Talk 2: The Brother Gardeners: Botony, Empire and the Birth of Obsession

September 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

Talk given by Andrea Wulf at the British Library,

21st August, 2013

I’m a little late writing this up due to holidays and being in a motor home traveling around the North of England. Apologies to anyone on the edge of their seats, waiting for news of botony, empire and the birth of obsession.

Held in the Conservation Centre at the British Library and attended largely by people who looked like Edwardian gardeners each with their own creeper-lined Hampstead oasis, The Brother Gardeners was about the discovery and introduction of many of the plants we (or whose of you who garden) have in your gardens. Here are some things I learned.

1. Britain is the only country with gardening celebritites. Apparently, we (the British) grieve for plants which get damaged or die.

2. In 1734, Peter Collinson, a London draper with an interest in botony, imported his first two boxes of seeds from John Bartram. Bartram, an American farmer, explorer and friend of Benjamin Franklin (they founded the American Philosophical Society together), traveled across the Eastern colonies collecting plants and seeds, which he then sent to Collinson, who ran a kind of mail order service for would-be gardeners. The business was a big hit with gentry, nurserymen, and natural scientists.


John Bartram at work. Obviously this is a made up picture. No known portrait of him exists.

3. America wasn’t the only source of new plants. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander sailed on Cook’s Endeavour, collecting plants from Tahti, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Indeed, Botony Bay was so called because of the huge number of plants they discovered there. For a while, they were a bit like rock stars due to their plant collecting success.

4. In the early 18th Century and before, gardens tended to be based on geometry – straight lines and box hedges. The plants that came from Bartram and others encouraged gardeners to experiment with less formal designs. They loosened the gardeners’ grip on nature. The trees he and Collinson introduced helped change the autumnal landscape in this country, adding red to the native yellow foliage.

5. All these gardeners didn’t necessarily know what to do with the strange plants and seeds they were receiving in their boxes. There was no Gardeners’ Question Time in the 18th Century. Thank goodness then for Philip Miller, Head of the Chelsea Physic Garden, who wrote The Gardeners’ Dictionary, the first manual for practical gardening based on experiment and observation rather than folk law and superstition. It was professional knowledge for the amateur.

6. For a while, all these new plants had different names depending on where in world you were, which made ordering tricky. Then along comes Swedish botonist, Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus sounds like quite the character. He made up extra exciting adventures and routes he’d traveled, insisted on wearing the traditional dress of the Sami people of Lapland and named weeds after people he didn’t like. More importantly, he introduced a classification system, based on the reproductive nature of each plant. This sexual system shocked British gardeners, who thought it too smutty, but it did eventually become the universal system for naming plants.


Linnaeus in traditional dress, holding the twinflower that became his personal emblem (I think I need an emblem).

All you good folk who garden will notice that I haven’t actually mentioned any plants. For that kind of detail you will need to read Andrea’s book for yourself. She seemed clever and funny so I imagine her book is worth a look. In the meantime, here is a picture of a relevant plant.


John Bartram first discovered specimens of the Bartram oak, Quercus x heterophylla, a rare but naturally occurring hyprid of red and willow oak on a nearby estate, The Woodlands, upriver from Bartram’s own garden in Philadelphia.



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