French Gardening history

Jim McKenney
Wed, 25 Jan 2012 15:53:17 PST
Michelle wrote:"It's  a shame that the horticultural trade does not include dates on theirlabels, or a tiny amount of basic history relating to a plant. Surely that
might make us, the consumers, see them in another light sometimes. It is
lamentable that such collective knowledge can be lost by "laisser faire""

I'm always amazed about how incurious so many gardeners are. When I meet a new gardening friend, there are two things in particular I look for.  You might be surprised to learn that a plenteous collection of plants is not one of them.  The two things I look for are cold frames and a good library.  While I'm checking out the cold frames, I'm also listening to see if the library has had any influence. The "collective knowledge" whose apparent loss Michelle deplores is not lost at all - it's still there in the old books. It's always surprising to me how poorly read most persons in the horticultural community are - and those with undergraduate degrees in horticulture are no exception. Until recently there was an understandable excuse for this: the older literature was scattered and not easily accessible.  One of the recent developments that I'm really glad to see is that some early twentieth century books and periodicals have been scanned and made
 available on line. If that continues, then we should experience a huge surge in horticultural knowledge. 

Michelle is right though: as a culture we have lost this knowledge, if we ever had it. It seems to be a rare gardener who reads anything but catalogs these days.  Most of the gardens I see are what I think of as "farmer gardens" or "suburban sprawl gardens" or "hoarder gardens".  To me it's obvious that our primary gardening accomplishment, the thing we are best at, is acquisition. I'm a stubborn old-timer in this regard: to me, a pile of plants does not a garden make. And a pile of plants presided over by someone who does not know the names of those plants might as well be a pricey compost heap in my opinion. The worst ones are the ones who don't know the names but sure can quote the catalog prices! 

Michelle also mentioned dates. My own appreciation of gardening has been hugely enhanced by a fair grasp of when and how things happened. But a preoccupation with dates can also lead to a sort of fanaticism, reminiscent of those people who work quotations from Shakespeare or the Bible into everyday conversation. Our knowledge of the dates of introduction of many plants is comically inadequate. Self styled garden historians  often use dates of introduction based on the appearance of a plant in one of the famous old herbals or other books. If you see the dates 1597, 1601 or 1629, be suspicious: those are the dates respectively of Gerard's Herball, Clusius' Historia and Parkinson's Paradisus. Those citations might in fact be the first in the printed literature, but in most cases the plants themselves almost certainly existed long before that. Another pitfall with dates is that Americans, joined at the hip as we were with England for so long, often take the
 dates of introduction to England as the dates of introduction to America. With many plants it can be difficult to determine if the date cited is based on the date of commercial launch or the date the seed which produced the plant germinated (to cite two extremes, extremes which in the old days might be a decade apart). 

One of the big problems with dates is that it can be extremely difficult to determine the identity of old plants. Of course you can recognize the genus, and in unhybridized plants perhaps the species, but the more granularity you expect in the identification, the more likely you are to be off the mark. 

So dates are interesting, but I think they often need to be taken with a grain of salt, especially the old ones.  

I like to collect plants introduced in my year of birth, something easy to do with well documented plants such as roses and tulips. But I don't take those dates too seriously. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin /<> 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society

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