Growing the Kingdom: Mormon Pioneer Gardens

This article originally appeared in Vol.60 No.2 of Pioneer Magazine

By Emily Brooksby Wheeler, MA, MLA

Gardening was an essential activity for Utah’s pioneers, especially in the first few years after their arrival, when it provided their only sustenance. Immigrants and missionaries brought seeds and starts to Utah from all over the world, and settlers scouted the local environment to find plants for their . The gardens they created represented their desire for self-sufficiency in their new home in the Great Basin, but the gardens were also grown for pleasure and beauty. These gardens ultimately served as a testament of the pioneers’ faith. The devotion and determination of the pioneers colored the Utah landscape as they gathered seeds, grafted trees, and planted flowers.

One of the first priorities of the Mormon pioneers when they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley was to grow food for themselves and those who would follow. Brigham Young encouraged gardening for self-sufficiency throughout the pioneer period, even when food became more plentiful.1 His desire for self-sufficiency was echoed by other settlers. Edward Hunter, the head of the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, said,

“Satisfied that the future of any people is more dependent on their own hands, brains, untiring perseverance, and unconquerable will than on the best and most unbounded foreign assistance, we confess to something bordering on an enthusiastic liking to the productions of our own Territory and the workmanship of our own hands.”2

Gardening wasn’t just for food, though. Church leaders also encouraged pioneers to make their homes beautiful and surround them with pleasant gardens. An oft-repeated idea credited to Brigham Young said,

“Some will say that it is not worthwhile to plant around a log cabin. I say to you that it is worthwhile. Plant vines over your door, and trees, fruits and flowers so that every one who passes by will say ‘What a lovely little cottage.’”3

Most pioneers heeded this advice to beautify their homes and gardens. Visitors to Salt Lake City and other Mormon settlements frequently commented on the pleasant appearance of the towns.

When Utah’s first non-Mormon governor, Alfred Cumming, and his wife, Elizabeth, first came to Salt Lake City in 1858, Elizabeth described the gardens surrounding the house where they stayed:

“I wish I had a picture of it for you—for it is very pretty. It stands about 130 feet back from the street—flowers etc. in front—peach and other small trees on each side of the house and extending to the street—a large garden behind and on each side.”4

Those gardens provided the Cummings with food as well as a pleasant view. Other gardens also blended the beautiful with the practical. Some had areas for medicinal and culinary herbs among well-tended paths, benches, and grapevines.5

Many settlers saw their gardens not just as something for themselves, but as part of the work of building up God’s kingdom on Earth. They were trying to create a home that was lasting and lovely, reflecting their faith. This attitude was promoted by Mormon leaders, who reminded Church members that they were to use all of their resources to build God’s kingdom and that temporal work, including gardening, had spiritual significance and was a part of their religion.6 A visitor to Utah, Elizabeth Kane, said of the settlers of the outlying Mormon communities:

“Any reasonable people would have given up trying to produce fruit, but the Mormons are quite unreasonable in matters of faith. . . . They persevered, and so I know what perfectly delicious apples they now harvest.”7

From numerous journals, letters, and newspaper articles it is clear that gardening wasn’t just a chore or a duty. Both men and women participated in gardening and found personal satisfaction in it. In 1866, after obeying the call to help settle southern Utah, Charles Lowell Walker recorded in his journal:

“The leaves on the trees begin to appear fresh and green; also the pretty fruit blossoms delight the eyes and gladden the heart, after five years’ toil to accomplish the beautifying of the desolate and forbidding desert region.”8

Walker clearly enjoyed the results of his gardening effort, both for their visual appeal and for the difficult achievement they represented.

Gardening may have had an even more important meaning for pioneer settlers who were far from home. The General Epistle of December 23, 1847, called upon the Mormons scattered in foreign countries to come quickly to the Utah Territory,

“bringing with you all kinds of choice seeds, of grain, vegetables, fruit, shrubbery, trees and vines, everything that will please the eye, gladden the heart, or cheer the soul of man, that grows upon the face of the whole earth.”9

There was a practical aspect to this; it meant settlers were growing plants that they were familiar with and adding variety to the plants available in Utah. It also provided immigrants a connection to the homes and traditions they had left behind. They might be growing plants that had been handed down through their families and that gave them ingredients necessary to make the foods and medicines familiar to them.

Immigrants played a significant role in bringing garden plants to the Utah Territory. Mrs. Eliza Saunders Johnson, wife of nurseryman Joseph Ellis Johnson, is said to have walked across the plains carrying her baby so she could fill her wagon with plants, which she watered whenever her party stopped near a river.10 Another woman, Elizabeth Payne Hobbley, carried a rose in a teapot all the way from England to Utah, while Edward Whiting brought peonies and roses across the plains.11

Seeds and cuttings took up less space than plants and were easier to transport. The first pioneers to reach the valley brought fruit seeds and pits with them, along with other seeds.12  Pioneers from the south carried the seeds of osage orange from their homes, and some of the other early settlers brought honey locust seeds in the fingers of their gloves.13 Swiss pioneer Mary Ann Hafen recalled that her mother had to leave many valuables behind as they crossed the ocean and the plains, but once they got to southern Utah her mother planted the seeds she had “carefully carried from the old country.”14 Missionaries also brought seeds back with them from distant lands, such as catalpa from Australia.15

Though the Transcontinental Railroad did not connect Utah to the rest of the country until 1869, California provided a link between the gardens of Utah and other parts of the world. There was constant, if slow, traffic between Salt Lake City and California during the pioneer period. Brigham Young sent settlers to California soon after Mormons arrived in Utah, and the Mormon Battalion came back to Utah through California once the Mexican–American War ended. After the Gold Rush of 1849, California nurseries regularly brought plants from the eastern United States, and gardeners and nurserymen in Utah imported these plants for their own use.16

A final source for garden plants was the local environment. The first pioneers were quick to make use of native berries, and they sometimes moved native plants directly from the canyons to their yards. This included both edible and ornamental plants. The Petersen garden in Ephraim incorporated an old native juniper tree and other native plants like wild roses, chokecherries, elderberries, and strawberries.17 Charles Walker reported in his journal that he brought wild currants and plums into his yard.18 Nurseryman Joseph Ellis Johnson described the flowers he had transplanted from the mountains:

“The modest snow drop, the gay gillia, the beautiful scarlet parstamon [penstemon], the beautiful lilly [segos], the gaudy columbino [columbine], the fragrant sweet pea, phlox, and half a score of others as sweet and fine.”19

Once plants arrived in Utah, they could be redistributed in a variety of ways. In the early pioneer era, settlers traded and sold plants, cuttings, and seeds with each other. Sarah Rich received rose cuttings from her husband, who was in California, and then shared them with others, including professional gardener William Staines.20 Nurseries started selling plants around 1860. They advertised in newspapers and through paper catalogs, offering seeds and plants for edible as well as ornamental ones. Joseph Ellis Johnson was one of these early nurserymen. He wrote newspaper articles for the Deseret News about gardening and ran a nursery in the Salt Lake area, but made his home in St. George, where he imported a number of plants from California, including grapevines and roses, and experimented with bringing native plants into his garden.21

In addition to neighbors and nurseries, fairs and horticultural organizations were a valuable resource for learning about and acquiring new plants. The Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society strove to import plants from around the world and experiment with growing them in Utah. They were supported in this effort by prominent Church leaders, including Brigham Young. The society held a state fair each year in Salt Lake City, and later one in St. George, where pioneers could display the products of their gardens and win prizes in many categories.22

Church leaders sometimes took a more official role in distributing plants and gardening advice throughout the territory. These leaders traveled from town to town giving advice on everyday matters like planting fruit trees, maintaining fences, and building homes. Though local leaders and members had some latitude in how they carried out beautification, they were chastised if they did not do it at all. Church leaders also oversaw the distribution of trees and nursery stock in some cases, like that of James Starley, whom Brigham Young sent to start a nursery in Fillmore.23 This organization accounts in part for the uniformity often seen in areas settled by Mormons, though undoubtedly individual gardens would have expressed the tastes, preferences, and national background of their owners.

Gardening in Utah was a process of trial and error, and settlers were willing to experiment in finding out what would grow in their new home. This attitude toward gardens is exemplified by a quote attributed to Brigham Young:

“Let the people . . . build beautiful cities in which may be found . . . every tree, shrub and flower that will flourish in this climate, to make our mountain home a paradise, and our hearts wells of gratitude to the God of Joseph.”24

Some of the plants brought by settlers and missionaries may not have survived in Utah, and some became noxious weeds outside of their natural environments, but others added to the variety available in Utah nurseries and gardens. Settlers sometimes encountered garden plants and foods in Utah that they had never seen before. Such was the case for Elizabeth Barrows, who tried her first tomato when she came to Utah as a child.25

Regardless of how settlers obtained plants, they had a lot of options to choose from for their gardens. Individual tastes and needs would have created differences in gardens, but some generalizations can be made about what the pioneers grew. Brigham Young’s directive that Mormon settlers should be self-sufficient meant that most homes were surrounded by a number of fruiting plants. In fact, one visitor from the eastern United States said that Mormon villages looked like large orchards with houses placed in them here and there. She described one village as being “buried in fruit-trees.”26

Apples were very popular in pioneer era Utah, along with peaches, plums, pears, and other fruit trees. Fruiting bushes such as currants, elderberries, and serviceberries were also common. Vines, especially hops and grapes, were frequently mentioned in accounts and descriptions of gardens. Some of the fruit trees grown by pioneers were known cultivars, such as Northern Spy apples or Green Gage plums, which are still available today, but pioneers also grew trees from seeds and pits, introducing their own varieties of fruit not available elsewhere. Shade trees were important features of the landscape because they protected homes from the hot summer sun. Some common shade trees include cottonwood, black locust, and honey locust. These are all hardy, fast-growing trees, which probably explains much of their appeal. Lombardy poplar was used so frequently as a windbreak around Utah homes and fields that many people have come to associate it with the Mormon landscape.27

Traditional kitchen gardens were well stocked with plants for eating and other practical purposes. There are few records describing what vegetable gardens looked like—they simply were not very remarkable—but occasional comments in letters and travel narratives suggest they may have been in the old-fashioned style of square boxes or beds separated by paths.28 Nevertheless, seed catalogs and descriptions of meals provide an idea of what might have grown in these gardens. Greens, carrots, peas, turnips, potatoes, onions, and cabbage were staples in the pioneer diet. Squash and melons also seem to have been an important feature of most vegetable gardens, and tomatoes were common as well. Corn and wheat were the most frequently grown grains. Beets were often grown for producing sugar, as were imphee and sorghum.

The garden could also supply medicinal plants. Isolated settlements were often far from the reach of a doctor, and Church leaders and members sometimes expressed wariness about doctors of the time, perhaps with good reason.29 Many settlers, especially women, knew or learned how to find and use medicinal plants in their gardens, including sage, lobelia, castor oil, onion, elderberry, grapes, aspen bark, and saffron.30 Though modern medical knowledge suggests that not all of these remedies were effective, or even safe, the settlers were using the knowledge of the time to treat their illnesses and injuries. Pioneers also grew madder and indigo, which were sources for red and blue dyes, and yucca, whose roots could be used to make a type of soap.31

In addition to these practical plants, ornamental flora made up an important part of the gardens surrounding Utah homes. Pioneers grew many bulbs, annuals, and perennials, though there is not much evidence of tender annuals used for bedding displays in front of homes, which were popular elsewhere during the 19th century. While some settlers eventually may have built the greenhouses necessary for this practice, evidence from the sources indicates that most people grew more hardy ornamentals.

With the exception of tender annuals, the plants popular in Utah gardens generally reflect 19th-century garden trends. British traveler Sir Richard Burton, who visited Salt Lake City, said,

“The flowers were principally those of the Old Country—the red French bean, the rose, the geranium, and the single pink; the ground or winter cherry was common; so were nasturtiums; and we saw tansy, but not . . . mint.”32

According to Mrs. John D. Spencer, a daughter of Brigham Young, old clove pinks lined the paths at the Beehive House, and the yard contained lilacs, old roses, red “pinney” [peony] flowers, and other shrubs, flowers, fruit trees, and vines.33 Some of the most common Mormon pioneer flowers seem to have been roses, peonies, various pinks, and geraniums, though other popular flowers of the time, such as dahlias, phlox, hollyhocks, asters, and lilies were also widely available. By 1872, the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society offered prizes at the Utah State Fair for roses, china asters, balsams, verbenas, delphiniums, peonies, lilies, tulips, phlox, chrysanthemums, and hollyhocks.34

Roses were a favorite of pioneer settlers. The biblical prophecy that the desert would “blossom as the rose” (Isaiah 35:1) was repeated often, and many Mormon pioneers saw their gardens in Utah as a fulfillment of that prophecy. Some settlers transplanted wild roses to the front of their homes, but cultivated roses were quickly introduced to Utah. According to Sarah Rich’s autobiography, she got the first tame rose to bloom in the Salt Lake Valley from a cutting her husband sent her from California around 1851.35 She grafted this rose into a wild rose she had already planted by her door. In addition to roses that settlers brought with them, the commerce between nurseries in Utah and California meant that even the very latest roses were soon available in Utah. Hybrid perpetual and Bourbon roses enjoyed their heyday during this time, and Harison’s Yellow, a bright yellow rose popular among pioneers for its hardiness, still grows in fields, foothills, and around abandoned homes in Utah as a testament to the settlers’ fondness for roses.

Regardless of what type they were, plants surrounded most early Utah homes, not only for food and medicine, but also for beauty. Most Mormon settlements looked like oases in the desert or orchards interspersed with homes. This was a necessity, especially in the early years when Utah was isolated, but it also provided recreation and pleasure for the settlers and a way for them to physically express their commitment to building the kingdom of God, making their homes in the Utah Territory places that were pleasant as well as practical.

1 Brigham Young, “Sermons,” 1872, reprinted in Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers, ed. William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, 344–347, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), 389.

2 Edward Hunter, “Report of the board of directors of the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society on the exhibition of 1860,” Deseret News, October 17, 1860.

3 “Early garden advice of great leader is recounted,” Deseret News, March 5, 1938.

4 Elizabeth Wells Randall Cumming, “Letters of Elizabeth Cumming,” in Among the Mormons: Historic accounts by contemporary observers, ed. William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, 302–315, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), 309.

5 Hazel D. Moyle, “Early pioneer gardens brought astonishment to Utah visitors,” Deseret News, December 14, 1940.

6 Charles Lowell Walker, Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, Vol. 1, ed. A. Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1980), 161–168, 193, 233; Brigham Young, “Comprehensiveness of true religion—The Saints but Stewarts,” in Journal of Discourses, 1853, ed. Orson Pratt, 1:334–341. Facsimile of the First Edition, (Salt Lake City, UT, 1966), 335.

7 Elizabeth Wood Kane, “Twelve Mormon Homes Visited in succession on a Journey through Utah to Arizona,” Utah, The Mormons, and the West (Salt Lake City, UT: Tanner Trust Fund, Univ. of Utah Library, 1974), 4:68.

8 Walker, 254–255.

9 Brigham Young, “General Epistle,” reprinted in Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration 1856–1860 with Contemporary Journals, Accounts, Reports; and Rosters of Members of the Ten Handcart Companies, ed. LeRoy Hafen and Ann Hafen, Pioneers Edition (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1960), 22.

10 Hazel D. Moyle, “Lovely Utah flowers a pioneer bequest,” Deseret News, December 19, 1948.

11 Ibid; “Her flowers spread happiness,” Deseret News, December 5, 1948.

12 Kane, 86.

13 Elaine Jarvik, “Roots: Salt Lake’s oldest trees,” Deseret News, April 28, 1985.

14 Mary Ann Hafen, Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860: A Woman’s Life on the Mormon Frontier, Bison Books Edition (Lincoln and London: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2004), 21, 34.

15 Esther Truitt, “Home gardening on city lots in the Salt Lake Valley, 1847–1918,” master’s thesis, (Univ. of Connecticut, 1986), 23.

16 Thomas Christopher, In Search of Lost Roses (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), 162.

17 Moyle, “Early pioneer gardens.”

18 Walker, 169.

19 Joseph Ellis Johnson, “Culture of fruits and flowers,” Deseret News, April 15, 1863.

20 Sarah DeArmon Pea Rich, “Autobiography,” 1885, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, UT, MS 1543 folder 2, 79–80.

21 Joseph Ellis Johnson, 1868–1872. Account and garden books, Book 9, 1868–1872. Annie Clark Tanner Western Americana Collection. Univ. of Utah Libraries Special Collections Dept. Salt Lake City, UT.

22 Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, “Minute Book,” 1863–1874, Utah State Archives, Salt Lake City, UT, Series 59925.

23 Richard G. Francaviglia, The Mormon Landscape: Existence, Creation, and Perception of a Unique Image in the American West (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1978), 84–89.

24 Deseret News, “Early garden advice.”

25 Elizabeth Emma Brewer Barrows, Pioneer Personal History Interview by Alice G. Mitchell, May 26, 1938, Works Progress Administration Pioneer Personal History Collection, Utah State Univ. Archives, Logan, UT, MS COLL 18 Box 1 Folder 16.

26 Kane 7,62.

27 Wallace Stegner, Mormon Country (Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1981).

28 Kane, 111; Sir Richard Burton, The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California, 1862, excerpt reprinted in Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers, ed. William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, 328–334. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), 331.

29 Walker, 185.

30 Hafen, 48; Hyrum Allen, Pioneer Personal History Interview by Winford Bunce, January 28, 1937, Works Progress Administration Pioneer Personal History Collection, Utah State Univ. Archives, Logan, UT, MS COLL 18 Box 1 Folder 4; Martha Spence Heywood, Not by Bread Alone: The Journal of Martha Spence Heywood, 1850–56, Ed. Juanita Brooks (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1978), 116–117.

31 Hafen, 41.

32 Burton, 331.

33 Deseret News, “Early garden advice.”

34 Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society Minute Book.

35 Rich, 79.

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