While I was in Edinburgh and London recently (see earlier posts 1,2,3), I was reminded several times of my mother’s favorite plants, all ones that thrive in the British Isles. She was born on the south coast of Ireland in a seaside town called Tramore. Her family was upper middle class, but fell on hard times because of her father’s financial blunders. She emigrated with her mother and siblings in 1928, just in time to face the depression in New York City. While she later married my father and had two wonderful children, if I do say so myself, she never really felt at home in the United States and made her opinion known on many occasions. I remember her often mentioning plants that grew well in the gardens of Ireland but didn’t flourish in the US. I was reminded of this while walking by a park in Edinburgh and seeing Cyclamens blooming (see photo above). My mother would buy them in pots as houseplants, but they didn’t grow in our garden. She had the same problem with primroses and Fuchsia (see photo below). From time to time she would buy a potted Fuchsia, and after she kept it alive inside, would plant it outdoors. It never did well. All these plants like mild and moist conditions; a New York City backyard just didn’t provide the right environment.
When we visited Ireland I finally understood her problem and was also introduced to another of her favorites the monkey puzzle tree Araucaria araucana (see photo below). What I didn’t know at the time was that none of these genera, except for the common primrose, Primula vulgaris, are native to Ireland and Britain. Yes, they thrive there, but Fuchsia was sent back by Charles Plumier from the Caribbean, Cyclamen is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and the monkey puzzle is South American. Their naturalization in Ireland was the result of avid gardeners wanting to extend their repertoire of species, and these particular plants, among many others, ended up thriving in areas warmed and watered by the Gulf Stream.
The connection of plants and place—both their native and adopted ranges—is a discussion had many times among those involved in the Herbaria 3.0 project. This initiative, which has been funded by Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory in Sweden and Colorado School of Mines in the US describes itself as “a platform for sharing stories about plants and people. We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships. Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.” The website now has a rich selection of stories in which the relationship between plants, place, and peoples’ lives are very evident. But as was the case with my mother, the place the writer describes is often not within the plant’s native range. This is indicative of how much the ecology of the entire globe has been changed by plant exchanges over hundreds and thousands of years. It also signals how people’s emotional lives are influenced by the plants with which they share a space. Attempting to grow Fuchsia in New York was important to my mother; she was trying to make her home a little more like what she considered her real home in Ireland.
My mother’s childhood home, a horse farm, was burnt down when she was nine years old. We’ve visited the site, which is marked by little more than rubble. On my recent trip I got to visit the intact childhood home of one of my intellectual “mothers,” Agnes Robertson Arber, a noted plant morphologist of the first half of the 20th century and the third woman elected to the Royal Society. I’ve mentioned her in earlier blog posts (1,2) because she wrote two of my favorite books, The Mind and the Eye (1954) on the philosophy of biology including the relationship of art to inquiry, and Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (1938), which is still an important reference in the field. When I contacted Mark Nesbitt of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew about seeing the economic botany collection (see earlier post), he said that he had recently talked to Xandra Bingley who had inquired about Agnes Arber since Bingley lives in the house into which the Robertsons, Agnes’ parents, moved when she was eleven. Bingley is a long-time resident but didn’t know about the connection until English Heritage decided to mount a commemorative blue plaque for Arber on the building. Since I’ve written on Arber (Flannery, 2005), Nesbitt thought Bingley and I should get together.
Xandra invited me to her home for lunch, which lasted well into the afternoon. She thinks that the location of the house, just steps from Primrose Hill, a park adjacent to Regent’s Park, and the lovely, long narrow garden in the rear must have stimulated Robertson’s interest in plants. I know that while Agnes Robertson was living there, her father brought home an early edition of Henry Lyte’s English translation of the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens’s herbal, because a friend wanted advice on whether to buy it. In Herbals, Arber writes that seeing the book is what kindled her interest in the history of botanical illustration. Again, place and plants come together, but in a very different way, and I left Xandra’s house with a better sense of how one of my favorite botanists embarked on her career. Herbals was Arber’s first book, written while she was also working on plant morphology, and weaving together strands that were to grow stronger throughout her life.
Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Arber, A. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.
Flannery, M. C. (2005). Agnes Arber in the 21st century. The Systematist, 24, 13–17.
Note: The most fun I had in England was in Xandra Bingley/Agnes Robertson’s home. I can’t thank Xandra enough for being willing to greet me so warmly and entertain me with such wonderful conversation.