Now that the yard and garden are cleaned up and ready for a winter rest, the busy gardener finally has some time to do some reading for pleasure and interest. The following article offers a glimpse into a different side of horticulture—indeed, into its very roots.
The modern-day system of catalogs, seed and plant sales had to begin somewhere, but where and who began it all? I had always assumed that the British were at the heart of it; after all, they gave birth to gardening as a pastime and a passion. Indeed, that is partially true but the real historical account turned out to be a bit of a surprise and a great tale of adventure.
Andrea Wulf is a good writer partly because it comes to her naturally, much like a good conversation, and partially because she draws on her varied background. Born in India and raised in Germany, her secondary academic training was in England as a design historian. Wulf’s exposure at an early age to so much of the world gives her an ease in her writing that offers a global view while portraying specific points of interest.
The Brother Gardeners
In The Brother Gardeners, she weaves the story of the politics of the time (1730 to 1790) with several pivotal players of varying social strata all connected by a botanical relationship with a colonist and farmer, John Bartram.
The British connection is a cloth merchant, Peter Collinson, who also is an avid gardener and student of botany. As a merchant, Collinson was involved in trade with the colonies; the snapshot in time is 1734. A student of botany, Collinson was eager to discover plants from a new part of the world and as a gardener he craved new additions to his garden.
After a failed attempt to transport seeds by a fellow merchant, Collinson was put in touch with a farmer from Pennsylvania, John Bartram, who was also eager to share seeds in exchange for seeds from Britain. It was very much a learning experience for the two men as they worked to resolve identification techniques as well as the packing and protection of plants and seeds on a long and variable voyage. It was often a matter of luck in how well a shipment would survive.
The story explains the political machinations of the time, the power struggles, and the dirty deeds that are the roots of history. The faithful correspondence of the two men and the many shipments from Bartram over several decades created a rich friendship and set the stage for the botanical diversity now commonplace in England.
Wulf tells of the English lust for more and more unusual plants with accounts of Captain Cook and the treacherous sea voyages to exotic islands. Running parallel is the chronicle of the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, who was trying to create an ordering and naming system for plants, and Englishman Phillip Miller, who authored the first practical book on gardening called The Gardeners Dictionary. Meanwhile in the colonies, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Adams, the architects of the American government, were gentleman farmers who shared a passion for botany.
Shifting focus to the colonies, Wulf’s Founding Gardeners begins in 1776 with a view of the emerging new nation and its growing pains politically, economically and agriculturally. As farmers and keen botanists all, founding fathers Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Adams realized that the future of the new country would depend on agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as a sound government. While continuing several of the stories begun in Brother Gardeners, Wulf’s writing further develops along the lines of horticultural history as she reveals the talents of each statesman. She recounts their contributions to the new nation and how they related to each other. As she shows us the depth of their patriotic and botanical commitment to their land, she reveals the gardener within. It is a fascinating tale whose undercurrents are topics still vital today: the health of the soil, planting for future generations, and preservation of the environment.
These two books are great choices for gardeners or historians who appreciate both the writer’s craft and the content. Much of what we gardeners use today for nomenclature was developed in the late 1700s by Linnaeus and the seeds of modern plant sales began with Bartram and Collinson as they shared information, plants, and seeds across the ocean. It is amazing that it all worked as well as it did. Wulf’s excellent story-telling talents make the reader feel present at the creation, part of the history.
Susan Pezzolla, Master Gardener Coordinator, Horticulture Educator. Cornell University Cooperative Extension. 24 Martin Road, Voorheesville, NY.