With spring well under way, flowers blooming profusely, and my thesis on native plants almost completed, the history of the botanic gardens at Mount Holyoke College is a topic well-suited for the time. Though landscaping presumably would have occurred throughout the history of the College, the botanic gardens began with the work of Professor Lydia Shattuck. Mrs. Asa Kinney, a retired professor at Mount Holyoke whose letters and essays the Library has in its archives, was interested in the gardens and she provides the following account.
“The botanical garden, later known as the Clara Leigh Dwight Garden, was started by Miss Lydia Shattuck, who taught botany and was head of the Botany Department from 1851 to 1889” and who started the garden for academic purposes. She “wished to bring the wild plants nearer her classes so they could watch their behavior when at work,” and the garden grew out of her dedication. According to Mrs. Kinney, “This early garden was made up of a number of formal beds of various shapes and sizes and covered an area about thirty by one hundred feet. Here Miss Shattuck assembled a large number of native plants, mostly herbaceous perennials, but there were a few small growing, woody specimens such as spicebush, barberry, striped maple, Rhododendron, shad bush, and sassafras. Some of these plants set out by Miss Shattuck are still growing where she planted them over sixty years ago.” Mrs. Kinney was especially impressed with the sassafras, white hellebore, white trillium, and yellow ladyslipper Miss Shattuck had planted and which still flourished at the time of Mrs. Kinney’s retirement in 1939.
Besides these well-known native plants, the early garden provided some new specimens, including a plant that “resembled the False Miterwork, Tiarella cordifolia, but differed from it in many ways.” Because Mrs. Kinney “found no such plant listed in the botany,” she “sent a specimen to the New York Botanical Garden where they had a man working on the family Saxifragaceae to which this plant belonged.” Fascinatingly, he did not find a record of such a plant, and “he recorded it, as a new species of Tiarella, calling it Tiarella hybrida and it was described under that name in the Bulletin of the New York Botanical Garden.” After researching this plant briefly online, it appears that the species did not continue, and this is not unexpected. Shortly after discussing the new species, Mrs. Kinney writes, “I was not able to propagate the plant either by seed or division and no new plants appeared around the parent plant. In a few years it died and I have never seen another plant like it.” A short-lived discovery, sadly.
Over the years, the garden expanded, and Mount Holyoke wished to find a patron to provide funding for the increase. One potential candidate was a Mr. John Dwight, “a retired New York businessman who…owned Mount Holyoke and spent his summers at the Mountain House, on top of the mountain” (emphasis mine). He became a regular visitor over the summers, and often came with his “second wife Clara Leigh, who was much interested in botany and enjoyed visiting the garden and studying the various plants found there.” According to Mrs. Kinney, “They came in a coach drawn by a span of beautiful black horses and driven by a liveried coachman.” Because “Miss Hooker thought that so long as the garden had no name, it might please Mr. Dwight and make him feel that he had a personal interest in the garden,” the College named it the Clara Leigh Dwight Garden. In the summer of 1899, the gardeners arranged the plants in one bed to spell out “Dwight.” “This seemed to please Mr. Dwight very much and when ever he had guests he always brought them to see the Dwight Garden bed,” so the bed continued as long as he lived. When the College proposed that he fund the greenhouses desired, Miss Hooker went to New York, and upon her return, she said, “I went to New York to get a ten thousand dollar greenhouse and came back with a hundred thousand dollar Art Building.” Dwight Hall remained the art building until 1971 and still stands today.
Consequently, the greenhouses needed a different patron, or rather, patrons. “The present range of greenhouses was the result of the generosity of a number of people, the largest gift was ten thousand dollars from Mr. and Mrs. James Talcott of the New York for which the houses were named, Mr. Talcott choosing the name Talcott Arboretum.” Thanks to this generous gift, the Greenhouses were constructed over, according to Mrs. Kinney, a five-year-period. However, “When the houses were ready for use, it seemed like an almost impossible task to get plants enough to fill them, as we only had fifty dollars for the purchase of plants.” The purchase of four large exotics drained that fund, but “Soon other plants began to arrive” including “a large palm tree from Dr. Read of Holyoke, a large date palm from Mr. Kellogg of Granby, a wagonload of plants from Prof. White of the State College green house in Amherst, a wagon load from Mr. Canning of the Smith College green houses, a large shipment from Mr. Cameron of the green houses at the Harvard botanical garden, a number of boxes from Mr. Nash of the New York Botanical Garden.” I conclude Mrs. Kinney’s account of the botanical gardens with “The friends of the College had solved the plant problem.”