ILLUSTRATED October 2002
This is a triumphant book, detailing important plant introductions. It is written elegantly and with great authority, and the publishers have complemented the writing with fine production and some excellent illustrations. The subject - inevitably broader than the title implies - has entailed vast research, much of it assembled in new ways to illustrate and illuminate the author's thesis. A botanist and at one time a nurseryman, Dr Stuart is well-known for his previous works on both history and plants. His account is both informative and entertaining and includes anecdotal stories that illustrate the character of his heroes, as well as their gift for bringing back the most garden-worthy plants.
Dr Stuart is particularly fluent in enlightening the contemporary gardening and botanical world into which the plants were introduced.
Of course, the point of the book is to pinpoint those plants that have helped shape garden design over the centuries, and those that have become staple elements in our gardens. And the author does not forget the less desirable plants, such as Rhododendron ponticum, that have become invasive in Britain, and the many exotics introduced to American gardens that now threaten the wilderness. Dr Stuart also allows space to discuss the modern search for lost garden plants and the importance of saving plants in the wild.
During the four great periods of plant introduction, garden styles have evolved and adapted to make use of the new discoveries. The first major influx was the flood of bulbous plants from the eastern end of the Mediterranean in the last half of the 16th century, which awakened the Renaissance mind to scientific study and established the collector's instinct. The second planting revolution occurred when American trees, shrubs and woodland plants arrived in Europe in the mid-18th century: they provided specimens for growing experimentally in the new naturalistic landscapes, as well as an awareness of the need to provide suitable growing conditions. The third great era of plant introductions came with the discovery of highly coloured South American annuals in the early 19th century, hybridised in the new glasshouses to furnish the Victorian bedding-out craze. The Asiatic treasures introduced towards the end of the 19th century encouraged the establishment not only of great plant collections, but provided plants that were suitable for modestsized gardens based on Robinsonian principles of wildflower planting. All this is covered superbly in this book.
Intrepid explorers, often either loners by choice or social misfits, dedicated their lives to the pursuit of new plants and their tales are dramatic, relieving this serious book of any tedium. In the last few pages alone the story of the Austrian Joseph Rock and his 1922 Chinese expedition in search of the chaulmoogra tree (its seeds intended for the treatment of leprosy) is a good example. A brilliant young man, but also eccentric, paranoid and greedy, as well as foolhardy and brave, Rock accomplished his mission in the brigand-infested Yunnan. Although not mentioned by Dr Stuart, Rock lived on to introduce the coveted tree peony, now known as Paeonia rockii, to western gardens from seeds collected in the lamasery of Cho-ni.
There are, however, a few lapses that may be simple slips in the editing. The false acacia or black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) mentioned has white rather than pink flowers, and Sequoiadendron giganteum from the Pacific Northwest - its seed collected in 1853 by William Lobb - is known as giant redwood not dawn redwood, the colloquial name for the much more recent introduction Metasequoia glyptostroboides, discovered in 1946 in China and a rare survival of a fossil tree.
The wonderful tales of the plant collectors in this book should appeal to every gardener, and hopefully awaken a greater awareness of where the plants that shape their own gardens have come from.
Penelope Hobhouse is a garden designer and writer.