Enlightenment England fell in love with gardening. Unlike other European countries, every day Englishmen (and women) had a bit of ground in which they could plant some flowers or sculpt some landscape. In the second half of the eighteenth century, England was in a position to gather plants from its international contacts and, after the Seven Years War, from its far-flung empire. In Andrea Wulf’s tale, however, the American colonies play the starring role through the plant agent and farmer, John Bartram, who sends plants and seeds to the London cloth merchant/gardener and amateur botanist, Peter Collinson. Bartram tramps across the colonies to gather increasingly varied plants. His dedication is such that, at one point, he leaves his heavily pregnant wife home with young children to care for the farm while he goes plant hunting. Collinson, on the other side of the ocean, drums up subscribers for Bartram’s boxes and encourages Bartram’s botanical education. Practical gardeners and budding botanists work together to identify and catalogue the plants of the world. Philip Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary reigns supreme until challenged by Linnaeus’ sexual reproduction classification system. Linnaeus is unable to crack the tight English gardening community until he sends his star student, Solander, whose smooth manners open English gardens and collections to Linnaeus’ system. English reactions to the idea of plants’ sexual reproduction are among my favorite sections of Wulf’s story. Botanists affronted by the idea of one pistil communing with several stamens refuse the scientific proof brought before them. Gardeners use diplomatic subterfuge to save plants shipped overseas during times of warfare. They gnash their teeth over plants seized by pirates or lost to mold due to careless ship captains. Joseph Banks finances a voyage to Tahiti and Terra Incognita, where he names Botany Bay due to the multitude of new species they discover there.
Bartram’s growing confidence, Collinson’s frantic efforts on his behalf, Linnaeus’ self-important cold airs, and Solander’s ungrateful abandonment of his teacher create interesting characters. The indefatigable British confidence in their ability to discover and catalogue the world shines through these decades as plants that once were rare become readily available in nurseries all over London.
I did not realize, until reading this book, what role native American plants played in the development of English gardening. Now I will have to give even greater respect to the weeds that proliferate across my farm. One woman’s weeds are another man’s treasured rarities. As I have grown to suspect, we value that which forces us to beg it to grow.
Wulf begins the story with the creation of a hybrid, but she leaves that strand of the story behind for that of Collinson and Bertram sharing plants across the ocean. I see that she has written another book about American gardeners. I hope at some point she returns to the story of British gardeners manipulating nature, a logical step after they had catalogued it.