The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

When I began visiting English gardens over forty years ago, I was surprised that most of the trees I saw were American. I had not known of John Bartram and the period in which he shipped our trees, evergreens, and shrubs to the motherland, where they were used to create gardens now copied all over the world. Yet, seldom did the English, in talking about their Edens, acknowledge the origin of the plants.

Andrea Wulf takes an uncommon approach to botanical history, concentrating here on six men whose passion for plants resulted in an extraordinary friendship with one another during the eighteenth century. Philadelphia’s Bartram was the linchpin in these endeavors, traveling all over the eastern United States to gather plants to send to Britain’s Peter Collinson, a fellow Quaker who was fascinated with horticulture. Bartram’s other clients included Philip Miller, whose The Gardener’s Dictionary, published in 1754, expanded the information available to ordinary gardeners.

One of the most interesting sections of the book is devoted to Bartram’s Swedish friend, Carl Linnaeus, who devised the system for plant nomenclature that is now the standard around the world. Wulf chronicles the difficulties that Linnaeus faced in getting others to accept his work. I found it amusing that his book was put on the list of banned books by the Vatican, for its focus on “sex” in the garden.

Botanist Joseph Banks dominates the book just as he dominated his era, as a result of his plant-hunting journey aboard the HMS Endeavour through the Southern Hemisphere and the extensive collection of plants brought back from the journey. Daniel Solander, who had studied in Sweden under Linnaeus, became the right hand man for Banks, helping to explore the flora of Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. He was a lifetime librarian at the British Museum.

These and other plant enthusiasts helped to create an era when gardens became an important part of ordinary life. Most of them were truly obsessed with botany, and their influence on gardens continues today.

The author has produced a fascinating study, one that is written for the expert as well as the ordinary gardener. Included is a fine glossary of plants, an extensive bibliography, and exhaustive footnotes. Many old prints and drawings add to the attractiveness of this volume, which should be in the library of plant enthusiasts anywhere.

William Grant, rosarian
Aptos, California