The Brother Gardeners

  • Post published:11/28/2009
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The Brother Gardeners
The Brother Gardeners

Much has been written about the “Columbian Exchange,” which refers to the plants and animals (and diseases) that were exchanged between the Old World and the New once Columbus started ships regularly traveling across the Atlantic. The Old World owes a lot to the New, especially in an agricultural sense. Potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cocoa, pineapples and pumpkins and a dozen other crops traveled from the New World to the Old so successfully that everyone’s diet changed radically.

However, in addition to the food crops that traveled across the ocean, countless ornamental plants were also shipped from the colonies, as we were then, to London for dispersal to various beautiful estates. The men responsible for beginning this exchange were John Bartram, a Quaker farmer, amateur botanist and friend of Benjamin Franklin, in Pennsylvania and Peter Collinson, a successful Quaker businessman and a passionate gardener living in London, who was also an agent for Benjamin Franklin’s new subscription library.

The first book Collinson sent Franklin was about horticulture, because he hoped this hint would bring him some exotic Pennsylvania plants in exchange as a thank you. That didn’t happen and he finally had to ask for plants. Franklin was no plant hunter, but he eventually sent him the name of John Bartram. In 1734 Collinson collected the first two seed boxes that Bartram sent across the Atlantic; all the seeds were in good shape. Thus a four decade friendship began, resulting in a business for Bartram, and the planting of beautiful American forests and shrubberies on British estates.

The story of this friendship is told in The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obessession by Andrea Wulf (Knopf $35).

It is easy to understand how difficult it must have been to ship seeds and plants from Pennsylvania to London when the trip was so long and perilous. Finding a way to pack the seeds and cuttings so they would arrive in good shape and ready to be planted after a long sea journey was just one problem. Over the years, as war between France and England was declared in 1756, ships carrying Bartram’s boxes were lost to battles as well as to storms that might sink a ship.

Trees like the balsam fir and sugar maple had already made their way to Britain, but they remained very rare. Trees, shrubs and flowers that Bartram introduced to England included the river birch, Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha), witch hazel, sourwood tree, white pine, fringe tree, Hydrangea arborescens, mountain laurel, great laurel, sassafras, scarlet oak, goldenrod, Eastern hemlock, Phlox divaricata, as well as seeds and cuttings of plants that were already known in England, but not easily propagated.

Through Collinson and his contacts, Bartram and his boxes became well known in England. In 1765 King George III named him the King’s Botanist for North America and paid him a stipend until Bartram died in 1777. At the same time Bartram’s own garden continued to grow and became the first Botanic Garden in this country.

Wulf also describes the scientific and horticultural world of the time. One controversy of the day was plant taxonomy and nomenclature. There was little agreement about how to name plants, although botantists had tried to replace names like “welcome home husband though never so drunk” with Latin names. One of the horticultural experts, Philip Miller, preferred to call Magnolia grandiflora Magnolia foliis lanceolatis persistentibus, caule erecto arboreo, trying to include a description of every aspect of the tree.

The ultimate winner of this debate, although not without considerable reluctance on the part of many, was Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) of Sweden. He did not like long plant names because it became so difficult to communicate with other botanists, especially as so many new plants were being discovered. He wanted a single system and came up with a two word name for every plant. First would be the genus, like Magnolia, and a second word like grandiflora would denote the individual species. This binomial system was controversial because Linnaeus paid so much attention to the sexual parts of each plant, and discussing sex in this way offended many scientists.

The history of plant hunting, and plant politics, can be told through the naming of certain plants. Linnaeus named the Rudbekia for his teacher Olof Rudbeck, and the Kalmia or laurel for Pehr Kalm, who made an important plant hunting trip to North America. The Magnolia is named for Pierre Magnol “who invented the concept of plant families’ and Gardenia for the Scottish botanist, Alexander Garden.

Enmities played out in names as well. Linnaeus named a stinky weed Siegesbeckia for Johann Siegesbeck who criticized Linnaeus’ sexual classification system for many years. Since there was more than one such case, Linnaeus often found himself beleaguered with requests to have plants names changed.

Linnaeus himself chose a small pink woodland flower to bear his name, Linnaea, not because he was modest, but because he felt “forgotten and ignored.”

John Bartram did not achieve the fame of Johnny Appleseed, but his plant hunting and propagating changed the domestic landscape for gardeners here in what was soon to be the United States, and in the great botanic gardens and estates of England.

As Thanksgiving arrives I am remembering John Bartram and Peter Collinson and giving thanks for all the friendships that have grown in the garden throughout the years, and for the beautiful changes that have been wrought in our gardens because of those friendships.

Between the Rows  November 21, 2009

DON’T FORGET THE GIVEAWAY !  Leave a comment about a book you found especially useful and engaging, or your own seed starting tip and on December 6th I’ll choose one commenter at random to win Nan Ondra’s new book, The Perennial Care Manual and 2 boxes of CowPots.

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