The gardenia is a familiar, fragrant flowering plant with whitish flowers. Obviously, it derived its Latin name from the word “garden,” but it was not named for a place full of plants, but a physician and naturalist who lived in Charleston, South Carolina during the eighteenth century.
Alexander Garden was born in Birse, Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1730. He studied at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, receiving an MD from the latter school. He served as a surgeon in the British navy for several years, but resigned, he said, because he could not overcome sea sickness. A lung complaint, probably tuberculosis, may also have played a part in his decision.
He emigrated to South Carolina in 1752 in hopes of improving his health and income. In the latter goal, at least, he succeeded. South Carolina was not only the wealthiest British North American colony, it was also the unhealthiest. Garden married a wealthy local heiress, Elizabeth Peronneau, and soon had a flourishing practice in the provincial capital, Charlestown). (Image: Charlestown harbor, 1760s)
By the time of the American Revolution Garden had become the richest physician in the colony, and had bought a plantation in nearby Goose Creek, which he named Otranto.
His passion, however was natural history, initially botany, but later zoology. In South Carolina, Garden collected specimens of many new species and sent them to European naturalists, especially John Ellis of London. As a reward, Ellis urged the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus to name a new genus or species after Garden.
Linnaeus had invented the modern system of biological classification, and currently had the final say on naming. Garden and Linnaeus also opened a correspondence that lasted for several years. (Image: Linnaeus)
In 1757, Ellis failed to convince Linnaeus to name a South Carolina plant after Garden, the Calycanthus floridus (Sweet Shrub, below).
The next year, Ellis first set eyes on an attractive, fragrant plant that a ship had recently brought from South Africa. He soon began a campaign to get Linnaeus to name it after Garden. Linnaeus initially refused, saying he preferred to give the name to a plant discovered by Garden himself, or another species. In 1760, Linnaeus reluctantly agreed to the name gardenia, giving Garden what Ellis called a “Species of Eternity.”
The honor impressed many of Garden’s acquaintances in Charlestown, but one medical colleague was apparently jealous. Dr. Louis Mottet is alleged to have scoffed that he had discovered a very beautiful local plant, and named it “Lucia” after his cook, Lucy.
In the following years, Garden continued to make contributions to natural history, including the discovery of new species of amphibians and fish. (Image: Siren lacertina)
In 1773, Garden was elected to membership of the Royal Society of London, Britain’s most prestigious scientific organization. Among those who nominated him were Ellis and Benjamin Franklin. During these years Garden became a close friend of many leading figures of South Carolina, among them Henry Laurens, later president of the Continental Congress. Garden mentored and adored Laurens’ son John Laurens, who served as a a Patriot officer during the American Revolution, and was killed in one of its last engagements (Aug. 1782).
The War for Independence proved disastrous for Garden. He tried, unsuccessfully, to remain neutral. His family divided. During the British occupation of Charleston (1780-82), his daughter Harriette married a British officer. His son Alex joined the Continental Army, rising to the rank of major.
In 1782, the South Carolina State Assembly banished Garden as a Loyalist for having signed a memorial congratulating Lord Cornwallis on his victory at the Battle of Camden. The government of South Carolina confiscated most of his property, although Alex was allowed to keep Otranto. (Image: Battle of Camden)
When the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782, Garden, his wife, and younger daughter Juliette went into exile in London. He died there in 1791, most likely of tuberculosis. During his time in London, he was an active member of the Royal Society, and was elected vice-president.
Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, Alexander Garden of Charles Town (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969)
James Edward Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus and Other Naturalists (2 vols., London, 1821)