Book explains the colonial gift of color to England
Monday, July 12, 2010
Andrea Wulf’s book, “The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession,” tells the fascinating story of how America changed the face of England.
On the docks of London, a man was searching through the chaos of many of thousands of boxes for one that was very important to him. Over time, many more boxes followed, from America to London, to be followed by increasingly more from London sent to America. Through far too many storms, two wars, pirates and corruption, the trade of these valuable boxes between London and American colonies continued for more than 40 years.
What was in these boxes? Seeds from the new world! Actually, plant cuttings, small plants, tiny trees, pressed flowers and seeds. And all of this occurred in the mid-1700s.
“The Brother Gardeners” tells all of those stories and more. Wulf’s book is well researched and well written, interesting to gardeners, nongardeners and history buffs. Although it describes true history, it reads like fiction.
The book relates how American farmer John Bartrum sent seeds to London cloth merchant Peter Collison. It was a strange pairing, but a pairing that lasted for decades. The friendship was developed and then sustained by the business of trading and selling plants. Almost all the plants sent to England had never been grown on that side of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was a slow business. First, Collison had to nurture the seeds to germination, seeds that too often were full of mold and mildew. In the case of trees, it took three to five years of care to produce an 18- to 20-inch specimen to place in a garden.
Many times the seeds were destroyed while on the voyage to England. During the mid-1700s, England was at war with either the Spanish or French. The Spanish, when they took over a ship bound for England, threw the boxes of American fauna overboard. The French, if they realized the importance of the boxes of seeds, etc., would take them to the French botanists, who in turn sent them across the channel to their English counterparts.
At the time, there was a mass of confusion over naming plants in botany and in this new field, gardening. A Swede named Carl Linnaeus, who was being trained as a botanist in Holland, started to develop a classification for plants. Linnaeus classified all plants into two groups: flowering plants (who reproduced themselves sexually) and non-flowering plants. Outraged the British were. Today, we use a very well developed system that Linnaeus spent a goodly part of his life working on.
Wulf tells of the growing group of British and continental botanists. She also recounts the beginning of the age of gardening simply for the sake of beauty.
So, how did plants from the colony change the face of England? In all of England, there were but four native evergreen plants — Scots pine, box, holly and yew. Winters were bleak, with mostly a gray countryside and monotone forests, combined with gray, rainy weather. Within less than 20 years, English estates and smaller gardens were bursting with color the year round!
The Wenatchee Public Library has two copies of “The Brother Gardeners.” I suggest you check it out and read it.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears regularly in the Home, Garden section. Mike Dull is one of four columnists featured.
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