Book Review

The Brother Gardeners, Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

by Andrea Wulf
Heinemann 2008, 246 pages
Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2009
Winner of the American Horticultural Society 2010 Book Award
Reviewed by Janet Hurrell, July 2016

This is a wide-ranging book through decades, ideas and personalities. There is perhaps too much to read in just one book. On the other hand, you finish reading knowing a lot more about how our country became such a nation of gardeners. Leave aside William Kent and Lancelot Brown and think of today’s ordinary gardeners – from where did they emerge?

It is perhaps best to quote parts from the end of the book, which bring together the threads that are lavishly spun throughout 264 pages of text.  Wulf writes:

“Without the achievements of Philip Miller, Peter Collinson, John Bartram, Carl Linnaeus, Daniel Solander and Joseph Banks, England would not have become such a nation of gardeners.”

Collinson and Bartrum nurtured the commercial seed trade and nurseries in England as well as translating ideas about landscape into reality. Linnaeus and Solander transformed botany into a coherent enterprise and Banks built all on these achievements, seeing how the three themes could bring pleasure and prosperity to the nation.

To reach these conclusions, Wulf starts with Thomas Fairchild, a leading nurseryman of the early 18th century who first introduced hybrids by waving a feather over the stamen of sweet William, then brushing the stigma of a carnation bringing in the notion of sexuality in plants.  So how did the title of this book, The Brother Gardeners, arise?

Wulf swiftly moves on from Fairchild to Peter Collinson, an English businessman whose real interest lay with plants, and Bartram a ‘colonial’ from North America. Their relationship evolved over four decades with at the beginning Collinson considering Bartram to be more lowly than him. Over the years, however, Bartram came to be respected. Boxes of seeds and plants were supplied by Bartram to Collinson who then distributed them to his clients, now no longer solely the aristocracy.

Philip Miller was a botanist and gardener for Chelsea Physic Garden. He also used Bartram’s seed and plant boxes to supply to the clients he advised but clashed with Carl Linnaeus  who had promoted the revolutionary way of classifying plants, using a system based on their reproductive organs and how many stamens and pistils they had.

There is a section on Collinson’s work for James Petre of Thornden in Essex; another on Daniel Solander, a protégé of Linnaeus who against the latter’s wishes came to England.  Collinson and Bartram have died and we move onto Joseph Banks for another new section on the voyage of the Endeavour to Botany Bay with Banks and Solander on board.

The book is extremely well researched, referenced and annotated for garden historians but the story it tells is also of real interest to the less academic and it is perhaps becoming clear why I suggested there might be too much to read in one book. The Brother Gardeners left me happy to have learnt so much from one book but slightly concerned that a clear thread was not fully maintained.