This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V22", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
On July 13, 1880, died at Rosedale, Philadelphia, Robert Buist, aged seventy-five years. Horticulture does not yet know the full value of the friend it has lost. When John Bartram was wandering through the wild forests of the " Colonies," risking his life among wild beasts and savages, and exposed to innumerable privations and sufferings, all for the love of flowers, he received no sympathy from any neighborly friend. He wrote rather complainingly to his friend Catcott, that he knew not of a solitary one who would walk a mile with him. Now, as we look back on the proud position which he occupies, as the great patriarch of American Botany, there are hundreds who feel that they would gladly have accompanied him and have felt proud of the honor. 'Just so will future horticultural generations feel towards Robert Buist. The present know a great deal of what he has done for them, but the full value of all will grow brighter as time rolls along.
Robert Buist was born at Cupar Fyfe, near Edinburg, Scotland, on the 14th of November, 1805, and when quite young went to learn the business of a gardener under the late James McNab, curator of the Edinburg Botanic Gardens, where he imbibed that genuine love of flowers, which was a marked characteristic of his all through life. To complete his knowledge in all other branches of gardening, he went through a course at Elvaston Castle, the seat of the Earl of Harrington, one of the most famous garden-iag establishments in England. In August, 1828, he arrived in America, and obtained employment in the nursery of D. Landreth, which at that time was one of the best known in America. The Camellia houses were particularly famous, and C. Landrethii remains to this day a worthy monument of the early efforts of this firm to improve the Camellia. This nursery is now wholly built over by the great city of Philadelphia, the " Landreth Public School" being perhaps all that remains to indicate the spot where young Buist had his first lesson in American experience. That first lesson was to hoe weeds.
Thirty years ago he took the writer of this to the exact spot where he first struck the hoe in the ground " with," said he, " the weeds half as high as myself, and the tears running down my cheeks as I thought of my native land, and wished that I was still there." He soon obtained a situation as gardener to Henry Pratt, who, at that time, had perhaps the most beautiful garden in the United States. This was at Lemon Hill, and was a couple of miles or so out of Philadelphia, a city which has since extended twelve miles be-yond - and " Pratt's Garden " is now a part of East Fairmount Park.
It was about the time of young Buist's arrival in Philadelphia that the tremendous strides in horticulture about Philadelphia began, in which he subsequently took a leading part. The nurseries then in existence in and near the city were Bartram's, conducted by Colonel Carr; McMahon's near Broad and Germantown Road; Landreth's, in Moyamensing; Maupay's, at Rising Sun, and Hibbert's, which was the first conspicuously florists' establishment. In the whole city of Philadelphia there were only two greenhouses which kept gardeners, though there were a few more in the suburbs. Such a thing as a bedding plant was unknown. Hardy herbaceous plants and box edgings made up the chief garden attractions, and only those who had greenhouses with rare exotics believed they had much of which to be particularly proud. The year after Mr. Buist settled in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society had its first grand exhibition, and from this time the love of gardening went steadily forward.
In 1830, Mr. Buist entered into partnership with Mr. Hibbert, and Hibbert & Buist did an immense business as florists at Twelfth and Lombard streets. They commenced at once the importation of rare plants and flowers, paying attention especially to the rose. This flower was and always will be popular, no matter how taste may change in other respects, and, next to the Camellia, perhaps, held the leading place in the regard of Philadelphians. Rapid and successful propagation was not then as it is now, and prices were correspondingly high. Good roses brought $1, such as now sell for 35 or 50 cents. Among the importations of H. & B. about this time were the Noisette rose, Jaune des Prez, on which they made a clear profit of $1,000. It should be here noted that Mr. Buist was the first to inaugurate the sale of plants in markets, or rather on the streets of Philadelphia - for Philadelphia has no floral market house - and it was through this far Beeing plan that so many of the rare roses were sold. Finally, purchasing the interest of Mr. Hibbert on the latter's death, he commenced the seed business at 84 Chestnut street, in connection with the nursery and greenhouse business.
As the business grew he took a larger one at 97 Chestnut street, and finally purchased the large building 922 Market street, and after placing it on a substantial footing, resigned it to his second son, Robert, who has for some years past continued in the prosperous career commenced by his father.
Resuming, however, the floral part of Mr. Buist's career, it was not long after the introduction of the rarer roses that he obtained, through Tweedie, an energetic plant collector - and after whom Sir William Hooker named the genus Tweedia - the first of our pretty garden Verbenas, V. Tweediana. This Mr. Tweedie sent from Buenos Ayres, in 1834. Mr. Buist at once commenced their improvement, and with such success that his seedlings were in immense demand in Europe, and made him well-known there. In 1840, hundreds of plants of Verbenas - Hendersonii, V. McArraniana and V. Buisti - were sold in England. These were all seedlings of Mr. Buist. It may be here noted that it was in consequence of these Verbenas that Mr. Buist's name became familiar to the writer oi this sketch, and which a few years later led to a correspondence, which finally resulted in the acceptance by him of an invitation by Mr. Buist to settle in Philadelphia. It was the improvement of the Verbena that first led to the introduction of the distinct class of bedding plants, which now form so large a part of the florista trade.
Large numbers of rare plants were not only introduced here for the first time through Mr. Buist's agency, but came directly from other countries, and sent by him for the first time to flower lovers in the old world. Poinsetta pul-cherrima was his primal introduction through the Mexican Minister, Mr. Poinsett, and the double one, which has recently appeared and is so popular, was introduced into Europe by him. "It was,"he said to the writer, " probably the first time in the history of the world that a sale of a flower was made by the ocean telegraph." He was extremely fond of improving flowers; and perhaps the last sale he ever made to Europeans was the whole stock of a pure dwarf white Azalea of his raising, which sale he made in the spring of the present year.
In 1848, his Twelfth street premises had become too small for his florist business, and he bought the land for the present famous Rose-dale, in which the present writer became connected with him, remaining with him till the final removal of the establishment there in 1850.
But the influence of Mr. Buist on horticulture was not confined to the progress of horticulture about his adopted city; he was well-known everywhere by his writings and by the encouragement which he gave to every literary enterprise of a horticultural character. His "Rose Manual," his " Family Kitchen Garden," and his " Flower Garden Directory," were in their day among the most popular of practical garden guides. When Mr. A. J. Downing first projected the Horticulturist, he found in Mr. Buist a good adviser and warm friend. After an interview with him by Mr. Downing, he gave the writer of this sketch an account of the project, expressed his desire that it might be a complete success, and hoped the writer would contribute notes to it, if able. The writer then suggested that if Mr. Buist would furnish him with a full set of varieties of any one kind of vegetable, he would make regular notes of their growth and relative value, and contribute them to the Horticulturist. This was done, and the article in time appeared, the first from the pen of the writer to any American magazine, through Mr. Buist's encouragement.
But, perhaps, in no way was Mr. Buist's influence on American horticulture more marked than by the encouragement he was always will ing to give to the better class of European gar ieners who desired to emigrate to America. Nothing gave him more delight than to have these men about him, and the knowledge of these generous traits made him a sort of head-centre of information. Those in need of skilled assistance looked to him for advice in time of need, to an extent that but few can have the slightest conception of. It was a happy thought in Col.Wilder, when presenting to the Massachusetts Society the memorial resolutions on Mr. Buist's death, to refer to this as among the great-estin the sphere of his usefulness. " He not only introduced rare plants, but rare men, - he did a double service." The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, of which until his death he was one of the Vice Presidents, and the American Pomo-logical Society, which he helped to establish, have lost in him one of their most energetic officers and sustainers.
Personally, Mr. Buist was tall, and to his death as straight as a well-trained soldier. He had been some time ailing, but long after he had ceased to take any interest in other worldly affairs, the Gardener's Monthly, and a favorite London norticultural paper were his constant companions, showing his interest in his favorite pursuit to the last.
And he had his faults as well as his virtues; of these it is not our province to write, but we will say, that these faults, whatever they may have been, were unlike the faults of many men. He had not one gross habit or taste. He was a model of justice, and honor, and plainness of speech; and if those, who think it is the part of a biographer to look at all sides of a man's life, choose to step into the writer's place, the worst that they could say of him would probably be that in the pursuit of what he believed just and true, he was no more able to hit the mark on every occasion than any other man. He came about as near to perfection as we may expect to find in our times.
Mr. Buist was thrice married. His eldest son died some years ago. He leaves behind him a widow; his only living son Robert, the well-known seedsman: and two daughters.
There being no one to succeed to his florist business it was closed out in 1876, only enough being retained to keep up his interest to his death. The city is fast growing towards Rosedale, and in a few years the chapter of his immediate work will be closed, and streets and buildings occupy the ground where the rare trees he planted and loved still interest the lovers of nature.