The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants

Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants

Editor's note: the following book review discusses the latest work by Judith M. Taylor, who kindly provides her reviews for the MassHort website. The review below was written by Chuck Robinson.

Often garden writing seems like a banquet of desserts. The gardening confections consist of many superlatives linked together rapturously, inundating the reader in hyperbole. After gorging myself, I feel overfull but under-sated, wishing I had ingested something of more substance.

The something more substantive I found this winter has been a new book from Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Judith M. Taylor’s “The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: How the World Got into Your Garden.” It has been fascinating.

There are many names from the annals of horticulture history that are familiar to gardeners. This book puts those names into context. It provides an overview of how the plants grown in Western gardens have developed, from the onset of floral colonization to the important botanical and horticultural institutions and publications of modern times.

It is a fast-moving trek. The book is only about 300 pages, yet it includes an amazing amount of historical research. This isn’t Taylor’s first foray into writing about historical horticulture. She has also written The Olive in California: History of an Immigrant Tree and “Tangible Memories: Californians and Their Gardens 1800-1950.” She is a retired English, Oxford-trained physician who moved to San Francisco with her husband in 1994.

I felt the book found its groove when Taylor began discussing Near and Far Eastern horticul- tural history. For instance, I found India’s role, both as a source of plants such as rhododendrons from the Himalayas and as stopover for plants from China, intriguing.

I would like to see a more in-depth study of Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff, an unlikely team responsible for bringing many species of primrose to Western gardens. Ludlow was a well-educated Englishman who went to India as a schoolmaster. “His hobby was natural history, especially ornithology. In his vacations, he explored widely and collected many specimens of birds and plants,” Taylor writes.

On one vacation, he met Sherriff, who was an officer in the Indian Army on leave. Their happenstance meeting led to seven trips to Nepal and Tibet over 16 years, ending in 1949. They found 130 species of primula.

Moving on to the opening of China’s horticultural treasures to the West, of course the name of Robert Fortune is familiar. So are many of the plants he brought to Western gardens, including bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), balloon flower (Platycondon grandiflorus), Chinese anemone (Anemone hupehensis), Chinese redbud or Judas tree (Cercis chinensis), Nandina domestica and toad lilies (Tricyrtis hirta). His name is used as the species name for Hosta fortunei as well as a daphne, iron- weed (Vernonia), salvia, snowbell (Styrax), statice and others.

However, the most eye-catching detail in Taylor’s account for me was the Scotsman Fortune passing himself off as a Chinese native, Sing Wah, who mandarins were told came from a remote part of the country to explain his poor speech and cul- tural clumsiness. Many of the short stories in “Global Migrations” could provide the factual basis of a James Clavell historical novel.

Taylor wraps up her historical overview with a short essay on what has become of the horticulture industry. “In the present age, there is no limit to what we can grow, no matter where it originates. The variety of choices is bewildering, and yet this abundance imposes an unexpected uniformity,” she writes.

With analogies of the horticulture industry to retail grocers and to the garment industry, Taylor winds down her historical examination in a sanguine manner. It is a clear-eyed assessment of today’s gardens and the horticultural industry that serves them.

With this meaty meal finished, I am ready again for a little dessert. A small serving.

The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: How the World Got into Your Garden

Taylor, Judith M.
Kansas City, Missouri
Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009

Review by Chuck Robinson
Newsletter of the GardenCenter Association of Greater Kansas City