Book Review – The Brother Gardeners

I raced through this delightful book, due to my interest in international horticultural history, and the fluent and fun to read style of author Andrea Wulf. As a historian, I am in awe of the amount of research and tracking of details she accomplished, but she did give herself three years to complete the book.

The Brother Gardeners is about “Botany, Empire, and the birth of an obsession.” This book was researched and written by Andrea Wulf, and published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York. It is an easy reading 354 page journey of discovery about the pathways of seeds, plants and knowledge between people in England, America, Sweden and the rest of the world during the vibrant period of nation building in Europe, Britain and the Americas. The tales of plant hunters, sponsored by governments, kings, wealthy land owners, scientists, and universities, are rich with intrigue, personality clashes, and evidence of substantial egos.

Particularly fascinating to me were the strategy and interactions, often across seas of water and time, between the men caught in the throes of botanical fascination.  Names such as Thomas Fairchild, John Tradescant the Younger, The Royal Society, Joseph Banks, John Bartram, Carl Linnaeus, Peter Collinson, Hans Sloane, and Phillip Miller and his Garden Dictionary, travel energetically through the pages. Great gardens such as the Botanic Garden at Kew, Chelsea Physic Garden, and the Edinburgh Botanic Garden provide the settings and superb botanical illustrators such as Mark Catesby enhanced the ability of gardeners to view the very latest botanical discoveries.

Portrait of Hans Sloane

So many of the current “fashionable” garden trends have their basis in these years of incredible exploration, documentation and dispersal of knowledge, seeds, plants and connections.  I had the great pleasure of studying this information during the time of 1970’s swinging London, and seeing first hand the gardens of England and Scotland while a student of design history at the Inchbald School of Design, located at 7 Eaton Gate, Sloane Square, London.  In my Knightsbridge neighborhood one can still find Hans Sloane’s collections at the British Museum and the Natural History Museum.