Mexican tiger flowers, wild tobacco, Parrot Pitcher Plant, American Black Elderberry, Inkberry, Rattlesnackmaster, Breadfruit, Tarragon, Marsh Foxtail, and Green Arrow Arum were some of 3,000 plants grown by Dr. David Hosack at the Elgin Botanic Garden in 1803, now the site of Rockefeller Center. Almost forgotten, Dr. David Hosack is the subject of Victoria Johnson’s book American Eden. Hosack was a medical doctor as well as a professor at Columbia. In 1797 he founded the first botanic garden in the United States.
Hosack purchased 20 acres of land on a country lane (47-50 st). This piece of property was home to many native species. He spent his own money buying oxen, plows, horses, manure, laborers, gardeners, etc. in order to create his vision of public botanic garden. According to Johnson, in todays dollars, Hosack spent $1 million on the establishment of Elgin Botanic Garden.
Hosack was ambitious. He built a 200 ft long. x 20 ft. high conservatory. He grew plants from all over the world. Johnson: “Visitors reported a swirl of colors and aromas upon entering the greenhouse.” Hosack believed in the healing power of plants. The botanic garden was used for pharmacological research, chemical experiments, scientific comparison between native and non-native species.
In addition, Hosack created the first citizen science project. He asked Americans to map native species throughout the country. Bloomberg wasn’t first guy to want to plant a million trees, Hosack had a city wide campaign to plant trees in the New York City.
Johnson’s delivery of Hosack’s story was dazzling. Her book American Eden has received fantastic reviews, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the author is a good speaker. Johnson reminded us that men of the generation of Hosack, felt a responsibility to contribute to the new nation. Hosack was one of the founding members of numerous institutions in the city, including the New York Historical Society and Literary and Philosophical Society of New York.
Hosack dream came to an end, when Columbia University decided that the property the Elgin Botanic Garden occupied was extremely valuable. Hosack watched the garden fall be dismantled (plants sold, conservatory fell apart, arboretum ripped out)
Hosack purchased the painting, entitled “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” after the destruction of the Elgin Botanic Garden.
American Eden The 2018 Andrew Carnegie Distinguished Lecture, organized by the NYBG had special significance. First, it took place at Christie’s, across the street from Rockefeller Center. Everyone sitting in the room at Christie’s tried to imagine the land between 47-50st. as a botanic garden. Johnson pointed out that the founders of the New York Botanical Garden were “Hosack’s intellectual grandchildren”. As a very special gift for attending the lecture, we received a copy of American Eden. I started it on the subway ride home.
Distinguished Lecture 2018
with author Victoria Johnson
Thursday, October 18, 2018