Dig into a good book! (pun intended) Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

Voltaire said to cultivate your garden… so what are you waiting for?   It’s time to go outside and dig up the backyard.  No backyard?  Sign up for a community plot.  If all else fails, do a little guerrilla gardening.

In between pulling up the weeds I recommend Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf.  This very readable book traces how a mail order seed business between two men, John Bartram of Philadelphia and Peter Collinson of London, fueled England’s dual obsessions with botany and empire.

Don’t be fooled by the dust jacket – Brother Gardeners is more than a superficial overview on the lives of a handful of 18th century botanists.  This book is surprisingly well crafted and informative, despite the amount of material it encompasses.  Andrea Wulf covers the years 1733-1820, intelligently choosing to bookend her narrative between the lives of John Bartram and Joseph Banks.  In between we are introduced to men such as Carl Linneaus (the father of modern taxonomy & ecology), Phillip Miller (caretaker of the Chelsea Physic Garden), Thomas Fairchild (who created the first man made plant hybrid), Captain Cook (famous explorer) and a host of others.  Brother Gardners succeeds in smoothly transitioning from one character to another by employing a strange version of seven degrees of botanist separation.  These transitions help to establish a context for each man’s contribution to what was a botanical Golden Age.

It was in this period of less than a hundred years that the small island of England became the metaphorical and literal greenhouse of the world.  (Interesting aside:  Many of the plants Wulf discusses can still be found in British gardens today – putting a major hitch in the whole native plant movement.  There’s a useful glossary at the end of the book which gives the year when individual  plants were first introduced).  These men and their gardens would ultimately change the landscape of England and its colonies.   They would influence major, seemingly unrelated, historical events.   Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of binomial nomenclature, the colonization of Australia and the infamous mutiny on the Bounty all had their impetus in the quest for botanical discovery.

It’s difficult not to be left with a newfound appreciation for  what is too often viewed as an eccentric English hobby – batty old ladies potting around their cottage gardens – but was in fact a keystone in the foundation of a colonial empire.  How so?  Well… if you have slaves in the West Indies that need a cheap and productive food supply you import bread trees from Tahiti.  You can ship New Zealand flax plants to Australia in order to create a niche in the linen industry.  You attempt to break China’s monopoly on tea by sending plants (and willing Chinese planters) to India.  The list goes on.

Overall it’s pretty fascinating stuff.  But what makes Wulf’s book so accessible is that Brother Gardeners focuses on the relationships between the men whose stories it tells.  It describes friendships that were based on a common scientific interest and which ultimately transcended nationality, politics and war.  With the current resurgence in the popularity of gardening – demonstrated by the increase in vegetable gardens,  as well as the growth of the slow and organic food movements –  it’s an important lesson for modern day readers to walk away with.

The Rodale Institute’s farm is located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and was founded in 1947.  It is home to the longest running U.S. trial comparing organic versus conventional farming methods.  (They also publish Organic Gardener Magazine).  You can find a whole section on their website on the topic of Global Warming.  It lists several articles on how climate change can be managed, even combated, by sequestering carbon in soil through organic farming.  Their stated mission is to “improve the health and well-being of people and the planet”.

Here’s a link to a video interview with Tim LaSalle, the Rodale CEO, explaining how U.S. farmers can become leaders in the fight against global warming:  http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20080515/gw4

And here’s the link the main website:  http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/

Wulf’s Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession tells us the story of how 275 years ago, because a few men cultivated their gardens, the whole world changed.  Who knows?  If we’re lucky it might happen again.

4 thoughts on “Dig into a good book! (pun intended) Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

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