It never really occurred to me to wonder how the Latin names for plants were decided, or why and how the British became obsessed with gardening, or even to wonder where the plants in my garden originated (other than the nursery).
But my daughter Maya gave me a book to read called The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession, by Andrea Wulf, and I found myself in the midst of a gripping tale that surprised the heck out of me.
For instance, I had always kind of ignored Latin names as a sort of affectation, preferring the common names of plants. But now that I understand the names are based on plant SEX—well, that’s an altogether different story! But seriously, seeing the context of how and why the Latin names were created—and the challenge to get them accepted—has given me a newfound respect and appreciation for Latin plant names. Including the fact that the namer, Carl Linnaeus, named some truly vile plants after his enemies.
I also had never quite understood the role that John Bartram played in the roots of the global gardening obsession. I have been to his eccentric home and garden on the banks of a river in Philadelphia. But had no idea that his escapades into the wilds of the East Coast of America supplied the fuel that created the modern British obsession with gardening. I have a newfound respect for the giant tulip poplar in my front yard, and an even greater sadness to see Bartram’s home—a true historical botanical gem—surrounded by blighted neighborhoods and factories.
The biggest surprise, however, is the realization of just how recently in our past men were sailing away to continents that had never been visited by Europeans before—and the role that plant hunting played in our exploratory traditions. How far we have come since then—in good ways and in horrible ways. How disconnected we have become from those times, while becoming increasingly connected to each other.
The very plants in our own gardens have many stories to tell, if we are willing to listen.