The Gardener's Apprentice

Edison’s Plants and Plans

Thomas Edison—1847-1931—was an American original, who held 1,093 U.S. patents and invented devices that changed life for just about everyone.  From the first practical electric light bulb to the stock ticker, Edison was a genius at coming up with new ideas, but, unlike many genius/inventors, he was also adept at setting up manufacturing processes and distribution methods. Though he has been gone over eighty years, he was and is a source of pride in my adopted home state of New Jersey.

Thomas Edison was a singular individual.  Though less well-known, his namesake plant, ‘Thomas A. Edison,’ is a singular dahlia.  Standing three to four feet tall, ‘Thomas A. Edison,’ is a formal, decorative type with rich, dark purple flowers that seem to shade darker at the center. The dahlia was introduced in 1929, two years before Edison’s death and, most likely, a few months in advance of the October stock market crash.  “The Wizard of Menlo Park” apparently approved of his eponymous dahlia, at least according to catalog prose issued by catalog merchant, L.L. Olds, in 1939.  Modern bulb vendor, Scott Kunst, notes this in his Old House Gardens catalog, which offers the plant for sale.

I decided to search out other Edison/gardening connections, but as far as namesake plants, I came up empty handed. From what I can tell, only the dahlia memorializes the inventor.

Despite the lack of namesakes, Edison had a strong connection to horticulture. The inventor experimented with various types of bamboo plants, in an effort to find a long-lasting filament material for the incandescent light bulb.  He surrounded his home, “Glenmont,” in West Orange, New Jersey, with a variety of common and exotic trees.    But Edison’s real horticultural showplace was “Seminole Lodge,” his winter refuge in Fort Myers, Florida.  The estate, purchased in 1885, eventually contained many garden areas. It is now owned by the City of Fort Myers and since 1990 has been merged with the neighboring retreat of Edison’s friend, Henry Ford.  The Edison & Ford Winter Estates, including the two properties, buildings, laboratories and gardens, are restored and open to the public.

Edison, along with Ford and tire magnate Harvey Firestone, were, not surprisingly, concerned with rubber and America’s dependence on foreign rubber sources.  They set about experimenting with various plant species in the hopes of finding one that would yield a rubber-like substance that could be produced successfully and cheaply in the United States.  To further their rubber work, the trio set up the Edison Botanic Research Corporation on the grounds of Seminole Lodge. Thomas Edison guided this endeavor and led an effort that resulted in the growing, testing and hybridizing of over 17,000 plants.  According to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates website, the plant that finally ended Edison’s quest was a hybrid goldenrod or Solidago.  The Edison Botanic Research Corporation outlived Edison, by a few years.  After the inventor’s death, Henry Ford moved the operation to a property in Savannah, Georgia. The United States Department of Agriculture continued the work during World War II.  Eventually synthetic rubber was developed, which is why we are not all driving on tires made from goldenrod.

Many of Edison’s personal papers on these horticultural efforts are housed at the New York Botanical Garden, where he served on the Board of Governors from 1930-1931.

At Seminole Lodge, Edison planned out much of his own landscape, a drawing of which still survives at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates.  The Research Garden area included many herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees that the inventor used in his various research efforts.  Pioneering landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman, who also designed gardens for the Fords and many other luminaries of the time, created a “Moonlight Garden” for the estate.  Installed in 1929, the Shipman design was restored in 2006.  Plantings there include a selection of antique roses, plus angels’ trumpet or datura, plumbago, pentas and bougainvillea.

I don’t think there is much danger that Americans will forget Thomas Alva Edison and his fabled inventions.  I am putting a little of the Wizard of Menlo Park in my own garden next summer, adding a ‘Thomas A. Edison’ dahlia, along with a few well-mannered goldenrods.  Since I don’t have to worry about harvesting a viable source of latex, I’ll find great pleasure in the contrasting colors of the two plant varieties.

For your own Edison souvenir, purchase the ‘Thomas A. Edison’ dahlia, in all its purple glory, from Old House Gardens, 536 Third Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48103; (734) 995-1486; www.oldhousegardens.com.  Print catalog $2.00.