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Musings » The Plant Lover's Companion
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Brittain, Julia
Cincinatti, Ohio
Horticulture Books 2006

Julia Brittain’s book is truly useful and delightful. Gardening is a favorite pastime both in the UK and the US but only a few of the millions of people who buy the millions of attractive plants at the garden centers ever think about where they came from and who found them. There is no reason they should ever think about it. The floral colonization of the Western European and North American floras by exotic plants from Asia, Central and South America and the Southern Hemisphere is almost complete. The average person has no idea that what he /she plants so lovingly and watches with such joy is descended from plants that were imported many years before.

The foreign imports have not totally obscured the native plants in their native habitats. That distinction rests with our own population and its ever-expanding construction. No, what has happened is that the flowers grown for commercial purposes, whether seedlings to plant or pre-cut for decoration, almost all derive from those imports.

Ms Brittain has delved into the fascinating history of these imports. As with everything else, while the plants are interesting, the people involved are riveting.

Consider Ernest Wilson. His employer, James Veitch of the famous Veitch nursery dynasty in England, instructed him to find a single tree in China, not a type of tree or a grove of trees but one individual tree. Being a man of very superior stuff, Wilson arrived at the correct village, only to find that his tree had been cut down. A villager needed the wood to build a house. Instead of pulling his hair out in frustration Wilson calmly set about finding another tree and did so.

What was the tree? It was Davidia involucrata, the “Dove Tree” or “Handkerchief Tree”. When it is in full bloom the enormous white bracts under the tiny flowers float on the breeze and look like the wings of doves, or handkerchiefs fluttering. After Veitch received it and propagated it for sale it created a sensation and made him a lot of money.

There is a similar story behind the ancestors of every geranium, petunia, begonia, gladiolus, tulip and all the other frequently grown annuals and perennials. Don’t even get me started on the stories behind roses.

I will admit to a faint twinge of jealousy when I read this book. There was a famous Japanese breeder of azaleas between the wars, Koichiro Wada. I had included him in one of my books and needed to know the dates of his birth and death. This information was not readily available.

When I opened Julia Brittain’s book there were Wada’s dates, right in front of me. That was when I recognized she has written an important book, carefully researched, charmingly composed and jammed full of wonderful material.

I have only touched on some of its salient features. She considers the history of large nurseries such as Hilliers, who specialize in all types of tree, with an emphasis on conifers. Botanists appear. Famous mountains which are the source of some the rarest plants we have are given their due.

The book is in small format, lightweight and easy to take with you as you visit nurseries or parks. It will make any simple outing far more enjoyable.