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Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

by Andrea Wulf

Pub Date: April 3rd, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-307-27023-8
Publisher: Knopf

British journalist Wulf (co-author: This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History, 2005) explores into the personalities that spurred the evolution of the 18th-century English garden.

Renaissance and baroque gardens on the European continent were characterized by smooth lawns, clipped hedges and topiary in a formal, geometrical structure, writes the author. When Thomas Fairchild, already famed for his luxuriant nursery outside of London, developed the first hybrid in 1716, he “set in motion a chain of events so momentous that in time no gardener would ever think about plants in the same way again.” Wulf loosely follows these developments in smart, stylish prose without delving very deeply. “Fairchild’s mule,” a cross between sweet William and a carnation, proved that plants reproduced sexually, an incendiary notion that Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus underscored in his binomial nomenclature. This encouraged gardeners to meddle empirically in their own garden plots, just as Philip Miller’s enormously accessible Gardeners Dictionary (1731), a catalogue of all plants then in cultivation in Britain, transformed gardening from an aristocratic preserve into the passionate pursuit of amateurs. Profoundly influenced by Miller’s dictionary, London cloth merchant Peter Collinson began importing seeds and plantings from the North American colonies, specifically from Pennsylvania, with the help of Philadelphia farmer John Bartram. These floral dispatches, much desired because their hardiness precluded the need for hothouses, continued for more than four decades and helped make the English garden a natural-growing perennial marvel. Another contributor to this sea change was the treasure of botanical specimens brought back from Captain Cook’s South Seas expedition, organized and bankrolled by celebrated botanist Joseph Banks, who was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778. Banks’ economic use of such plants as cotton and the Indian gum tree propelled British industry, but Wulf skirts this crucial subject. She also gives scant attention to the idea of the English garden as an Enlightenment ideal.

An ornamental study, frustratingly lacking in contextual cultivation.