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The Garden History of Thomas Edison

Edison ordered agaves in 1886, soon after moving in. [source]
I think about Thomas Edison quite a bit, actually.  The 'Edisonian' method of scientific investigation has been much derided as in the last half-century Science decided it knew enough about how the world worked to proceed on theoretical predictions alone.  But I haven't found that to be true, and I take myself the advice I once gave to my students; that you must, in the laboratory, take care to  "keep your wits about you" as Mark Twain said, because the unexpected results are the important ones.

And now that I have been so fortunate as to say goodbye to the university and establish my own laboratory (in the midst of finishing my book on garden history), I think of Edison alot.

After Menlo Park, there was Seminole Lodge, in Fort Myers, Florida.  He purchased property there in 1885, next door to Henry Ford, and together they experimented with plants that might become a domestic source for rubber.  The Edison Botanic Research Corporation was formed, commissioning botanical collectors far and wide to seek out promising varieties.   He had seedlings sent from foreign countries and tramped around in the swamps himself looking for specimens.  Over 17,000 plants were tested.  In the end, a giant version of the common goldenrod, dubbed Solidago Edisonia, was deemed the best candidate.  Alas, we drive not on golden tires because of the invention of synthetic rubber.

Specimens from the Edison Botanic Research Corporation are still held at the New York Botanical Garden. [source]

Edison made his own garden plan for Seminole Lodge.  It's not particularly good.  Practical, utilitarian.  But it was like him to think he could lay out a garden as well as he could lay out a laboratory.

He used soil from the adjacent Caloosahatchee River to enrich his fourteen acres, and one of the reasons he originally bought the property was that it was already established with bamboo.  Carbonized bamboo was one of the first lightbulb filaments, lasting over 1200 hours before burning out. Other specimens planted by Edison and Ford for their research still grow on the property, some having reached huge proportions in Florida's plant-friendly climate:  a 57 foot sausage tree, a 97 foot royal palm (Edison loved royal palms), a 102 foot ficus, and one of the largest banyans in the United States, now adorned with Edison's likeness.

Edison's second wife, Mina, was the one who went in for ornamental gardening; hiring society designer Ellen Biddle Shipman to make for her a 'Moonlight Garden' of  antique roses, datura, plumbago, pentas and bougainvillea, and contributing to the beautification of the public landscape of Fort Myers.


Edison's botanical research, prompted by rubber shortages in WWI, was the last of his large scientific efforts.  It was still underway when he died in 1931.  As he neared the end of his life, Edison tributes were many.  Apparently there was a press release listing his favorite flowers, though I haven't been able to track it down.  In 1929, the Thomas Edison Dahlia was introduced at the American Dahlia Society's annual show in Madison Square Garden (does Madison Square Garden still host dahlia shows?  It so should).

Milan, Ohio floral arrangement honoring Edison, 1929 [source]
My lab is in borrowed quarters for now, thanks to an investor, with no outdoor space to call our own, just a parking lot.  But sometime, sometime there will be a laboratory cum garden, with Thomas Edison dahlias planted in it.

Thomas Edison had 1,093 patents.  I have four. I think about him alot.

Wikipedia's article on Edisonian techniques is a good summary of his practical approach to scientific research.
The Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers are open to the public. 
Don't miss the NYBG article on rediscovering an Edison letter.
See also an article on the Edison gardens  in the Tampa Bay Times.
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Lauren Gilbert said...

One of my favorite places to visit is Thomas Edison's winter home in Fort Myers. If you ever come to Florida, Charlotte, you must see it. Lovely post!

Brent Morgan said...

"The 'Edisonian' method of scientific investigation has been much derided"

I'm a working scientist and I wouldn't say I've ever picked up on much derision for Edison in my career.

Very interesting article despite my quibble.

Abby said...

We have a family history book at home that talks about one of my great-great-something-or-others owning an orange grove next door to Edison. I'll have to do some more digging since I never knew how much Edison was involved with horticulture!

arcady said...

Brent, I think it is more a disdain for Edisonian trials than for the man himself. Or perhaps it's just my branch of science (materials/nanotech)

Abby, do let me know if you find anything interesting!

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