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Favorite Garden Books: The Brother Gardeners

January 23, 2010

The Brother Gardeners The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) is a compelling account of the rise of ornamental gardening as a passionate pastime for the English middle classes as well as the elite, and the spread of that passion from England to other parts of the world. Wulf ties the rise of gardening as “an obsession” to the rise of the British empire, to the 18th century philosophy of the Enlightenment, and to the development of scientific botany.

Wulf is trained as a design historian and this is a work of social history, but she writes with the sensibility of a novelist. She organizes her story around the relationships among six “brother gardeners" – plant collectors, botanists and obsessive gardeners – beginning with the transatlantic arrangement by which John Bartram, a Pennsylvania farmer and plant collector, shipped boxes of seeds and live plants to Peter Collinson, a London merchant and gardener. It was “Bartram’s Boxes,” which Collinson sold through a subscription system, that supplied the great houses and the new commercial nurseries of England with North American trees, shrubs and flowers, and that fueled the development of English-style gardens and the English obsession with gardening in the 18th century. In successive chapters, Wulf builds her story out in concentric circles and forward in time from the central relationship between Collinson and Bartram. Because her cast of characters are introduced gradually, one at a time, and because she provides a fully realized character portrait of each, the reader finds it easy to keep them straight. The great sweep of historical events is also made accessible because it is viewed through the experiences, friendships and rivalries of these men.

The following passage, about the gardening world that Daniel Solander, a student of Carl Linnaeus and one of the six “brother gardeners,” found when he arrived in London in 1760, will give you the flavor of Wulf’s writing:

While Solander walked in awe under the ruffled canopy of American trees, others began to ridicule the new English obsession. Horace Walpole, mocking himself as much as his fellow gardeners, was so amused by the preoccupation with meandering rivers and “shrubberies planted of all kinds of exotics” that he was waiting for someone to propose the alteration of Jerusalem “in the modern style.” Others were even more specific and lampooned garden owners such as Collinson’s old acquaintance the Duke of Argyll, who adored his garden at Whitton near Twickenham so much that he planted it before he built his house. A newspaper depicted him as an obsessive gardener who dragged his grudging and hungry guests, still wearing their slippers, through his groves. (p. 142)

[An aside: Both behaviors for which the Duke of Argyll was ridiculed seem perfectly reasonable to me!]

Wulf’s book covers much of the 18th century, including numerous European wars and the American revolution, British explorations and colonization in Australia, Asia, the West Indies, the South Pacific, and Africa, the development of scientific botany, and, of course, the development of gardens as we know them today. I loved The Brother Gardeners; and if you are interested in gardens or gardening, in the origins of our garden styles and the plants we grow, in botany, or in history, I think you will love it too.

In addition to all the wonderful English gardens that trace their origins back to this period and which are often featured in garden blogs, it is also possible to visit the home and garden of John Bartram, the man whose plant collecting started it all, in Philadelphia.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2010 9:51 am

    And to think, up until this very moment I had a gift card from the local bookseller burning a hole in my pocket! This gem of a book sounds absolutely perfect! I too agree with the only too ‘sensible’ actions of the Duke of Argyll – even if guests are somewhat reluctant at first! Thanks for providing me with future reading!

  2. January 23, 2010 10:33 am

    If you could judge a book by its cover that is a wonderful book. I love the cover! Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for sharing!

  3. January 23, 2010 11:09 am

    Wonderfully written review Jean! You have convinced this reader that this book is a must have. Sounds fascinating! Carol

    • Jean permalink*
      January 23, 2010 11:40 am

      Teza, It was a bookstore gift card from my niece that fueled my recent garden book-buying spree. (Thank you, Kathy!) Of course, the total of my purchases came to roughly four times the value of the gift card — but then that’s why booksellers are so happy to sell these gift cards. I did love that part about the Duke of Argyll; I can, however, imagine some gardeners with perhaps smaller properties than the Duke, who might have to live in a tent if they put in the garden first, because there wouldn’t be any room left for a house! (not naming any names here)

      Amy, The cover image is from a drawing of Magnolia altissima by an 18th c. botanical artist named Mark Catesby. Wulf credits Catesby’s drawings for having “made English collectors and gardeners excited about colorful American plants,” and the book includes several pages of color plates featuring drawings by Catesby and other botanical artists.

      Carol, This book was totally an impulse purchase for me. I bought it solely on the strength of the reviews on the bookstore website, and I was not disappointed! I found it hard to put this book down and devoured it in a few days. It immediately moved into my favorite garden book top-ten.

  4. Elephant's Eye permalink
    January 23, 2010 2:19 pm

    We have twice been ‘guilty’ of making the garden, long before dubious visitors could see a house. Where’s the House?! Why do ‘they’ think it is sensible to wait until the builder has wrought havoc – and then the garden is just an afterthought. Sounds like just my sort of book.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 24, 2010 1:30 pm

      Diana, It’s wonderful to know that the spirit of the Duke of Argyll lives on in Porterville!

  5. January 24, 2010 4:56 pm

    This sounds like a wonderful read. I find it amazing the great lengths people went to in order to acquire a collection of plants long before the days of 2nd Day Air mail. What a treat it would be to visit Bartram’s Garden. I have added this book to my wish list, and hope for the opportunity to read it soon. Thank you for this review. 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      January 25, 2010 8:47 pm

      Liisa, Yes, before I read this book, I had no idea what people had gone through to transport plants. Bartram’s boxes were often lost during wars because the ship was stopped on the high seas and its cargo confiscated. At one point, when France and England were at war, Collinson made an arrangement for Bartram to address his boxes to a French botanist so that they would be protected. I also didn’t know that the Bounty (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) was a plant-hunting expedition and that the plants were lost when the crew mutinied!

  6. January 25, 2010 11:39 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up about this book. I wish there were Dukes of Argyll around these days… As much as I love all the colorful lifestyle gardening books, it’s books like this I end up loving the most.

  7. January 26, 2010 6:43 am

    Dear Jean, I have just discovered your interesting and varied site.

    I was particularly interested to read your review of ‘The Brother Gardeners’, a book that I have not come across before and one which I shall certainly add to my list of required reading.

    In your earlier posting you write about scale in the garden. This is, surely, one of the most difficult things for gardeners to get right, yet makes the most impact when correctly used.

    I shall look forward to returning to your site.

  8. January 26, 2010 10:41 am

    Hi Jean, thanks for this great book recommendation. I’m fascinated by history books anyway, and what could be better than one about the history of gardening? BTW we invite our guests directly to the garden (it’s an allotment) – forget about the house!

    • Jean permalink*
      January 26, 2010 11:34 am

      James, These are my favorite kinds of garden books, too — and this one is particularly meaty. I think the spirit of the Duke of Argyll is still alive and well: See Diana’s comment about putting in the garden before they built the house and Barbara’s comment about inviting guests directly to the garden and skipping the house altogether.

      Barbara, I love this idea. It is not unusual for me to drag guests around on a tour of the garden as soon as they arrive. Of course, since I am more likely to have guests for dinner than for breakfast, they’re not still in their slippers. On the other hand, in the summer, I always pour my first cup of tea and take it with me on a morning tour of the garden before breakfast, so if I had overnight guests, well….

      Edith, Thanks for visiting, and I hope you love this book as much as I did. I learned so much from Wulf’s account, but the book was also such a page-turner that I hated to put it down.

  9. January 27, 2010 7:52 pm

    I had not heard of this book, thank you for the review. I’ll look for it now!

  10. March 31, 2011 5:20 pm

    I just finished this book and it was a gem. Your review does it justice! I have long been fascinated by the different attitudes toward gardening between England and America… not just the different styles, but WHY our approaches to gardens are so different. There are lots of explanations but this charming book brings the history of it all into focus. Thanks for the thorough review here from a real gardener.

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