Gardeners' world

<strong>Strange Blooms: the curious lives and adventures of the John Tradescants</strong>


The museum business can get rough. Poor Hester Tradescant discovered this at the cost of her sanity, as she vainly tried to protect her husband's collection of exotic plants and curiosities from the predatory Elias Ashmole. Thanks to a 17th-century legal swindle, the Tradescants' "Lambeth Ark" of rarities became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and Ashmole took the credit deserved by a family of adventurous and assiduous gardeners.

Jennifer Potter's biography of the John Tradescants, father and son, is therefore an act of historical justice as well as a great story. The Tradescants grew rare flowers and trees in the gardens of England's palaces, which entailed dangerous travel as well as glamorous company. The elder John Tradescant accompanied the ambassador Sir Dudley Digges to Russia, returning with "the Muscovy Rose". He collected seeds while on military expeditions against the pirates of Algiers, and with the Duke of Buckingham to relieve French Protestants on the Ile de Ré. The Tradescants' contacts and voyages allowed them to assemble their own botanical nursery at Lambeth, as well as a museum of curiosities, which displayed strange objects from the expanding frontiers of European commerce: snowshoes from Greenlanders, the clothes and weapons of African and West Indian tribes, the remains of a dodo, and a richly decorated cloak that supposedly belonged to Powhatan, an American- Indian king.

The core of this book is horticulture - then, as now, an intensely competitive world. Potter reveals the astonishingly resourceful techniques used to cultivate exotic flowers and fruit in the gardens of vying courtiers and princes. A range of unpleasant fertilisers was used, from "cow's piss" to dead dogs. To combat the English winter, John Evelyn recommended warming plants with "a large Pan of Coales thoroughly kindled . . . and then placing it upon a Hand-barrow, have two men carrie it gently about the Conservatory, & between the Ranges for an hower at a tyme".

But Potter's conviction that you can "read" society through its gardens - "politically, socially, morally, even philosophically" - will ensure that non-gardeners enjoy the book, too. The younger Tradescant was more interested in "useful" plants, such as those with medicinal properties. Potter links this to the milieu of the Angl0-German scientist Samuel Hartlib, who campaigned for the advancement of empirical science in "profitable" directions. Inspired by the utopian writings of Francis Bacon, Hartlib promoted practical knowledge of beekeeping, medicinal plants and the rearing of silk-worms. These projects meshed powerfully with the religious and social radicalism of the civil war years. In a treatise on fruit trees, Hartlib's protégé Ralph Austin extolled the spiritual, communal and sensual profits of cultivating orchards. The younger Tradescant also lived to see the advent of the Royal Society, which eyed his collection as potential material for "experimental learning".

Potter's book shows that the Tradescants' collections were part of a grander story. The natural and ethnological discoveries of Renaissance adventurers were exchanged and discussed by a pan-European community of the "curious", and from their acquisitive drive for not only theor etical, but also practical knowledge, recognis -ably modern natural sci ences emerged.

In describing this process, Potter's taste for the quirky can appear naive. She speculates about an inspiring conversation that might have taken place between Tradescant senior and a reformed pirate, who visited for advice on growing melons. But she does not tell readers that another of the contacts helping to stock Tradescant's collections, Nicholas Crispe, monopolised the West African slave trade. The age of sugar and slavery also began in the mid-17th century: its history is not unrelated to the arts of profitable cultivation and representations of "savage" peoples. It receives barely a mention here - surely a serious omission in a book that would read a society's morals through its gardens?

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Missing presumed tortured