Ever wonder what were the favorite scents of historical figures? In the case of Thomas Jefferson we know one of his: the Mexican tuberose. Jefferson was a gardener when he was not writing the Declaration of Independence or being president. Monticello was a sort of test garden for all sorts of plants and flowers that Jefferson had admired abroad, or that he thought might be useful or simply ornamental, in American horticulture. One such discovery for him was the tuberose.
He kept a diary which is how we know about his tastes and what he ordered. Like anybody else who gardens, he loved to look at plant lists from nurseries and dream of where he could tuck this or that little rarity into the spaces he had open.
The wonderfully perfumed Mexican tuberose was one of his delights. In 1806 he was happy to note in his diary that he had planted two dozen, and these were not the ordinary single tuberoses either, they were doubles possibly as fragrant as the commonly found tuberose cultivar “The Pearl”.
His tuberoses bloomed in the heat of a Virginia August, starting on the 12th. They were such a success that Jefferson placed an even larger order for tuberoses the next winter from the same nurseryman, Bernard M’Mahon of Philadelphia. I guess that if you love tuberoses you can never have too many of them, anyway that seems to have been what our third president thought.
I can’t say that I’m surprised to find Thomas Jefferson was a tuberose lover. You can hardly fail to smell tuberose south of Maryland, either it’s in people’s gardens, or else it’s on the air courtesy Fracas, and these days Carnal Flower, or Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia. Southerners seem to adore the creamy strangely metallic scent, and its languor suits the humid air below Washington very well. ( Washington’s humid air I associate more with Spice Bush and Bull Bays than tuberose.) Tuberose though, that’s a Southern thing.
These days you can go the Founding Father one better and grow them in shades of pale pink as well as white. “Pink Sapphire” is another double but in a luscious cherry blossom pink that looks just about irresistible. I know that if I have any garden space unoccupied by May I might have to find a spot for some of those. There is just something about tuberoses- even in New Jersey- that is hard for any gardener to pass up. Besides they would go so well with white heliotropes and white lavenders and those spicy pink Frau Dagmar Hartopp roses I can never resist either.
Most of us, I know, don’t necessarily think of tuberoses as garden plants, but by all accounts they are no more difficult to grow than the old gladioli that our grandmothers were so fond of, and have the wonderful addition of scent. I wonder if I could
stand to order extras for the vegetable garden and cut them for the house? Michigan Bulbs sells both, the white and the pink, ten dollars for three roots. I begin to feel Jeffersonian longings.
As for our third president, if he were alive today, would all his garden beds bristle with tuberoses, and would he favor Carnal Flower-or Fracas?