Estate Gardener

The horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste, August 1846, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 56-57

Downing, Andrew Jackson
“The horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste", August 1846

"A Visit to Montgomery Place"

As a young man, Alexander Gilson became the head gardener at Montgomery Place. He was in charge of the estate’s nursery for approximately 50 years until his retirement in 1885. Gilson’s refined horticultural skill can be seen in the plant varieties he developed that bear his name, Begonia ‘Gilsonii’ and Iresine herbstii ‘Gilsoni.’ 

The beauty and aesthetic appeal of the grounds at Montgomery Place—which drew the admiration of Andrew Jackson Downing, the leading landscape architect in antebellum America—can be attributed largely to Gilson’s expertise.

Above: "A Visit to Montgomery Place," The Horticulturalist

Plants of Montgomery Place

Catherwood Conservatory. Stereographic card of Century Plant (Agave americana) at Montgomery Place Conservatory, 1873.

Cora Barton asked Alexander Gilson before her death to invite the neighborhood to Montgomery Place to see the spectacular specimen of Century Plant (Agave americana) that showed signs of blooming. This exotic gets its common name from the fact that it grows for what seems like a century, blooms once, then dies.

Above: Stereographic card of Century Plant (Agave americana) at Montgomery Place Conservatory, 1873

Workers at the Montgomery Place Conservatory (detail) <br />

In the summer of 1873, Gilson had this sad privilege. Family members later reminisced that Barton waited in anxious anticipation of the flowering, only to die too soon, thus linking the Century Plant's bloom, and death, with the end of the Romantic era at Montgomery Place. For the viewing, the behemoth plant had to be pulled by oxen out of the glasshouse and steadied by guy wires.  Right: Montgomery Place Conservatory 

Documented plants in the Montgomery Place Arboretum included: 

Maples, elms, horse chestnut (trees); honeysuckle, barberry, roses (shrubs); Dutchman's pipe, clematis (vines) 

Documented plants in the Montgomery Place Conservatory included:

Poppies, camellia, azalea, fuschia, gloxinia, achimenes (genus of approximately 25 tropicals and subtropicals), double brugmansia, many variegated foliage plants, and rhizomatous perennial herbs

The American Florist, Vol. 4, No. 96 (August 1, 1889), 590.<br />

The American Florist, 1889

A reader's praise for "Begonia Gilsoni":

"Mrs. Livingston, a lady from New York State and who had a colored gardener named Gilson, sent a piece of a new double-flowering begonia which her gardener had raised, to Mr. Smith for his opinion and wished him to suggest a name for it. Mr. Smith, in compliment to the gardener who raised the plant, named it after him, Begonia Gilsoni."

Gardener’s Cottage at Montgomery Place, 1982.

Above: Chris Kendall, “Gardener’s Cottage at Montgomery Place", 1982

Catherwood's Conservatory

Plan of Conservatory

In 1839, Louise Livingston commissioned architect Frederick Catherwood to design a new Gothic conservatory for Montgomery Place. The estate's old greenhouse was torn down in 1840 and the new structure was built.

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52), the renowned American landscape designer, worked with Louise's daughter, Cora Barton, to design a parterre garden of brightly colored bedding plants, walkways, and garden ornament that overwintered in the Conservatory.

Above: J. Catherwood, “Plan of Conservatory”

Gilson worked in the Conservatory and nearby Arboretum, located east of the structure. He probably lived in the Conservatory, since gardeners often were tied to a greenhouse, stoking the stoves around the clock to keep the delicate, tropical contents alive through the long winter.

Peter B. Mead, editor of The Horticulturist, described meeting Gilson at the Conservatory in 1861. "At the conservatory we found Alexander, the locum tenens [substitute operator] of the place. Alexander was born and brought up here. He is very polite and attentive, and takes a good deal of pride, as well he may, in pointing out objects of interest. The conservatory is a ridge and furrow house of large dimensions, and was filled with fuchsias, gloxinias, achimenese, hanging baskets and variegated leafed plants of great variety. All were well grown, and the house was gay with flowers."