“Plants in Oxford’s Botanical Garden have flourished for centuries on academic manure”, Stephen Harris calmly announces as he details ways of acclimatising plants from foreign parts to the English climate. But you can banish the vision of ingenious eco-sewers running from college latrines to the garden’s compost heaps. It is a long time since “ye Universitie Scavenger” delivered 4000 loads of “mucke and dunge” during the making of the Oxford Physic Garden between 1621 and 1626. Under Jacob Bobart the younger, this was to become the first botanical garden in Britain, divided, as it still is today, into four great beds, originally intended to contain plants from the four known continents.
Harris is Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria, and he has a special interest in the evolutionary consequences of human-mediated plant movement. Bravely, he sets out on a sweep through plant history, peppering his pages with glorious illustrations from the treasures of botanical illustration held in Oxford libraries.
But be warned. Planting Paradise is not an account of how gardens have been arranged over four centuries as its subtitle suggests. It focuses on the discovery of exotic plants, some awesome curiosities, others economically priceless, and their transplantation and cultivation in botanical gardens worldwide; in short, horticultural imperialism. Harris begins in 1501 when the invention of printing led to books in which botanists reported their own observations rather than relying on classical authorities. He stops in 1900, when genetics began to dramatically change our understanding of plant diversity.
Harris covers an ambitious range of subjects, some fully, some cursorily. What most interests him are the plants that changed lives: rubber, tea, coffee, breadfruit (Captain Bligh’s cargo on the Bounty). But he takes time to consider plant connections with religion (the passionflower’s crown of thorns), the Doctrine of Signatures (walnuts resemble the human skull, and were “very profitable for the Brain”), magic and astrology.
Harris has a nice dry turn of phrase and a sharp eye for the telling quote. He is fond of tall stories, notably an Oxford myth: senecio squalidus, or Oxford ragwort, was spread from the Oxford Botanical Garden’s specimen by “prelate dispersal” (untidy old parsons taking a memento of Oxford with them to their new livings). This one I know is wrong. It was clinker chips under the national network of railway lines that provided the ideal habitat for a plant that originally thrived on Sicilian volcanic ash.