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The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession Paperback – March 9, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Wulf, a German-born journalist, wonderfully conveys the allure and cultural importance of the garden. Spanning nearly 100 years and several continents, Wulf begins her cultural investigation with the creation of the first manmade hybrid by devout Christian gardener Thomas Fairchild, who spent the rest of his life racked with guilt for the blasphemous act. She also introduces egomaniacal Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who scandalized British society with his sexual system of classification; his book was banned by the Vatican. There is New World farmer John Bartram, who braved storms and steep mountains to discover new plants and send them back to his customers in England, hungry for exotic vegetation from America. As Wulf fills her readily accessible book with adventures aboard Captain Cook's ship, petty rivalries and outsized personalities, she provides an entertaining account of kooky botanists traveling the world and explores how gardening neutralized class lines, how horticulture and botany brought wealth and power, and how the English garden had a profound impact on modern landscape gardening, elevating the humble pursuit into the highest art. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From The New Yorker
In Wulf’s engaging account, the origin of the English country garden appears as a matter of friendship as much as of flowers—a collaborative effort between two men and two countries. In 1733, a humble American farmer, John Bartram, sent seeds of plants native to the American colonies to a London cloth merchant, Peter Collinson, who went on to lead a dedicated group of British enthusiasts in introducing American species to Britain. Previously, English gardens had been dominated by turf, topiary, and strict geometric rules; the arrival of new plants well suited to the climate transformed them into places of movement and color, and a source of immense national pride. That such a quintessentially English obsession should have its roots in foreign soil is an irony not lost on Wulf, a design historian who grew up in Germany.
Top customer reviews
Gardening and Botanical History are the nominal subjects of this book, but the heart of it is one of the great adventures of all time, the first voyage of Cook's HMS Endeavour and it's scientific mission(s). It ranks with the Lewis and Clark expedition or those of Ernest Shackleton in and around Antarctica, in the sweep of the story and importance of the results.
If you've read "South" by Ernest Shackleton or "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose, you should be prepared for Wulf's presentation of Joseph Banks' around the world quest for scientific knowledge aboard Cook's ship on its way to observe the Transit of Venus, about which Wulf has written another book.
Wulf lets the facts speak for themselves and provides many references to source material, much of it online, that will give you hours if not months of adventure of your own.
This book is about a more that one huge subject, handled with respect by a very competent scholar. It is about the revolution, if not the invention of gardening, about the invention of Taxonomy, about the seeds of Darwin's studies of evolution, planted by his grandfather. It's about the incredible importance of the Royal Society and some of its Fellows. It's about much more, especially if you are American or English. Any one of these sub-plots has been the subject of many college courses, but this book is definitely not a dry academic text.
One of the most important subjects of "The Brother Gardeners" is, indirectly, 18th century American Colonial History. The continuous close relationship between John Bartram and his English "Brothers" when America was about to launch the War of Independence reminds us of how close the colonies were to the English and how badly the English government misread and lost their richest and closest allies.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and a few other people you may have heard of are also important to this first part of "Brother Gardeners". So much so that Wulf has written a second book about some of the "Founding Gardeners".
The Kindle Edition may not be for the serious student of Gardening or History. Access to the footnotes is excellent by touch. The footnotes are not distracting and are terse and well done. But if you want to read the extensive bibliography you risk getting lost. And the glossary is almost unreadable since it is in an extremely small typeface and not expandable.
Read this book once to learn about the "Brothers". Read it again with a computer handy for the original Notes of Captain Cook and Joseph Banks and others, and above all for the original botanical illustrations from various people mentioned in the text. If you are a biologist and think you know Linnaeus, this book and the online primary source material may revise or amplify you view.
This reviewer is an old biologist with more than a year in Antarctica and another in England and some its gardens and I learned something from Andrea Wulf on almost every page of this innocent looking book.
But other key players are discussed as well, including Carl Linnaeus of Sweden who developed a sexual system for classifying plants which eventually came to dominate the study of botany. Another interesting character is Philip Miller whose "Gardeners Dictionary" (1731) was an influential encyclopedia of plants and trees which made information about plants easily accessible to all. The author traces how the very wealthy and titled became interested in stocking their estates with these enchanting American plants and shrubs, many of which were obtained from Bartram. From the upper classes, interest spread to the rest of British society and gardening became a "national craze." Eventually, flowers became enormously popular as well.
However, more than just aesthetics were involved. London became the center of the scientific study of botany. Daniel Solander, protege of Linnaeus, became attached to the British Museum. Along with Joseph Banks, the towering figure of 18th century British science, Solander accompanied Captain Cook to Tahiti, Australia and New Zealand, returning with new specimens. The King converted his Kew Garden into a world respected botanical research center. Banks, who eventually headed the Royal Society, opened his Soho Square house and library to serious researchers. All this led to an increasing number of popular publications on gardening, which enhanced foreign interest in the English landscape garden which was replicated in several countries.
All of this is recounted with great skill and superb narrative by the author. There are some beautiful illustrations; a Glossary of plants which describes some of those discussed in the text; a good bibliography; and ample endnotes and index to support the author's discussion. I challenge anyone to read this book and not have a happy feeling while doing so. What a pleasurable way to learn!