Ever since Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin published their seminal work in postcolonial studies, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (1989), readers interested in both Victorian literature and that written by authors from nations that were once parts of the British empire have examined the ways in which the imperial center — the United Kingdom, England, especially London — both influenced and have been influenced by colonies and former colonies. Kate Colquhoun here explains how much of what we today take to be the English landscape and the English garden have arrived as the result of exploration and colonization. GPL

decorated initial 'S'IDE BY SIDE with the political and social revolutions sweeping Europe ran a cultural revolution most keenly associated with the growth of science. Interest in plants and gardening, which had been developing throughout the eighteenth century, leapt into a new life that some have called the horticultural revolution. From the Romans to John Tradescant in the 1600s, new plants had been arriving in England regularly if slowly. Tradescant himself had brought the apricot from Algiers, as well as the first lilac. But from the middle of the eighteenth century, plants were coming from all corners of the globe — predominantly from South America, the Cape, and, later, North America. Between 1731 and 1789 the number of plants in cultivation increased over fivefold to around five thousand. The thirst for information about new plants was becoming insatiable and driving a need for new publications. Philip Miller at the Botanical Gardens in Chelsea then dominated the gardening world with his Gardener's Dictionary of 1731, and at Kew, William Alton's first full catalogue of plants, Hortus Kewensis, was first published in 1789.

Initially, new trees such as the tulip tree and magnolia, and popular plants such as the first American lily, Lilium superbum (which first flowered in 1738), were shipped back to England mainly by settlers. By the later part of the century, voyages of exploration such as Cook's three expeditions between 1768 and 1779 were unearthing unimagined botanical riches set to transform the English garden and the role of the gardener in it. So many new plants were arriving in Britain that Miller saw the species at Chelsea increase fivefold during his tenure alone. On 1 February 1787, the first periodical in England devoted to scientific horticulture, the Botanical Magazine; or, Flower-Garden Displayed, edited by William Curtis, was published, aimed foursquare at the rich and fashionable who had begun to cultivate exotics with passion. Designed "for the use of such Ladies, Gentlemen, and Gardeners as wish to become scientifically acquainted with the Plants they cultivate," it was expensively priced at one shilling in order to cover the costs of hand-colored plates. It was nevertheless hugely popular and provided yet another stimulus to the culture of ornamental plants.

The improvement of estates and gardens among the wealthy classes had become an established vogue since Lancelot "Capability" Brown started the rage in the mid-eighteenth century; garden making and tree planting were pursued on a scale never before witnessed in England. Expensive to create but cheap to maintain, landscaped parks were an indication of social rank and power, since the use of good farming land for a pleasure ground was, indeed, a demonstration of riches. Walls and formal flowerbeds were swept away, substituted by great stands of trees and often a "ha-ha," so that from a house of any pretension the vista was uninterrupted and it appeared that nature itself reigned. All of this pleased Horace Walpole, who declared that "all nature is a garden," and led Thomas Whately to announce in his book Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) that ground, wood, water, and rocks were the only four elements needed in any grand garden design. The fashion for visiting the great houses and gardens of England grew, with Stourhead and Longleat in Wiltshire and Chatsworth in Derbyshire the most popular.

At the end of the century, Brown's heir, Humphry Repton, began to reintroduce the "romantic" into the garden, with terraces in the foreground near to the house, as well as some flowerbeds and specialized flower gardens for roses or the new North American plants that intrepid explorers were now sending back to England. Gardeners were becoming a more important and senior part of the household staff, and professional nurserymen began to thrive.

By 1778 Kew Gardens, begun in 1759 for the Dowager Princess Augusta, was rapidly expanding under George III and its first unofficial president, Joseph Banks, who was also president of the august Royal Society. He determined to send men on thrilling adventures to collect plants from the Cape, the Azores, Spain and Portugal, China, the West Indies, and America, and he ensured that Kew became a center of excellence in which botanical science surged forward. The tiger lily, Lilium tigrmum, sent back from China in 1804, became such a success that William Alton, Banks's successor at Kew, was soon distributing thousands of its bulbs to eager gardeners all over the country.

The rise of horticulture in the nineteenth century paralleled the expansion of the other natural and material sciences but on a far broader base than the elite science of the eighteenth century, flourishing as the middle classes expanded. Commercial nurseries also began to employ collectors, indicating the growing commercial curiosity in these rare plants, and in 1804, Exotic Botany, by Sir E.J. Smith, became a standard and best-selling work, as did John Cushings's Exotic Gardener, published a few years later. [10-12]

Related Material


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Colquhoun, Kate. "The Busiest Man in England:" A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect, and Visionary. Boston: David R. Godine, 2006. 300 pages. Many illustrations. ISBN 1-56792-301-1. [Review by GPL]

Additional information about this book can be obtained from the publisher's website or by e-mailing info@godine.com.

Last modified 8 March 2008