Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wolf

Wulf begins The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by recounting her bewilderment on moving to England from Germany and finding all the people around her were obsessed with gardening. "I went with a trendy graphic designer to a nightclub, only to listen for half the evening to the minute details of the yield of his vegetable garden," she recalls in a series of remembered encounters with avid gardeners. Being an inquisitive sort and an author, she set out to find out just why and how England had become so obsessed with gardening. The result is a lovely horticultural mystery covering England's discovery of overseas plants from the early eighteenth century through to the triumphant reign of the garden in the nineteenth century, from England's days as a gardening backwater to its emergence as a primary source of gardening advice and plants.

The book begins with a cautious hybridization as Charles Fairchild crossed a sweet William with a carnation, demonstrating that that plants produced sexually and creating a beautiful new plant at the same time. Wulf continues to profile plant breeders, plant importers, and their gardens going, moving on through Peter Collinson and his American contact John Bartram in the 1730's and on, Miller and his practical gardening advice in 1731, the irascible Carl Linnaeus with his new means of classifying plants, Banks botanical voyaging around the world, and many more. Each time she gives a sense of the people's characters, their place in the botanical world, the impact they had, and a tour of their gardens.

Garden growth went hand in hand with the spread of the British Empire as the British imported plants from each new colony and conquest, mixing and matching to create the ideal spread each gardener envisioned. Banks, in particular, also wanted solid, practical advice for growing useful plants which were transported around the world to serve the Empire's needs and whims.

The Brother Gardeners was a solid, interesting read about one of my favorite topics—gardening and gardening history (Or is that two topics? One and a half? Something like that). It won't necessarily pull people who aren't gardeners or interested in history into the fold, but it will interest those who are.

There were also random bits of "I never thought of that." For example, and I should blush to admit this: I have always thought of Botany Bay primarily in terms of Star Trek(1). It never occurred to me that here, on this planet, in this history, it was called Botany Bay because when Banks landed there, it was a great place for botany, and he gathered a lot of plants there.

(1) "Botany Bay?! Botany Bay! Oh no!"

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