Wonderful Book On Gardening History & Personalities

I bought “The Brother Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf (Vintage Books/Random House, 2008) with the intention of bringing balance to our floral school library. I felt that a source dealing with the history of gardening and movement of botanicals across international borders might be an interesting addition to Rittners Floral School library and add a different kind of perspective.

I am a floral design educator. The origins and movement of plants is interesting, but it is not something that I have ever considered of primary concern.

I must admit that when I started to read this delicious little book, my entire perspective changed. I could not put this wonderful book down! Wulf documents how a group of individuals introduced to Britain, all kinds of botanicals from such places as the Americas and the Pacific, and in so doing,  changed the gardens of England.

What really makes this book so wonderful is that Wulf makes the various individuals and their personalities come remarkably alive.

We get a wonderful portrait of the business relationship and growing friendship of farmer John Bartram of Pennsylvania and British merchant Peter Collinson, and how they introduced all kinds of plants to Britain. We experience the wonder of Bartram searching what was at that time the American Wilderness for new and different botanicals, constantly taking trips farther and farther from his home, in spite of all kinds of dangers (including war). In our world where products can be shipped globally within hours, and communication is instantaneous we get an appreciation of just how difficult it was for these guys to both communicate and safely ship botanicals across the Atlantic.

Just when you think the book is as good as it can be, it gets better.We get a wonderful appreciation for Philip Miller whose Gardener’s Dictionary took gardening out of superstition and approached it in a methodical, practical scientific way.

Then there is Carl Linnaeus, whose sexual system of classifying plants gave some English Botanists indigestion as they envisioned the plant world to be one big horticultural orgy! Of course it didn’ t help that Linnaeus was a conceited, arrogant self promoter. ( This wasn’t the portrait that I got in my Botany classes in college where Linnaeus’ name was almost associated with sainthood!) Later it was interesting to see how he named various botanicals after friends and enemies.

We get to vicariously explore the Pacific with Captain James Cook, and Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.

Even Captain Bligh (of Mutiny on The Bounty fame) ends up in this marvelous little book. We all think of him as the rather anal fellow whose crew mutinied against him, and placed him into an open boat all the while throwing breadfruit plants overboard…..Bligh did manage to navigate that 23′ boat with no charts almost 4,000 miles back to civilization. (Yet how can you feel sympathetic with a guy that Marlon Brando –playing Fletcher Christian– didn’t appreciate? ) What I never realized, was that Bligh actually returned to the Pacific, accomplished his mission of getting breadfruit to the West Indies and returned to Britain with more than 1000 living flowers, shrubs and trees… At that time one of the largest living collection of plants brought into Britain from abroad.

Without a doubt, beg, borrow or best of all buy this book! It is a wonderful, fascinating, compelling read—one that you will certainly savor and enjoy. It holds an honored spot in our library.


  1. Andrea Wulf let me know that she has an exciting new book that will be coming out early next year. Andrea Wulf’s new book Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation will be published in February 2011 by William Heinemann in the UK and in late March 2011 by Knopf in the US. This book looks at the founding fathers from a very unique point of view. It looks at their roles of gardeners, farmers and plantsmen. I am really looking forward to reading this book.

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