Aside from details exchanged among horticultural history buffs or students of botanical Latin (who know Meehania, a genus in the mint family), little is widely known or remembered of the life and work of Thomas Meehan, a Philadelphia nurseryman, author, editor, and social reformer who rose to prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century.1 Meehan immigrated to Philadelphia when it was still a set of disparate and unincorporated townships on the cusp of transformation into a major industrial city. Upon his arrival, he inherited a horticultural mantle from the Philadelphia Quakers who had studied the flora of the eastern United States and built notable collections of plants in their gardens. Meehan looked to these established collections and assumed the role of the horticultural popularizer. During his long career, he used his nursery and publications to encourage the cultivation of an ever-widening palette of plants.
Meehan’s desire to engage a broad horticultural audience was clear from the start. In his first book, The American Handbook of Ornamental Trees, published in 1853, Meehan described his intention of creating something for “extensive popular use.”2 This goal persisted as he continued to write and edit a series of prominent horticultural magazines, and towards the end of Meehan’s career, Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum, described Meehan’s accomplishments as “a most important factor in increasing the cultivation of American trees and shrubs.”3 In Philadelphia, Meehan led a remarkable life, contributing to a staggering array of fields. His work is hard to encapsulate, so this article will not offer a complete accounting; instead, to use Meehan’s own words, it will present “an anthology, and will not aim at anything further than to cull the most beautiful, interesting, and important.”4
At Bartram’s Garden
Meehan was born in Potter’s Bar near London, England, in 1826. From an early age, he was trained in horticulture by his father, himself a well-known gardener. Meehan held several prominent gardener positions as a teenager, before pursuing his formal education at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, graduating in 1848.5 Having been refused a gardening position in England based on religious grounds, Meehan saw the opportunities offered in the United States. By March of the same year, he arrived in Philadelphia, where he would spend the remaining fifty-three years of his life.6
Once in Philadelphia, Meehan quickly became acquainted with the leading horticulturists of the city. He began by working for Robert Buist, who was establishing Rosedale Nursery on what was then the rural edge of southwest Philadelphia. The nursery was famous for its seed business and its selections of fruit and ornamental trees. After one year with Buist, Meehan accepted an offer to work at Bartram’s Garden.7 At that point, the garden was transitioning from ownership by the Bartram family to Andrew M. Eastwick, a railroad magnate, who had recognized the garden’s importance and built an elaborate Victorian home there, preserving the original Bartram house and its famous plant collection.
Until 1850, Bartram’s Garden had been operated by the founding family. John Bartram, the patriarch, had been a royal botanist for the king of Great Britain. He and his son William explored the eastern United States, collecting seeds that they propagated for their garden and distributed to other respected horticulturists throughout America and Great Britain. William maintained the garden upon his father’s death. In turn, William’s niece Ann Bartram Carr and her husband, Robert, were the third generation to build the collection, continuing the family’s international trade in seeds and plants.
One can only imagine Meehan’s fascination with this plant collection, undoubtedly one of the best in the United States at the time and one primed for study by a keen student of horticulture. While he was there, Meehan began collecting notes for his first book, The American Handbook of Ornamental Trees. He fitted out a place to write in the woodshed that John Bartram had used for potting and packing seed.8 It is difficult to imagine what Meehan’s experience was like in that woodshed, but from a photograph that he published of the structure years later, it appears analogous to an artist’s garret, cramped quarters but perhaps a place with little to distract the author from his work. In the garden, what would Meehan have experienced? From the Handbook, published in 1853, we get a sense of the diversity and size of the trees growing there. Fittingly, many of the trees that Meehan described would have been potted up in the very same building where he collected his observations as much as a century later.
Meehan first intended for the book to list the trees growing at Bartram’s Garden, but it evolved into a more comprehensive project that included all the trees (and some shrubs) cultivated throughout the Delaware Valley and presumably across the Northeast. In 1852, while he worked on the project, Meehan left Bartram’s Garden to work for Caleb Cope, the former president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Cope’s Springbrook estate was located along the Delaware River in far northern Philadelphia.9 In presenting his authorial credentials, Meehan acknowledged his time at Kew and several “superior establishments” in Philadelphia. He added that “nothing has been admitted into the body of the work that has not been the result of the personal experience of the author. No tree is described as being in cultivation which the author has not himself seen.”
Meehan’s horticultural ambitions are evident from his ability to visit and bear first-hand witness to so many trees in such a short period. The pace is even more remarkable given that travel on unimproved roads among the surrounding counties was challenging. Yet, Meehan’s inveterate field research not only allowed him to understand the regional horticultural diversity but also brought him into the gardens of prominent botanical collectors. The Handbook documented the gardens of the early Philadelphia Quaker botanists and described the transition from the local horticultural heritage to a broader palette of plants from Europe and Asia. Here we see Meehan serving as a bridge between two eras: from the horticultural legacy of the late 1700s and early 1800s to the broader and more outward-looking horticultural developments of the late nineteenth century.
The Handbook provides glimpses into the most renowned collections of the time. Of course, Meehan describes numerous notable trees at Bartram’s Garden, including an old Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha, listed as Gordonia pubescens), which was likely one of William Bartram’s original eighteenth-century collections. Meehan also lists massive specimens like a ninety-three-foot-tall Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) and a fifteen-foot-tall cornelian-cherry (Cornus mas), a European species that would have been a collector’s tree at that time. Meehan also describes plants at the home of Humphry Marshall—author of Arbustrum Americanum: The American Grove, who lived near West Chester—and the now-forgotten arboretum of John Evans, which was one of the most significant collections of its time, located in Radnor, about fifteen miles west of Philadelphia.
The best extant example of a nineteenth-century arboretum that Meehan visited is that of the Peirce family, which now comprises the core of Peirce’s Park at Longwood Gardens. The Peirces began their collection in the early 1800s, creating one of the finest regional arboreta by building on their forerunners, the Bartrams and Marshalls. The collection became renowned for its scale and diversity. Meehan describes several notable trees at this location, some of which remain today. For example, in his description of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), Meehan mentioned that he had “seen fine specimens of this in Mr. Pierce’s [sic] fine avenue.” Similarly, he listed a cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata var. subcordata, then M. cordata) with a four-foot circumference in Peirce’s arboretum. In recent years, this tree was named as the cultivar ‘Peirce’s Park’, and although the original tree was lost during a storm in April 2020, several young ones are planted throughout Longwood Gardens.
Meehan’s horticultural explorations were not limited to prestigious gardens. A favorite tree citation in the Handbook is of paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), a curious species native to East Asia. Meehan wrote that it “thrives on the sea-shore,” growing in Cape May, New Jersey. Boat travel from Philadelphia to Cape May was then much easier than overland travel, and Cape May’s geography led to its development as a Victorian-era resort. One can picture Meehan taking a busman’s holiday to the beach, recording notes even during precious personal time. At the time, he would have been courting his future wife, Catherine (Kitty) Colflesh, and one can imagine her joining him on tree-hunting excursions.
Meehan’s appendix is equally informative for students of horticultural history because it lists tree species recently introduced but which he had not observed. This detail helps to date the introduction of these species into the United States, or specifically Philadelphia. For example, Meehan lists nine species of maple in the main text: six native to the eastern United States, along with two common European species, the hedge maple (Acer campestre) and Norway maple (A. platanoides). In his appendix, however, he listed maples that he was aware of but had not seen. These included the vine maple (A. circinatum) from the Pacific Northwest, and the Bosnian and Italian maples (A. obtusatum, and A. opalus, respectively), which were just appearing on the East Coast.
In 1854, Meehan started a nursery in partnership with William Saunders of Baltimore in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, well outside the developed portions of the city.10 While Saunders’s involvement lasted only a year, the Germantown Nurseries quickly became one of the regional leaders in growing and selling trees, shrubs, and perennials. Meehan’s brother Joseph joined the operation in 1859, and his three sons (Thomas B., J. Franklin, and S. Mendelson) came on board in the decades to come. As evidence of the success of the operations, what had begun as a few acres of land in Germantown grew to 75 acres by the late 1800s and then to 150 acres by the turn of the twentieth century, encompassing property in Germantown and suburban Dresher, Pennsylvania.11
The nursery was especially known for its diverse offerings of North American trees. By 1893, a correspondent for Garden and Forest noted that “Mr. Meehan early recognized that … American plants are the best for America” and went on to say that “in no other place are American trees and shrubs raised in such quantities.” Their offerings included native species that were difficult to find at other nurseries. Yet, Meehan simultaneously offered and promoted non-natives species as they became available.12 This Janus-like approach to horticulture continued the link to Philadelphia’s horticultural heritage while recognizing the changing demography and tastes of the city’s gardeners.
American nursery catalogues from the mid-1800s reveal that most ornamental trees offered were from North America and Europe, with a smattering from Asia Minor and Asia.13 A watershed moment in the availability of greater plant diversity occurred at the Centennial Exposition, the first official world’s fair held in the United States, which took place in Philadelphia from the spring to autumn of 1876. As a celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the event exposed a vast audience to a wide array of modern conveniences, inventions, and international cultures. Also, through various horticultural exhibits, the Exposition introduced Asian (particularly Japanese) plant species to a broad American audience. Prior to the Exposition, Japanese species were slowly making their way into Boston and New York but had yet to see wider availability.14
Meehan created an arboretum of over seven hundred trees for the Exposition. Local newspapers described it as a “grand miniature forest” that was especially noteworthy for its collection of “trees and shrubs of the United States.”15 Other prominent nurserymen had displays nearby, including Josiah Hoopes (whose display included twelve hundred evergreens and forty varieties of ivies), Robert Buist (showcasing trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants), and S. B. Parson & Sons (who were reported to have “remarkable Japanese plants, maples, evergreens, azalias [sic], new shrubs, and half hardy plants”).16
After the Exhibition, Meehan and the other nursery owners provided portions of their outdoor collections to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Therefore, the diversity of their displays is suggested in Joseph Rothrock’s catalogue of the trees and shrubs in Fairmount Park, published in 1880. The catalogue documents early introductions of Asian species, including Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), Asian magnolias (like Magnolia campbellii and M. denudata), panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), and the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana).17 After the event, the diversity of plant offerings from Japan rapidly increased, and by the end of the 1800s, many now-familiar plants, and many that we still think of as “rare and unusual,” were regularly offered for sale.
Meehan was quick to recognize the importance of these introductions. When he wrote about the other nursery displays at the Exhibition in Gardener’s Monthly, a magazine that he had edited since 1859, he remarked on the “special bed” of Japanese plants shown by S. B. Parsons & Sons. Among the most striking plants, he reported, was the red-leaved Japanese maple (now Acer palmatum forma atropurpureum).18 By 1882, Meehan’s nursery catalogue offered one-foot-tall specimens of this for two dollars, then among his most expensive offerings. On the back cover of the same catalogue, he proudly advertised the “Japan Snowball” (Viburnum plicatum), claiming that his nursery had been first to introduce it into the United States. This claim was accompanied by the only illustration in the catalogue, suggesting that Meehan fully recognized the commercial importance of these newcomers.19 By the 1890s, Meehan’s nurseries were offering a weeping Japanese cherry (what would now be considered Prunus subhirtella), Asian magnolias and maples, and even umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) and Hiba false-arborvitae (Thujopsis dolabrata).20
In some sense, Meehan’s nursery served as a laboratory for him to study plants. A perfect example of this is the daimyo oak (Quercus dentata). At a meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1886, Meehan presented a short description of the floral structure of Quercus dentata, grown from seed that he had received from Japan at the time of the Centennial Exposition.21 By 1895, the daimyo oak was offered by his nursery, described as “a rich addition to our list of oaks … in May the yellow flowers, in long aments, make it attractive in a way no other oak is.”22
Despite his ever-increasing interest in non-native species, Meehan maintained a strong affinity for native plants. In the same 1895 catalogue in which he advertised the daimyo oak, Meehan wrote that “for twenty years or more we have been trying to impress upon American planters the importance of using Native Oaks in landscape works … and finally, after all these years, planters began to realize that we were right and to recognize in the American Oak, the ‘King of Trees.’”23 And while Meehan is often most associated with woody plants, his catalogues have a large diversity of native herbaceous perennials and hardy ferns—many sought out by today’s keen gardeners.
Meehan’s nursery distributed plants to botanical institutions, including the Arnold Arboretum where a few dozen specimens are still alive. The most historically significant are two Franklin trees (Franklinia alatamaha, accession 2428-3*A and *B), propagated in 1905 from a plant that Meehan provided about thirty years earlier. These are believed to be the oldest living representatives of the species.24 Other Meehan plants at the Arboretum include a group of five black oaks (Quercus velutina, accession 1237), acquired in 1873, when the Arboretum was only a year old, and a Southern red oak (Q. falcata, accession 3333*A). These North American oaks are now living reminders of Meehan’s commitment to the “King of Trees.”
Horticultural Writer and Editor
Meehan was a prolific author throughout his career. He served as editor of the Gardener’s Monthly until 1888, when its publisher, Charles Marot, died. A few years later, Meehan’s Monthly was born and continued until 1902. Over his forty years as the editor of monthly publications, Meehan generated a vast amount of material to read. His prodigious output is hard to encapsulate or even anthologize. The tone of the publications was conversational and newsy, and his personal writing style was both informative and approachable. In a period before easy (not to mention instant) communication, these journals regularly shared information and current trends, mixed with a bit of human interest.25
In the initial issue of Garden and Forest, in 1888, an unsigned editorial (perhaps written by Charles Sargent, who “conducted” the magazine) commented on the loss of the Gardener’s Monthly: “Ever since we have been interested in the cultivation of flowers we have looked to the Monthly for inspiration and advice, and its pages have rarely been turned without finding the assistance we stood in need of.” The editorial continued by celebrating Meehan’s imprint on the publication. “Fortunately, the Gardener’s Monthly, and its modest and accomplished editor, Mr. Thomas Meehan, were one and the same thing. It is Mr. Meehan’s long editorial experience, high character, great learning and varied practical knowledge, which made the Gardener’s Monthly what it was. These, we are happy to know, are not lost to us, as Mr. Meehan will … continue to delight and instruct the horticultural public.”26
In the late 1870s, Meehan had also begun a multivolume work titled The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States. The project is another testament to his long-standing love of North American plants. In the preface to the first volume, Meehan described how the project emerged from his desire to write a scientific treatment on the North American flora. Although he pitched this idea to a publisher, he ultimately decided, once again, to focus on engaging a more general audience. “A purely scientific and systematic treatise … must necessarily be limited to a small circle of readers,” he explained, “and even in this small circle there would be but a few who would care to subscribe to a work, the end of which they might never live to see.” Four volumes were produced, and Meehan’s voice shines through them. He lushly described almost fifty species in each volume, often incorporating history, poetry, and horticultural information. The entry for each species included a lavish color illustration.27
The project was revived in 1891 when Meehan’s Monthly was launched. While Meehan’s Monthly was a newsy horticultural periodical, in keeping with the style and tone of the Gardener’s Monthly, each issue began with a description of a native species and was accompanied with illustrations prepared for unpublished volumes of the Native Flowers and Ferns project. Garden and Forest celebrated the arrival of this new periodical: “Mr. Meehan’s return to horticultural journalism will be welcomed by many readers of the Gardeners’ Monthly who felt something like a personal bereavement at the discontinuance of that excellent magazine.”28
Along with these horticultural pursuits, Meehan maintained a long-running correspondence with many notable botanists of his time, including George Engelmann, Asa Gray, and Charles Darwin. Much of this correspondence concerns specific observations or botanical questions, often relating to articles that Meehan would eventually publish in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where he long served as the vice president.
Advocate for Urban Green Space
In the later years of his life, Meehan became actively involved in urban improvement. In 1883, he accepted a role on the Philadelphia Common Council in order to ensure the creation of city parks and preservation of Bartram’s Garden.29 Meehan was instrumental in forming the City Parks Association, creating lasting green space in the most urbanized neighborhoods. He is credited with introducing nature study and kindergarten to Philadelphia public schools, and he strived to improve the educational system for working-class families throughout the city.30
Among these accomplishments, it is the preservation of Bartram’s Garden that is the most noteworthy. In 1879, Andrew Eastwick died, and for nearly a decade, the resolution of his estate and the fate of Bartram’s Garden remained unresolved.31 Shortly after Eastwick’s death, Sargent, using his connections in Philadelphia, tried to organize a group of “liberal gentlemen” to purchase the property.32 This effort was unsuccessful because the owners of the estate believed that “they could make more [profit] by destroying its botanical associations, and turning the whole into building lots.”33
Sargent continued to provide support on a national level through Garden and Forest, arguing in an unsigned editorial that “the name of Bartram’s Garden should be preserved and … should be maintained in as near the condition as its first owner left it.”34 Meanwhile, Meehan and members of the City Parks Association continued the local campaign. Ultimately, the City of Philadelphia appropriated funds to purchase Bartram’s Garden in 1889, took ownership in 1891, and finalized the purchase in 1893.35 As a result, more than forty years after Meehan had first worked at the historic garden, it became preserved in perpetuity. This achievement must have been remarkably gratifying for Meehan, seeing the preservation of the place that helped to launch his career and that had such horticultural significance in his adopted city.
Once the future of Bartram’s Garden was settled, Meehan’s foresight in creating open space throughout the city was acknowledged with another Garden and Forest editorial: “The fact that the people of Philadelphia are securing a series of small parks is largely due to the public-spirited and tireless efforts of Mr. Thomas Meehan, the well-known horticulturist … Many generations of Philadelphians will have a good reason to remember with gratitude his disinterested efforts for the improvement and happiness of his fellow men.”36
As a coda to his life, Meehan was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal in 1901, a few months before he died. He followed Sargent and Liberty Hyde Bailey as the third American to win this honor. In conferring it, the Royal Horticultural Society recognized his “distinguished services in botany and horticulture.” Seeing Meehan in the company of these two towering figures of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American horticulture affirms his stature among his peers: Sargent, one of the great dendrologists of his era, who brought the Arnold Arboretum to prominence, and Bailey, a man of astoundingly broad interests and accomplishments who combined the science of botany with the art of horticulture. Meehan pursued similar combinations and was interested not only in the world of horticulture but in using it for the betterment of his fellow citizens.
It is worth pondering what Meehan would think if he were to see the state of contemporary horticulture. Certainly, many if not most of the trees that are commonly planted across the Northeast would be familiar to him. Having straddled the divide between native and non-native plants, he might think that there would be no need for invidious comparisons between the two groups. And he might be bemused at the trends in “new” native plants, having promoted many of those species in his various publications and through his nursery. If nothing else, although his name may have faded, Thomas Meehan’s impact as a promoter of modern horticulture has not.
1 Oberle, S. G. 1997. The influence of Thomas Meehan on horticulture in the United States. University of Delaware, M. S. Thesis Dissertation
2 Meehan, T. 1853. The American handbook of ornamental trees. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Co.
3 Sargent, C. S. 1890. Silva of North America (vol. 9). New York: Peter Smith.
4 Meehan, T. 1878. The native flowers and ferns of the United States in their botanical, horticultural, and popular aspects (vol. 1). Boston: L. Prang.
5 Meehan, S. M. 1902. A brief sketch of the life of Thomas Meehan. Meehan’s Monthly, 12: 13–19.
6 Harshberger, J. W. 1899. The botanists of Philadelphia and their work. Philadelphia: T. C. Davis.
7 Meehan, T. 1896a. Meehan letter to C. S. Sargent, 16 August 1896. Charles Sprague Sargent (1841–1927) papers, Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library, Harvard University.
8 Meehan, T. 1896b. John Bartram’s wood-shed. Meehan’s Monthly, 6: 17.
9 Meehan, 1902.
10 Meehan, 1902.
11 Oberle, 1997.
12 S. 1893, September. The Meehan Nurseries and the trees of Germantown. Garden and Forest, 6(289): 377–378.
13 See, for instance: Hoopes, Bro. & Thomas. 1870. Annual trade list of the Cherry Hill Nurseries, West Chester, Pa.: Spring of 1870. West Chester, PA: Hoopes, Bro. & Thomas.
14 Del Tredici, P. 2017. The introduction of Japanese plants into North America. The Botanical Review, 83: 215–252.
15 Thomas Meehan of Germantown. 1876, April. Reading Times (Reading, PA), 37(22): 2; An interesting display. 1876, May. The Daily Evening Express (Lancaster, PA), 39(105): 2.
16 Burr, S. J. 1877. Memorial of the International exhibition. Hartford: L. Stebbins.
17 Rothrock, J. T. 1880. Catalogue of trees and shrubs native of and introduced in the horticultural gardens adjacent to Horticultural Hall in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.
18 Meehan, T. 1876. Horticulture at the Centennial. The Gardener’s Monthly, 18(212): 254–256.
19 Germantown Nurseries. 1882. General price list for the fall of 1882. Germantown, PA: Germantown Nurseries.
20 Meehans’ Nurseries. 1895. Catalogue. Germantown, PA: Thomas Meehan & Sons.
21 Meehan, T. 1886. Note on Quercus dentata. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 38: 280–281.
22 Meehans’ Nurseries, 1895.
23 Meehans’ Nurseries, 1895.
24 Del Tredici, P. 2005. Against all odds: Growing Franklinia in Boston. Arnoldia, 63(4): 2–7.
25 Oberle, 1997.
26 The Gardener’s Monthly. 1888, February. Garden and Forest, (1)1: 1.
27 Meehan, 1878.
28 Notes. 1891, March. Garden and Forest, 4(161): 144.
29 Meehan, T. 1897. In Bartram’s Garden. Meehan’s Monthly, 7: 50.
30 Harshberger, 1899; Meehan, 1902.
31 Fry, J. 2004. John Bartram House and Garden. Historic American Landscape Survey, (HALS) PA-1.
32 Fry, 2004; Meehan, T. 1885. The old botanic garden of Bartram. The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist, 27: 26–27.
33 Meehan, 1885.
34 Notes. 1889, February. Garden and Forest, 2(52): 86.
35 Fry, 2004.
36 Notes. 1889, March. Garden and Forest, 2(54): 120.
Anthony S. Aiello is the associate director of conservation, plant breeding, and collections at Longwood Gardens.
Citation: Aiello, A. S. 2021. Thomas Meehan: the horticultural popularizer. Arnoldia, 78(5-6): 50–61.
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