The winter was a mild one with little snow, but the early onset of warm weather, along with ample rain, struck many as atypical. One saw the effects throughout the landscape and in the garden. This all brings up further questions of what we take to be usual or unusual.
Most people are at least vaguely aware that the arrival of European settlers transformed that landscape and its ecology, in large ways and small. Certainly, we think of the big effects of the "Columbian Exchange": tomatoes, potatoes, maize, tobacco, chocolate (and much more) from the Americas, and horses, pigs, cows, and sheep (and much more, including devastating communicable diseases) from the Old World (there has been a lot of back-and-forth about syphilis, but current scholarship seems to support the view that the virulent sexually transmitted form of the disease was essentially of American origin). It doesn't end there. The Europeans also brought with them the honey bee and earthworm (the former, deliberately; the latter, apparently not [1, 2])
Seen in this light, the phrase, "as American as apple pie," takes on new significance, for the common apple (Malus domestica) was a European fruit, with deep origins in Central Asia. Why else did the John Chapman (a.k.a. the legendary "Johnny Appleseed"), born in Leominster, not far east of here, have to make such great efforts to promote its cultivation on the American frontier? (the fact that his varieties were suited for cider—alcoholic beverage— production rather than use as edible fruit is another complication, but we dare not digress further). Historically speaking, apple pie is as much—or little—"American" as tomato sauce is "Italian" and the prevalence of paprika in a cuisine is "Hungarian": in each case, the key ingredient in the national dish originally came from the other hemisphere.
The exchange includes much that we likewise take for granted in the domestic garden. Europeans coming to the Americas brought with them the familiar and the valued and sent back eagerly awaited specimens of new plants. The rose (found in Europe as well as Asia) and the lilac (originally native to the Balkans) are but two of the best-known examples of the former. In The Young Gardener's Assistant (11th ed., 1844), Thomas Bridgeman said "Syringa vulgaris, or common Lilac, blooming in May, is well known to all, and needs no comment," though he went into more detail regarding less familiar varieties.
Glad as the spring, when the first Crocus comesTo laugh amid the shower.—Marvin
Common "Bleeding Heart" (traditionally classified as Dicentra spectabilis, but now Lamprocapnos spectabilis). This native of northeast Asia is now so common that we take it for granted. (Indeed, according to the standard reference work, there are more specimens in our gardens than in the wild.) It was cultivated briefly in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century but not established in England untii 1846, after which it made its way across the Atlantic. In fact, the leaflet on the recreated eighteenth-century gardens at the Strong House (Amherst History Museum) apologetically describes it as a Victorian interloper: once planted there, it was too popular with the public, and allowed to remain.
Barrenwort (genus Epimedium), whose species mainly come from Asia, was introduced to the west in the past century and a half. Fun facts to know and tell: Turns out that Epimedium, long regarded as an aphrodisiac in Asia, contains a compound similar to the active ingredient in Viagra (who knew?).