Today in botanical history, we celebrate a German-American botanist who reached out to Queen Charlotte, an American poet who found inspiration in nature and the father of ecology.
We'll hear an excerpt from The Sugar Queen - a great fiction book.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book that's part of a wonderfully informative series from the RHS.
And then we'll wrap things up with a little story about the glory of Kansas gardens in November.
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November 3, 1766
On this day, a young botanist named William Young returned to America after receiving the title of the Queen's botanist.
William Young was born in Germany, and he immigrated to the United States when he was just a little boy at the age of two.
His family settled in Philadelphia and eventually became neighbors to one of America's first botanists, John Bartram.
Growing up, William spent a great deal of his childhood exploring Bartram's gardens. Bertram even encouraged him to pursue botany, and he took him along on some collecting trips.
By all accounts, William was a smart and self-directed young man. When he was in his early twenties, he decided that he wanted to get the attention of the brand new Queen of England, Queen Charlotte.
Charlotte was the bride of George III, and William put together a little parcel for her - a little gift of seeds - along with a letter (no doubt congratulating her on her wedding and introducing himself as an American botanist.)
Charmed by William's thoughtful gift, Charlotte decided to summon William to England. She wanted him to come to England to study botany for a year and then return to America to collect plants on behalf of the royal family. And so that's exactly what William Young ended up doing.
When he left America, he had no formal training in botany. He was, however, full of potential and eager to learn. This opportunity in England was an extraordinary chance for William to learn the science of botany from the worldwide center for botanical research: England.
At the same time, this series of events caused a bit of jealousy and a shock in the American botanical community. John Bartram himself was an old man by the time this happened for William, and he made comments along the lines of, "Hey, I've been in America, collecting and cultivating for decades, and I've never received an offer like this."
And so many of the American botanists really couldn't believe William's good fortune. His trip was essentially like winning a botanist lottery with the promise not only of training but steady work and support from a generous, well-funded patron.
Despite Charlotte's hopes for William, his peers were dubious of William's ability to measure up to the task. While William was passionate about botany, he hadn't demonstrated any particular acumen or success that should have garnered the kind of opportunity that had come his way. The bottom line was, they didn't think William had it in him.
Yet, William's critics were not entirely fair. After all, William had been bold enough to send that package of seeds to the new Queen. And he was smart enough to leverage his German heritage when he wrote to her. Charlotte had German heritage as well, and when she first came to England, she surrounded herself with other Germans who spoke her language and shared her history, customs, and culture. Summoning William to England was just another example of Queen Charlotte making herself feel more at home away from home.
When William arrived in England, he was in his early twenties. He had a huge learning curve to conquer when it came to his new station in life. He had no idea what it was like to be in front of royalty or how to behave in Royal circles.
Of course, William didn't have a ton of life experience as a young person in his twenties. So, he performed exactly as one might imagine he would: dazzled by the luxury and lifestyle, he quickly began racking up bills. With each passing month, he found himself deeper in debt until he ended up arrested and in jail for the large debts that he owed.
Incredibly, it was the Queen who bailed him out - but not before sending him home to Philadelphia with the hopes that he could still perform as a plant collector in America.
And so it was on this day. November 3 in 1766, that William returned to America with his new title as botanist to the King and Queen. Instead of being humbled by his financial misdeeds, William returned proud and haughty. He strutted about under the auspices of his Royal appointment, but his behavior didn't endear him to his American peers.
They heard the rumors about how William had acted when he was in England and they were turned off by his peacocking and attire. In a letter to the botanist Peter Collinson, John Bartram wrote,
“I am surprised that Young is come back so soon. He cuts the greatest figure in town and struts along the streets whistling, with his sword and gold lace.”
And then Bartram confided that William had visited his garden three times, feigning respect and bragging about his yearly pay from the Royal family, which amounted to 300 pounds sterling.
Now William was no fool, and it's clear that he craved acceptance from his peers. At the same time, he was probably aware of how some of his peers truly felt about him. But he did not dwell on this conundrum and focused on his work. He still had collecting to do for the King and Queen, and he needed to mend fences on that front if he ever hoped to make it as a botanist. And so, he set off for the Carolinas, where he spent an entire year collecting plants. Then, he carefully and quite expertly packaged up all of the plants that he had found and traveled back to London - personally bringing all of these plants to the King and Queen and hoping to get back in their good graces.
Although William arrived in England only to be refused to be seen by the King and Queen, he still managed to make his trip a resounding success. By shepherding rare, live plants in wonderful condition from the Carolinas to England, he impressed English collectors.
And there was one plant in particular that really helped to repair and save William's reputation, and that was the Venus Fly Trap. William brought many live specimens of the Venus flytrap to England, and as one might imagine, the plant caused a sensation.
Without the flytrap, there was probably little that William could say to restore his reputation. So in this sense, his plants, especially the Venus flytrap, did the mending and the PR work for him. What William did was essentially no different than an apologetic spouse who brings their partner flowers after a fight. That's exactly what William did on this trip when he returned and presented the Venus flytrap to England.
One other fact about this trip is that William proved himself to be an expert plant packer. Clearly, one of the biggest challenges for early botanists was keeping specimens alive - that was really hard to do. Dead specimens didn't garner anywhere near the attention or pay of living plants. William's skill in this area underscores just how intelligent and thoughtful William could be. A 1771 letter to Humphrey Marshall detailed William's packing technic:
William Young sends his plants very safely by wrapping them in moss and packing them pretty close [together] in a box. He ties the moss in a ball around the roots with a piece of packthread...It's very surprising how well they keep in this manner.
William's method differs little from the way plants are packaged and sent by mail today.
William ends up devoting his life to botany. He returned to American and collected plants in the Carolinas, returning to England when he had a full shipment. William mastered his collecting strategy over his lifetime - returning again and again to the Carolinas, scouring the wilderness for rare plants like the Venus flytrap that had brought him so much success.
Along the way, William continued to struggle financially as he paid his debts. But by the end of his life, William was able to get his affairs in order, and he actually died a fairly wealthy man. Tragically, he died young at the age of 43.
In December of 1784, William decided to set out once again for the Carolinas. Unbeknownst to him, he was going on what would become his final collecting trip. He never did reach the Carolinas. He only made it as far as Maryland, where he collected along a waterway known as Gunpowder Falls, where he fell into the river and died after being swept away by the current. His body was found about seven weeks later.
November 3, 1794
Birth of William Cullen Bryant, American poet.
William drew inspiration from the natural world. He once wrote a lovely verse about roses:
Loveliest of lovely things are they,
On earth, that soonest pass away.
The rose that lives its little hour
Is prized beyond the sculptured flower.
William also wrote about the month of November in a little poem called A Winter Piece.
The bleak November winds, and smote the woods,
And the brown fields were herbless, and the shades,
That met above the merry rivulet,
Were spoil'd, I sought, I loved them still,—they seem'd
Like old companions in adversity.
November 3, 1841
Birth of Eugenius Warming, Danish botanist.
Eugenius was one of the founders of modern plant ecology. He's credited with writing the first ecology textbook with his book, Oecology of Plants: An Introduction to the Study of Plant Communities (1895).
She went to the window. A fine sheen of sugary frost covered everything in sight, and white smoke rose from chimneys in the valley below the resort town. The window opened to a rush of sharp early November air that would have the town in a flurry of activity, anticipating the tourists the colder weather always brought to the high mountains of North Carolina.
She stuck her head out and took a deep breath. If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind, they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
― Sarah Addison Allen, The Sugar Queen
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2017, and the subtitle is Plant Families Explored & Explained.
Anything that has genealogy and gardening in the title is a book that I'm interested in.
Before I get into this particular review, I should mention that this book is part of one of my favorite garden series by the RHS. So in this series is the book Latin for gardeners as well as botany for gardeners.
And now this book Genealogy for Gardeners is designed to help you explore and understand plant families - and plant family trees, which to me is even more exciting.
Now you may be wondering why. Well, I think the authors do a great job of explaining that in the preface to their book. They write,
While most of us think of plants, that’s belonging to one big happy family. The fact is they don't. There are hundreds of different plant families, which botanists have cleverly grouped together using what they know of family histories and genealogy and now, of course, DNA to bring some sense and order to more than a quarter of a million different plant species.
But why should this matter to you as a gardener, aside from just wanting to become more knowledgeable about plant families?
Well, here's the explanation from the authors:
Plant families are all around us. Whatever the time of year, go for a walk and look for wild or garden plants. You'll be surprised at how many plant families are represented within a small radius of your home. Even in your own garden, there will be a fantastic genealogy of plants.
Thanks largely to the efforts of plant collectors and horticulturists who brought the plants into cultivation from the four corners of the world.
When it comes to being a good gardener making connections is what it's all about. And if you are faced with a strongly acidic soil, and know that rhododendrons will grow, then you can broaden your planting ideas to include other plants in the same family, such as Heather. Mountain Laurel, leather leaf, blueberries, and others. If you are designing with plants, you may know that all plants and a particular family, and share certain features, which enables you to mix displays effectively and extend your range.
Now that is a very compelling reason to get to know your plant families.
One of the things that I love about this particular series of books is that the illustrations are incredible. The editors have pulled images of botanical art that truly are the best example of some of these plants. The beauty of these books, including the cover, just is not rivaled.
In fact, the minute I spot these books, they just have a look and a feel to them - I know immediately that it's part of this series from the RHS. These books are in my office on a special little bookshelf of books that I reference all the time, and this little series from the RHS is such a gem. This particular book about plant family, garden, genealogy - Basically the genealogy of plants- is one that I go back to again and again, and again. So this is a fantastic book.
As I mentioned, the illustrations are great. It is very clearly laid out.
They've really done the heavy lifting when it comes to simplifying this material, making it very understandable and accessible. And yet, they do not dumb it down. That's not what this book is about.
If you want a book on this topic that is exceptionally clear And is a delight to read, then this is the book that you've been waiting for.
So, whether you're a landscape designer, a horticulture student, or just an amateur gardener, Genealogy for Gardeners will help you better understand and utilize plant families in your garden.
This book is 224 pages of plant families and plant family trees - and it's part of one of the top garden book series on the market today.
Today's Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
November 3, 1903
On this day, The Cherokee Sentinel (Cherokee, Kansas) published this heartwarming blurb about the gardens in the Heartland of America. Here's what they wrote:
It's November, and gardens and flowers are as green and beautiful as in summer. Verily, Kansas is an American Italy and the garden spot of the world.
Well, I don't know how true that was, and I question whether that was written for the benefit of enticing immigrants to come to Kansas.
Nevertheless, I found it very sweet, and I thought it was a great way to end the show today.
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