrand George Whitefield. Welcoming, at first, Rev. Garden realized he and Whitefield differed fundamentally in the nature of personal faith. Our Reverend Garden professed the established concept that a person was born into the church, growing in faith through the church and “works” – very distinct from the Awakening insistence on new birth – the concept that a person must be born again into Christianity. This core difference, as basic as it is, was not the reason for a rift between the two men. They fell at odds as Whitefield, (younger than Garden by three decades) critiqued activities of South Carolina’s congregants: impieties such as card-playing, partying, and gambling, and even the institution of slavery.

The differences were well-known. Whitefield kept an active journal and correspondence, much of which was published at the time, often in the form of letters. The Huntington’s Rare Books holdings include a trio of letters from Whitefield’s second trip to the US (Three Letters…., which Benjamin Franklin published in Philadelphia, 1740)*. In Letter III, Whitefield writes of South Carolina’s parishioners: “Your dogs are caressed and fondled at your tables; but your slaves who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, have not an equal privilege.”

Whitefield, himself a slaveholder, was not condemning slavery. His criticism focused on inhumane treatment, still a difficult message for the gentry of Charleston, North America’s largest slave-trading port at that time. Recognizing the alarm Whitefield engendered, the politically-astute Reverend Garden was able to maintain the importance of St. Philip’s as a center for Anglican (thus Episcopalian) activity, blunt the impact of the New Awakening in southern colonies, and gain credit for establishing the first school for slave literacy (Byrd, 2016).

Setting the scene behind door #2 with his 1752 arrival in Charleston (five years before the death of the Reverend Garden), the 22-year-old Dr. Alexander Garden also established himself as a central cultural figure. We find no evidence of familial relationship, or even communication between the two men. Wikipedia wrongly claims Dr. Garden is the son of our door #1 Reverend – based, perhaps, on Howard Kelly’s discussion in Some American Medical Botanists (1914). But that is not the case. It is true that Dr. Garden’s father (also Alexander) was a minister, but he held office in a church in Birse, Scotland. Other sources suggest our #2 Garden was a nephew to #1, the Reverend, which is also doubtful. 18th-century Scotland (with its population of just over 1 million inhabitants) seems to have boasted a surfeit of people named Alexander Garden. **

Berkeley’s 1969 publication on Dr. Garden is rife with detail on his life, activities, and correspondence. The book is not “out of print” because it is available through The UNC Press Enduring Editions program, but the text is unavailable electronically. Thus many contemporary treatments (such as Wikipedia) suffer from failure to examine information available from the considerable resources Berkeley makes available.

During his three plus decades in Charleston, Dr. Garden resumed an earlier interest in natural history, assisted through social connections, such as his friendship with William Bull, II (the native-born son of a founding colonial governor), whose library included several of Linnaeus’s books and John Clayton’s Flora Virginica (published by Grenovius, HNT Rare Books 481952). Garden’s plant studies were wide-ranging, generating relationships with accomplished botanists and gardeners in the colonies and Europe. He even made field expeditions in search of new plants. Reflecting on one particularly grueling experience, Garden is reported to have commented: “Good God what will not the Sacred thirst of the Botanic Science urge one to undergo.”

How he found time for botanical exploration is a wonder; Garden was a busy man, maintaining a successful medical practice, marrying and rearing a family, and amassing enough wealth to purchase a plantation, where he became involved in various crops – particularly indigo. But for all of his personal success, the times were against this Alexander. In 1782, at the conclusion of the Revolution and after three successful decades in Charleston, Dr. Alexander Garden, a Loyalist, was forced to leave the new country.

Stripped of his property, Garden returned to Britain with his wife Toby and daughters Harriette and Juliette, leaving his estranged son Alexander and family in Charleston. Living another decade on modest resources, Garden relished his reputation as a naturalist while waging constant battle for return of property seized by the newly independent state of South Carolina.

This brings us to door #3, and Major Alexander Garden (1757-1829), son of Dr. Garden. Born in Charleston, Alexander was sent to England for schooling, as a shield it seems from the growing colonial rebellion. But once he returned home, at 25 years of age (after 13 years abroad), he broke ranks from his father’s political sympathies and joined forces with the new patriots. Disappointing his family, Alexander’s time with General Nathaniel Greene and the revolutionary forces became his romantic obsession. Huntington Rare Books collections include the first (1822) and second (1828) editions of his Anecdotes of the Revolutionary War in America, with Sketches of Character of Persons the Most Distinguished in the Southern States, for Civil and Military Services… Garden described the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, as an “ermine character” who was “wedded to the cause of liberty.”

Door #2, of course, would be your winning selection. Dr. Alexander Garden (the physician) had become South Carolina’s most productive early botanist. He was quite the promoter for his newly-adopted natural world, extensively connecting and exchanging material with naturalists in Europe and in the American colonies. Through over two decades, he communicated with John Ellis (1710-1776), the naturalist most-remembered for having named the marvelous Venus Flytrap, Dionaea muscipula. It was Ellis who pursued the convoluted series of considerations with Linnaeus and other botanists that led to publication of Gardenia as the generic name for a fragrant-flowered Asian plant said to have been collected from South Africa (and thus known as Cape Jasmine), owned by Richard Warner, successfully cultivated and flowered by James Gordon, illustrated by Georg Ehret, and never before seen by Alexander Garden. (Denny, 1948)

If you take some time to explore the sources cited below, it’s a bit disconcerting that something so useful and important as a plant genus could be named in a seemingly arbitrary, socially-influenced manner. But to botanists, that is almost-irrelevant history. The name Gardenia takes on new life in the form of a Latinized noun, its main purpose being to serve as the globally-recognized, unambiguously unique handle for a taxon – in this case, a genus, a group of related plant species that evolved from the same ancestor and continue to share enough characteristics to form a logical cluster. Though useful to consider how that name originated, its botanical meaning has more to do with the plant and the importance of consistency than its etymology.

Today, we know the genus Gardenia comprises many species, native to Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. This handsome flower of Gardenia thunbergia is produced by a floriferous, somewhat stiff shrub native to South Africa. The species name (specific epithet) honors Carl Peter Thunberg, a significant student and apostle for Linnaeus. As botanist and physician, Thunberg became an important, early source of information on plants and medicine of Japan and South Africa.

Time Line:

  • 1670 Charles Town (Charleston) was settled, its name honoring Charles II, who had just assumed the Restoration throne.
  • 1715-18 The Yamassee War resulted in near destruction of the Charles Town settlement.
  • 1720 Rev. Alexander Garden (Door #1) assumed his position at St. Philip’s Church in Charleston
  • 1730 The future Dr. Garden was born in northeastern Scotland. His father, Reverend Alexander Garden (not the same Rev. Garden at Door #1) was minister at the Birse Church of Scotland.
  • 1738 George Whitefield made his first visit to Charleston, in September.
  • 1738 Plague of small pox struck Charleston, resulting in nearly 300 deaths of a population of approximately 5,000 residents. Yet more devastating, the disease spread into the surrounding Cherokee population, killing half of the local population of several thousand people.
  • 1739 On 9 September, two dozen slaves killed storekeepers and captured guns and powder, heading to freedom in Florida. William Bull rallied a militia and quelled the rebellion
  • 1740 Charleston Great Fire
  • 1740 George Whitefield Letter III
  • 1742 Rev Garden announced in the South Carolina Gazette that George Whitefield was suspended from the ministry.
  • 1742 Rev Garden purchased two slaves, Andrew (14) and Harry (14) to establish a school for slaves, which was formalized on 12 September of the following year. Harry succeeded in both learning to read and in teaching, such that over a period of 32 years, he brought literacy to hundreds of slaves. (Byrd, 2016)
  • 1749 Cape Jasmine flowered in England for the first time in Richard Warner’s garden.
  • 1752 Physician Dr. Alexander Garden (Door #2) arrived in Charleston.
  • 1754 William Bull loaned his Linnaean books to Dr. Garden, stoking an interest in natural history.
  • 1754 Rev Garden delivered his Farewell Sermon, departing soon thereafter for England – returning to Charleston in summer, 1755.
  • 1755 Dr. A. Garden and Elizabeth (Toby) Peronneau married on Christmas Day at St. Philip’s Church. I find no mention that Rev. Garden was involved….
  • 1756 On 26 September, Rev Garden died in Charleston, at the age of 71.
  • 1758 Naturalist John Ellis, botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret, and plant collector/facilitator Peter Collinson visited Richard Warner at his Woodfoot Race garden to see his plant of Bay-leaved Jasmine (later called Cape Jasmine). Warner, a botanist, was also a student of Shakespeare. An original copy of his 1768 publication proposing a Shakespearean glossary is held in Rare Books, #148296. See Warner, 1768.
  • 1760 A second wave of small pox struck Charleston… Of 8,000 residents, 6,000 were taken ill and 763 died. Dr. Garden was instrumental in saving many lives through instituting an inoculation program.
  • 1760 With Linnaeus’s approval, John Ellis named Gardenia jasminioides honoring Dr. Garden and reflecting the plant’s similarities to fragrant jasmines.
  • 1769 Just short of 12 years of age, the future Major Alexander Garden was sent to England for schooling, where he would remain for 13 years.
  • 1781 Young Alexander Garden (#3), now the owner of the family estate Otranto, joined American revolutionary General Nathaniel Greene as Aide-de-Camp.
  • 1782 Loyalists leave South Carolina. Among them, Dr. Alexander Garden and William Bull II.
  • 1787 Delegates to the US Constitutional Convention from South Carolina, Pierce Butler, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Rutledge, were all Anglicans from Charleston.


*Three letters from the Reverend Mr. G. Whitefield: viz. Letter I. To a friend in London, concerning Archbishop Tillotson. Letter II. To the same, on the same subject. Letter III. To the inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South-Carolina, concerning their Negroes. HNT 107182. Rare Books collections also include Alexander Garden’s published response: Six letters to the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield. The first, second, and third, on the subject of justification. The fourth containing remarks on a pamphlet, entitled, The case between Mr. Whitefield and Dr. Stebbing stated, &c. The fifth containing remarks on Mr. Whitefield’ two letters concerning Archbishop Tillotson, and the book entitled, The whole duty of man. The sixth, containing remarks on Mr. Whitefield’s second letter, concerning Archbishop Tillotson, and on his letter concerning the Negroes. By Alexander Garden, M.A. Rector of St. Philip’s, Charlestown, and commissary in South-Carolina, Together with, Mr. Whitefield’s answer to the first letter. HNT 249703

**Alexander Garden (1714-1885), Politician, Troup House, Banffshire, Scotland.


Berkeley, Edmund, 1969. Doctor Alexander Garden of Charles Town, UNC Press Enduring Editions

Byrd, Michael, 2016. “Negro Harry’s School” – A Monument to Equal Rights to Education, Social Service Review 90(3)

Denny, Margaret, 1948. Naming the Gardenia, The Scientific Monthly, 67(1): 17-22.

Warner, Richard, 1768. A letter to David Garrick, Esq. concerning a glossary to the plays of Shakespeare, on a more extensive plan than has hitherto appeared. To which is annexed, a specimen.

Witzig, Fred E., 2018. Sanctifying Slavery & Politics in South Carolina – The life of the Reverend Alexander Garden, 1685-1756. The University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-161117-845-6

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: