By Kelley Lavin.
Every so often I read a book that so mesmerizes me that I stockpile copies to give to anyone who happens to ask “have you read a good book lately?” This year I undoubtedly messed up Amazon’s customer tracking strategy when I – a person who has never ordered a book about gardening – ordered 15 copies of The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf.
To say it is simply about the history of the English garden, is to miss an incredible history lesson how ideas, philosophies, cultures and, yes, plants migrate, traveling halfway around the world to take root and impact their hosts’ country. To realize this happened in time when captains had to keep sailors from drinking the rum the plants were stored in, cannibals ate the sailors and human egos, religious beliefs and countries seemed to always be at war, makes this story told even more compelling.
Upon moving from her native Germany to England, the book’s author Andrea Wulf soon learned firsthand about the country’s obsession with gardening. Faced with a terrace plot destroyed by home renovation and, she admits, her own neglect, she began an educational journey that resulted in this marvelous book. She writes in the book’s introduction:
“…ushered me into a world in which flowers, trees and shrubs took precedence over war and politics. I realized that the English landscape garden had its roots in America … dispatched from Philadelphia to London (in) hundreds of boxes filled with seeds and plants, furnishing the groves and shrubberies that would later be imitated everywhere in Europe and in American herself. …Soon I too was in the grip of an obsession.”
In her immensely readable style, Wulf tells an international story of how in the eighteenth century “plants and ideas could be exchanged across vast distances.” You’ll learn how, at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, a wealthy English merchant Peter Collinson began a four decade correspondence and plant subscription business with the American farmer John Bartram that transported America’s evergreens, trees and shrubs, changing the English garden and landscape forever. From the controversy of creating an nomenclature so botanists around the world could communicate to the exotic adventures of the botanist explorers who sailed the world on Captain Cook’s Endeavour to bring new species to satisfy a frenzy of competitive English gardeners, this book once again proves that history, when well written, can be the book you just can’t put down.
(The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession, by Andrea Wulf. Vintage Books, $17.95, paperback.)