How do a modest Quaker farmer outside Philadelphia in pre-revolutionary America, a well-to-do cloth merchant in London, the inventor of the scientific binomial nomenclature that made possible universal identification of plants, and an enormously wealthy British nobleman with a passionate dream of exploration and discovery come together to affect the course of Western civilization? Quite simply, a passion for plants.
My interest in this book was sparked by the role of John Bartram, an intelligent and inquisitive farmer outside Philadelphia, and a friend of Benjamin Franklin, who happened to have an unusual affinity for plants and horticulture. Rising from his rather lowly beginnings, Bartram became a key figure in the importation of North American flora into Great Britain, traveling throughout the East to find new plants, eventually helping make possible the birth of the centuries-long passion for gardening among the British. His 18th century house and nursery are near here, on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
The Brother Gardeners is about a time when botany was the cutting edge of science. Advances in horticultural knowledge, invention of a universal system for classifying and naming plants, and the discovery and cultivation of new plants from the far corners of the world were among the highest scientific pursuits. Andrea Wulf weaves together these and other stories in a fascinating account that takes us from John Bartram's farm on the Schuylkyll River in Pennsylvania, to Peter Collinson collecting boxes of plants and seed from America on the London docks, to that most arrogant of scientists, Linnaeus, ruthlessly pursuing his new system for classifying and naming all plants, to Joseph Banks in England, a man with enormous wealth and courage enough to finance and risk his life on one of the first voyages of exploration to the South Pacific, guided by Captain Cook aboard the Endeavor, in pursuit of new plant discoveries, and in that pursuit discovering, by accident, the east coast of Australia.
Fascinating reading for gardeners with a historical inclination, this book brings to life one of those times in which apparently unrelated interests merge to move a culture into new directions. In the eighteenth century, when Britain was building an empire that would dominate the world, large numbers of the well-to-do were becoming entranced by new horticultural discoveries. They became a new moneyed market for the new plants, vying for access to the plants for their gardens, driving development of new technologies such as heated greenhouses for growing tropical species, and collecting vast herbaria. As plants became more important to the economy of Britain, interest in them spread and access became easier and cheaper, igniting a passion for gardening among the broader population.
Ms. Wulf's is a gossipy book - if a book on 18th century botanical goings on can be so characterized - and a well researched book full of treasures of information, quotes from letters we might otherwise never have opportunity to read, a book full of stories of the follies and amazing achievements of a group of intelligent, at times prideful and silly, and accomplished gentlemen and farmers to whom all gardeners today owe a debt.