In 1826, not long before his death, Thomas Jefferson argued for the establishment of a botanical garden at the University of Virginia. Writing to John Patton Emmet, Professor of Natural History and the garden’s appointed director, Jefferson explained the need for such a garden for the study of botany. In order for the study of plants to begin the following year, Jefferson wanted work on the garden “to be pursued at all spare times.”
While no drawings or plans of the proposed botanical garden exist, Jefferson included a numbered list of design and planting operations in a letter to Professor Emmet. Jefferson selected a piece of ground in close proximity to the Academical Village, where Alderman and Clemons Libraries and Nameless Field exist today. The six-acre, trapezoidal botanical garden was to be divided into two parts: four acres of planting beds on the flat ground, and two acres of terraced hillside for the collection of trees. In typical Jeffersonian fashion, the garden was to be enclosed by a serpentine wall. For the plants, Jefferson broadly stipulated “objects of use,” and those worthy of botanical study. He was more specific about the trees “of distinguished usefulness,” listing exotic species such as the Larch, Cedar of Lebanon, Cork Oak, and the Teak tree.
Jefferson’s desire for a botanical garden at the University is clear from the letters that he wrote to several correspondents on the subject in 1826, listing its construction in “some notes of things of strong urgency.” Unfortunately, several months after Jefferson’s death on July 4 of that year, Professor Emmet asked the Board of Visitors to be relieved of his duties of teaching botany and directing the botanical garden. The University of Virginia was thus deprived of its founder’s intended botanical garden.
Excerpts from Lily Fox-Bruguière, “An Uncultivated Legacy: Jefferson’s Botanical Garden at the University of Virginia,” (M. Arch. Hist. Thesis, University of Virginia, 2010).