Kalmia seeds were included in some of the boxes John Bartram shipped to England from America.
The only place in my apartment that gets any light is the firescape, and that's just for an hour or two a day. I asked my dad if he could think of any plants that I could grow out there, something that wouldn't require much sun. He suggested moss. This wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but perhaps it's better than nothing, because I don't know how else to satisfy my wistful craving for a little garden of some sort.
I'm not the only one who feels that way, of course. Gardening is one of the most popular activities in the world--especially in England. In the introduction to her book The Brother Gardeners, Andrea Wulf describes her astonishment at the English obsession with their gardens that she found when she moved to London after living in Germany. The poor, the rich, the fashionable, the stolid, all seemed to spend hours discussing their gardens, whether they had a full blown estate filled with multitudes of plants, or a tiny patch of flowers outside a city flat. After falling for her own garden, she began to research the history of the English love of gardens, resulting in this neat little book.
I am afraid I can't give you a great amount of detail about "The Brother Gardeners," as I finished it a number of days ago and didn't take notes. I can tell you that the heart of the story is the relationship between Peter Collinson, an 18th century London merchant with a love for gardening, who struck up a correspondence with John Bartram, an American farmer. Bartram shared Collinson's interest in botany and sent him seeds from North American plants. When demand in Britain began to grow for these "exotic" American seeds, Collinson and Bartram turned it into a business, with Bartram foraging for seeds and putting together boxes to subscribers found by Collinson in England. During their time writing to each other, Bartram grew from an amateur to one of the most important botanists in America, helping to cultivate gardens there as well.
A sketch of 18th century botanist John Bartram's garden.
Other parts of the book deal with the formalization of botany as a science, and its evolution from something only the high-born and learned understood to a hobby for people of all classes. Part of this came from Phillip Miller, an irascible nurseryman who revived the failing Chelsea Physic Garden and wrote a plain English book with advice about gardening that became a must-have for every independent gardener and every caretaker on every estate in England. The organizing came from Carl Linnaeus, the boastful, annoying Swede, whose sexual system for classifying plants was at first rejected by the (outwardly) prudish British, but eventually became the standard due to its ease of use. Linnaeus annoyed everyone he met when he visited England, but his protege, Daniel Solander, who he sent to England both to drum up support for the system and to learn how the English were so successful at raising plants, made the opposite impression; in fact, the English botany community loved Solander and he ended up staying there (much to the fury of Linnaeus, who expected him to return to Sweden to follow in Linnaeus's footsteps at Uppsala University and marry Linnaeus's daughter). Solander became the best friend of Joseph Banks, who was the great British champion of botany in the latter half of the 18th century (he and Solander traveled with Captain Cook on an exploration of the Pacific Ocean). Wulf's book also discusses how the English style of naturalistic gardening overtook the previous century's French fashion of extremely sculpted hedges and topiary.
The Chelsea Physic Garden today.
I wish I give a bit more detail, but unfortunately, I'm a bit empty on this one. I waited a long time for this book from the library, and while I enjoyed it, I can't say it was anything more than a mild enjoyment. As I read, I was more inclined to think, "Hmm, that's interesting," rather than "Wow! That's fascinating!!" There's nothing wrong with that, and it's a new way to look at the eighteenth century. I think I--perhaps unfairly--expected more, though. You may well ask why I expected anything beyond mildness in a subject, gardening, that would seem best suited to that term, but for some reason I expected passion and exuberance; some of this may be due to Wulf's elegant, but reserved style. It's a good enough read, especially if you're into gardening or eighteenth century studies (the detailed end notes and glossary make the book a truly worthwhile investment), but it didn't make me miss my train stop, or keep my mind from occasionally wandering, if you know what I mean.
As for me and my unfulfilled longing to cultivate something, I suppose I will have to get by with admiring the work of others. I can see flowers in window boxes and pocket gardens hidden behind buildings, and vines crawling up walls. In the parks, the trees are all translucent gold-green leaves. By August my parents' tomato plants will be overwhelmed with bright red fruit that is best picked at dawn. The almond bush they planted for me when I was six, and brought with them from house to house, will have its pink and white blossoms. And when I close my eyes I can imagine myself walking through long ago patches of wild blackberry bushes and fields of daisies under blue summer skies.