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The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

The obsession is the English love affair with gardening. Wulf, who was born in India and raised in Germany, writes in her prologue, “ I was amazed, when I moved to London in the mid -nineties, to find a nation obsessed with gardening. The shelves of my local newsagent groaned beneath lavish displays of gardening magazines; everywhere I went I saw signs for garden centres, and my new friends all seemed to think that the best way to spend a weekend was to visit the grounds of a stately home (unless they had an allotment, in which case the thrill of digging and weeding could not be surpassed).”

In 1734 Peter Collinson, a successful London cloth merchant who traded extensively with the colony of Pennsylvania, collected a shipment of two boxes of plants from the customs house at the Port of London. Inside his boxes were hundreds of seeds wrapped in paper and, marvellous to behold, some living plants that had survived the crossing of the Atlantic, which could take between five and twelve weeks. Two of the cuttings were of Kalmia Latiflora, the Mountain Laurel, which Collingwood had only ever seen as a botanical illustration.

Collinson was a man of means with a passion for botany at a time when European travellers were bringing home stories of strange and wonderful trees, flowers and shrubs. In his day a garden was a parterre, a pattern of low, neatly trimmed hedges enclosing a display of flowers, often only one plant of one colour. Municipal gardens in southern Spain are still like that, deep red roses in a frame of green box, and the gardeners you can employ where I live in California  seem to be in the same tradition. They will take a hedge trimmer to the shrubs you have carefully pruned to leave the flowering wood and mould them into tidy balls and ovals. Not so in Britain, thanks to Collinson, and the person at the other end of that shipment.

That person was John Bartram, a farmer living on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Like Collinson he had adored plants since childhood but unlike him had few books to refer to and even fewer he could read because he knew no Latin. Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society, heard of Bartram though his connections with Benjamin Franklin and the subscription library Franklin had founded in Philadelphia. Collison acted as the library’s London agent choosing, buying and shipping books to America. His hope was that he’d find someone to ship him back plants in return and eventually he did: Bartram.

To begin with Bartram supplied Collinson with plants and seeds from around his Pennsylvania farmhouse; kalmias, tulip polars and lady’s slipper orchids. Later he ventured further afield; a lot further afield. He travelled, alone on horseback, throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey and into the Carolinas and Virginia and on into uncharted territory. Meanwhile Collinson set up a subscription scheme for Bartram’s ‘boxes’. And that is why British gardens, large and small, are populated with so much more than the few species of trees that survived the last ice age. There are only five evergreens native to Great Britain: Box, Holly, Scots Pine, Juniper and Yew. The new generation of wealthy landowners were prepared to pay vast sums for the trees grown from Bartram’s seeds. Cedars, Bays, Spruces , Hemlocks and many new types of Pine all entered Britain from America and formed the backbone of the great gardens of the stately homes the British so love to visit. Add to that the great flowering trees of the Eastern and Southern United States, the Magnolias, Rhododendrons, and Dogwoods, and the deciduous trees with their astonishing autumn colours, the Maples, Aspens and Liquidambars, and it’s no wonder the great estate holders called filling their acres ‘painting with nature’.

You have probably never heard of Peter Collinson and John Bartram before now but there are many characters in Wulf’s book who will be familiar. There are, for example, chapters on Linnaeus and the classification of plants. His ‘sexual’ system was considered scandalous by many British plant aficionados, not least because of the descriptions Linnaeus chose to employ: “ …the bridal bed…adorned with such precious bedcurtains, and perfumed with so many sweet scents” and other nomenclature so much more explicit that I hesitate to include it in this newsletter.

The second part of Wulf’s book moves into the next generation of botanizers and has chapters on Joseph Banks, the botanical  expedition he tacked onto the mission of Cook’s first voyage of the Endeavor. As a young man he was one of the first Europeans to set eyes on Australia, because he didn’t just finance that expedition, he went on it. Then there was the ill-fated voyage of the Bounty, which Banks arranged to take breadfruit trees from Tahiti to be grown in the West Indies.

Banks established Kew Gardens and later in life was president of the Royal Society. In my last garden I had a rose called Rosa Banksiae, Lady Banks. Whatever happened to it, it recovered from in a season, such as being cut down to its base so the deck could be repaired. I always wondered what the good Lady Banks made of having such a tenacious plant named after her.

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