Monday, January 24, 2011

Why did gardens evolve from East to West?

 In all my garden research thus far, I have often wondered why there is so much information on gardens in Europe, the Middle East, China and Japan and seemingly less so or else very hard to find in other countries such as South America. These other civilizations survived for millennia and yet it is only with their colonization that there is the mention of gardens.  I realize that most likely all civilizations had gardens in some form or another, and if that is so, the information was never written or passed down or perhaps it was destroyed by its conquerors.
 However, for me, the question is still pertinent.  Why did the evolution of the garden form move east to west, from Asia to Europe? Why not north- south?

Map location

I think part of the answer may lie in a book written by Jared Diamond called, Guns, Germs, and Steel.  The idea behind this book is that from the earliest civilizations Eurasia had advantages over other countries on Earth. Simply put, that area had a large variety of plant and animal species that were easy to domesticate. As well, climatic conditions and the geographic locations were more favorable; hurricanes, tornados, flooding and drought were minimal and the many rivers and mountains provided natural protective barriers. 

Early civilizations were nomadic but as they developed towards an agrarian way of life they started to remain in one place to farm, raise animals and raise their families. They might settle in areas where berries, nuts, roots were naturally available and cultivate them in place. The Middle East in particular had the widest variety of plants and animals suitable for domestication. They grew two kinds of wheat, barley, flax for textiles, and kept sheep, cattle and goats for meat and their by-products such as dairy products, wool, leather and glue (from horns and bones).  They had animals such as horses and donkeys and camels that were used for transportation of their goods and therefore for trade.

When you look at north- south options it becomes clear that there were disadvantages that inhibited the success that was had in Eurasia. For example, if we look at Africa, desert areas are inhospitable with poor plant life, and a scarcity of water. Available animals such as the zebra and onagers (both part of the horse family) are not easy to domesticate, and the existence of lions, cheetahs and other deadly animals certainly made life interesting. In addition, useful plants that survived at one end of the continent usually could not survive the conditions if moved to another area, whether due to soil, weather or available sunlight.  Mr. Diamond also cites examples from the Americas and Australia which support this idea.

Chinese Cherry trees at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton

Seemingly, this advantage of living in the Eurasian zone led to advances in all areas compared with other civilizations. With better food options there is increased food production; a larger food base allows for larger societies; large societies support the division of labour, permit more ‘free’ time, and allow specialist areas to evolve such as gardens and gardeners. The East – West orientation of Eurasia allowed for an easy exchange of ideas. Trade routes over land were possible since the animals used were accustomed to the similar climates and change of seasons. The discovery and the exchange of plant materials fared the same regarding seasonal changes and climate, and a plant brought over from China or Turkey could grow just as successfully in its new home country.

In my own view, this East- West continuum eventually includes North America.  Evidence is the ease in which plants from the east grow in our homes and gardens, and the same is true of North American plants growing in Europe and the Far East (I do not know if the Middle East grows plants from North America). We also share many siblings in common such as the maple, cherry and dogwood, and yet without similar climate growing them here would not be possible.

I have also found it odd that this question of East-West garden evolution does not seem to be raised by other garden writers. It is always referred to as a fact and left at that. Perhaps it is simply that I have not read books that do discuss this, and so I call out to you to tell me wrong and refer me to books where I can find more of the information that I seek. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Josephine and her rose garden

Josephine Bonaparte  (1763-1814) was born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie. She was born to a wealthy white family that owned a sugar plantation in Martinique.  After hurricanes destroyed their estate the family looked to improve their finances and Josephine was married in 1779 to Alexandre de Beauharnais, himself from a wealthy aristocratic family. They had two children, a son  Eugene and a daughter Hortense.  In 1794 during the Reign of Terror both Alexandre and Josephine were arrested as aristocratic suspects. Alexandre was sentenced to death in July while Josephine remained imprisoned until her release 5 days later.
Then in 1796 she met Napoleon Bonaparte who would marry her on March 9, 1796. Their life together was difficult at times due to infidelities on both sides and differences of opinion regarding money. They never had any children together and this would be the reason for their divorce in 1809.
In 1799, while Napoleon was away fighting the Egyptian Campaign, Josephine bought Malmaison.  Malmaison was a small chateau in the country just outside of Paris. She paid 300,000 francs for the house on an allowance of 4,000 francs. The house was in very poor shape and needed renovations. Upon his return Napoleon was angry at Josephine for buying the house but in a short time they restored the house to a state of glory. From 1800-1802 Malmaison was the headquarters of the French government.


The estate of Malmaison comprised of 650 acres. Three hundred acres were landscaped by Berthault in the English Landscape fashion with rolling hills and dotted with pockets of woods. Pavilions were built  as well as grottoes. Vineyards and wheat fields filled other areas. Napoleon later added the woods of Butard increasing the estate to 4500 acres. 

Josephine  was interested in the plants and grew and collected anything that was considered rare. She brought in flora and fauna from around the world such as “kangaroos, emus, black swans, zebras, sheep, gazelles, ostriches, chamois, a seal, antelopes and llamas to name a few”. In 1800 she built a heated orangery to house some 300 pineapple plants and five years later she had a greenhouse built for all her exotic plants. It is said she cultivated 200 plants new to France. Josephine wrote: "I wish that Malmaison may soon become the source of riches for all [of France]"... 
Her favorite plant was the rose.  Between 1804 and 1814 Empress Josephine built her rose collection. It was to become the greatest and largest rose collection in the world, unsurpassed until the creation of Sangerhausen in Germany and L’Hay outside Paris, one century later. The collection was made up of about 250 species and varieties;  ”Josephine grew 167 Gallica roses, 27 Centifolias, 22 Chinas, 9 Damasks, 8 Albas, 4 Spinosissimas, 3 luteas, R. moschata, R. carolina, and R. setigera”. Being Empress had its benefits and rewards during time of war. The French Navy was enlisted to confiscate any plants or rose seeds from ships at sea and her large purchases from the British nursery Kennedy and Lee were permitted safe passage through the naval blockade.  

Josephine’s rose garden was important for other reasons besides being the largest collection. The acquisition of Slater’s Crimson China, Parson’s Pink and Hume’s Blush Tea Scented China (through Kennedy and Lee) was of great importance for France, for they were among the first new everblooming roses to come from China which would later produce everblooming rose cultivars. Her collection encouraged French hybridizers to work on new varieties. Josephine’s own head horticulturist Andre du Pont grew 200 new varieties, many of them new introductions. In addition, by 1830 some 2500 different rose varieties would be available to Parisian rose lovers, all influenced by Josephine’s zeal for rose collecting. It was also the first time that anyone had had thought to create a garden with only one type of plant. Pierre-Joseph Redoute was commissioned to illustrate each rose. Redoute, a botanist as well as artist, made 117 coloured drawings of roses from the garden of Malmaison which culminated in the book Les Roses, completed after the death of Josephine.

Slater’s Crimson China

After her death Malmaison was left to neglect. It seems that the roses were dug up after Josephine’s death- almost certainly stolen. Perhaps they were removed to the gardens of her gardeners or rivals – it is not known. Malmaison was eventually purchased and later sold to the French government who now exhibit it as a tourist destination. The rose garden however is still neglected according to some tourist reviews I have read which is a real shame. Regardless Josephine’s legacy remains, perhaps not the garden itself but the legacy of the growers and hybridizers who were influenced by her love of the rose.