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A Snuff-box Full of Trees

November 18, 2009
Book Cover for A Snuff-Box  Full of Trees By  William De Lancey Ellwanger
© 1909

California gave to the world in 1849 not only the most wondrous wealth known up to that time, but also the tallest trees that ever grew toward heaven. Somewhere in the early fifties G. H. Woodruff joined the throng of gold hunters and went west to seek his fortune. So far as is known he found no gold, but, as the story runs, after a year or more of disappointments, he found himself one day in the forest primeval, forlorn and disconsolate. He threw himself on the ground, and, yielding to despair, gazed up into the treetops for help or resignation. Above him towered the big trees of the world, the grand Giganteas. You may call them, as you please, Gigantea, Washingtonia, or Wellingtonia. Their generic name is an arbitrary one, and it is still a disputed question whether they were first found and named by an Englishman or an American. No worry of nomenclature disturbed Mr. Woodruff”, but he knew trees. They had been part and parcel of his education, and as he lay on his back and looked up into their glorious heights, he appreciated their grandeur and rejoiced in their beauty. Also he noticed that the squirrels were nibbling at the cones above him, and dropping some of the seed shells at his feet. He thought that these seeds might be propagated successfully, and gathered a number of them. These he put into a snuff-box and at the first opportunity sent them to Ellwanger & Barry, nurserymen, at Rochester, N. Y. The snuff-box came by pony express across the continent, and the express charges for the little packet were $25. The seeds were duly sown and propagated by Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry, as appears from a letter in which they said:

January 11, 1855.

We have already one box of the seed sowed in our rose house under glass, a nice temperature of about 50 to 60 degrees. If it will do well anywhere it must do there. We shall sow all in boxes under glass, as the plants will be less liable to damp antf wither off. We have agreed to grow the plants on shares as proposed, but if you prefer to sell it you might name your price for it.

More seeds were afterward gathered and sent and propagated, with results shown in a second letter :

January 26, 1856.

We did all in our power with them; some of the seeds never vegetated and some came slowly. They have been coming through the ground all summer. We have succeeded in obtaining about 4000 plants, all of which are out of danger, we think; they are all in pots, and as there is no demand yet for them in this country we have shipped 400 to England to be sold, and shall send more as needed. We intend to advertise them here this spring at $2 per plant.

So much for the finding of these seeds and their propagation. Their subsequent growth and development, and their dispersion from Rochester over all of Europe, make an other chapter in their story. If it seems a far cry from these little potted pigmies to the giants of the forest, it is necessary only to turn to Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry’s catalogue of 1857 for encouragement as to their possibilities. In that catalogue these plants were thus offered for sale:

“Washingtonia Gigantea, the Celebrated Big Tree of California; Wellingtonia of the English, and Sequoia of the French; one of the most majestic trees in the world. Specimens have been measured upward of 300 feet in height and thirty-two feet in diameter three feet from the ground. We think it will prove hardy here, as several specimens stood out unprotected last winter. Mr. Reid, of New Jersey, has also found it hardy with him. One dollar to two dollars.”

But either this advertisement was too modest or the commendation too conservative, for the plants found few buyers here. Even in 1856 the growers had to look to foreign markets for the sale of the greatest native American industry, if a big tree of California, 300 feet high, may be so characterized. William Skirving, nurseryman, of Liverpool, England, bought the first hundred of the plants in that year. Later he bought 250 more, then again 500 and 500 and 500 and 500, making in all 2350. So the squirrel seeds began to take root and grow and spread in English soil. And Mr. Skirving’s purchase proved profitable to him in more ways than one. For he has told that when the first in voice of plants arrived he was quite ill and confined to his bed. His head gardener was so impressed with the beauty of the plants that he brought a box of them for admiration to Mr. Skirving’s bedside. The very sight of them, Mr. Skirving declared, made him a well man again. This was his own story to Mr. Ellwanger when the latter visited him, and the circumstances may go to prove that there is more healing balsam and resinous health in the evergreens of California than Bret Harte has ever dared to sing. Mr. Skirving went on to say that shortly afterward a certain duke whose estates were in Wales happened to call upon him. The duke had a fondness for conifers, as is characteristic of wealthy and exalted personages, it being well understood that far beyond roses and lilies and orchids and all the shrubs and trees that ever grew, a taste for conifers is the supreme refinement. It is the top note in the gamut of all songs of beauty and nature, whether people most love books or trees or pictures or porcelains or whatsoever it may be. The late Charles A. Dana, who knew most everything that was good, knew this also, and, it is said, loved his evergreens more than all his other treasures. But, be that as it may, in the course of conversation, the duke boasted to Mr. Skirving that he had recently made a find of a few plants of the Wellingtonia, for which he had paid two guineas apiece. These he bought at Veitch’s, he of the Ampelopsis, to describe him familiarly, for surely the Ampelopsis Veitchii is a household word. Mr. Skirving promptly offered to sell the duke any number at one guinea, and the duke as quickly bought a hundred, which he planted in an avenue. If they have grown and thrived, as is said, they must make an imposing sight by this time.

Of the plants which Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry propagated, several hundred were also sent to a well-known English nurseryman, Thomas Rivers. Of the dispersion of these there is no trace. Other dukes and potentates may have purchased them. The following record, however, is interesting. It is quoted from the memoirs of Tennyson, recently published. In the first chapter of volume 2 the poet’s son writes that the great event of 1864 was Garibaldi’s visit to the Tennysons. “My mother wrote in April,” he says, “A. and I went out to fix a spot in our garden where the Wellingtonia should be planted by him (given to A. by the Duchess of Sutherland and raised by her from a cone that had been shot from a tree 300 feet high in California).” Some of the circumstances are then told connected with the planting of the tree and the ceremonies attending it, as graced by Garibaldi’s presence and favor. Many strangers were there, and “when the tree was planted they gave a shout.” It is to be hoped that the shout was in honor of the tree itself, as well as for its sponsor or foster-father or either of its worthy namesakes.

So, from Mr. Woodruff’s snuff-box have come almost all important specimens of the Gigantea in Europe and in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. You can find them in the botanical gardens in Bordeaux, at Kew, in Madrid, in Switzerland and elsewhere. There are one or two in Boston. Of the original propagation a group of seven fine specimens are growing in the home nursery grounds of Ellwanger & Barry. These trees are now about fifty feet high, and, except that our winter winds are sometimes unkind to them, and the heads of one or two show signs of baldness, they bear their years and honors well. They are somewhat shielded by neighboring firs, yet they doubtless miss the protection which favored them in their original habitat. But nothing can rob them of their dignity. So long as they live they will have a majesty of their own. They must have known and asserted their importance when they were hardly inches high in the rose house, for even then they had a fair money value, and in 1865 Ellwanger & Barry paid to Mr. Woodruff as his half profits for his seed gathering $1030.60. It may be added that no similar large propagation of seed has been attempted here, or, if accomplished, would be likely to prove financially successful. Seed is now easily obtainable, but the plants would no longer be a novelty in the horticultural market.

 A Snuff-Box Full of Trees is the last book that was published by William De Lancey Ellwanger who was the last living son of George Ellwangera and the only one to survive him.   The complete book is available online at  Three  of the four Ellwanger sons  became authors with George H Ellwanger perhaps being the most celebrated.   We will highlight all the books written by the Ellwangers in an upcoming post and review the lives and careers of each over time.   A sketch of the Ellwanger & Barry Families’ Histories can be found  here. among  the online archive of University of Rochester Library Bulletins.  The local  climate eventually claimed all of  the Sequoias planted in Rochester by Ellwanger & Barry; the last one was cut down in 1925           
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