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Plants from all over the world are welcome in the English garden

March 6, 2012

In a recent post about weeds in Britain, we pondered the interesting question of why there are so few plants in Britain that are considered invasive, a mere dozen compared to the nearly 200 labeled “invasive” by the California Invasive Plant Council.  The Brother Gardeners* enabled us to dismiss one possible explanation. 

The English Garden, Creative Commons

The fact that fewer plants are considered invasive in Britain is not the result of fewer non-native plants in their gardensThe Brother Gardeners informs us that the British have been enthusiastic importers of plants from all over the world for hundreds of years.  They had one of the biggest empires in the world, spanning the globe from India to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and America, which put them in a unique position to sample the botanical riches of the world.

The Brother Gardeners was written by a German who immigrated to Britain about 10 years before writing this book.  She was immediately struck with the importance of gardening in Britain compared to her home country, and she quickly became immersed in the British obsession with gardening. 

She tells us the history of botany and gardening in Britain, going back to the 17th century.  This is no stale retelling of dry history.  This is an engaging tale of the personal relationships that reshaped the English garden, focusing on a 40-year business relationship between an English businessman and a Quaker farmer in Pennsylvania.  The American farmer supplied the Englishman with thousands of plants and seeds from the American landscape. 

The evolution of their relationship from a business relationship to a friendship is analogous to the relationship between America and Britain.  The Englishman was wealthier and more educated than the American and predictably he was condescending to the American at the beginning of their relationship.  Over the years, the American acquired both wealth and botanical knowledge, so that eventually they were on an equal footing.  But we digress.

Magnolia grandiflora. Creative Commons

 Magnolias, tulip trees, wisteria, and dogwoods were early favorites in this trade from America to England, but over time thousands of different species made the trip into English gardens.  The American trees “were thoroughly naturalized, growing side by side with native trees” by 1760 and “Many of the American plants had become so common in the English landscape that gardeners needed new species to parade as rarities in their shrubberies…” 

Joseph Banks, the intrepid botanical explorer, brought many new species of plants to Britain.  He joined the maiden voyage of Captain Cook into the Pacific in 1769.  His team collected plants in Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia on their three year voyage, bringing home specimens of 3,600 species of which 1,400 were new to Britain’s botanical knowledge.  Joseph Banks returned to become the head of the Kew Royal Botanical Garden and the Royal Academy of Science.  He continued to acquire botanical specimens from all over the world in that capacity.

Banksia, named for Joseph Banks. Creative Commons

 The crowning glory of Banks’ acquisitions was the specimen collection of Carl Linneaus, after Linneaus died in 1783. This collection was the “base reference” used by Linneaus to develop the system of categorizing all species, which is still used to this day.  The Brother Gardeners tells us the fascinating story of how the Swedish botanist, Linneaus, “sold” his system to botanists throughout the world.  It wasn’t an easy sell, particularly to the British.  They were initially scandalized by the sexual metaphors used by the system of categories which is based on counting the female (stamens) and male (pistils) parts of the plant, using explicit terms such as the “bridal bed which God adorned with such precious bedcurtains, and perfumed with so many sweet scents.”  You may have heard the saying, “No sex please. We’re British.”

The English garden is to this day an eclectic mix of species from all over the world.  It is a rich mix of color and texture that seems a mad jumble until the eye can make sense of its logic.  It is admired the world over and has influenced gardening everywhere.  It rejects the meaningless and artificial distinction between native and non-native.  Beauty is its only standard for judgment.  Whatever grows and adds color and texture is welcome in the English garden. 

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*Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners, Alfred Knopf, 2008.  All quotes are from Brother Gardeners

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2012 7:02 am

    Here in Britain you now also have more and more the discussion of native versus non-native. Some of the conservation groups say the non-native have a tendency to jump the ‘garden-wall’.
    I keep saying that many who did jump that wall did do the landscape a lot of good. It is not the case that ONLY the non-native become invasive and do damage.
    We humans have to accept that nature can look after herself and does deal with the non-native species BUT we do need to give it time to do so. Nature does not stand still and will always be in a stage of change if we like it or not.

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