17 December 2009
History is fascinating when an author is able to write like historian Andrea Wulf. Wulf's book, The Brother Gardeners, describes the original botanists, their friendships and feuds, from 1716 to 1770.
Great Britain became the center of the horticultural world during the colonial period by importing plants and seeds from wherever her ships traveled around the world.
In 1716 nurseryman Thomas Fairchild discovered the process by which plants make seed. Fairchild used a feather to pollinate a flower in his Hoxton potting shed. (The Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida is named for the plant explorer and botanist David Fairchild (1869-1954), a descendent of Thomas.)
One of the brother gardeners, Peter Collinson was a cloth merchant and amateur botanist in London. Many British merchants were getting rich on recently opened markets in the American colonies, the West Indies and East Indies.
Collinson's curiosity about plants took him to Fairchild's garden and his enthusiasm grew. Collinson believed that while material possessions were pompous, plants strengthened his connection to God.
In correspondence with businessmen around the world, he always requested seeds and plant specimens. His request was rarely honored but eventually he gained a connection to John Bartram, a farmer and amateur botanist in America.
Over time, John Bartram collected seeds from the colonies and established a mail-order business selling American horticulture to Europe.
Collinson and Bartram were both Quakers, who were forbidden to attend college, so they read every book they could acquire. Collinson was the English contact for Benjamin Franklin's library in Philadelphia.
Philip Miller, in 1727, discovered that insects "are the Cupids of the garden" pollinating plants. Miller swapped cuttings and seeds with collectors around the world in order to restore the Physic Garden where herbs were grown for medical use.
Miller and Fairchild then formed the Society of Gardeners where amateur botanists gathered to try to identify and name boxes of plant specimens. Miller incorporated all of the specimens and plant names into Miller's Dictionary – the first plant reference. During the same period of history the first dictionary and Encyclopedia Britannica were published.
It was in 1735 that Miller printed the "Abridgement", a book that was small and affordable to all. A gardening craze bloomed from this availability of information for everyone from aristocrats to amateurs.
In the meantime, Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus was counting flower stamens and pistils as a basis for plant identification. Linnaeus's system divided all flora into 23 groups based on the number of husbands (stamens) and wives (pistils) a flower has. Another group was for flowerless species such as moss.
In 1753 Linnaeus published Species Plantarum with 7,700 plants named and described. Linnaeus used language to describe plant parts and pollination that scandalized Victorians.
A feud between Miller and Linnaeus over who would dominate the naming of plants, bruised many friendships. Botanists were required to take sides and Linnaeus openly insulted plant explorers.
Later, Captain Cook's famous ship the Endeavor carried two botanists Daniel Solander and Sir Joseph Banks around the world, largely because Banks financed the 1768 voyage.
They returned home with 30,000 specimens.
Banks primary interest was in the financial value of plants and he convinced King George III to transform Kew into the botanical collection it became.
Banks weekly walks with King George cemented their relationship and as a result The Bounty was retrofitted to transport plants from the East Indies, Jamaica and Tahiti.
Physician, poet and botanist, Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather, formulated the first theory of evolution in 1795, but it was Linnaeus who said humans were primates and named us Homo sapiens in 1763.
The book is The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession, by Andrea Wulf (www.andreawulf.com), 354 pages, published by Knopf. $35 or $19 online.