Women and Horticulture

Pineapple from Maria Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Biodiversity Heritage Library

As I mentioned in the last post, the role of women in Western culture was hidden in part because they didn’t published about their knowledge.  There are of course exceptions to this, but when women did publish, it was often in forms that were not considered of interest to the intellectual elites, such as formulas for herbal medicines rather than more formal herbals or books of advice on domestic issues like cooking or housekeeping or gardening.  These were often published locally and unlikely to be republished in successive editions, so the few copies that may remain are known only to those steeped in the history of a field.

In some cases, women did not want to get into print.  It was considered vulgar to display expertise in public and not done by women of the upper classes.  This is one explanation Nicole LaBouff (2020) gives for why three 18th-century British noblewomen, Lady Amelia Hume, Jane Barrington, and Mary Watson-Wentworth, are so little known even though they made important contributions to the work of noted male botanists such as Joseph Banks, James Edward Smith, and William Roxburgh.  At one point LaBouff notes that “these women wrote themselves out of the botanical record when they either internalized or outwardly conformed to a cultural belief that the worlds of print and public dialogue were not appropriate places for modest ladies” (p. 30).  I hesitate to even use this quote since by doing so I might contribute to further enshrining this view, but not including it would make it more difficult to understand why these women chose to downplay their expertise, and they did indeed have botanical expertise. 

They were wealthy women who engaged in gardening on their estates on an impressive scale and like the many males dedicated to horticulture, were always looking for new and exceptional plants to nurture.  They also had the means to amass extensive libraries of botanical and gardening books for reference, to employ teams of gardeners, to have hothouses and other contrivances to grow delicate species from the tropics, and to not only purchase material from nurseries specializing in exotic plants but also from plant collectors who shipped directly to their estates.  They used all their resources as well as their intellects honed by their education, reading, conversations with likeminded men and women, and observations on the plants they wanted so much to successfully cultivate.  In many cases their expertise exceeded that of professional nurserymen, and male botanists appreciated that.

Smith and Banks visited the gardens of noblewomen not only to see what was growing there but to obtain specimens to study and seeds or cuttings to cultivate, and perhaps more importantly, to learn from these women’s observations.  Two references LaBouff cites are Dorinda Outram (1996) on “sedentary fieldwork” and James Secord (2007) on conversation as central to the formation of scientific knowledge during the period of polite science in the 18th century.  She argues that this is why “it is crucial to recognize the home garden as a museum-like space in which women actively shaped scientific dialogue through their interaction with other experts. (LaBouff, p. 23)”  While such women did not usually put their knowledge into print, their male colleagues did, and James Smith among others was careful to give the three women LaBouff highlights credit for their contributions.  He dedicated a volume of his writings to each of them. 

I use LaBouff’s work here to exemplify an area of female expertise that was much more widespread than just in 18th-century England.  The early modern botanist Carolus Clusius had an extensive correspondence with women gardeners in which the information was freely exchanged in both directions (Egmond, 2010).  In the 17th century Hans Sloane, James Petiver and John Ray all visited the Duchess of Beaufort Mary Somerset’s gardens and hothouses to see plants they would otherwise only know from dried specimens (see earlier post).  At about the same time, Agneta Block, a wealthy Dutch widow, was using her hothouse to coax pineapples to flower and fruit from small, rather dull looking tufts of leaves obtained from the Leiden Botanical Garden.  While the plant grew in the garden, it hadn’t flowered, which is not surprising since the Netherlands’ climate is very different from the pineapple’s native home in the South American tropics.

Like her British counterparts, Block had the combination of knowledge, observational skills, and horticultural expertise to be successful.  I can’t help making an overtly sexist comment here:  she may have called on a dose of feminine patience as well.  She success increased her status among other Dutch naturalists who visited her garden and greenhouses, including the botanist Jan Commelin and the naturalist/painter Maria Merian.  Block commissioned paintings from Merian and also from another noted artist, Alida Withoos, who did a watercolor of the pineapple to commemorate its flowering.  The painting doesn’t survive, though one by Merian does (see image above).  In a blog post on Block, there is more information on her connections with gardeners, naturalists, and artists, as well as more information on the pineapple.  It became such an object of interest that Block’s success was repeated in many botanical gardens and private estates.  Still, the pineapple remained so difficult to cultivate that the rich would sometimes rent one to display on a dinner table for a particularly important event.  Who knew plant rentals went back that far?    

References

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London: Pickering and Chatto.

LaBouff, N. (2020). Public science in the private garden: Noblewomen horticulturalists and the making of British botany c. 1785–1810. History of Science, 0073275320961908. https://doi.org/10.1177/0073275320961908

Outram, D. (1996). New spaces in natural history. In N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, & E. C. Spary (Eds.), Cultures of Natural History (pp. 249–265). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Secord, J. A. (2007). How scientific conversation became shop talk. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 17, 129–156.

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