Throwback Review –Brother Gardeners: Botany Empire & the Birth of an American Obsession

Today’s post is a throwback to my June 2009 review of Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf. I was and remain a huge fan of Wulf’s nonfiction… I even attended a reading at a local plant nursery in 2011 to hear her speak about her (then) new book Founding Gardeners.

I also seem to be a bigger fan of a certain Voltaire quote than I realized.

My review of Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden will be available later this week. I listened to it on audiobook, so it was an entirely different experience. But more on that later. For now, I think this old review holds up surprisingly well a decade on –

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. 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…. what is often viewed as just the peculiar British national hobby – was in fact the keystone 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. 

A Book Event for The Founding Gardeners at Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery, Pennsylvania

Ever notice how once something is brought to your attention you suddenly notice it everywhere?  Well, after hearing about the publication of Andrea Wulf’s new book The Founding Gardeners on Twitter I knew I had to read it.  Next, I learn that it’s an Editor’s Choice in the New York Times Book Review.  AND THEN, I’m driving home and our local NPR station is talking about an event at a nearby nursery: Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery.  Andrea Wulf will be speaking and signing books 20 minutes away.  So of course I had to go.

It was a lovely day and the Nursery is beautiful.  The fact that Edge of the Woods specializes in native plants made the venue feel particularly appropriate.  The talk lasted about 1-1/2 hours and I’m happy to report that Andrea Wulf is a wonderful speaker.  I’d heard her before in radio interviews & BBC podcasts for The Brother Gardeners, discussing John Bartram (who before the American Revolutionary War started a nifty little business sending Native American plants and seeds to England).  This new book is the natural continuation of that story.  Ms. Wulf explained that while studying Bartram she was surprised to discover what rabid gardeners Washington, Jefferson, Adams & Madison were.  She mentioned orders she found in Bartram’s paperwork from George Washington for his gardens in Mt. Vernon.  She discussed how a visit to Monticello made her realize that these early American presidents were designing their gardens with the same principles in mind with which they were shaping the new country.  It was really fascinating.  And, honestly, it was one of the few times I’ve heard an author clearly and concisely explain where the idea for a book was born.

Afterwards there were questions and answers.  Unfortunately fewer than I would have liked.  There was a very good question about the influence of Native Americans on these early gardens.  And I did ask one question (and a follow-up! as my husband had fun pointing out) about Jefferson’s & Madison’s influences on each others gardens (I’ve always, probably unfairly, imagined Madison as Jefferson’s sidekick in an unflattering, Robin to Jefferson’s Batman, kinda’ way) … but I do wonder how people can come to a reading, listen to someone talk for over an hour and then have absolutely no questions afterwards.   Fortunately, the event coordinators had the foresight to invite a John Bartram impersonator, who engaged the author with questions about the transport of “his” plants & seeds to England and the terrible time he had trying to get payment from the British. When I first read that John Bartram would be there, I worried it would be more kid-friendly than what I was looking for.  In actuality, it was a lot of fun & very well done.

Afterwards, there were refreshments and Ms. Wulf graciously signed copies of her books.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to an event like this.  They’re usually  held on weekdays and the authors I would be interested in hearing don’t normally come to this area.  So I’d forgotten how fascinating it is to listen to an author discuss their book.  And how much you can learn when they take questions from the audience.  Andrea Wulf mentioned that she’s about 2/3 of the way through her book tour.  If you have the opportunity to hear her speak in your area I highly recommend doing so.  Here’s a link to her Upcoming Events.

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News Flash! The Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden by Andrea Wulf

@AAKnopf Alfred A. Knopf Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison were dirt-under-the-fingernails gardeners says Andrea Wulf:
This tweet just made my day.  I reviewed (and adored) Andrea Wulf’s book Brother Gardeners: Botany Empire and the Birth of Obsession in 2009.  She hinted in interviews 3 years ago that she was working on a new book –  about the gardening habits of the American Founding Fathers.  The Founding Gardeners:  How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden is the book she promised.  And I’m very excited to see that it’s finally here!

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