Brief History on Canada – Robert Cleghorn: Nurseryman & Man of Culture

  • Robert Cleghorn was a public-spirited citizen and a man of domestic tastes, and the influences of a home of culture and refinement left their impress…”

So did W. H. Atherton sum up the life of Robert Cleghorn in his History of Montreal, published many years after Cleghorn’s death.  Few details were given, because the piece was about his prominent son, James Power Cleghorn.

Robert Cleghorn should be remembered for being the owner of Montreal’s first large commercial nursery.

He was born in Scotland in 1778, the son of Dr. Robert Cleghorn, an Edinburgh-trained physician who lectured in materia medica (which included botany) in the years 1788-91 at University of Glasgow, and later taught chemistry, as well as carrying on a medical practice. Botany was probably an early interest of the young Robert Cleghorn, he most likely having been exposed to its many ramifications in a medical household, at a time when the study of plants played an essential role in medical education. Physicians needed to know about the simple drugs sold by herbalists and apothecaries, and to recognize plants that had medicinal properties–there being no pharmaceutical representatives around at the time to properly indoctrinate them.

In Canada

In any event, the botanical world became the young Robert Cleghorn’s major activity.  Early in the 1800s, he was in Montreal establishing his nursery, which he ran for some 30 years. According to Paul-Louis Martin (Les Fruits du Québec, 2002), these were the first nurseries in the Montreal area:

  • Louis Charles, on the property of Simon McTavish [d 1804], fur merchant
  • Robert Cleghorn, owner of Blinkbonny Gardens, who sold fruit plants and fruit trees–among them Belle de Montréal, Cirée and Blinkbonny Seedling.

Corallorhiz multiflora and Habenaria bracteata, sent to Glasgow by Robert Cleghorn. They appeared in Vol 3 of William Jackson Hooker’s Exotic Flora in 1826. (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh)

Soon after his arrival in Montreal—which at the time had a population of less than 15,000 and was “not even an outpost of civilization” according to McGill by Hugh MacLennan—-Cleghorn began to investigate the local plants, and sent unusual ones back to England and Scotland. In an article entitled “On the Culture of North American Plants” in John Claudius Loudon’s The Gardener’s Magazine (Vol. 2, March 1827), Ayrshire nurseryman John Goldie listed plants he observed 1817-19, among them:

“Cypripedium arietinum, in a swamp in Montreal, which I believe is the only place it has ever been found.  It was discovered about 1808 by Mr. Robert Cleghorn, Montreal, and sent by him to London…it grows well in vegetable mould and soil, and should be kept moist and shady.” This plant, known as ram’s head lady’s slipper, is now an endangered member of the orchid family.

By 1812, Robert Cleghorn was listed in the Montreal Herald as secretary of the Montreal Floral Society (which became the Montreal Horticultural Society in 1818; Robert Cleghorn was again its secretary in 1829).  He was evidently known in the wider botanical community, because the important Saxon botanist Frederick Pursh, who lived for some years in the United States, died at the Cleghorn home in Montreal in 1820, less than 50 years old, destitute and alcoholic.

Habenaria orbiculata and Habenaria dilatata , sent to Glasgow by Robert Cleghorn,. They appeared in Vol 2 of William Jackson Hooker’s Exotic Flora in 1824. (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh)

In the 1820s, Cleghorn sent plants to Glasgow, where William Jackson Hooker (whose son was a friend of Charles Darwin) was the University of Glasgow’s regius professor of botany. Some of Cleghorn’s plants were recorded in Hooker’s Exotic Flora, among them Corallorhiza multiflora, another member of the orchid family. Hooker notes:  “For the introduction of this singular and highly curious plant, our Botanic Garden is indebted to Mr. Cleghorn of Montreal, who sent living roots of it.”

Trillium erythrocarpum and Dielytra canadensis, collected by Robert Cleghorn and sent to Glasgow. They appeared in Curtis’ Botanical Journal in 1830.

A description of Blinkbonny Gardens at Côte-à-Baron  appeared in John Claudius Loudon’s An Encyclopedia of Gardening, editions of 1860 and 1878 (years after the death of both Loudon and Cleghorn; the reference was presumably had not been updated:

“The principal nurseries in Lower Canada are at Montreal, and the best of these is Blinkbonny Garden, kept by Mr. Robert Cleghorn.  Mr. Cleghorn has paid great attention to the introduction and cultivation of fruit trees, and has for sale about 30 kinds of apples, fifteen or eighteen kinds of pears, about as many kinds of plum, three or four kinds of cherry, as many grapes, and about six or eight kinds of gooseberry.  He has also a collection of perennial, herbaceous, and greenhouse plants; and an extensive collection of indigenous plants and trees.”

Recorded the weather

An interest aligned with his nursery activities was a continuing study of the weather in Montreal.  Before 1840, Canadian meteorological observations were made by private individuals and explorers, and by some organizations such as the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Robert Cleghorn provided diaries of the Montreal weather to at least two organizations in Montreal.

Cover of Cleghorn’s 1830 weather diary: McCord Family fonds, P001, File 0839 © McCord Museum, Montreal

Robert Cleghorn’s first wife Margaret died in Montreal after a long illness, aged 22, as recorded in the Montreal Herald in 1817.  He remarried, Eliza Ann Power from Sorel and, according W. H. Atherton, there were 10 children in the Cleghorn family. The 1825 Montreal census notes his “grand jardin à fleurs et verger, pépinière…serre.”

Community activities

His family and business commitments, however, did not prevent him from participating in the wider community of Montreal. He was a militiaman, and as such had participated in the funeral of his neighbour James McGill (founder of McGill University) in December 1813.

He was active in the Natural History Society of Montreal, formed in 1827, and contributed items to its museum, including,

  • 1827:  a petrified Echinus from Berkshire, England; and a curious stone from Three Rivers acted upon by water
  • 1828:  Mineral specimens from Mount Etna; an Egyptian pipe
  • 1829:  A tree wasp’s nest and comb, and three specimens of boletus. From Mrs. Cleghorn, three specimens of virgin honey comb
  • 1831:  An Indian stone axe found in his garden in Montreal
  • 1831:  From Masters William & George Cleghorn, 69 specimens of butterflies and other insects, collected by them during the last summer
  • 1832:  Diary of the weather, 1831
  • 1834:  Diary of the weather, 1832 and 1833

In December 1828, Robert Cleghorn became a member of the first committee of management of the Montreal Mechanics’ Institution (now the Atwater Library and Computer Centre) and served on committees from 1832 through 1834.  He donated diaries of the weather to the MMI for the years 1829, 1832 and 1833.

In the Dr. A. F. Holmes collection at McGill University’s Herbarium is a specimen of Tolfieldia glutinosa, labelled “Cleghorn’s, Quebec, collected 1821.” It is commonly known as false asphodel.  Like Cleghorn, Dr. Holmes–who was to become McGill University’s first dean of medicine–was associated with both the Natural History Society and the Montreal Mechanics’ Institution. His business

Graham Hardy, serials librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, discovered this reference to Robert Cleghorn in James McNab’s handwritten journal of his 1834 North American tour (he was later curator at RBGE):

“[Mr. Cleghorn’s] collection of indigenous plants…for the British market was very great, viz., Cypripedium, Orchises, Habenarias, Goodyeras, Monetropas, &c. In the Nurseries the fruit tree flower department appeared most attended to. Few of the indigenous plants are cultivated, although ennumerable masses of the Genera Cypripedii, Trillium, Orchis’s, Habenaria, Calypso, Pogonia, and Sarracenia lay stored in boxes for sale and barter with the British merchants. “

John Adams’ 1825 atlas of Montreal shows Robert Cleghorn’s nursery in Côte-à-Baron, labelled “Blinkhonnie Garden.”

In his latter days, Robert Cleghorn converted his nursery  grounds into a garden promenade. Alexander Gordon wrote in The Gardeners Magazine of January 1840, “Its numerous shady walks and rural retreats render it a desirable field of recreation for the citizens in general; while its rich and botanical stores eminently adapt it to the pursuits of the scientific.”

A section from John Adams’ 1825 atlas of Montreal shows Robert Cleghorn’s nursery in Côte-à-Baron, labelled “Blinkhonnie Garden”  (highlighted in red). It is remarkable that the map lists very few individual properties—not even the former home of James McGill slightly to the west of Blinkbonny. St. Mary Street was also known as Sherbrooke, and soon acquired that name permanently.  The north-south street just east of Blinkbonny is Bleury, and the intersection at the lower left is Bleury and Ste Catherine.  The north-south street at right is the main street of St. Lawrence Suburb, now called Boul. St-Laurent.

The Montreal Gazette obituary in January 1841 notes Robert Cleghorn was “deeply regarded by all who knew him.” Three years later, in April 1844, his widow Eliza Ann went to Notary Stanley Clark Bagg to formalize the apprenticeship of her minor son, James Power Cleghorn, age 13, to drygoods merchant Samuel Ralston, thereby starting him on a long and successful business career, including membership on the first board of directors of the Sun Life Assurance Company in 1865.

(Article is based on research originated by the Rev. Harry Kuntz. Reference was kindly provided by Leonie Paterson,  Graham Hardy and Lynsey Wilson at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh;  Prof. Marcia Waterway at the McGill University Herbarium;  Myriam Cloutier at Mount Royal Cemetery; Victoria Slonosky; Stephanie Poisson at the McCord Museum; and Rod MacLeod. Word Press layout by Ron Olsen)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *