Michaux himself was shipwrecked within sight of the Belgian coast on his journey home. He was dragged ashore, but his shipload of plants was lost, together with the journal of his early years in America. Think of him when you look at a sweet bay or a ginkgo. He introduced both.
His is just one of the stories Penelope Hobhouse tells in Plants in Garden History (Pavilion pounds 40), the most sumptuous gardening book of the year. Its scope is enormous, from the origins of gardening in the West, to the gardens of Islam, from the plantsmen of Renaissance Europe to the development of gardening in North America. Chronology provides a constant thread throughout the countries of the world, and the book, which might have buckled under the enormous weight of its subject, has been extremely well thought out.
Each chapter begins with an introductory essay on the main theme and is followed by a series of special studies. For instance, in her chapter on 19th-century experiments in the garden, Mrs Hobhouse introduces us to the main themes and personalities of the age: the horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon, the nurserymen, the plant hunters. This is followed by eight double-page spreads, each concentrating on a different theme: the garden designs of Humphry Repton, the extraordinary planting at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire, where 80 men worked under the indefatigable head gardener, William Barron.
The detail of Mrs Hobhouse's research is riveting and her work is complemented by an extraordinarily wide range of pictures. One of the best is used on the cover: a catalogue of flowers painted in 1614 by Girolamo Pini, which came from the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.
No flower in your garden will ever seem worthless, once you have learnt about the amazing endeavours that led gardeners and nurserymen to find and then learn how to grow them.
In 1823, the Loddiges nursery, which covered 15 acres in Hackney, grew plants brought in from the Americas, Siberia and western China. In their encyclopaedic catalogue, the Loddiges brothers wrote: 'Persons in foreign countries, who are animated by a similar passion, are respectfully invited to a Correspondence, which can hardly fail to become mutually advantageous.' They paid high prices for new plants.
This is the perfect book to have by you during the overblown days of Christmas. It covers much that is unfamiliar, and can be dipped into it as easily as a box of chocolates. Only the index, with its double entries and lack of cross-referencing, lets it down.
Secondhand book lists are fecund ground for Christmas presents, and all specialities are catered for. Anon wrote The Fern Manual in 1863, a description of all the best hardy and greenhouse ferns for British gardens. A hundred years on, it is as useful as the day it was published. It costs pounds 17.50 in Daniel Lloyd's latest list.
Or you could give G A Mills's Treatise on the Improved Mode of Cultivating the Cucumber, published c. 1840. There are copious notes on melons, asparagus and seakale, too. It is listed at pounds 25, also from Lloyd, whose shop is at 9 Mortlake Terrace, off Kew Green, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3DT. The shop is open daily (except Wednesdays) 10am to 4pm, Saturdays until 5.30pm.
You can never have too many books - or pots. The Pier in Tottenham Court Road, London W1, has some pleasing wooden planters, stained a murky blue-green, about 14in square and 16in deep. They cost pounds 14.95. I am besotted with citrus at the moment and fancy a lemon tree growing out of this, but being an easy-going colour and shape, the tub could be used in many other ways. A Paris daisy would look wonderful.
More traditional for citrus are terracotta orange pots, which Jim Keeling makes at the Whichford Pottery, as part of a vast range of garden pots. The smaller of his orange pots is 19in high and 26in wide, and costs pounds 142. New this year is his olive pot, roughly the same dimensions, costing pounds 162.
He has revived the old tradition of English 'Delft' tiles, which used to be made in great numbers in Liverpool and Bristol. They make excellent decorative panels for conservatory walls and are all 5in square. Full picture tiles cost pounds 5.95, those with decorated corners pounds 2.20.
The Christmas sale at the Whichford Pottery, Whichford, Shipston on Stour, Warwickshire (0608 84416) ends tomorrow, but the pottery is open daily, 9am to 5pm. There is also a Christmas sale of Whichford pots in the Palm House at Ham Central Nursery, Ham, Surrey, which continues until the end of next weekend. The nursery is open daily (9am to 5pm).
One of the most successful presents I ever gave was a boxful of 'Comice' pears. I bought them from the Kirdford Growers, a local co-operative with a packhouse in the village of Kirdford near Billingshurst in West Sussex. You can buy a phenomenally wide range of fruit in presentation boxes from the Orchard Shop at the Brogdale Horticultural Trust, Brogdale Road, Faversham, Kent (0795 535286). The boxes hold about 5lb of fruit and cost pounds 4. The shop is open daily until 23 December, 11am to 5pm.
A Christmas fayre at Brogdale this weekend, open today and tomorrow, will feature tastings of apples and pears, cooking demonstrations and suggestions for table centres using fruit. The Victorians were masters of this art. I have been reading Joan Morgan's scholarly book A Paradise Out of a Common Field (Century pounds 16.95) to get some ideas for my own Christmas table.
The Traditional Garden Supply Company can send you the rather grandly named Windsor Seed Tray, copied from the terracotta originals (13in x 9in x 4in) in use until this year in the royal gardens. These terracotta pans were once standard issue. I have some of my great-uncle's and they make excellent containers for growing sempervivums or dwarf bulbs. The price ( pounds 27.99) includes postage and packing from Dept B3, Guildford Park Rd, Guildford, Surrey GU2 5ND (0483 450080).
From Oxfam, you can get a plastic-lined tote bag with pockets to hold everything you need for a day's gardening. It measures 13in x 7in x 11in and is made in Bangladesh. It costs pounds 8.95 from Oxfam Trading, Murdock Road, Bicester, Oxon OX6 7RF (0869 245011). Order reference number is 45136.
Plants remain one of the cheapest options for presents, which is extraordinary, given the amount of work that goes into raising them. I have just bought a clutch of beautifully grown ivies, none more than pounds 2.50 and all with bushy centres and 3ft trailing stems. I am going to plant them out in some foil-lined baskets.
Potted bulbs are equally good value. Hyacinths, narcissi, crocus and tulips all give a dazzling display indoors and the first two have the added advantage of drowning rooms with their scent. Grape hyacinths also succeed in pots, but somehow there is always too much foliage flopping about the flower stems to put them in the top league.
Bulbs also make fine gifts on their own. Twenty Anemone 'De Caen' cost pounds 1.19, and 20 ranunculus pounds 1.99. No other present represents better value.Reuse content