The Brother Gardeners

I have been most distracted recently with a book my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas.  Admittedly I had told him that I wanted the book or I wouldn’t have got it.  The book? The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf.  His response to the book – “What sort of gardening book is that with no pictures”!

But it isn’t a gardening book; it is a garden history book and a pretty fantastic one at that.  I am terrible at skim reading books. I have always done this unintentionally even when I was studying my for my degree in literature.  It was especially helpful the year I read 19th century novels helping me get through the likes of Middlemarch and Dombey & Sons quick enough to submit my essays on time but it means that I sometimes miss out on the nuances of language particularly descriptive passages. However, I have found myself really reading The Brother Gardeners, savouring every word and taking my time – a testament to the quality of Andrea Wulf’s writing.

I think she has done a wonderful job of bringing the 18th century early horticulturists to life.  She has obviously spent a considerably amount of time researching her subject, pouring over manuscripts, letters etc and somehow she has managed to bring all this information together in such a way that you find yourself not reading a dry factual non-fiction history book, and I have read a few, but a lively, intelligent, engaging story of 6 men who were fundamentally instrumental in making England the gardening nation that it is today.

The book covers the 18th century a period which included the American War of Independence, territorial disputes, the discovery of Australia and the introduction of the Linnean system of nomenclature.  If I am honest I have never really considered the Americas and Australia in the round and I was amazed at how closely these events all happened in time.  It must have been an amazing period to live in.

So  who are the six, who Andrea refers to as “‘my’ six men”?  They are Philip Miller the curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden who at the start of the century was publishing his Gardeners Dictionary, the model for all future plant encyclopedias. Peter Collinson,  the trader who was importing and exporting to America but because of his thirst for new plant species located John Bartram, a farmer, who plant hunted for him.  Bartram was responsible for introducing to Britain such plants as Magnolias, Thujas, Rhododendrons, Maples, Juniper, Liquidambar and the Tulip tree.  Then we have Carl Linnaeus who saw that Miller and Collinson were key to having his new system of nomenclature accepted in England.  Whilst Linnaeus was apparently not that popular his student Daniel Solander soon became a firm part of the English horticultural world and accompanied Joseph Banks on his trip to discover Australia.  Banks then went on to become President of the Royal Society, a post he held for 40 years, as well as founding the Horticultural Society.  He was instrumental in seeing how plants that grew in one part of the empire could be useful in another for example the ill fated trip* to collect breadfruit from Tahiti to take to the West Indies to produce food for the plantation workers.

These six men and to a lesser degree their friends were fanatical about plants, horticulture and botany.  Their thirst for new plants, more knowledge was insatiable.  Through their work, their connections, their persistence new plants were introduced firstly to the places like the Chelsea Physic Garden and Kew but then sold to wealthy landowners with similar interests.  Then as with everything these plants were seen and admired, propagated successfully and were soon being sold across the country to a new breed of gardeners. I was amazed that at the start of the 18th century there were only a handful of nurseries in existence by the end of the century there were 200 in London alone and we need to remember that the London of the 18th century was smaller than that of the 21st century!

I could go on and on about the ideas and impressions I  have drawn from this book but I don’t want to take the enjoyment away from anyone who shares my fascination with our plant history.  All I can say is it is a very good read not just if you are a British Gardener but also if you are an American, Australian, South African gardener who is interested in how your native plants travelled the world, or someone who wonders where the system of naming plants came from.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

*Bank’s ill-fates sponsored trip to collect bread fruit was the journey that ended in the Mutiny on the Bounty

14 Comments on “The Brother Gardeners

  1. Thank you for the excellent review. This is one of my all time favourite books and deserves a wide audience. I loved the stories of how the seeds and plants made it to England despite all sorts of adversities. Looking forward to more recommendations.

  2. I read this book when it first came out, a couple of years ago.It set me on a path to study the history of the English garden ever since. I am so happy I met this book. loved it. easy to read because of the stories it tells, not just a lot of facts. I liked that as well.

  3. Thank you for the excellent book review – I am now going to search Amazon for a copy and also one for a friend in America with a birthday soon. I love reading your blog!

  4. Sounds a fascinating read – I think we forget how much we owe to plant fanatics of the past – their legacies live on in our gardens, whether we know it or not!

  5. Excellent review! I am intrigued and will add it to my list of must reads. It is fascinating to learn the history of plants and those that carried them around the world. I am always happy to learn more about Linnaeus. I know what you mean about taking the time to relish each sentence of a book that is well written.

  6. I love a good history in any subject. Your relating it to us is fascinating and interesting enough. Thanks for sharing a glimps of the good book with us.

  7. That’s a really good book review Helen – I can tell, because when I started reading it I thought I’d probably skim (I do a lot of that too) and not really be that interested, not being much of a one for history. You had be gripped and interested enough to put it on my “get it from the library” list. Thank you for opening my eyes.

  8. I’ve just started reading The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, which starts by looking at the life of Joseph Banks in a way that really brings him to life. From now on, plants with banksiae in their names will have more significance for me! And yes – what an amazing time it must have been, when young men (sadly not women) eager for adventure would set off on plant hunting expeditions, knowing there was a strong possibility that they might not survive, but their commitment to discovering the new wonders of the world was so strong that the danger didn’t deter them.

  9. I have just downloaded a free sample on to my Kindle after reading your
    review Helen 🙂 I suspect that my vowed intent to rein in my book buying habit for a while may well be tested. I am wondering if the book has many illustrations and if so are they in colour? Kindle can only cope with black and white 😦

  10. History is surely intriguing, Andrea Wulfe would be delighted at such a review. Whilst reading your article with interest I thought I will tell Helen that Banks was on the Bounty with captain Bligh, (I should have known better.)

  11. I love this book, Helen, and I really enjoyed your review of it. I’ve recommended this to everyone I know with an interest in gardening and/or history, and I can easily imagine that I will re-read it again and again.

  12. Pingback: The Founding Gardeners – A Review | The Patient Gardener's Weblog

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