The Lemon Hill Gardener
Today is the birthday of the botanist Robert Buist who was born on this day in 1805.
Robert Buist came to America from Edinburgh "Edinburgh," where his dad was a professional gardener. He had trained at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and immigrated to Philadelphia when he was 23 years old.
One of his first jobs was working for a wealthy Philadelphia businessman named Henry Pratt, who had a tremendous summer estate named Lemon Hill. At the time, Lemon Hill was regarded as having one of the most beautiful gardens in the United States.
Eventually, Buist bought the history Bernard M'Mahon nursery - one of the oldest nurseries in the country and the nursery that supplied plants to Thomas Jefferson.
Today, on the spot where the nursery used to be, is a large old Sophora tree - known as the Buist Sophora. The tree was brought to the United States from France, and its origin can be traced to China.
In addition to the nursery, Buist grew his company to include a seed division and a greenhouse. In 1825, the Plant Explorer Joel Poinsett sent some specimens of a plant he discovered in Mexico home to Charleston. Buist heard about the plant bought himself one and began growing it. Buist named it Euphorbia poinsettia since the plant had a milky white sap like other Euphorbias. The red bracts of the plant were so unusual and surprising to Buist that he wrote it was "truly the most magnificent of all the tropical plants we have ever seen."
Of course, what Buist had been growing is the plant we know today as the poinsettia. Buist gave his friend and fellow Scot the botanist James McNab a poinsettia when he visited in 1834. McNab brought the plant back to Scotland and gave it to the head of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Robert Graham. Graham promptly changed the botanical name of the plant to Poinsettia pulcherrima - a move that greatly disgusted Buist for the rest of his life.
And, here's a fun little side note about Robert Buist. His books on gardening were very popular. When Stonewall Jackson discovered gardening in middle age, he relied heavily on Robert Buist's book “The Family Kitchen Gardener: Containing Plain and Accurate Descriptions of All the Different Species and Varieties of Culinary Vegetables, that became Jackson's gardening bible and he wrote little notes in the margins as he worked his way through the guide. Just like most gardeners still do today, he'd write, "Plant this" or "try this" in the margins next to the plants he was interested in trying the following year.