Garden Party

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession BY Andrea Wulf. Knopf. Hardcover, 368 pages. $35.

The cover of The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

In the prologue of Brideshead Revisited, as Captain Charles Ryder looks over the requisitioned property of his great lost loves, he sees Brideshead’s pitted and scarred landscape as the tragic endpoint of hundreds of years of cultivation: “The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green by the breaking buds; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide green spaces. . . . All this had been planned and planted a century and a half ago so that, at about this date, it might be seen in its maturity.” For Ryder, the tragedy is that this planning and planting has been done for the benefit only of Hooper, an officer in his company who has come to symbolize for him “Young England” in all its careless, secular, unromantic rootlessness.

But the English passion for gardening was more tenacious than Ryder seemed to think. Even today, as German expat Andrea Wulf marvels in The Brother Gardeners, England is “a nation obsessed with gardening,” where seemingly every tiny semidetached has a plot out back and every city dweller has an allotment in a community garden. Wulf’s book, looking at the eighteenth-century roots of this craze, is a lavishly researched and very funny group biography of the cultivators, classifiers, and explorers whose mutual obsession with botany, she convincingly argues, defined and exemplified England’s relationship with the natural world during the Enlightenment and, pace Waugh, into the present day.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Brideshead (or any equivalent English manor house) would have been an exceedingly plain spot. Gardeners, working without greenhouses, could offer flowers only during the spring and summer months; variety was mostly imposed through topiary design, with plants resembling “stiff green sculptures” rather than living things. Hybridization was still just a tentative, faintly scandalous procedure, and the few exotic species imported from the colonies were not yet broadly available.

But international trade was on the rise, and a few men were uniquely positioned to leverage it into a crusade to invigorate English gardens. One was Peter Collinson, a cloth merchant and plant maniac from Peckham who happened to strike up what became a lifelong, half-loving and half-bullying epistolary friendship with an American amateur botanist, John Bartram: “Pray go very Clean, neat & handsomely Dressed to Virginia,” Collinson begged his rough-hewn correspondent; in later years, he wrote, sweetly, that “the fire of friendship is blazeing.” Bartram, a farmer and restless plant collector from Pennsylvania, began assembling and shipping seeds and seedlings to Collinson (as well to a growing subscription list of other adventuresome, well-heeled gardeners in the mother country). Collinson’s careful cultivation and promotion of new-world plants—like, in all probability, the fabled oaks of Brideshead—helped shape the fashion in English gardens for centuries.

Meanwhile, technological and artistic innovations were pushing the English garden in a more scientific and democratic direction. Philip Miller, the (justifiably) arrogant caretaker of the renowned Chelsea Physic Garden, published popular commonsense guides to gardening that helped rid the genre of its many superstitious flourishes—for one example, that watering an apple tree with urine would produce sweeter fruit. The meandering, painterly gardens designed by Miller and his cohorts came to represent an anti-absolutist tendency in opposition to the geometric, centrally planned gardens still popular on the Continent.

Of course, tyrants did exist in the fevered, competitive world of eighteenth-century botany, and in re-creating the career of Carl Linnaeus, the self-proclaimed “prince of botanists,” Wulf provides an engrossing—if gently mocking—portrait of the best-known such oligarch. Linnaeus met Collinson and Miller when he came to London in 1736 to popularize his revolutionary plant-classification system, based on sexual characteristics instead of the arbitrary groupings of the past, such as “‘Hot or sharpe biting Plants’ or ‘Strange and Outlandish Plants’ or even ‘The Unordered Tribe.’” But Linnaeus’s system, which divided plants into twenty-four groups based on the number of male or female sexual organs (called “husbands” and “wives”), was simply too racy: “According to Linnaeus, one wife frolicked with ‘six husbands’ in the lily’s flower head, while tulip trees enjoyed ‘Twenty males or more in the same marriage.”It would take years—and a sentimentalized verse treatment by Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus—for Linnaeus’s system to make inroads in England. In the meantime, Linnaeus made use of his absolute power as the “second Adam,” namer of all living things, to reward his friends and punish his enemies: One critic, Johann Siegesbeck, was immortalized in the Latin name “Siegesbeckia, a stinking weed that thrives in wasteland.”

Characters such as the sturdy Bartram and the irascible Linnaeus make The Brother Gardeners an engaging group biography—and their writings furnish a wealth of background on the spirit of their age. Wulf never allows her material to overwhelm a vivid sense of the big picture, which keenly informs her sparkling narrative: a nation in revolution, bursting from a drab, monotonous engagement with the outside world into a creative, explosively variegated, frequently domineering one. While Brideshead might meet the eye as a botanical order in decline, Wulf, to her credit, sees that the fertile life of the English garden had really just begun.

Britt Peterson is deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.