COUNTRY LIFE Mar 21at 2002

KATHRYN BRADLEY-HOLE salutes the explorers

HUNTER GATHERERS

The Plants that Shaped our Gardens

David Stuart

(Frances Lincoln, œ25)

CUTTING a bold swathe through the history of garden-making, the author makes a spirited case for putting the plants first: he argues that the garden as we know it was created not by garden designers but by ordinary gardeners responding to a discovery or influx of exotic and novel plants.

Much of the pleasure of a book like this comes from the tales of derring-do, the adventures and extreme hardships endured by men (it was usually men) in the quest for plants.

We learn that the 17th-century pirate William Dampier 'cheerfully broke off from robbery and murder to take delight in the exotic flowers of whatever landfall he made' - he travelled with his vasculum and plant presses as well as his weapons, and became the first European to collect plants from Australia.

Carl Thunberg's reward for enduring an unnervingly close encounter with a buffalo in the veld was the discovery of the bird of paradise flower, Strelitzia reginae, duly despatched to Europe. On his travels to France, Thunberg was disconcerted to note that 'the French language, held in such high esteem by the upper classes in Sweden and elsewhere, is spoken by both high and low members of society all over France'. Extreme naivety can be a useful part of an explorer's armament.

Spanning four centuries and ranging across continents, here is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the intertwined relationship of plants, their gardens and the many intrepid people who deserve to be remembered alongside them.

 

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