Favorite Garden Books: 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.