I recently read that garden books and winter go together. After the garden has been covered over – first by autumn leaves, then frost, and finally a dusting of snow – what’s left for a gardener to do until March but read? Perhaps that’s what Cicero had in mind when he said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
I agree. I’ve been reading because it’s too cold to garden! And one of the books I have discovered during this winter hiatus is The Brother Gardeners by British journalist Andrea Wulf. This book tells the story of a small group of eighteenth-century naturalists who made Britain a nation of gardeners and the center of horticultural and botanical expertise. But it’s the story of a garden revolution that began in America.
In 1733, the American farmer John Bartram dispatched two boxes of plants and seeds from the American colonies, addressed to the London cloth merchant Peter Collinson. Most of these plants had never been grown in British soil, but in time the American trees, evergreens, and shrubs would transform the English landscape and garden forever. During the next forty years, Collinson and a handful of botany enthusiasts cultivated hundreds of American species. The Brother Gardeners follows the lives of six of these men, whose shared passion for plants gave rise to the English love affair with gardens. In addition to Collinson and Bartram, who forged an extraordinary friendship just before the war of revolution, there is Philip Miller, author of the best-selling Gardeners Dictionary and the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose standardized nomenclature helped bring botany to the middle classes. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander are also followed as they explore the flora of Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia on the most celebrated voyage of discovery of their time, aboard Captain Cook’s Endeavour.
By focusing on these six personalities and telling their extraordinary stories, the author uncovers the roots (pun intended) of our modern approach to gardening without causing the reader to feel weighted down by the detailed historical research on the Age of Enlightenment and its impact on botany. Here’s the opening paragraph just to whet your appetite:
“On an early summer’s day in 1716, Thomas Fairchild went into his Hoxton garden, closed the door of his potting shed and set in motion a chain of events so momentous that in time no gardener would ever think about plants in the same way again. At the same time, it led Fairchild, a devout Christian, to live in fear of God’s wrath for the rest of his life.”
Throughout The Brother Gardeners, the author’s flair for storytelling demonstrated above makes this a most delightful book—and you don’t need to be a gardener to enjoy it.