Sunday, February 3, 2013

Book: “The Brother Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf

This is the second book I’ve read by Andrea Wulf and it was another interesting read. I read “The Founding Gardeners” first, although she wrote “The Brother Gardeners” before that one. This is a heavily researched book, as are all of Andrea Wulf’s books. I know I won’t do it justice in my fumbled, simplified description of it, but it will at least give a general idea of what it is about.

“The Brothers Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf

“The Brother Gardeners” are six plant collectors who changed the world of horticulture. Without these men, the gardens of America and England would not be what they are today.

John Bartram was a colonial farmer and plant collector who sent seed boxes to subscribers in England, contributing to England’s love of American plants. He would scour the American countryside for seeds to send overseas. He was also responsible for obtaining seeds from England, helping contribute to America’s love of English plants.

Peter Collinson lived in London and was Bartram’s biggest fan, despite the fact that their relationship could be rocky at times. In their decades of correspondence, they exchanged seeds, plants, and ideas. Collinson helped get Bartram his English subscribers. Many of England’s gardens became showcases of American trees and plants, thanks to Collinson and Bartram. England’s gardens were no longer clipped boxwood topiary and hedges, now they were informal landscapes designed to mimic America’s natural landscapes.

Phillip Miller wrote the very first dictionary for the average gardener, “The Gardener’s Dictionary.” It was written in plain English, not Latin, and was geared towards the “ignorant,” providing matter-of-fact advice that anyone could understand. He also transformed the Chelsea Physic Garden into a world-renowned garden of horticultural gems. Over the years, botany and gardening would grow from being an elitist hobby to the hobby of almost every citizen of England, all because of men like Miller, Collinson and Bartram.

Carl Linnaeus was a botanist and taxonomist from Sweden who became famous for his sexual classification of plants when he published “Systema Naturae.” It classified plants by observation of its reproductive organs – by how many stamens or pistils the plant had – instead of by medical or edible properties. Later he published his monumental book “Species Plantarum,” a “survey of all plants known to man.” He sent pupils all over to gather specimens to include in his book. Before this book, one plant could be known by many different names, and it also could be a very long name. He simplified things by giving every plant a two-word name. Linnaeus’ ideas didn’t catch on right away, but once they did they revolutionized the classification and naming of plants. Even today, the “Species Plantarum” is “the universally acknowledged starting point of modern plant names — those with the abbreviation ‘L’ after their name indicate that Linnaeus invented or validated them, while those without the ‘L’ were given after his death (but according to his method).” Linnaeus knew he was making history. He “declared himself the messiah of botany. His science, he claimed, was ‘the light that will lead the people who wander in darkness.’” He was overly confident and self-righteous, but he was right.

Daniel Solander was Carl Linnaeus’ pet-pupil, slated to take over after his retirement and to marry his daughter. However, after arriving in England he had plans of his own. He became a plant explorer and expert on classifying plants using the Linnaeus method.

Joseph Banks, along with Daniel Solander, became two of the most well-known plant explorers when they brought back many unknown plants and seeds from their expedition on Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour. Banks encouraged trading with other countries and turned Kew Gardens into a showcase of exotic plants from all over the world. He dedicated his life to the study of botany and became “the first Patron of Botany.” He believed collecting plants was essential to the country’s economy. One expedition Banks supervised was not successful, the Bounty, captained by William Bligh. Yes, this is the Bounty famous for its mutiny. During Banks’ lifetime, he “received seeds and living plants from more than 120 plant-collectors in addition to those he garnered from the twenty-one especially commissioned plant-hunters whom he had dispatched across the globe at either his own, the King’s or the country’s expense.” When he first published “Hortus Kewensis,” a catalogue of all the plant species at Kew, there was 5,600 species. But two decades later there were more than 11,000. 7,000 of those were specimens he had brought back from the Endeavour expedition. As Andrea Wulf says, “Banks had steered — stoically and with perserverance — the country in a direction that would shape Britain’s empire, economy and society for the next century. Plants not only changed the English landscape but the very fabric of the nation, contributing to the country’s global dominance and imperial strength.”

These men were essential in turning England into a nation of gardeners and beautiful gardens. Due to their influence, even Londoners had gardens in the back of their houses. Having a garden on your property made it more valuable and was a good selling point. Many of the plants these men collected became staples in the English garden and many continue to be even today. The nation’s fascination with gardening carried over into fashion, with ladies wearing dresses embroidered with flowers and wearing “mobile gardens” in their wigs. A funny little story: “In the midst of the flower frenzy, Banks gave his wife a piece of dried moss to wear as a brooch. While he thought it a gorgeous botanical specimen, his wife found it boring and unsightly. When she refused to pin it to her blouse, Banks called her a ‘Fool that She Likes Diamonds better, & Cannot be persuaded to wear it as a botanists wife Certainly ought to do.’”

Reading about the trials, tribulations and adventures of these men was fascinating. I particularly liked reading about John Bartram since I have visited his historic home and garden many times and go to the annual greens sale they have there every December. I was also engrossed by the story of Joseph Banks. If anyone has any doubt of what power or influence one man can have, all they need to do is read this book and see how these few individuals helped shape nations through botany and their love of plants.

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