Bringing the wonder back

30 November 2006

Blooming: the Tradescant cherry in Tradescant’s Orchard, a collection of early-17th-century watercolours, taken from the book reviewed here

Blooming: the Tradescant cherry in Tradescant’s Orchard, a collection of early-17th-century watercolours, taken from the book reviewed here

Strange Blooms: The curious lives and adventures of the John Tradescants
Jennifer Potter

Atlantic Books, £19.99 (1-84354-334-6)
Church Times Bookshop £18

Sarah Jackson on the lives of historic travelling gardeners

THE LIVES of the John Tradescants (father and son) spanned the peace and prosperity of Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and the turbulent years of civil war to the Restoration.

They were gardeners to the most influential men at court, and finally to Charles I himself, travelling across the world to introduce a wealth of plants for the newly developing “English garden”. They were also avid collectors of curiosities and rare objects from around the globe, establishing at Lambeth what was, in effect, Britain’s first public museum.

The elder Tradescant must have been an extraordinary man, rising from obscure beginnings to become gardener to the top echelons of society. He journeyed to Russia, France, and North Africa, twice hitching a ride aboard military ships (and probably seeing active service) in his quest for new plants. We want to know what he was like; about the horticultural methods that he employed with such success; how he got on with his illustrious employers — but, sadly, the available information is slim.

Jennifer Potter does an admirable job in building up a detailed picture of the world in which the two men moved. But we receive only tantalising glimpses of the elder Tradescant, with his complaints about travel and his painstaking instructions for the packing of plants.

His son comes into sharper focus. He was considered uncouth and disorganised, constantly compared (mostly unfavourably) with his father, but nevertheless be maintained the same high reputation as a gardener.

Yet, despite the shadowy presence of its subjects, this book is an absorbing evocation of an unprecedented age of exploration. It gives the reader a true insight into the wonder of the new worlds being revealed, both scientifically and geographically, and a reminder of the lengths to which dedicated men once went in search of the plants and knowledge that now form a part of our everyday lives.

Sarah Jackson is development officer for London’s Open Garden Squares Weekend.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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