This series of posts deals with books that approach botany from a number of different angles. Horticulture has always been an important aspect of the discipline, from providing living material for study to being a major impetus for searching out more and more species to bring into cultivation. Fiona Davison, who is head of libraries and exhibitions at the Royal Horticultural Society, has come up with a unique perspective. The Hidden Horticulturalists (2019) was inspired by a single item from the RHS archives labeled “The Handwriting of Undergardeners and Labourers.” This notebook contains entries from each of the 105 gardeners enrolled in the Society’s training program for its first six years beginning in 1823. Each candidate had to describe their work experience from age 14. This served to prove their literacy but also, almost 200 years later, gives insight into the gardening culture of the time. Davison has done a great deal of research to trace the careers of these men when they left the RHS. Many had successful careers in spheres from plant collecting, to heading nurseries, to superintending the gardens of large estates. She also considers many who had successful though less illustrious lives as market gardeners, journeyman on estates, and caretakers for the increasing number of small suburban gardens. It becomes obvious reading The Hidden Horticulturalists that following the men who wrote in the notebook leads to some very interesting places.
Davison begins by describing the genesis of the program. It met an increasing need for workers who had enough expertise to take up positions of some responsibility in large gardens. It also provided an additional workforce for the RHS garden, then located at Chiswick. Davison goes into the society’s history and leadership, but then gets right into her real subjects, describing the work the men had already undertaken before entering the program. Not surprisingly most had some experience with plants, though the type of work they did varied from manual labor to jobs that required considerable skill. Most stayed at RHS for more than a year and most left with good recommendations.
Though Davison details what they did and learned at Chiswick, the bulk of the book deals with their later work experiences. She begins with those who became part of the horticultural elite, most notably Joseph Paxton. Head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s estate at Chatsworth, he was adept at growing exotic plants in greenhouses and designed a large conservatory constructed of glass panes with iron frames. This is where he was able to grow such exotics at the Victoria amazonica waterlily with its giant leaves. Eventually he designed the Crystal Palace along the same lines, but much larger. He was definitely an RHS star pupil.
A number of the gardeners traveled to other parts of the world to do their work. Thomas Bridges aided the RHS director John Lindley during his time at Chiswick and used Lindley’s pamphlet on collecting and packing seeds when he set out for South America. He sent specimens to Lindley and William Jackson Hooker, then a botanist at the University of Glasgow, but it was difficult to make a living at this grueling work. He instead turned to farming, but was lured back into collecting after the introduction of the Wardian case made transporting live plants more reliable (Keogh, 2020). The other lure was the discovery of the Victoria waterlily, which was only known from a badly degraded, though massive, leaf that its discoverer Herman Schomburgk sent back from what is now Guyana. Bridges sent better specimens with leaves preserved in paper, flowers in alcohol, and seeds. Hooker grew the seeds but only two plants survived and they didn’t do well. It was Paxton who finally got plants to flower in the Chatsworth conservatory and sent one of them to its namesake, Queen Victoria.
James Traill and William McCulloch went to Egypt and worked designing and managing the garden of the Egyptian ruler Ibrahim Pasha at his palace complex between Cairo and Giza, a difficult climate in which to create an English style garden. Traill had correspondence with Nathaniel Ward and received some of the earliest plants transported in a Wardian case. He even exchanged plants with British gardeners in India. At the same time there was another kind of horticultural exchange going on. European gardeners at elite estates were sent to RHS for training in British techniques, and they brought back not only new skills but new plants from British colonies. Davison also tells of the adventures of John Dallachy, who traveled to Australia collecting plants there and working for the expert on Australian flora, Ferdinand von Mueller in Melbourne.
Meanwhile the botanist Nathaniel Wallich who spent years in India, returned to England on leave. He brought with him a young assistant, James Watson, who had to care for chests filled with living plants and seeds during the trip. Since he had less to do once he arrived in England, Wallich sent him for training at RHS. Meanwhile Wallich, who had brought his entire herbarium back with him, worked on identifying his vast collection. He distributed 250,000 specimens to 66 individuals and institutions, who assisted in sorting and labeling the plants. It’s information like this that makes Davison’s book so fascinating. It is highly readable and very meaty; I’ve just scratched the surface here and don’t have the space to dig into the details. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Davison is now working on another project to open up still more of the RHS Lindley Library’s treasures.
Davison, F. (2019). The Hidden Horticulturalists: The Working-Class Men who Shaped Britain’s Gardens. London: Atlantic.
Keogh, L. (2020). The Wardian Case. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.