BOOK REVIEW / The historic rise and fall of the great flowers: 'The Story of Gardening' - Martin Hoyles: Journeyman, 12.95 pounds

Related Topics
TO CULTIVATE a plot of land is, they say, to grab a little slice of heaven on earth. God began by creating the Garden of Eden, after all; and even the grottiest allotment down by the disused railway sidings can, if you duck your head to block out the gas station, seem brushed by the fragrance of paradise. Maybe it's just that the grass is always greener, but city people are forever talking about rural idylls, pastoral bliss and country retreats - as if a bit of lawn with some roses and a drift of honeysuckle were in every way the cure for urban stress.

Martin Hoyles, in this lovingly tended history of horticulture in Britain, doesn't see it quite like that. Gardening, he argues, has complicated cultural roots - of the sort you can't pull up and burn. The blossoms that flutter in our bounteous summer zephyrs are planted in soil that has been fed by a swaggering imperial past. Green and leafy bowers sit, almost literally, on graves. In 1842, a million oxen were slaughtered in South America to provide manure for Britain; Europe's battlefields were ransacked for old soldiers whose bones could fertilise hollyhocks on the home front.

The book begins by noticing that because property is, er, theft, every time you mow your lawn you are handling stolen goods. The history of gardening is a history of enclosures, and this raises some important questions: 'Who is doing the enclosing, who owns the land, and who is being kept out?' The creation of Britain's finest gardens dates back to the energetic seizing of common land by aristocrats. Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia was written in a park that was created by enclosing a village and chucking out the tenants. Between 1760 and 1867 seven million acres were hedged with thousands of miles of hawthorn, as well as a prickly web of defensive legal measures.

The strategy worked so well at home that Britons were swift to do the same thing overseas. International borders were not nearly so important as herbaceous ones. When the Virginia Company promised 50 acres of rich forest - magnolias the size of oaks] - to anyone willing to pay the transatlantic fare, Bertram Hobert stumped up for 13 trips and acquired 650 acres. All he had to do then was uproot the people who lived there.

Part of Hoyles's plan is to offer us a handy anthology of relevant cuttings. Each page blooms with sprigs of poetry and prose. Cobbett, Cowper, Marx, Marvell, Milton, Morris, Ruskin, Voltaire . . . the book is, apart from anything else, a nursery of pastoral quotations.

But this fidgety approach also means that the story promised in the title emerges only as a rough outline. First, there were the enclosed royal parks meant for hunting ('lawn' originally meant deer park). Then came country- house estates, dependent on the back- breaking hard work of low-paid labourers. Hardly any of the 'great' gardeners did much manual work: Capability Brown did not often take a scythe to the vast green expanses he rolled over the fake slopes of Blenheim and Stowe.

Finally, Hoyles narrates the growth of suburban gardens and the development of public parks. These were devised - with those hideous Victorian displays of bright bedding plants done up like heraldic devices - to give the proletariat a breath of morally improving fresh air, and to keep them out of the ale house.

The best section of the book describes the extraordinary role played by Kew Gardens, which became, more or less, the R&D lab of British Empire. Plants were pilfered from all over the world, nurtured in the hothouses beside the Thames, and used to reshape the world economy. In 1876 70,000 rubber seeds were smuggled out of Brazil, nurtured in Kew and forwarded to Ceylon and Singapore. Brazil, which at that time had 98 per cent of the world rubber trade, now has 5 per cent. Three quarters of the rubber plantations in South-east Asia belong to a family tree that goes back to 22 seedlings from Surrey.

Tea was plucked from China, and cinchona (which yielded quinine, the remedy for malaria) was filched from Peru and brought by ship to Liverpool. Again, the Kew greenhouses did the trick, and soon both plants had been successfully established in India. The abundant supply of quinine allowed Britain to reduce the death rate of its troops in Africa from 50 per cent at the beginning of the 19th century, to 7 per cent by the end.

This sort of global agribusiness is a long way from the traditional image of the British cottage garden, but without overwatering the links Hoyles makes both seem part of the same botanical story, which is an elaborate mixture of foreign influences. Horticulture was far more highly developed in the Arab and Aztec world than it was in Europe. Yet it is hard to recall anyone mentioning, during the blitz over Iraq last year, that the world's first institute of botanical research was formed in ninth-century Baghdad - at about the time Alfred was burning the cakes in Wessex.

Vast numbers of popular and seemingly domestic blossoms have come to us from the other side of the world: roses from the Middle East (like the Damask, from Damascus), rhododendrons from the Himalayas, camellias from China and Japan, marigolds from South America, and so on. Even today, plenty of our carnations and chrysanthemums have been flown in from Colombia, where 40,000 women suffer from asthma, bronchitis and cancer caused by pesticides.

In all of these areas, Hoyles has done some impressive cultural spadework. He has picked over the compost heap and given us a view of where the flowers come from. Churchill once said that the British had two abiding passions: war and gardening. Perhaps there's a connection. It's obvious that doomed men in the deadly mud of Flanders should dream of peonies and daffodils, but also true that there are more things buried in our gardens than meet the iris. I'll tell you now of some that I know . . .

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song  

Ukip Calypso by Mike Read? The horror! The horror!

Patrick Strudwick
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past