Nature 2018 August

A very peculiar English passion for plants and gardens

Today the shelves of any decent bookshop and the website of any online retailer of printed works contain a vast array of books about plants ranging from glossy, colourful coffee table editions to almost indecipherable floras, or to be more correct florae, such as the pinnacle of this genre known by botany students as CTW or Clapham Tutin and Warburg.

I doubt there are many reading this article who cannot put their hands on at least one volume that enables them to identify wildflowers or alternatively a gardening book to select the right variety of shrub or plant for our chalky / flinty / clayey soils. Before the end of the Second World War there remained limited choice, but the government campaign, ‘Dig For Victory’, brought about a revolution in how we used our back gardens. Stimulated by the quality newspapers, new gardening magazines and instructive television programmes on gardening by, for example, Percy Thrower, encouraged the diversification of how we used our gardens. Even in our part of this ‘green and pleasant land’, Buckland Common, Claire Loewenfeld, who had escaped from Nazi Germany, brought to the UK hitherto unknown knowledge of the dietary benefits of fruits, herbs and nuts.

Books about the classification and use of plants date back to Ancient Greece. The 2nd century AD Greek physician and philosopher Galen founded ‘The Doctrine of Signatures’ a tradition based on the theory that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be prepared and used by herbalists and physicians to treat ailments relating to those organs or body parts. A crucial part of this approach was the physic gardens that had developed in Universities from those herb gardens found in medieval monastery gardens. In continental Europe this philosophy survived until the 16th century. Up until the middle of the 16th century in nearly all parts of Europe the prevailing religious authority was Roman Catholicism which controlled directly or via the Monarch what could be printed and the language which could be used, typically Latin. University scholars corresponded and exchanged ideas predominantly in Greek.

In England, despite Henry VIII declaring an ecclesiastic schism with Rome, publications in English of not just bibles but other scientific treatise were prohibited. Translators and printers engaged in producing texts in English could be executed for treason.

Who was the most important English herbalist of this era? John Gerard (1545- 1612) is one contender followed by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-58). But is this correct? Certainly Gerard’s name is well-known but even amongst his contemporaries he was not considered scholarly and used his influential friends to promote him. Culpeper’s name has been etched into our history and such his reputation is well-earned and consequently his name has become a brand synonymous with the utility of herbs in medicine, food and perfumes. However, I would like to propose that the foremost English herbalist was in fact the Rev. William Turner (1509- 68) who developed a new philosophy around a hundred years earlier. Sadly few will have heard of him, not because he wasn’t scholarly, rather that he developed his theories on plant taxonomy and the utility of herbs at a time in England when going against Galan contradicted strict religious beliefs relating to ‘The Creation’. Consequently, he became unable to study or publish in England. Thomas Cromwell and others in Henry VIII’s Court persuaded Henry to rule it a crime to ‘receive, have, take, or kepe… any manner of booke printed or written’ by Turner as well as ten other authors.

Two of Turner’s academic colleagues at Cambridge were subsequently executed and Turner had to flee to The Netherlands. After Henry III’s death William returned under the short reign of Edward VI only to flee again on the succession of Mary I who again imposed religious intolerance and persecution. Turner went to Germany and became a Calvanist but was able to return to England under Elizabeth I. Sadly Turner remains largely unknown despite being the first Englishmen to publish a herbal. Unfortunately, all but his first book on natural history including his herbal: ‘The Names of Herbes’ were published not in England or in the English language but in German. In his time his magnificent herbal was never translated into English.

For the following 100 years or so herbals of ever-increasing sophistication were produced as more universities created elaborate physic gardens. In the 17th century the investigation of plants eventually removed the shackles of Ancient Greece and gradually evolved into a scientific study of plant life which today we might recognise as botany. However, with the realisation that there was a world of new plants ready to be exploited across the Atlantic Ocean and in the East Indies the era when the focus on these ever more elaborate herbals was over. Instead, the minds of academics were turned by the entrepreneurs who were risking all to discover and bring back trees, shrubs and plants from the Colonies that were of economic value.

For example, in three voyages between 1768 and 1779 Captain Cook discovered new lands which he explored with his plantsmen and artists. In an age before large heated glass houses Cook could not bring specimens of the entire flora he discovered back to the newly developed Kew Gardens in England. To overcome this, Cook’s great innovation was the development of strategically located botanic gardens which enabled him to redistribute plants from one continent to another with a compatible climate. Though initiated in the 18th century his idea came to fruition under the leadership of his chief naturalist, Joseph Banks. Under Banks’ influence rather than herbals his artists were commissioned to produce beautifully illustrated catalogues displaying every feature of the new species or plant varieties they discovered.

Using these spectacular volumes Banks’ could persuade those rich enough to invest in newly established plantations that were being developed in far flung colonies in the West Indies, in South Africa and in New South Wales. These colourful journals became prized possessions of wealthy citizens who were in the position to impress their family and friends. In time cheaper versions were developed through the commissioning of reprints and through ‘publishing factories’ producing hand-painted versions, albeit of an inferior quality, which were within the financial reach of the Victorian middle classes. In the early 20th century the aspiring upper middle classes might also invest in garden landscaping, flowerbed design, a comprehensive plant list and planting schedule reproduced from one of the over 400 bespoke country garden designs originally prepared by Gertrude Jekyll.

Whatever your interest in plants, be it as part of enjoying wild places, visiting country houses or pottering about in a back garden, it still remains a very peculiar English passion which we are all perfectly placed to enjoy.