Making gardening history

By Lynette L. Walther | Jan 18, 2013
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther The magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) was one of the most-coveted of trees in European “American gardens.” This striking tree, native to the southern U.S., added fragrant and showy flowers and flamboyant, glossy green foliage to their gardens.

Every time you plant the seed of some exotic vegetable or add a perennial, shrub or tree to your landscape you are taking part in a tradition that spans centuries. And indeed you are making garden history.

Of course the very first garden, the Garden of Eden, must have been a wondrous place, albeit a chaotic one. Once mankind settled down and began to create gardens for pure delight, for show, the playing field had changed dramatically from Eden where wildness dominated.

The earliest of true gardens with their rigid lines of clipped shrubs, rows of trees in lockstep formation and geometric expanses of lawn were the provinces of kings and royalty. (Perhaps the orderliness of those gardens provided some comfort, a sense of control perhaps over the wildness of nature at a time when the forces of which were mysterious, even sinister.) Order and mathematical precision ruled in those gardens, and legions of caretakers were required to maintain the labor-intensive displays of wealth and power. (The story of these gardens and how gardening evolved is recounted in the captivating “The Brother Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf.)

For decades order and control defined the garden. Though the common man may have had his potager of cabbages, onions and the like, real gardens were the playgrounds of Europe’s wealthy and powerful. Even with all their care and attention, those early royal gardens suffered from what could only be called a fairly boring content. The French and Italians had led the way in what constituted a proper garden, along with the Netherlands with its showy bulbs and flowers. Even so, the choice of plants was severely limited.

But in the 1700s, an era when gentlemen scientists and botanists explored the continents and examined their own like never before, long-held notions and beliefs were frequently challenged. It was still a time when the very idea that man could “create” new plants through controlled hybridization (as opposed to what often occurs naturally in the wild) was considered blasphemy. Even so, things were beginning to change. There were forces at work stirring the pot of innovation and experimentation.

At that time the new interest in the natural world collided with a couple of influences that would turn the gardening world (indeed science too) on its head. The result in terms of the garden, was a transfer of that scepter of dominance to the English. Once that happened, gardening would never be the same again. This occurred as all the “new” plants from the American colonies, as well as many from elsewhere around globe, began arriving in Europe, particularly in England. As the new plants arrived gentlemen gardeners and botanists began naming them, often with cumbersome results. Plant names usually included all the attributes of a particular plant and some of those names ran to half a page. Take for example: “Chamaedaphne sempervirens, foliis oblongis angustis, foliorum fasciculis opposites: “evergreen dwarf laurel, with oblong narrow leaves growing in bunches, which are placed opposite” (according to The Brother Gardeners”) As more plants were discovered, the longer the names grew.

It was about that time that an ambitious (though widely unpopular) botanist from Sweden announced that plants had “sex lives,” which of course was promptly greeted with great ridicule. His development of a simplified classification system (based on that previous assumption) that would shorten plant names, yet could specifically identify each and every known plant, as well as easily and simply name any “new” discoveries was indeed timely. Yet again and again the Swede’s revolutionary ideas were denounced as ludicrous, even indecent by all the other botanists in the known world. His new system was resisted vigorously.

At the same time, a time when the concept of democracy was but an embryo yet to take root, the colorful plants from the colonies were profoundly influencing gardens throughout Europe. Those American plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas, beautyberry, beebalm, rudbeckia, coneflowers, wisteria, maples, magnolias, white pines, tulip poplars, cedars and firs invaded the old world bringing color and perfume to gardens first in England and then throughout Europe with naturalized plantings that followed the contours of the land. Gone were the rigid dimensions of gardens as lines softened with the luxuriant plants arriving from the colonies. “American gardens” with their unregulated designs were all the rage in on the great estates. Colonial botanists such as John Bartram helped make that transition by exporting plants and seeds abroad through his English contacts like the wealthy merchant Peter Collinson.

And soon too, American-style vegetable gardens became part of that picture as well. How wonderful, how gratifying to discover the role this continent and our native plants had in one of the greatest expansions of gardening and botanical interest ever. Before long the very concept of gardens became democratized and spread far beyond those royal gardens for all to enjoy. It continues to this day. Naturally we now know that wild and wacky classification system with its revolutionary simplicity and ease of use was eventually adopted. The man who created it — Carl Linnaeus of course.

Whenever any gardener adds a new hybrid or wondrous exotic to their garden it is bound to influence the design, how they care for them, and then they too are a part of that evolving history of gardening. The story is an ever-changing scene, a fascinating study, and if you’d like to learn more about those early gardens and how they influenced the evolution of gardening, and how Linnaeus sought his revenge on his worst critics through the naming of certain plants (earning my admiration for his delicious sense of vindictiveness) seek out Wulf’s comprehensive book, “The Brother Gardeners.”

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement for 2012, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or ”friend” her on Facebook.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.