Cadwallader Colden

Lieutenant Governor of New York

Today is the birthday of the Scottish-American physician, Scientist, botanist, and Lieutenant Governor of New York, Cadwallader Colden (CAD-wah-LIDDER). When Colden arrived in America in 1718, he began a family dynasty that would eventually settle in Queens, New York. Aside from his political endeavors and his many interests, Colden was interested in botany and the new Linnaean system.
The family lived on an estate called Coldenham, and it was often visited by famous New World botanists like John Bartram.
Now, Colden and his wife had ten children, and they actively encouraged each of them to pursue their education.
Colden's 5th child was a daughter named Jane. Jane was born in 1724, and she followed in her father's footsteps and is regarded to be the first American woman to have become an official botanist.
Peter Collinson suspected as much when he wrote to John Bartram about Jane saying,

"Our friend Colden's daughter has, in a scientifical manner, sent over several sheets of plants - very curiously anatomized after Linnaeus's method and I believe that she is the first lady that has the tempted anything of this nature."

A proud dad, Colden wrote to his friend Jan Gronovius,

"I (have) often thought that botany is an amusement which may be made greater to the ladies who are often at a loss to fill up their time…
Their natural curiosity and the pleasure they take in the beauty and variety of dress seems to fit it for them (far more than men). The chief reason that few or none of them have applied themselves to (it)… is because all the books of any value are (written) in Latin.
I have a daughter (with) an inclination... for natural philosophy or history…
I took the pains to explained her Linnaeus's system and put it in English for her to use by freeing it from the technical terms - which was easily done by using two or three words in the place of one.
She is now grown very fond of the study… she now understands to some degree Linnaeus's characters. Notwithstanding that she does not understand Latin.
she has already (written) a pretty large volume in writing of the description of plants."

Cadwallader was able to give his daughter personal instruction on botany. He gave her access to his impressive botanical library; he even shared his personal correspondence with her and allowed her to interact with the many botanists that came to visit the family's estate.
In 1754 at Coldenham, when Jane was 30 years old, she met a young William Bartram who was less than half her age at just 14 years old. She also met the Charleston plantsman Alexander Garden who was just 24 years old.
In 1753, on the land around her family's home, Jane discovered marsh St Johnswort (Hypericum virginicum). Alexander sent it to her the following year, and Jane wanted to name it gardenia in his honor. Unfortunately for Jane, the gardenia name had been used by John Ellis, who had given the name to the Cape Jasmine. Since Ellis used the name first, Jane could not. So gardenia is reserved for the strongly scented Cape Jasmine (Gardenia jasminoides). They are fabulous cut flowers. With their beautiful foliage, they also make effective screens, hedges, borders, or ground covers.
In 1758, Walter Rutherford wrote to a friend after visiting Coldingham, and he described Cadwallader, his home and his 34-year-old daughter Jane this way:

"We made an Excursion to Coldingham, the Abode of the venerable philosopher Colden, as gay and facetious in his conversation is serious and solid in his writings. From the middle of the woods, this family corresponds with all the learning Societies in Europe…. his daughter Jenny is a florist in botanist. she has discovered a great number of plants never before described and his given their properties and virtues ( in her descriptions).... and she draws and colors them with great beauty… she (also) makes the best cheese I ever ate in America."

As for Jane, she is most famous for her only manuscript - a work in which she described 341 plants in the flora of NY, and she illustrated all but one of the different species she described.
The genus Coldenia in the borage family is named after Jane's father, Cadwallader Colden.

This post was featured on
The Daily Gardener podcast:

helping gardeners find their roots,
one story at a time
Cadwallader Colden
Cadwallader Colden

Leave a Comment