Botanical expeditions, visionary landscapes and the language of flowers through time Stories of Exploration and Transformation

Reading list

Nadine Abel-Esslingen

To complement our exhibition on gardens “Vu Gäert a Bicher”, we propose a selection of books that will take you from the shores of England to the heights of the Himalayas on the confines of the former British Empire. You will follow in the footsteps of exceptional people who braved the seas to discover unknown plants and devise ways to ship them back to England without harm. You will discover the amazing skills of two women who overcame the restrictions on their gender at different times in history and set out to distant lands to paint the plants in their natural habitat. You will learn how two gardeners with a novel vision transformed the landscape of England in the 18th century. You will jump centuries in garden design and reassess the importance of a discerning eye in capturing the splendor of a garden in all seasons and at different times of the day. You may find out that the Victorians communicated with flowers and enjoy the beauty of the English language describing the natural world.

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye…

The glory of the garden by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) (The complete verse London: Kyle Cathie Ltd, 1995)

Capability Brown : and his landscape gardens (Sarah Rutherford)

Available at the library

The name “Capability” by which the most famous landscape gardener was known, is in fact a nickname and came from the way he said to his clients that their land had “great capabilities” meaning prospects. Gardens in England were formal and geometric until the early 18th c., influenced by their French and Italian counterparts. Then came the “landscape movement” with people like William Kent, but Capability concentrated on the basic elements of nature - grass, trees, the shape of the land and water. His talent was to adapt them to the site and make it look natural. Capability also came at a time where farmland was consolidated and it was perfect for creating a park. Capability came from a modest family from Northumberland and started as an apprentice gardener, but eventually he got the chance to work at Lord Cobham’s garden in Stowe, one of the most famous in Europe. Cobham also let Capability work for family and friends, which would help his career later. When Lord Cobham died, he went independent and did the Croome Estate for the Earl of Coventry. He was so successful afterwards that he was appointed to Hampton Court by the King. He was serious, talented, had good social skills, was a shrewd businessman, and through his life worked on approximately 250 gardens including Chatsworth and Blenheim. He also was a competent architect and designed bridges, cascades, boathouses, garden buildings, menageries etc. This book by a Kew trained professional garden historian is extremely well researched and gives the historical and economic context of the time.

Humphry Repton : designing the landscape garden (John Phibbs ; photography by Joe Cornish)

Available at the library

Contrary to Brown, Repton came from a privileged background and studied in Holland to learn Dutch to help him in the textile trade. The Dutch may have influenced his style of garden aesthetics, especially the flower gardens and terraces around houses. He was not cut out for business and dabbled in the arts before finding his vocation as a garden designer. Although he had no practical training in landscape design, Repton had two advantages over Brown, he could paint and write. He was also amusing and cultured and had a good social network. Repton made little leather bound Red Books after visiting his client, writing down his ideas and illustrating his plans with watercolour landscapes. Thus, the client had something tangible to refer to. Repton was so famous that he is in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. We also know his ideas through his publications Sketches and hints on landscape gardening, Observations on the theory and practice of landscape gardening and Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening. Phibbs’ book analyses fifteen landscapes of Repton with beautiful photographs alongside the reproductions of his stunning watercolour views and plans. Each project comes alive through the quotes taken from his Red Books.

The brother gardeners : botany, empire and the birth of an obsession (Andrea Wulf)

Available at the library

This is a most captivating book; it literally spurred my interest in the history of botany. It is about men who put all their energy in their passion for plants in the 18th century and changed the flora of Britain. The prologue explains how Thomas Fairchild, owner of a nursery in Hoxton, famous for its choice of exotic plants, made the first man-made hybrid in 1717 by extracting pollen from a Carnation and inserting it into a Sweet William, which became known as the “Fairchild’s Mule”. It revealed the sexual reproduction of plants and in 1720, he presented his invention to the Royal Society, fearful of the reaction.

In 1734, Peter Collinson, a Quaker cloth merchant, was waiting at the docks for a ship coming from Philadelphia, not for wool or cotton, but for plants. He got two boxes with seeds and plants, thankfully not rotten or eaten by mice on the journey. A fellow Quaker business partner had recommended John Bartram, a farmer living close to Philadelphia, who could send him plants. The English were keen on American trees and shrubs because they could grow outside, not in hothouses. The author weaves passages of their letters to each other over a period of forty years through the story. Initially, Collinson was the teacher, as Bartram did not know the names of the plants. By an astute system of cross-referencing the sample of the dried plant accompanying the seeds, Bartram could learn the name of the plants he was sending and Collinson would also send him books, like Miller’s “Gardeners dictionary” (1731) to further his education. Philip Miller, head gardener of the Chelsea Physics Garden, had an international network of contacts and exchanged plants without consulting his director. He also bought Bartram’s boxes and cultivated exotic plants using tanner’s bark and Chelsea Physics Garden’s sophisticated greenhouse. With his dictionary, he democratized gardening and established a nomenclature of plants. In 1736, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist came to England to try to convince the local botanists of his new classification system based on the reproductive organs of plants. The English were not receptive but the American welcomed his classification. The same would initially happen in 1753 with his “so-called binominal nomenclature”. Collinson incentivized Bartram to go plant hunting as far as Virginia because the English customers wanted new plants. Bartram educated himself from the books he got from the growing number of subscribers to his boxes. By 1760, Bartram’s plants were growing all over England and he had most nurseries in London as regular clients. The network of nurseries transformed England to be the leading gardening nation in the world. To find out what happens next to Bartram and Collinson and learn about the most intrepid expedition from Britain, on board the Endeavour, you have to read this book. 

The Wardian case: how a simple box moved plants and changed the world (Luke Keogh)

Available at the library

In 2010 at the Berlin Botanic Garden, while clearing an attic room, curators had stumbled on a Wardian case, whose dimensions were approximately three by four feet. The author took the train to Berlin to see this rare glazed travelling box in wood, one of the fifteen that still exist worldwide. Keogh tells the story of the transportation of plants also before the invention of the case in 1829, with a stronger focus on Britain as Kew Gardens was a central player in the 19th century. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was a doctor and during his training had often gone to the Chelsea Physic Garden, established by the Society of Apothecaries. Until the end of the 19th century, botany was part of a medical doctor’s study requirement. He was a fervent lover of plants and corresponded with some of the prominent naturalists of his age, like Darwin and Faraday. The success of his invention was partly due to his connections. He was not only friendly with Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens, but also with George Loddiges, owner of the most outstanding nursery in Europe. Loddiges & Sons in Hackney had introduced numerous exotic plants to Britain, for example Bamboo. It also offered a huge diversity of plants and even stocked palms and orchids. George Loddiges designed hothouses and had the one of the biggest palm-houses in the world, before the one built in Kew Gardens. He let Ward experiment with plants at his nursery and later he would promote the case. To find out what led Ward to his discovery and the implications of his invention, borrow this breathtaking book.

Palace of palms : tropical dreams and the making of Kew (Kate Teltscher)

Available at the library

The history of the Palm House in Kew Gardens reads like a novel with a combination of intrigues and permanent power struggles between ambitious botanists, ingenious engineers and practical, down to earth gardeners. The main character, Sir William Hooker, the first official director of Kew nominated in 1841, used all his diplomatic skills to get expeditions of plant hunters financed, to construct his giant Glass House in order to display the tropical plants collected worldwide, and to further the career of his son Joseph. Hooker was lucky that Queen Victoria’s new husband Albert was interested in science, because when the botanic garden was under the Royal Household she showed no interest and the plant collection built up under Sir Joseph Banks was shrinking. Hooker’s asset was his Scottish chief gardener John Smith, a self-taught botanist who could identify plants as he devoted his spare time to botany. He upgraded him to curator and sent him on a horticultural tour of Scotland and England. He was supposed to visit private and public gardens as well as nurseries to find plants missing in Kew and to make an appeal for sharing them. Hooker also shared duplicate plants in the Kew collection. The third major player in this story was an Irish iron founder named Richard Turner, who was promoting wrought iron for the construction of roofs of glasshouses. He ended up working with the architect Burton and the landscape designer Nesfield. The palm House needed complex heating and watering systems, so Hooker sent his son and Burton to examine the conservatories in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The final structure of the Palm House was highly innovative and was inspired from methods and forms used in shipbuilding.

To fill his Palm House, Hooker reached out to his network of contacts in Britain and overseas including officers, diplomats and missionaries. The largest donator was Calcutta Botanical garden. He also engaged plant hunters like the Scot William Purdie, who tracked down the ivory-nut palm and sent the nuts to Kew. The Palm House opened to the public in 1848 to great acclaim. Two years later, the number of visitors was more than twofold.  There was no entry fee and to further the education of the public everything was labelled. The Palm House has had several restorations since, but is still a wonder of Victorian architecture.

Flora's Empire : British gardens in India (Eugenia W. Herbert)

Available at the library

In the beginning of the 17th century when the British came to India, they must have been astonished by the lush vegetation so different from that of their homeland. Also, the Indians used much more flowers in their civil or religious ceremonies and even petals are part of the decoration. The British were quick to integrate the customs involving flowers in the ceremonial activity of the Empire, like welcoming guests with flower garlands. The paradox is that “India of the plains” is poor on indigenous wildflowers and herbaceous plants. Orchids, roses, bougainvillea appeared with the Muslim rulers or afterwards. Surprisingly, even the marigold is not local but originated from the Americas. The influence of the Mughal gardens is still prevalent in India, the most famous example being the symmetrical Islamic style garden in front of the Taj Mahal. The British known as keen gardeners were also going to leave a great mark on the Indian garden, Hindu or Muslim. During the 18th century, the East India Company’s Scottish surgeons often pursued botanical activities and helped spread knowledge. Some of the Englishwomen that accompanied their husbands in the 19th century loved the exotic flowers, others felt so nostalgic that they wanted to recreate a little piece of England in India. Herbert gives us amusing accounts of how some women tried to grow English plants with no avail. Manuals were published by women, like The Garden in the Plain (1901). The greatest difficulty was having a nice English lawn, which was hard to maintain depending on the season and location. When the English established the Himalayan hill stations, they discovered that they could grow the English plants easily. “We pass our lives in gardening,” wrote Emily Eden in 1838. When the domineering Viceroy Curzon came to India, he took thing in hand. He proudly said “What were then dusty wastes are now green parks and gardens”. He had trees removed from the Taj Mahal to open the views and removed “parterres” in favor of mown grass. When Delhi became the capital of the Empire, Lutyens was chosen to build the Government house and Lady Hardinge, the Viceroy’s wife helped him with the design of the gardens and sent him photos from the Mughal gardens in Kashmir. She died unexpectedly in 1914, but luckily, he still had Mustoe, an excellent gardener. Robert Byron viewed the result as “the Mogul garden, brightened with English flower beds and border”. However, not everything was about politics. When Nehru was in prison under the British rule in 1934, he got permission to plant a garden in the prison yard, ironically, with English flowers. He had taken to gardening and loved English flowers.

Marianne North : the Kew collection (introd. by Christopher Mills)

Available at the library

The Victorian traveller and botanical painter Marianne North (1830-1890) came from a privileged background and dutifully cared for her father until he died. When she was finally independent as a thirty-nine year old woman, she spread her wings. In Victorian times, women of a certain class were expected to marry, thus for North to travel alone to sixteen countries in five continents was quite a daring endeavor. She had taught herself about botany, was a visitor of Kew Gardens and the Director William Hooker was a friend of her father’s. This connection explains why she would later offer her paintings to Kew and finance a gallery to house them. The Marianne North Gallery in Kew Gardens displayed 627 works at the opening in 1882 and the public discovered the closely hung paintings of plants set in exotic locations. Unusually for a botanic painter she used oil paint and not watercolors, which makes her works more riveting. The gallery was later enlarged and included the new paintings of her last three trips to South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile. Today the 848 paintings hang the same way as in 1885. The book is special as it is the first time that the entire collection is edited.

Margaret Mee's Amazon : diaries of an artist explorer (Margaret Mee)

Available at the library

The artist and botanist Margaret Mee (1909–1988) was born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. She went to Watford School of Art and became an art teacher. After the war, she decided to further her education at St. Martin’s School of Art, Center School of Art and Camberwell School of Art. In 1952, she decided to move to Brazil after visiting her sister in São Paolo. She found her calling as a botanical artist late, at forty-seven, when she made her first expedition in the Amazonas. She was also a plant hunter and found new species. She explored the Brazilian rainforest on numerous expeditions between 1958 and 1964, before focusing on the Amazonas from 1964 to 1988. Her diaries from 1956 to 1984 published in this edition with her vibrant watercolors and photographs, allow you to follow in her footsteps through the luxuriance of the jungle without having to battle with the insects.

Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst : the creation of a garden (Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven)

Available at the library

The author Sarah Raven is the wife of the grandson of English poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West and has herself lived in Sissinghurst, hence the chapter about the garden under the ownership of the National Trust. Throughout the book, she quotes Vita, who wrote a gardening column for the Observer newspaper. Vita was an aristocrat who grew up in the Kent countryside, in one of England’s largest houses, Knole House (in her family since the 17th century), which has more rooms than there are days in a year. She said “as a child I had the good fortune to live in an exceptionally beautiful home with acres of garden to match”, but that she herself “took to gardening quite late in life”, when she had a house and garden of her own. When her father died, Vita could not inherit the estate being a woman and Knole House was bequeathed to her uncle. At the time, she was living in a farm close by and given these new circumstances, she and her husband Harold Nicholson wanted to move and a friend suggested looking at a Victorian farmhouse with ruins. Vita said that Sissinghurst “caught instantly at [her] heart and [her] imagination [...] It was Sleeping Beauty’s garden: but a garden crying out for rescue”. It took them six years from 1930 to complete the works and the planting of the trees and shrubs. Her husband made the structural design of the garden between the Elizabethan ruins. Vita was the plant person. “My liking for gardens to be lavish is an inherent part of my garden philosophy. I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere. I hate to see things scrimp and scrubby”. The gardens are designed in a series of connected “garden rooms” with the most famous being the Rose Garden and the White Garden. Her grandson Adam Nicholson says in the July 2023 issue of The World of Interiors that people often consider it a “romantic garden, a poet’s garden, a rose-tinted spectacle”. During the Second World War, Sissinghurst became a fairytale refuge from the frightening outside world and helped Vita focus on her writing. Not only for the beauty of the gardens, but also because of Vita’s personality, is Sissinghurst the most visited garden in Britain.

Some flowers (Vita Sackville-West ; illustrated by Graham Rust)

Available at the library

Vita Sackville-West was famous for the scandals involving her unconventional life style and it unfortunately often overshadowed her enormous talent as a writer. Her correspondence with Virginia Woolf is heartbreaking and her poetry won her many prizes. Some flowers got published in 1937 and by that time, Sissinghurst was a mature garden. She portrays twenty-five of her preferred flowers. It not only gives their particularities, but also how to tend them. This book was printed before her gardening column in the Observer that she held for fourteen years. She says in the foreword that her book is for the “amateur gardener”. She also explains why it is hard to find the right words to describe flowers. She is in awe of the botanical writer Reginald Farrer and the author D.H. Lawrence, but her own style is as good. She describes two roses: “I could not put in too many roses to the exclusion of other flowers, and this is why I restricted myself to Rosa mundi, the moss rose, and the Gallica rose called Tuscany”. Sissinghurst had several of the same roses found in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden, who influenced her and who she met through Lutyens, a family friend. About the Rosa Gallica, Vita writes, “The velvet rose. What a combination of words! One almost suffocates in their soft depths, as though one sank into a bed of rose-petals, all thorns ideally stripped away. We cannot actually lie on a bed of roses, unless we are very decadent and also very rich, but metaphorically we can imagine ourselves doing so when we hold a single rose close to our eyes and absorb it in an intimate way into our private heart. This sounds a fanciful way of writing, the sort of way which makes me shut up most gardening books with a bang, but in this case I am trying to get as close to my true meaning as possible.” This extract shows her sense of humour and her text is enhanced by Graham Rust’s watercolours (the 1937 original edition had black and white photographs). Vita was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature and got the gold Veitch medal of the Royal Horticultural Society.

First ladies of gardening : pioneers, designers and dreamers (Heidi Howcroft ; photographs by Marianne Majerus)

Available at the library

This book presents a series of private English gardens made by their lady owners in the spirit of the “natural garden” or of Gertrude Jekyll’s Arts and Crafts manner. I can only describe one, but they are all extremely interesting, some are famous like Rosemary Verey’s garden and others less well known.

The making of Upton Gray Manor garden resembles a fascinating detective story.  Rosamund Wallinger discovered by chance in the library of the Royal Institute of Architects that the house she had bought was listed and that the garden was thought to be by Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), England’s most famous female garden designer. Jekyll was influenced by her friend William Robinson, the “father of naturalistic flower gardening” and she had designed over a hundred gardens with the architect Sir Edwin Luytens between 1890 and 1914. Wallinger did extensive research to find out what the original garden looked like. Her quest led her to the University of California where she found in the archives of Beatrix Farrell all the plans by Jekyll including 19 garden plans for Upton Gray Manor and even the designs with the dimensions of the garden and the planting scheme. Wallinger, a total novice in gardening, deciphered Jekyll’s handwriting and followed the plans scrupulously. She also educated herself to gain a better understanding of Jekyll’s methods. The result is a work of art. The book is lavishly illustrated with the photographs of the famous Luxembourgish garden photographer Marianne Majerus. She first enjoyed taking landscape photographs and then a magazine commissioned some garden photographs starting her off in an area of photography, which made her reputation. The portraits of the lady gardeners in this book are not contrived and reflect Majerus’ sensitivity and explain why some of her photographic portraits are in the collection of The National Portrait Gallery in London.

Planting the Oudolf Gardens at Hauser & Wirth Somerset (Rory Dusoir ; foreword by Piet Oudolf ; photographs by Jason Ingram)

Available at the library

This is a garden project realized in Bruton, Somerset for the famous contemporary art gallery. Hauser & Wirth took the chance to set up one of its branches in the most rural surroundings in a former 18th century farmstead, where the owners also live. They succeeded in attracting people from all over the world to visit this remote location and one of the key features of the place is the Oudolf Garden. Piet Oudolf’s claim to global fame is the High Line in New York (“a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side”).

Oudolf’s brief was absolute liberty with no compromise and there are three separate gardens, the farmyard, the cloister garden which is enclosed and the Oudolf field. The 1.5-acre field was created with 26,000 plants. In Britain, William Robinson was the precursor of the naturalistic style of gardening.  In his influential book “The wild garden” (1870) he appealed to stop “artificial bedded- out gardens in favour of naturalism” and to introduce strong garden plants in the peripheral section of a garden. His ideas are still relevant today. Oudolf is perfecting that “natural approach” to gardening. He claims: “I try to create nature as you would wish to see it”. His gardens once planted need less tending to than a typical “English” garden. He has a global vision of the garden before he starts and his planting plans are very detailed and so pretty that the gallery printed them on their bags. This book gives a very thorough description of the sections of the garden and all the plants used and the changing looks during the different seasons. But even if you are not a botanical expert, you will enjoy the photographs.

Die geheimen Gärten Luxemburgs (Marianne Majerus, Françoise Maas)

Available at the library

In Luxembourg, there was an Oudolf garden, which sadly no longer exists. An English/Scottish gardener couple had convinced the original Swedish owner to engage Piet Oudolf and he created a fabulous garden, which is featured in this book by the Luxemburgish photographer Marianne Majerus who received the Garden-Photographer of the Year Prize for one of the views of it. Unfortunately for Luxembourg, Paul and Pauline McBride returned to England where they created their Sussex Prairies Garden, again in the Oudolf perennial style of planting. Majerus made her career in England and is so respected that she sat on the photographic commission of the Royal Horticultural Society. She would drive three times a week to Wisley to photograph the RHS garden, which stretches out on 97 ha. Majerus always sets out with her secateurs, in case some of the flowers need pruning before taking the photographs. Another garden that I wanted to review is Stourhead in Wiltshire, my personal favourite. Majerus was lucky to be able to capture with her camera the beauty of the 18th century garden encompassing a lake during the COVID pandemic, all by herself on the property, for a book assignment.

When she was asked to collaborate with Maas on this book, she was amazed at the concentration of beautiful private gardens in Luxembourg although we are not a gardening nation. It could be argued that Luxembourg was the “Land of roses” and Howcroft in her eponymous book writes about the three rose growers in Limpertsberg who sold roses worldwide. The rose Grand-Duc Adolphe de Luxembourg (bred in 1891 by Soupert & Notting) is still growing in the garden of Iford Manor near Bath, designed by Harold Peto.

Maas incorporated her own ravishing garden, a former vicarage garden in Weiler-La-Tour. Some gardens featured have sadly changed as the original keeper died since its publication. Although all the gardens are in private hands, some can be visited and there is a list of the addresses at the back of the book.

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