In the 1700s, the world was opening up to Western explorers. Plants from all over the world were arriving in England, and they all seemed wonderfully exotic. A few Englishmen were enthralled. They dedicated their lives to learning about plants from diverse continents, scientifically classifying them, and growing them in gardens and on estates.
As Andrea Wulf explains in her book The Brother Gardeners, “England was blessed with a mild and wet climate that made gardening easier and more satisfying than in many other countries.” And in England, over the course of the eighteenth century, gardening and plants became more and more popular.
And the more bizarre the plant, the better! Wulf writes about one plant from South Africa, stapelia, that has a terrible stink. English folks thought this was so amazingly exotic that one plant collector sent, to various eager Englishmen, according to Wulf, more than forty species of the plant, “filling the country’s greenhouses with the highly sought-after smell of putrefying flesh.”
Also immensely popular in England were American plants. A large portion of The Brother Gardeners describes the friendships and collaborations across the Atlantic that allowed for the transfer of delicate plants and seeds from America to England. The book tells of the horrors of sea voyages, and the efforts of the plant lovers to ensure that the seeds and plants were properly stored (away from dangerous elements like wind, salt, changing temperatures, moisture, and rodents, not to mention careless and malicious sailors) so that they would arrive in a state in which they could then be cultivated in England.
American plants became so popular, in fact, that the richest people in England, noblemen with large estates and such, began vying to grow the most impressive American trees and bushes on their vast estates. The more American your estate looked, the more trendy and elite you were.
Wulf recounts an anecdote about Thomas Jefferson touring England. When he saw the popularity of American plants in English gardens and estates, he was amused. His estate back home in America could very easily join the craze:
“He had only, Jefferson boasted, ‘to cut out the superabundant plants’ in the forest surrounding his garden to achieve the scenery he had admired in England.”
Naturally, what’s exotic to one person is home to another. Ain’t it great to be American?