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Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

Written by Andrea WulfAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Andrea Wulf


List Price: $15.99


On Sale: March 31, 2009
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27147-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Bringing to life the science and adventure of eighteenth-century plant collecting, The Brother Gardeners is the story of how six men created the modern garden and changed the horticultural world in the process. It is a story of a garden revolution that began in America.
In 1733, colonial farmer John Bartram shipped two boxes of precious American plants and seeds to Peter Collinson in London. Around these men formed the nucleus of a botany movement, which included famous Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus; Philip Miller, bestselling author of The Gardeners Dictionary; and Joseph Banks and David Solander, two botanist explorers, who scoured the globe for plant life aboard Captain Cook’s Endeavor. As they cultivated exotic blooms from around the world, they helped make Britain an epicenter of horticultural and botanical expertise. The Brother Gardeners paints a vivid portrait of an emerging world of knowledge and gardening as we know it today.



"Forget not Mee & My Garden"  

There ought to be gardens for all the months in the year,
in which severally things of beauty may be then in season.

FRANCIS BACON, "Of Gardens," 1625  

The first three months of the year were always the busiest time for the cloth merchant Peter Collinson, for it was then that the ships from the American colonies arrived in London. But on this January morning in 1734 he was concerned not with the arrival of reels of wool or bales of cotton but with an altogether different cargo. Awaiting him at Custom House, down by the docks, were two boxes of plants that, for Collinson, were the most exciting piece of merchandise he had ever received.  

As he hurried towards the Thames from his Gracechurch Street office, in the financial centre of the city, Collinson could see the clusters of tall masts above the rooftops and hear the cries of stevedores as they unloaded precious goods from the holds. The stretch of the river between London Bridge and the Tower was the main harbour of London and more than two thousand vessels-besides barges, wherries and ferries-created "a forest of ships." Moored side-by-side, the vessels left only narrow channels for the barges between them, and the wharves, quays and stairs that lined the river were so crowded it was hard to move. These ships brought tea and silk from China; sugar and coffee from the West Indies; spices from the East Indies and corn and tobacco from the American colonies. The river was, as one visitor said, the "foster-mother" of London, pumping money, goods and life into a city which more than half a million people called their home-the largest metropolis in the world.  

Collinson was one of the many merchants benefiting from the huge expansion of trade that had occurred since the accession of King George II. Soon to be forty, he had inherited the cloth business from his father a few years earlier and was involved in shipping cloth all around the globe, with his main market in the American colonies. Between the 1720s and the 1760s exports to the American colonies quadrupled, while those to the West Indies multiplied almost by seven, providing untold wealth to a new class of businessman. As Daniel Defoe wrote, "our merchants are princes, greater and richer, and more powerful than some sovereign princes."  

And, as London grew, so too did the trade to be done within the city. In one year alone, Londoners consumed nearly 2 million barrels of beer, 15 million mackerel and 70,000 sheep. London was one vast consumer market and the streets thronged with trade. Not far from Collinson's office were the shops of Cheapside and Fleet Street, whose large windows created the impression that they were "made entirely of glass." Sweets, cakes and fruits were stacked in precarious towers, and even the apothecaries' colourful potions were lavishly displayed to entice the passers-by. Tourists wandered for hours, admiring what one called "the choicest merchandise from the four quarters of the globe." When dusk settled on the city, thousands of candles threw a soft light on to glittering jewellery, polished silverware and framed engravings. Lanterns fastened to the front of each house created a luminous necklace along the streets, giving London a permanently festive atmosphere.  

Although Collinson was not one of the richest merchants in the city, he was very comfortably off. He lived with his beloved wife in a "little cottage" in the "pleasant village" of Peckham.* It was "the most Delightfull place to Mee," he said, where he could retreat from the "hurrys of town," and where he could indulge the great passion of his life: gardening. Collinson had been fascinated by the natural world from an early age, when he wandered the garden of his grandmother, full of topiary and "curious plants." His grandmother, who had brought him up, had encouraged his enthusiasm and taken him on many trips to the nurseries around London, in particular Fairchild's little plot in Hoxton where the adolescent Collinson had gazed in awe at the exotic world contained in the hothouses. As he got older, his interest in nature only increased. "I must be peeping about," he wrote, confessing that nature haunted him everywhere he went.  

During the week, though, Collinson was forced to attend to his business in the City, where he felt like "a Cockney who Lives in a Wilderness of Chimneys." His main trade was with the colonies in North America, in particular with Pennsylvania, which, due to its rapid rise in population, was one of the fastest growing markets for cloth. And it was from the docks of Philadelphia that Collinson's plant boxes had been dispatched.  

To get to the Custom House, Collinson would have hailed one of the many porters that carried busy merchants on sedan chairs to their appointments. The porters forged a path through the crowds by pushing and crying, "By your leave," and they were so fast that pedestrians who did not jump out of their way fast enough were knocked to the ground. His office was at the heart of the city, not far from the Royal Exchange, that engine of trade in whose courtyard merchants like Collinson met to sell and buy their stocks-said to be "the wealthiest corner of earth." Nearby were many coffee houses in which more business was conducted, such as Lloyd's Coffee House in Lombard Street, which became the venue for marine insurance, and the Pennsylvania Coffee House in Birchen Lane. In the latter, Collinson traded and negotiated but also heard the latest news from America, since it was frequented by captains, and visitors from the colonies who often had their lodgings there when they first arrived in London. There was hustle and noise everywhere. Shopkeepers advertised their wares, animals were herded to the slaughterhouses and musicians played at the street corners. The cacophony of voices, church bells and rattling coaches was interrupted each hour by the shouts of the watchmen who called out the time and the state of the weather.  

The scene in the Custom House was similarly chaotic and teeming. Here, in a room that ran the whole length of the 190-foot-long building, merchants and captains as well as tourists queued for hours along the rows of counters and desks in order to retrieve their goods, trunks and luggage, and to declare their imports. Foreigners found the confusion and crowds in the so-called Long Room daunting and were shocked to see that the customs officers pocketed a share of the duty themselves. Even Collinson, who had "good friends among the Commissioners," often wasted many hours here.  

Today, however, his patience was rewarded. Peering into the two wooden cases from Philadelphia, Collinson could hardly believe what he saw. Inside were hundreds of seeds neatly wrapped in paper, a few living plants and, most extraordinary of all, two flourishing kalmia cuttings.* Collinson had admired the kalmia's many hundred puckered pink flowers that opened like mini-umbrellas in drawings but had never seen a real one. Nobody had ever seen them growing in England, since other cuttings had never survived the journey from America, which took between five weeks and three months.  

For a number of years now, Collinson had been using his trading connections to augment his flowerbeds with the horticultural spoils of distant countries. "Forget not Mee & My Garden," he pleaded with his business partners, and occasionally, along with rolls of cloth, he might find some seeds in a little paper bag, or the remains of a shrub that had been severely neglected. Plants suffered greatly on sea voyages. Often the boxes and barrels with trees and shrubs were put on the open deck, exposed to wind, salt water and fluctuating temperatures. Rats and mice feasted on the leaves and often built their nests in the safety of the cosy boxes, while sailors helped themselves to plant water or even the rum in which choice specimens were stored. In addition, since plant boxes were the least valuable cargo on merchant ships, they were often the first freight to be jettisoned during storms or pirate attacks. One of Collinson's correspondents blamed the continuous failure to procure healthy plants on the captains, who were, according to him, so stupid that "[o]ne may as soon tutor a monkey to speak, or a French-woman to hold her tongue, as to bring a skipper to higher flights of reason." Whenever Collinson knew a passenger, he asked them to guard the boxes, thinking "it might be a pretty amusement for them to peep & Look after it," but to no avail-"Hitt or Miss Lucks all," he concluded. Nine out of ten plants perished on the journey, and even fewer went on to flower once planted in English soil.  

On this occasion, though, Collinson had been lucky. The captain had been more helpful than others and had stowed the plant boxes underneath his own bed, where they had profited from the warmth of the cabin. At last Collinson would be able to create the kind of garden he longed for, bringing a new world of plants to Britain, and so celebrate God's abundance. For Collinson, every foreign species in his garden testified to God's creation, making it akin to a horticultural bible. "[I] admire them [plants] for the sake of the Great & all Wise Creator of them to Enlarge my Ideas of his Almighty power & Goodness to Mankind," he said. His garden in Peckham was therefore a place of "Sublime Contemplation" through which he might discern a closer understanding of the divine plan that underpinned nature.  

Although these ideas were widely held, they were even more pertinent to Collinson because he was a Quaker. William Penn, the founder of the Quaker settlement Pennsylvania, had already in 1693 encouraged his fellow believers to live with nature because "there we see the Works of God." Similarly, Collinson believed that plants were a direct route to a relationship with God, while other material possessions were only a pompous display of wealth-they were "Man's work" and only for "Pride, Folly and Excess," Penn had declared. Thus Collinson, who could have dressed in flamboyant and luxurious silks, favoured modest dark clothes without any of the embroidery, ribbons and ornate buttons that were so fashionable at the time. No lace was applied to his plain white shirts, nor did he wear colourful waistcoats. Equally, in his house he eschewed heavily decorated furniture or lustrous fabrics, adding colour and beauty instead with cut flowers and "nosegays."  

As a Quaker, Collinson had been prohibited from going to university, but his enquiring mind meant that he educated himself through observation, books, and a prolific correspondence with men around the globe. In 1728, age thirty-four, he had become a fellow of the Royal Society. Collinson's annotations in the margins of his books reveal a man who engaged deeply and enthusiastically with their contents. He even used dinners served at friends' houses to broaden his knowledge, on one occasion asking Hans Sloane, the president of the Royal Society, about the classification of a fish he had eaten. He thought that a "rational pursuit" such as horticulture or natural history lead to health, pleasure and profit. Though some might consider dabbling with plants a mere amusement, Collinson believed they made men virtuous and temperate-traits that he and his faith held dear.  

With his election as a fellow of the Royal Society, Collinson became part of the so-called "Republic of Letters" in which theories, experiments and ideas transcended national, political and religious boundaries. "I think there is no Greater pleasure then to be Communicative & oblige others," Collinson encouraged one of his correspondents, adding persuasively, "Wee Brothers of the Spade find it very necessary to share among us." And to prove his commitment-with the underlying hope of receiving some American plants in return-Collinson even agreed to be the unpaid London agent for the subscription library that Benjamin Franklin and a group of friends had established in Philadelphia in 1731. Thereafter, for more than two decades, Collinson would choose, buy and ship books to Philadelphia, enlightening the learned circles in the colonies. The success of the library, Franklin later insisted, was "greatly owing to his [Collinson's] kind Countenance and good Advice."  

As if to emphasise his primary interest, the first book Collinson had selected for the library was a horticultural publication, but despite such hints no plants had arrived. Consequently Collinson had asked the secretary of the Library Company and a fellow Quaker merchant, Joseph Breintnall, for some help. Breintnall, however, was unable to collect plants himself-or as Collinson described it, was keen "to get rid of my importunities"-but had recommended a local farmer who was known for his good knowledge of native species and who was willing to send regular floral dispatches. This man was John Bartram, the sender of the two exciting boxes. As soon as Collinson examined them, his spirits rose. He knew he was dealing with someone who understood plants and could further his aims. Bartram had, after all, been clever enough to realise that if a plant was to arrive in Britain in January, it should be of a variety that flourishes in a colder climate.  

Like Collinson, John Bartram had adored botany since childhood and called it his "darling study," but had little time to indulge his passion since his farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia occupied almost all his time. Initially the work had involved draining the swampy ground and quarrying stone for his house; later he had to tend to his vegetables and corn. His first wife and one son had died the year he had bought his farm in 1727, but he had remarried within two years and his new wife, Ann, bore him a child roughly every two years.  

To a man like Collinson, who spent much of his spare time at the great estates of aristocrats or meeting the intellectual elite at the Royal Society, Bartram's circumstances appeared somewhat lowly. But in fact Bartram's life was fairly privileged by colonial standards. His house, for example, unlike most colonial farm dwellings-which were one-room log cabins-was a fine stone building with four rooms. Only three years earlier, Bartram had completed it by carving a commemorative stone which read "God Save" in Greek-an indication of his aspirations and ambitions. Collinson, though, chose to believe that Bartram was a "plain Country Man," who happened to know a lot about plants and who was willing to gather seeds, acorns and cones for him on a regular basis.  

Like Collinson, Bartram was a Quaker, his grandfather having followed William Penn to America to avoid prosecution and in hope of a better life as a colonial farmer. And as was the ethos of his religion, Bartram was unashamed of his background; he was strong-minded, unwavering in his faith and outspoken in his opinions. Such was his steadfastness that two decades later he was expelled from the Darby meeting by his fellow Quakers for insisting that Jesus was a mortal man. Despite being accused of heresy, Bartram refused to bow.  

From the Hardcover edition.
Andrea Wulf|Author Q&A

About Andrea Wulf

Andrea Wulf - The Brother Gardeners

Photo © Saskia Manners

Andrea Wulf was born in India and moved to Germany as a child. She trained as a design historian at the Royal College of Art and is the author of Founding Gardeners, The Brother Gardeners and, most recently, Chasing Venus, as well as the coauthor (with Emma Gieben-Gamal) of This Other Eden: Seven Great Gardens and 300 Years of English History. She has written for The Sunday Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, and she regularly reviews for several newspapers, including The New York Times, The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement.

Author Q&A

Q: THE BROTHER GARDENERS is a group biography of the founding brothers of the modern garden. It is a story of an extraordinary group of men who are all completely absorbed with botany, plant collection and gardens. It is a tale of adventure, competition and commerce as well as science, reason and obsession. What is your favorite tale from your biography?
There are too many fabulous tales to really make this decision but there is one little episode which I have always loved because it brings together the obsession and adventure that runs through so many of these stories.

In summer 1768 Joseph Banks – dashingly handsome and one of the wealthiest landowners in Britain – joined Captain Cook on the Endeavour for the most daring voyage the British had ever planned. Together they would circumnavigate the world. Three months after they set sail they reached Rio de Janeiro and Banks couldn’t wait to explore the local flora, but the Portuguese governor of the colony thought them to be spies and refused any botanical excursions. Imagine this, stuck on the Endeavour, Banks peers through his telescope and sees the flora and fauna of South America laid out like seductive wares in an exotic bazaar. There were humming birds hovering over clambering bougainvilleas which were dripping with pink blossoms, as well as hedges of brightly colored flowers and juicy fruits dangling from trees. So close and still so far away. In his frustration, Banks writes a letter to a friend which, I think, sums up how the Brother Gardeners felt about plants: ‘I feel like a French man laying swaddled in linnen between two of his Mistresses, both naked [and] using every possible means to excite desire’.

But if you ask me who my favorite character is, I have a clear answer (although I should probably like all my characters equally) – I just adore John Bartram, the American farmer who changed the English parkland and made his countrymen love American native species. Working through his hundreds of letters, I encountered a brave and diligent man who was alive with intellectual curiosity. He brought a smile to my face when he described how he would scramble up pine trees and hold his hat out to catch the seeds which he shook from their hanging cones. I adore him for his habit of falling out of trees, and for the melancholy which overcame him when he failed to find the seeds he sought. He was also a man so distractedly obsessed that he would often lose his way, or would find himself stranded in storms and darkness because he failed to notice sudden changes of weather when searching for a particular plant. He was strong-minded, loyal and passionate – I would have loved if I were able to walk with him through his garden.

Q: THE BROTHER GARDENERS is a thoroughly researched, rich and entertaining narrative on the history of the British obsession with gardens and plants. What was your research process like? What primary sources were you able to tap in to? How were you able to string all of the stories together so beautifully?
As a historian the most exciting thing that can happen is when you find hundreds and hundreds of letters that invite you into a new world. The letters between the Brother Gardeners ushered me into a world adventure, passion and competition. Because they were all part of an international network rather than all being, say in London, they didn’t meet in person but wrote to each other, hence the many letters. There are hundreds of letters, for example, between the American John Bartram and British Peter Collinson which are just wonderful. They are peppered with scientific observations, evocative descriptions of Bartram’s plant hunting trips in the American wilderness and pure boasting about their horticultural triumphs. They sometimes bickered like a squabbling old couple and these petty arguments could last a year or longer depending on the postal delays between London and Philadelphia. And there are hundreds and hundreds of other letters that crisscrossed the oceans to correspondents across the globe because the Brother Gardeners wanted the whole world in their gardens. And because they all knew each other, these letters are almost like a web that links the wider scientific developments with human stories.

Another fun part of the research was following Bartram’s footsteps (equipped with his letters) through the Appalachians, the Shenandoah Mountains and the Catskills. More tedious in terms of research but equally rich in outcome was my research into the plants themselves. Over two years I build up an enormous plant database that would allow me to identify plants (difficult because of constantly changing plant names and their introduction dates) all based on a comparison of Philip Miller’s eight editions of the Gardeners Dictionary and dozens of nursery catalogues. The nucleus of this plant database is now the ‘Glossary’ at the end of the book.

Q: Your story tells of the British obsession with gardening that flourished during the eighteenth century. What was happening in the garden before your story begins?
Some of the Brother Gardeners created the most innovative gardens in England when they dismantled the ideas that had underpinned previous garden designs. They eschewed the formal arrangements in which each specimen plant had stood alone against a backdrop of ebony earth, like the elegant marquetry work on a precious piece of furniture of the time. In the seventeenth-century garden, no branch or flower-head had been allowed to grow unruly. These gardens had been like precious jewel boxes in which each gem was laid out side by side in order to be inspected and admired. In the new gardens, however, it was nature herself who created the shapes and patterns. Until Bartram’s seed boxes arrived in Britain there was little color in the garden for at least five months of the year, but the American species brought for the first time fiery autumn foliage to the English parkland and the many American evergreens created winter gardens. Where before intricate patterns cut in turf had brought variety to the pleasure ground now glorious shrubberies – scented and colorful – adorned the garden. The Brother Gardeners were using trees and shrubs like ‘living pencils’. These were gardens in which Enlightenment thinking found its visual expression. For centuries, high walls had excluded untamed nature from the garden, providing protection from the landscape beyond. Now, with the Enlightenment and man’s growing knowledge of the natural world, gardeners embraced the idea of letting nature reign.

Q: Myth and superstition had reigned in English gardens for centuries. How did these men, The Brother Gardeners, cast aside these ideas?
For centuries garden books, for example, had repeated the flawed advice from ancient Greek and Roman horticultural treatises. They advised to sow seeds during full moon in order to grow flowers with double blossom, that lemons could be turned red by grafting them on to pomegranate, or that apples could be made sweeter by watering the tree with urine. The Brother Gardeners turned against this by making experiments and observations. Instead of repeating plant lore, they applied new rigorous scientific principals to gardening and botany.

Philip Miller, for example, the head gardener of the Chelsea Physic Garden, published a book called the Gardeners Dictionary in 1731 that would change gardening forever – in fact, I think it is the most important horticultural publication of the eighteenth century. Gardeners Dictionary was the first systematic and comprehensive manual for practical gardening, entirely based on Miller’s own observations. It was a complete catalogue of all plants that were in cultivation in Britain as well as details on their cultivation and propagation. For the first time professional knowledge was available for amateur gardeners. Its concept was so insightful that it became an instant success, influencing every gardening book that followed it. Indeed, Miller’s Dictionary laid the foundation for much of our modern horticultural knowledge, and provided a template on which all plant encyclopedias are based today.

Q: One of the most important relationships in the book (and in the history of horticultural trade) is that of the Brit, Peter Collinson and the American, John Bartram. They created a lucrative trade in living plants and seeds. What role did they each play in the trade between the US and the UK? And what effect did they have on garden design
The relationship between the cloth merchant Peter Collinson and the American farmer John Bartram is one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book. It’s the most important horticultural friendship in the eighteenth century because together they transformed the English garden. The story begins in January 1734 when Collinson receives a box of seeds and cuttings that Bartram sent from Philadelphia – the first of many hundreds that would cross the ocean over the next decades.

Together they introduced more than 200 new species to Britain, but their greatest achievement was the scale of the plant enterprise - the sheer quantities of seeds. By the end of the eighteenth century plants that had only been grown as choice rarities in a few botanic collections at the beginning of the century had become so common that they were available cheaply in nurseries from London to Yorkshire.

But there was much more to the relationship between Collinson and Bartram than the trade in seeds and plants. Over almost four decades they became the closest friends although they never met. They shared their passion for plants, consoled each other when death or illness struck their families, teased each other and gossiped about mutual friends - ‘Our good frd B Franklin grows fat & Jolly’, Collinson wrote to Bartram. Their letters are windows into their souls, intimate, funny and passionate. At the same time their relationship also mirrors the changes between Britain and America as the colonies moved towards independence. As the colonies changed from subservience to independence so Bartram changed from deferential farmer to international respected botanist.

Q: One of the Brother Gardeners, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, was a cantankerous man but he was also a genius botanist who pioneered a revolutionary system of plant classification and naming system. What was Linnaeus’ system and why was it an important discovery, particularly in this time period? What sort of system was used previously?
Linnaeus professed himself unable to ‘understand anything that is not systematically ordered’ and invented in the 1730s an entirely new way of classifying plants using a system based on their reproductive organs. He divided plants into 24 classes according to the number of their male organs, the stamens – which he called ‘husbands’. These classes were then further distinguished by the number of the female organs – the ‘wives’, or pistils. In this so-called ‘sexual system’, plants made love in the flower head or ‘bridal bed’ as Linnaeus called it.

Until then the classification of plants had been complex and very laborious. It took years of practice to learn, required expert tuition and access to collections of dried specimens and to expensive, hand-colored botanical books. Linnaeus’s so-called ‘sexual system’, however, was so simple and easy that everybody who could count could learn it. At a time of imperial expansion, when the discovery of new worlds revealed thousands of new species, the sexual system was invaluable because it could be used everywhere, in the wilderness of the colonies or in the libraries of learned societies in London. Botanists, though, thought it ‘too smutty for British ears’ and the Vatican added Linnaeus’ books to its ‘forbidden’ list.

Linnaeus also came up with a new naming system of plants which is used to this day: the binominal nomenclature. Linnaeus gave every plant a universal two-word name, Magnolia grandiflora, for example, a name that is the same in London, Philadelphia or Sydney. Without these standardized names there would be chaos and confusion. He was also able to confer a certain immortality on fellow botanists by naming plants in their honor. For his old teacher Olof Rudbeck, for example, Linnaeus chose the glorious Rudbeckia. But he also used it against his enemies – he named for example a stinking weed Siegesbeckia after Johann Siegesbeck, a man who had condemned the sexual system as ‘loathsome harlotry’.

Q: As the nineteenth century dawned, the possession of a garden came to be seen as an essential pre-requisite for happiness. In what ways did these men change the face of horticulture, for the better?
Without the achievements of The Brother Gardeners, England would not have become such a nation of gardeners. Today our flowerbeds are crowded with the suburban descendants of plants brought to Britain from North America, South Africa, Australia and the Far East. They are the offspring of Bartram’s carefully packed seeds. Even England’s rolling parkland – the embodiment of the ‘green and pleasant land’ – is made up of foreign introductions. Without these, we would be deprived of the spectacular effect of glossy evergreens, dazzling autumn foliage and colorful blossom. From Bartram to Banks, the Brother Gardeners left a lasting legacy. The garden revolution of the eighteenth century is still alive in the English landscape, and ingrained in the nation’s psyche today.

Q: When you left your hometown of Hamburg, Germany for London, you were amazed to find a nation obsessed with gardening. You were now living in a nation fanatical about something you knew little about. Where did your interest in this world, and in this story in particular, begin?
When I came to Britain in the mid-nineties I couldn’t quite believe how obsessed everybody was with gardening. Everybody, young and old seemed to think that a day digging in the flowerbeds was great entertainment. I can’t count how many evenings I have spent listening to people talk about their allotments and flowerbeds, and their horticultural failures and successes. Before long, I had my own garden – a tiny patch of green at the back of a typical London terrace. But I could not tell one plant from another. My horticultural journey began with an excursion to a bookshop and the purchase of a glossy plant dictionary. Identifying my plants proved to be more complicated than I had anticipated and I took to sending startled visitors into the garden in case they could help. Soon I learnt what plants where in my garden and began to look after them. I learnt how to divide delphiniums and how to take cuttings from my dahlia tubers. Whenever I worked in a library, I would use my lunch breaks to search out plant books.

One day I opened a volume that fundamentally changed the way I looked at my plants. This was Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary. What most surprised me was how much of what I had learned about gardening during the previous months had been developed during the eighteenth century, and how many of my plants had been introduced into Britain at that time. As I delved further, it became clear that Miller was part of a much larger plant-collecting and botanical network that stretched to every known corner of the globe. When I then discovered the correspondence between Peter Collinson and John Bartram a picture began to emerge of a horticultural and botanical revolution which had laid the foundations of the English garden but that had begun in America. Now, when I walked out into my little plot, I saw it not as a chaos of unidentifiable plants but as the ordered result of pioneering work by an extraordinary and dedicated group of men who turned Britain into a nation of gardeners. The Brother Gardeners is their story.

Q: What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a book about the American founding fathers and their passion for nature, gardening and agriculture. The genesis of the new book really lies in The Brother Gardeners because it was through John Bartram that I realized a remarkable connection to the founding fathers. For it had been Benjamin Franklin who had, upon first meeting Bartram in Philadelphia in the early 1730s, introduced him to the vibrant world of English botany; and had then, throughout his life, contributed to Bartram’s endeavors. Together they had founded the American Philosophical Society. Then I realized that Franklin’s friendship with Bartram was no isolated connection, but rather that he and the other founding fathers were all passionately interested in botany and gardening. George Washington visited Bartram’s garden as did Thomas Jefferson (for example during the weeks that he was drafting the Declaration of Independence). The native species that Bartram was selling in his nursery became symbols of new nation - strong and magnificent as the towering trees and glorious shrubs. But this was only the beginning …

From the Hardcover edition.



“Wulf’s flair for storytelling is combined with scholarship, brio, and a charmingly airy style. . . . A delightful book—and you don’t need to be a gardener to enjoy it.”—The New York Times Book Review
 “A lively account . . . renders with clarity and grace a significant chapter in horticultural history . . . Elegant, humorous and accessible. . . A erudite, pleasurable and handsome book."—Richmond Times Dispatch
“Vigorous … powerful …Wulf draws the threads of her story compellingly together and lights up an “American connection” in Georgian garden growth as never before.”—The Financial Times
“Engaging.”—The New Yorker

“A fascinating and beautifully researched story.”—Philadelphia Tribune
“Engaging. . . . Lavishly researched. . . . Wulf never allows her material to overwhelm a vivid sense of the big picture, which keenly informs her sparkling narrative.”—Bookforum
“The Brother Gardeners is beautifully researched and equally well written.” —American Scientist
“As Wulf triumphantly shows, plants and gardens reveal a wider view of the forces that shape society ... rarely has the story of English plants been told with such vigour, and such fun.” —Times Literary Supplement, London
“The best book this year is The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession” —Independent on Sunday, London 
“Well-written. . . . Andrea Wulf brings this formative period of plant history to life.”—American Gardener
"The Brother Gardeners is an excellent, hugely entertaining and instructive tale, and Wulf tells it well." —The Guardian, London
 “This absorbing and delightful book about 18th-century botanists stands out among histories of plant hunting ... The approach works superbly because Andrea Wulf makes us see her subjects so vividly … Wulf is admirably clear about the botanical discoveries (amplified by a fascinating glossary of plants, detailing their discovery and introduction).” —Sunday Telegraph, London
"'The Brother Gardeners' by Andrea Wulf is a beguiling tale ... this tale of many surprises"—Free-Lance Star
"Enthralling. . . . Gripping. . . . Brilliantly readable. . . . Andrea Wulf has written a wonderful book." —Mail on Sunday, London
“A gripping tale.”—The Huffington Post
“Engrossing new book … The American seeds and plants thrived in the English soil and climate, and a national obsession was born. Origins and ironies aside, we are all the richer for it, and for Wulf's book, too.” —Hartford Courant
“A delightful look at horticultural history.” —Scotland on Sunday 
“An eminently readable narrative. . . . Like a well-kept garden, The Brother Gardeners is a delight.”—Providence Journal
Andrea Wulf

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Andrea Wulf - The Brother Gardeners

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  • The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf
  • March 09, 2010
  • History; Gardening
  • Vintage
  • $17.95
  • 9780307454751

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