By Staci L. Catron and Anna Rose Gable
Since mail-order seed businesses began in the mid-19th century, gardeners all over the country have poured over catalogs of seeds and plants each spring, plotting what will surely be their best garden ever. The Cherokee Garden Library at the Atlanta History Center has a unique Seed and Nursery Catalog collection that represents over 500 seed, nursery, and supply companies, dating from 1827 to the present.
The most engaging catalogs date from 1830 to the 1940s. These treasures offer both beautiful and significant multidisciplinary historical records. The catalogs document the history of the seed business in the United States, with a focus on the Southeastern region. Historic seed and nursery catalogs are windows into our horticultural past. They tell us which plants and seeds were available in different time periods. The catalogs include valuable information on varieties, requirements for growing, and planting schedules in addition to trends in Southern farming, gardening, and landscape design.
The library is also home to the Hastings Seed Company records. Like catalogs from other locations, early Hastings’ catalogs list a variety of vegetable seeds, bulbs, herbs, and flowers seeds popular in Georgia in the early 20th century. Established in Florida in 1889, H.G. Hastings & Co. moved to Atlanta ten years later to centralize its mail order business, specializing in garden and field seeds as well as nursery stock. In doing so, the family business maintained an interest in aiding Southern agricultural farmers and home gardeners.
Our staff uses these invaluable resources in the selection and interpretation of Goizueta Gardens at the Atlanta History Center.
Upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) has been grown all over the world for centuries and is the dominant species used as the source of cotton fibers for making cloth. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made upland cotton profitable and cemented the antebellum South’s dependence on the slave economy. Visitors to the Smith Family Farm often comment on how tall the cotton plants are. On Robert Smith’s rural Georgia farm in the mid-19th century, upland cotton had not yet been selectively bread for compact plants that could be picked by machines, like the cotton you might see growing in rural Georgia today.
Today’s cotton growers use chemicals called Plant Growth Regulators to even further limit the vegetative growth of cotton plants.
Turnips (Brassica rapa) play an all-star role in Southern agriculture, boasting roots and greens tasty to humans and livestock alike at every stage of growth. The Smiths and the enslaved workers on their farm almost certainly cultivated heirloom varieties of turnips like ‘Purple Top Globe’ and ‘Amber Globe,’ which visitors can see growing in spring and fall at Smith Family Farm.
Our research suggests that the Smiths probably grew one of several strawberries available in 1860s Georgia, none of which were featured in this 1912 catalog, which promotes its ever juicier and more prolific offerings. Although native strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) grow at Smith Family Farm today, the varieties the family might have cultivated in their strawberry patch have been lost—a reminder that saving and sharing heirloom and native seeds is an important part of preserving our horticulture history.
A variety of watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) dating back to the 1830s called ‘Georgia Rattlesnake’ grows at Smith Family Farm all summer long and can weigh 25 to 30 pounds when mature! It is known for its productive vine and sweet rose colored flesh—you can definitely do some serious seed spitting from your front porch with this one.
Lima beans or butter beans (Phaseolus lunatus) called ‘Jackson Wonder’ were developed by Thomas Jackson of Atlanta for market gardeners who did not want the trouble of growing lima beans on poles. David Landreth & Sons of Philadelphia introduced the Jackson Wonder Lima Bean in 1888. This lima bean is a beauty—scarlet in color with maroon speckles—and will give you beans all summer long.
Pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are a staple in any Southern vegetable garden, including the Smiths’. The Hastings Seed Company introduced the ‘Macaslan’ pole bean in its 1912 Catalogue:
“The McCasland bean came to us in a peculiar way. A Mr. McCasland, one of our Georgia customers, had been a great admirer of our house and a planter of Hastings' Seeds for years. On his death a few years ago Mrs. McCasland sent us a pint of this bean with a statement that it had been in the family for years and that her husband before his death had expressed the wish that this splendid bean should be placed in our hands. She also asked that we name it after her husband, which we gladly do, although we would have been greatly pleased to have given our own name to it.”
Somewhere along the line the “d” was dropped from the McCashland name and the pole bean became known as the McCalsan pole bean.
Corn (Zea mays) has been a staple in Southern agriculture for centuries. The heirloom white corn called ‘Hickory Cane Dent Corn’ grown at Smith Family Farm was originally cultivated by Native Americans in South Georgia and North Florida. It gained popularity throughout the South, particularly in Appalachia, as fodder for animals and for food—grits, hominy, roasting ears, creamed corn as well as for cornmeal and whiskey. Dent corn gets its name from the small indentation that forms on each kernel when dried.
Ornamental flowers, as well as vegetables and crops, were part of the landscape on Georgia farms in the mid-1800s. Among the many flowers grown in the yard at Smith Family Farm are African marigolds (Tagetes erecta) and pinks (Dianthus spp). African marigolds are beloved for their bright, large, fully double flower heads. Although generally called African marigolds because they were introduced to North America from that continent, they are native to Mexico and Central America.