The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & The Birth of an Obsession, by Andrea Wulf 2008

Of the books I have read on botany and its history this one is unusual in that the story chiefly involves English plant enthusiasts instead of American, but it has a close connection to American botany. The story follows the lives of six men in the 1700s whose passion for plants gave rise to the English love of gardens and the introduction of many native American plants into England.  The key American figure is John Bartram, a Philadelphia farmer, who sent hundreds of boxes of seeds and plants from what are now the eastern states to Peter Collinson, a London cloth merchant, plant collector and plant purveyor. Peter Collinson set up a subscription service for Bartram’s boxes. The subscribers were usually wealthy individuals interested in plants that were considered exotic in England.  The extent of this trade was astounding.  Bartram began with plants near his farm, but later made several trips to various states to collect his plants. 

The other four key men in the book are Philip Miller, Carl Linnaeus, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.  Philip Miller was Head Gardener of the Chelsea Physic Garden and author of the earliest English language plant dictionary, the Gardeners Dictionary, published in 1731 which listed all known plants in cultivation in England at that time. The Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus visited England and made a  connection with Collinson.  He created a classification system for plants by their sexual structure and composed a standardized system of nomenclature for plants.  This naming system is the basis of plant description still used today.  Joseph Banks was a wealthy Englishman, who with Daniel Solander, a botany student of Linnaeus, explored flora of Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia aboard Captain James Cook’s Endeavour. Later James Banks received plants from the South Pacific from Captain Cook on Cook’s second voyage to the South Pacific and from other explorers of that area of the globe. 

This book gives a mention of Americans Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  But, other important characters in the book are Thomas Fairchild, Hans Sloane, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin. Thomas Fairchild was a leading nurseryman of the day who obtained early imports of American plants.  He was one of the first Englishmen to create a hybrid plant. This hybrid became known as the Fairchild Mule.  Fairchild was invited to speak to the Royal Society which had been established to improve knowledge through experiment and exchange of scientific information. There he met Hans Sloane, physician to the King and a wealthy estate owner. The book details how Hans Sloane became an avid subscriber to Bartram’s boxes and how he creatively used the tree and shrub seeds and seedlings on his estate to transform English landscaping. Erasmus Darwin, also a physician like Hans Sloane, developed a keen interest in botany, particularly, the Linnaean system. Erasmus Darwin was also an inventor and he supported science schools for children. He wrote a poem, Loves of the Plants, which was published in 1789.  It became the most talked about poem of the time, making botany a topic in even middle-class English homes.

Two famous botanical gardens in London share the spotlight in this book’s story, the Chelsea Physic Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew Gardens.  The Chelsea Garden (about 3.5 acres now) was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries for the purpose of raising medicinal plants.  The head gardener was Philip Miller. Kew Gardens, which was created in 1759, has 300 acres and 33,000 species from all parts of the world.

These men and the plants they acquired changed the landscape of England forever and the style of gardening. Prior to this time in the 1700s, English gardens were copies of French gardens where plants were set out in intricate patterns using mostly well-manicured shrubs.  The new English gardens instead focused on more natural swathes of trees, flowers and plants with unusual features such as bright colors or leaves with unusual shapes or textures.  When you see an American Poplar tree or a Virginia White Pine, consider that there are today such trees in England only because of the men above and others like them.

Holly Sparrow, Headwaters Master Gardener