Gardens, trees and flowers are symbols of American independence

“It is impossible to understand the making of America without looking at the founding fathers as farmers and gardeners.”  –Andrea Wulf, “Founding Gardeners,” 2011

Today marks 240 years since the United States Declaration of Independence was signed by members of the Continental Congress, thereby entering the 13 colonies into war with England. It’s an appropriate time to recommend reading Wulf’s book, which as she writes, “examines the creation of the American nation and the lives of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison through the lens of gardens and agriculture.”

Indeed, during the summer of 1776, planting and gardening were political acts, symbolic of domestic self-sufficiency and liberation from English rule and taxation. As General George Washington prepared his troops for battle in New York, he took time to write to the manager of his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia, instructing him to create a garden filled with American natives — white pines, tulip poplars, dogwoods and cedars — English trees were not permitted.

For Washington, trees signified America’s strength and wealth of natural resources; accordingly, he flew flags portraying green pine trees from the ships defending Boston.

The following year, Washington ordered his soldiers to march through Philadelphia wearing crowns of green branches as an act of defiance against King George III and as a sign of confidence, because ancient Greeks similarly adorned battle victors with laurel headdresses.

American forests provided many resources needed for the aspiring nation to prosper, so it’s not surprising that trees were used as symbols of freedom. An old elm tree that stood near Boston Common became the “Liberty Tree,” where in 1765 colonists staged the first act of defiance against the British government by hanging an effigy of the Stamp Act tax collector. Almost 80 years before in Hartford, Connecticut, legend has it that Connecticut’s Royal Charter was hidden in the hollow of an old white oak tree to prevent the English governor-general from confiscating it and placing more control over the colony. The “Charter Oak” tree, and all white oaks, became another symbol of American independence.

Since the Revolutionary War, gardens have also signified American autonomy and optimism. General Washington had his troops tend “regimental gardens” to bolster their rations and their spirits. During WWI and WWII, families on the American home front were encouraged to grow “victory” gardens to raise morale and increase the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. After WWII, gardeners planted red geraniums in a V for victory; the colorful flowers symbolized a bright new future for the country.

World War I soldiers wore flowers on their uniforms to represent life and hope. Also during WWI, red poppies inspired a Canadian field physician named Col. John McCrae to write the now-famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” as a tribute to his fallen comrades. Since then, red poppies have become an international symbol of remembrance for war veterans.

During the Vietnam War, flowers were used to express anti-war sentiments. “Flower children” passed out daisies and carnations to the public as a symbol of nonviolent resistance to the war. The expression “flower power” originated from American poet Allen Ginsberg in an essay titled “How to Make a March/Spectacle.” While flowers were utilized as a protest to the Vietnam War, they certainly embodied freedom of speech in America.

The Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech, was not adopted until 1791. However, the Declaration of Independence paved the way when the founding fathers pronounced, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

For several of the men who signed their names to the Declaration, pursuing a life of liberty and happiness involved growing plants. Two hundred and forty years later, I feel exactly the same way. Happy 4th of July!

Article courtesy of Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.

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