Bernard McMahon

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For those of a similar name, see Bernard MacMahon (disambiguation).

Bernard McMahon or M'Mahon[1] (Ireland ca 1775 — Philadelphia, 18 September 1816) was an Irish-American horticulturist settled in Philadelphia, who served as one of the stewards of the plant collections from the Lewis and Clark expedition and was the author of The American Gardener's Calendar: Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States (1806 and following years).[2] He circulated the first extensive gardener's seed list in the United States, which he attached as an appendix to his Calendar.

McMahon's most enduring contribution was his Calendar, the most comprehensive gardening book published in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century.[3] It finished in its eleventh edition in 1857. It was modeled on a traditional English formula, of month-by-month instructions on planting, pruning, and soil preparation for the "Kitchen Garden, Fruit Garden, Orchard, Vineyard, Nursery, Pleasure Ground, Flower Garden, Green House, Hot house and Forcing Frames". In some particulars, McMahon followed his English models so closely that J. C. Loudon suggested in 1826 that the derivative character of the Calendar was such that "We cannot gather from the work any thing as to the extent of American practice in these particulars."[4] Ann Leighton notes the absence of Indian corn among the "Seeds of Esculent Vegetables" in 1806, though he lists old-fashioned favorites like coriander, corn-salad, orach, rampion, rocambole[disambiguation needed] and skirret.[5]

McMahon emigrated in 1796. By 1800 he was in Philadelphia, working for William Duane and the newspaper the Aurora. He entered the nursery and seed business by 1802-1803, when he issued his broadsheet Catalogue of Garden Grass, Herb, Flower, Tree & Shrub-Seeds, Flower Roots, &c which comprised 720 species and varieties of seed. This was the first published seed list in the United States. In 1804 he published another catalogue, of thirty pages, mostly devoted to native American seeds.[6]

Through the Calendar McMahon was Thomas Jefferson's gardening mentor; a steady stream of correspondence passed between them.[7] Jefferson selected him in 1806 as one of two nurserymen to receive and grow the seeds and roots collected by Lewis and Clark.[8] In 1807, when it came time to find a draftsman to illustrate the published journals of Lewis and Clark, it was M'Mahon who recommended the German-born botanist Frederick Pursh, who found himself with the botanical materials when the natural history publication did not materialize, and took them with him to London, where he published 130 plants from the Lewis and Clark expedition in Flora Americae Septentrionalis, 1813.[9]

Jefferson received from McMahon seeds for Monticello.[6]

In 1808 McMahon purchased twenty acres on the Germantown Road, in Penn Township, Philadelphia for a nursery and botanic garden that would enable him to expand his business. He named it “Upsal Botanic Garden” in commemoration of Linnaeus' connection with Uppsala University. It was located at the north edge of the then urban part of the city. Part of the M’Mahon garden is currently occupied by Fotterall Square, a small park in Philadelphia.

In 1818 botanist Thomas Nuttall complimented McMahon's role in bestowing the genus name Mahonia on a group of West Coast broadleaf-evergreen shrubs still popular in American gardens. McMahon, growing the seedlings that were protected from commerce as Federal property, had the mortification to see published in British journals, and to see Mahonia nervosa itself introduced by Prince Nurseries, Flushing, Long Island, at twenty dollars a plant.[10]

At his death the nursery business was left to his wife,and their son, Thomas P. M'Mahon, who continued to revise and republish The American Gardener's Calendar.


  1. ^ His name is given as M'Mahon on his title pages.
  2. ^ Ann Leighton, American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century: 'For Use or for Delight' (University of Massachusetts Press) 1986, pp319–322; Allen Lacy explores the Calendar in his essay "Bernard M'Mahon's Declaration of Independence", collected in Farther Afield: A Gardener's Excursions (Macmillan) 1986.
  3. ^ (Mann Library, Cornell University) "Harvest of Freedom: The history of Kitchen Gardens in America"
  4. ^ (Thomas Jefferson Center) Peter J. Hatch "Bernard McMahon, Pioneer American Gardener" Archived December 8, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. 1993
  5. ^ Leighton 1986:320
  6. ^ a b (Thomas Jefferson Center) "Bernard McMahon, Pioneer American Gardener" Archived December 8, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia "Bernard McMahon"
  8. ^ (American Horticultural Society) Rita Pelczar, "The Plants of Lewis and Clark" Archived November 23, 2008, at the Wayback Machine., The American Gardener, November/December 2000.
  9. ^ (American Horticultural Society) Rita Pelczar, "A Tale of Specimens Lost and Found" Archived November 23, 2008, at the Wayback Machine., The American Gardener, November/December 2000.
  10. ^ Leighton 1986:319.

Further reading[edit]

  • Joseph Ewan. "Bernard M’Mahon (c. 1775–1816), pioneer Philadelphia nurseryman, and his American Gardener’s Calendar" Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History 3 (1960:363–380).
  • Joel Munsell. The Every Day Book of History and Chronology. (New York) 1858.