A Book Review: The Signature of All Things

Organisms classified as mosses.  72nd plate from Ernst Haeckel's "Kunstformen der Natur" (1904, public domain)
Organisms classified as mosses. 72nd plate from Ernst Haeckel’s “Kunstformen der Natur” (1904, public domain)

We have read little fiction in the past few years, as we struggle to keep pace with the scientific literature that is revising conservation biology.  Happily, we were recently given the opportunity to read a charming work of fiction that is firmly in the center of our interest in botanical issues.

The Signature of All Things was written by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Its title refers to a botanical myth about which we have published an article that is available here.  The Doctrine of Signatures seemed a logical botanical belief at a time when plants were one of man’s few medicinal tools and religion was a powerful influence in human society.  The Doctrine of Signatures, which was actively promoted by the church in 17th century Europe, was based on a belief that God had “signed” plants with certain suggestive shapes and colors to inform humans of their medicinal properties.  For example, a heart-shaped leaf was considered God’s message to us that a particular plant would be beneficial to the human heart and this message was strengthened by a flesh-colored flower. Every plant was believed to be useful in some way if man could only discern its purpose.  Else why would they have been created, since the Garden of Eden was created for the benefit of man?  The church encouraged man’s study of plants as a way to worship God’s creation.

After reading a rave review by one of our favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, we were unable to resist the diversion to this story that is inspired by botanical history.  Kingsolver concludes, “The Signature of All Things is a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to the uncommonly patient minds.”

Signature begins in Kew Garden in London during the 18th Century reign of one of our great horticultural heroes, Joseph Banks.  We featured Banks in an article about the English garden.  He began his career as an intrepid collector of exotic plants when he joined one of Captain Cook’s voyages into the Pacific.  He returned with thousands of plants from all over the world and they became the core of Kew Gardens, one of the greatest horticultural collections in the world.

The hero of Signature is sent by Banks on expeditions to collect valuable plants and his adventures are an historical account of early explorations of the New World.  We learned from Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast that the physical hardships of these voyages are not exaggerated by Signature’s fictional account.  The hero of Signature eventually makes his home in Pennsylvania and his extensive garden there is reminiscent of the garden of John Bartram, the Early American collector of plants about whom we have also written.

So you see, Signature covers familiar ground for us and we enjoyed revisiting it in the company of an extraordinary heroine, Alma Whittaker.  She is gifted with a remarkable mind and her equally intelligent parents provided her with the education and tools needed to make life-long good use of her talents.  She “discovered” her own version of evolutionary theory based on a deep understanding of mosses, which model the mechanics of natural selection.

We don’t wish to give away too much of the plot because we hope you will be intrigued to read it.  Readers will have the privilege of eavesdropping on a fascinating (fictional) conversation with Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin.  Although Darwin and Wallace shared a belief in evolution, they diverged on a variety of other topics.  Wallace’s busy mind strayed into spiritualism, hypnotism, and mesmerism as well as left-wing politics.  Wallace was as eccentric as Darwin was sensible and cautious.

Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace

Our heroine, Alma, confides to Wallace that despite a tortuous path in life, she considers herself lucky: “I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world…This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so—for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities.” 

Alma’s confession was a welcome reminder of why we persist in our effort to inform the public of the destruction of our public lands by native plant “restorations.”  Although we make little visible progress, we have learned a great deal about nature.  That is our reward.  Thank you, Alma, for the reminder of our mission to understand and inform and to Elizabeth Gilbert for the very pleasant entertainment of The Signature of All Things.

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

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. 


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