May 9, 2011 | Matt Cole, Director of Education

Andrea Wulf, author of Founding Gardeners

Andrea Wulf has plumbed a rich story line of gardens and botanical exploration, following the shipments of plants and seeds from American colonists back to royal Britain, and the subsequent flowering on both sides of the Atlantic.  With a lecture titled "Revolutionary Gardeners: Britain, America and the Seeds of Exchange," her appearance at Denver Botanic Gardens on May 10th promises a ride through botanical history including appearances by the founding fathers.  Register online to reserve a seat for the presentation (members $12, non-members $15) , or arrive shortly before the event begins at 7 p.m. to purchase a seat at the door.  Andrea Wulf authored two books that she'll draw material from, Brother Gardeners and Founding Gardeners, which I feel are part of a literary trend. Several "popular histories" of botanical adventure have leapt into popular consciousness recently.  For good reason, too.

As fond as we Rocky Mountain gardeners and botanical enthusiasts are of thinking we're above the East Coast, the exchanges between the thirteen colonies and Europe are instructive even at a distance.  From the personalities of the people involved, to the politics of plants, to the results that the plant trade achieved, there is ample fodder for both entertainment and more thoughtful lessons.   The NY Times book review found Founding Gardeners to be "illuminating and engrossing."  I expect to find both inspiration and illumination in the lecture.  Its not the first time a history has stopped right in front of my modern botanical identity and demanded its due.

When I first discovered The American Gardenerby William Cobbett, I had no idea that an 1819 book  could be read as a modern gardening treatise.  If you've seen it recently, its probably the 2003 version with an introduction by Michael Pollan.  William Cobbet was best known as an English journalist, a muckraker we might call him today.  The muckraking he does in The American Gardener is composting, 'though.  At one point he advises his readers that if the manure they are composting is is so hot that you cannot bear to put your hand in it, that is probably too hot for the plants.  And yet, that is a remarkable result: self-heating raised beds that, with a cold frame, can produce through a cold, wet winter.  Cobbett's description cured me of any bellyaching about season extending work, and his thoughtful prose gave me ideas  for my garden at the time.  I wonder what he'd make of  Denver's dry, steppe climate?

So with that literary excursion to remind me, I look towards Revolutionary Gardenersand think that yes, a time of sailing ships, muscle-driven farming, and exchange with distant people might be exactly what I need to understand the world today.  Denver is fortunate that the Royal Oak Foundation* is presenting Andrea Wulf's visit as part of their work in this country.  I expect that I'll be willingly sucked into a horticultural history lesson.

* The Royal Oak Foundation engages Americans in the work of the National Trust of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  The National Trust is one of the world’s "largest and most progressive conservation organizations."


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