Thursday, April 16, 2015

And Now a Little History

I recently got to hear Andrea Wulf talk about the history of the transatlantic plant trade that took place from 1730 into the early 1800s -- the decades when England and America sent thousands of seeds and plants across the ocean in an incredible exchange of botanical riches.

Andrea Wulf is the author of several books, including The Brother Gardeners, the book she was invited to talk about to the Hartford Garden Club.

I read it a while ago, and loved learning about the fraternity of men who formed relationships with each other in different countries, pursuing their obsession with discovering and growing new plants.

And this was in a time when transporting plants meant keeping them alive for months at sea, boxes of seeds were eaten by ship rats, correspondence by letter was a drawn out process, and just gathering the plants and seeds to share meant perilous expeditions into unsettled forests.

She's a remarkable speaker, able to communicate how her subject fascinated her and how the letters and documents she researched came to life across the centuries.

She charmed us by admitting she is no practical gardener at all, and then proceeded to demonstrate she knew plants in detail and had mastered botany, all from immersing herself in the lives of plantsmen of 250 years ago.

There is nothing like hearing an assured speaker talk about a topic she knows well and loves.

Andrea Wulf lives in England (but was raised in Germany -- her German-British accent is unique). She states simply that any tour of any garden in the United Kingdom today is a tour of American plants.

Because of the trade between England and the American colonies, thousands of new plants were introduced to England and eagerly adopted. Interest in the novelty of these New World plant marvels caused an explosion of gardening and made England the gardening obsessed culture it is today.

Why did the British become more obsessed than any other country during these years? Several reasons, including Empire -- they had so many global sources to supply new plants. And climate -- imported plants, as long as they weren't from the tropics, all grew so well in England's benign climate.

But the brother gardeners made it happen: John Bartram, the American farmer who collected specimens and shipped them to Peter Collinson, an English merchant who sold them in increasingly huge orders. They had a decades long correspondence and friendship.

The oddball Swedish scientist Linnaeus, of course, who finally made sense out of the hopelessly confused names of all these botanical wonders flooding Europe. And Philip Miller, who wrote the first ever plant dictionary, which made practical garden knowledge accessible to amateurs as never before. There were others too, explorers and scientists. Her book brings them all to life.

America was populated by British settlers whose legacy, language and dominant culture have had profound effects on us. In turn, England was overwhelmingly planted in American trees and shrubs that have had a lasting effect on their entire physical landscape to this date.

Fascinating reading. Impressive talk.

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