If Rockefeller Center is haunted, a likely candidate for the ghost is David Hosack, the doctor-botanist who assembled a major plant collection on the site starting in 1801. Future archaeologists will sift out artifacts of his beloved 20-acre Elgin Botanic Garden, digging below the office towers, skating rink and promenade, layers beneath Radio City Music Hall.Victoria Johnson’s “American Eden” unearths Hosack, who was lauded in his lifetime but largely forgotten since.
Hosack’s Columbia lectures were, as one student said, “as good as the theater,” and so is Johnson’s storytelling. She weaves his biography with threads of history — political, medical and scientific — and the tale of an up-and-coming New York City.Naturalists across the Atlantic considered Hosack a peer. Jefferson sent him seeds. An innovative medical practitioner, he was the friend and doctor Hamilton and Burr had in attendance on that July morning along the Weehawken cliffs for their ill-starred duel. Did Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” leave you with an appetite for more? “American Eden” will not disappoint.ImageTireless and gregarious, Hosack was a part of that productive generation of the first years of the new Republic. While politically neutral (science “knows not party politics”), he helped found the city’s cultural and scientific institutions, from the New-York Historical Society to the city’s first museum of natural history. If the cast of characters Johnson calls up seems dizzyingly large, it is because everyone seemed to know David Hosack.He planned the Elgin Botanic Garden as an outdoor classroom. Applied botany was, to Hosack’s mind, important for everyone — farmers, druggists, manufacturers — but especially his Columbia medical students. Every doctor needed to know plant remedies.Johnson’s lyrical prose breathes life into the New York City of 200 years ago. She describes Hosack’s trip north from his home at 65 Broadway, in today’s Lower Manhattan, to acquire land. He “forded a creek and passed the towering grass-tufted bluff New Yorkers called Bayard’s Mount,” she writes. “And then he rode off the city map.” There Hosack found a pastoral landscape dominated by sweeping views of both rivers and an abundance of native flora. That is where he planted his garden.It wasn’t America’s first botanic garden. William Bartram’s garden in Philadelphia and William Prince’s Linnaean Botanic Garden in Flushing, Queens, both predated the Elgin, but both had commercial intent — their gardens supported nurseries in the business of selling plants. Johnson underscores that Hosack created the first public garden in the United States, a garden with educational objectives.He built the Elgin — named for his father’s home in Scotland — at his own expense. But as many can attest, gardens are money pits. Lacking funds, they fade. Hosack tried but failed to secure steady financial backing from Columbia, the state and the New York Agricultural Society. In 1814 Columbia took the deed for Elgin with reluctance and no commitment. Within two decades the Elgin Botanic Garden was gone — plants dispersed, carriage drives overgrown, glasshouses demolished. (Columbia held on to the real estate and, in 1985, received $400 million for it in a deal with the Rockefeller Group.)He was a peculiar sort of hero, a hero who failed in his lifetime but seeded a path forward with his zealous dedication. The cadre of students he trained led the next great wave of American botany. Like his pressed plant specimens from the Elgin, preserved in the collection of the New York Botanical Garden’s Steere Herbarium, his legacy persists. In her ambitious and entertaining book Johnson connects past to present. David Hosack’s garden may have been short-lived, but in our parks, gardens, medical practices and pharmacology, his efforts continue to bear fruit.Marta McDowell teaches landscape history at the New York Botanical Garden. Her books include “All the Presidents’ Gardens” and “Emily Dickinson’s Gardens.”A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Garden Grown