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