This coming Sunday, February 28th, I shall give a speech at 11:30 A.M. at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Since this year’s theme is “Passport To The World”, we decided to focus on plant collecting. My talk is about one hour long, including a question and answer session. I shall speak off these “talking points”, so there will be much more than what you read here.
On Thursday, March 4th, at 10:30 A.M., Simon Crawford, our European Representative, will speak on new and unusual vegetables.
I hope you can make it!
PLANT COLLECTING PAST AND FUTURE
What is “plant collecting”?
- First — “collecting”
Roots in hoarding — ancient custom of hedging against shortages resulting from war, famine, disease, cold, drought, flood, etc. Resonance in history, such as story of Noah’s Ark.
After scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolutions, Political Revolutions, Transportation/exploration Revolutions, “Collecting” changed. In a general way, collecting became a form of “manifesting” things that were discovered in space and over time. Specifically new things deriving, literally, from an expanded universe. The stage was set by the following factors:
- — Prosperity reduced causes for shortages and thus, collecting-as-hoarding
- — Collecting became a strategy of science; as science exploded, so did collecting, reaching the zenith in the Victorian Era, especially in England. Nevertheless, the French and Germans were also prodigious collectors
- —What we know to be “modern” collecting is the “wide amassing of a genus”, for example, or any other “type” of object
- —Cross cultural fertilization (masks in art, for example)
- —Acquiring “man-made” things becomes part of an upper class “hobby tradition”
Later, collecting became highly sophisticated, and a sort of “secondary”, home-based level of collecting appeared. It is best to call it “cataloguing” as well as “collecting”.
“Completist collectors”—those who collect for modern institutions, such as museums
For individuals such as “collectors” of all sorts today
art, books, antiques, guns—these are all “completist” oriented. However, many people buy or “collect” a few objects because of their association, memory or as a status symbol.
“The Original Collectors”
Royalty, secular and religious, but in our age mainly secular. They have a sameness—in that they are large, and eventually established as institutions. They collect based on:
- Cultural pride
- National pride
- Individual enthusiasm
- Aesthetic interest
- Historical interest
—Based upon technology
- The individual, and in particular, the middle class, or in our case
- average citizen with discretionary income, began to take up “collecting”.
- Family activity
- Individual hobby — great age of factory multiples = great age of collecting
- Stamps, coins — virtually the quintessential “common
- mans’” completist collecting hobby
- Baseball cards — now children enter the game
- Lladro figurines
- Popularization and “vulgarization” i.e., camp and kitsch — collections of things that were not meant to be collected, i.e., junk.
Then, in the late-modern era, as travel became quicker, easier as well as less expensive, our contemporary explorer and collector took culture shape.
Exploratory “collecting” — more scientific and less completist, though still having many completist-oriented collectors. Let’s focus on the natural world now, since it will lead us to the world of plants and plant collecting.
The natural world is essentially exploratory or discovery-oriented, because of its natural origin. The earth is its scope. Nature is not a multiples factory, although many view it that way. One could say that the earth produces gems, but it is different, in an important way, as follows:
- Nature is an Open System
- Technology is a Closed System
- This makes nature-oriented collecting inherently more fascinating as well as more challenging in terms of the manner of going about it.
- Butterflies, insects, bird-watching (actually a type of collecting), tropical fish, and most of all, plant collecting.
- The Ultimate Collector’s Quest — Where does “plant collecting” rank in human history?
- Holy Grail
- Sunken Treasure
- El Dorado “city of gold” precious minerals
- Spices and Herbs, i.e., new plants
- Fountain of Youth
These are the top 5, and we made it. What is interesting is what is not on the list: slaves (no one had to look for them), wood, metals, secret knowledge, God—these were among all things the “known world” already had, or at least had within reach. So, it is very interesting to consider what they searched for; to gain an insight into what they did not have, but thought they could find, and also wanted so desperately that they were willing to sacrifice their lives to get it.
- “Plant Collecting”, per se.
In order to understand plant collecting, let’s spend a moment on plants. We should recall that plants—in the form of seeds, cuttings, roots and herbs, mainly for spices, which is just another word for flavorings—are the only living organism to make the “top 5″ list of most-sought-after things in the modern world. So, therefore, plants occupy a unique place in civilization: they are a confusion of both discovery or exploration on the one hand, and collection, classification and maintenance on the other. No other living thing has this quality. Why? Because, once collected, they have to be kept alive.
Plants change in the natural environment profoundly over time. We do not always notice, either because we are absent, or because the changes are too small for the naked eye. Therefore, the plants we collect must be closely examined upon arrival, so to speak, as well as periodically over generations of their lives. Plants in their new environments undergo even greater changes. This is the essence of evolution.
Hence, the need for the garden. A garden is a protected place for plants. It differs from an agricultural field almost as much as it differs from the wild. This is why gardens are so small—they are homes for typically small things. For the scientist, collector and plant lover, gardens are equally ideal. Plants need to be tended, regenerated and protected in order to yield knowledge for the scientist, status for the collector and pleasure for the amateur. Often all three are the same person. This was actually the case with Luther Burbank, Atlee Burpee, Norman Borlaug, Claude Hope, Charles Ricks and Wilson Popenoe, to name just a few of the great plantsmen of the past 100 years.
Now, let us focus on the latter—the plant lover, including all of us in this auditorium today. What makes us love plants so much that we collect them?
Good question! There are several answers:
- The appearance of the plants in our yard or around our home. This may seem too obvious, but let’s look more closely at the last word, “home”.
- It was Gertrude Jekyll, the architect, who with Edward Lutyens, made the modern breakthrough in home gardening. She put forth the notion that the house and the garden should never again be considered separately, but as one and the same. Before Jekyll and Lutyens a home or estate or cottage was divided into two distinct and utterly separate halves. It was gospel, it was even imperative (and in many places still is) that the house be considered apart from the garden, or grounds, and the garden be considered independently of the house. Jekyll changed all that. She spent over a half century career promoting the profoundly simple yet revolutionary idea that they must be considered as the same, as a blended whole. She and Lutyens said they not only complement each other, but actually combine and become a “third” or transcendent entity: the home formally redefined.
- —Jekyll’s impact on plant collecting
- She introduced a new level of scrutiny, a new attention to how plants conformed to the new “look” of the new “whole”. Thus, she experimented, as all great innovators do. She introduced new plants that had unusual forms, shapes, sizes, and—most importantly—colors, that would blend with the new types of cottages and domestic buildings that Lutyens was designing.
- —We may call it “the past”, but it is still “the future”. Contrasted against the architecture of the late 20th century, the homes of these two innovators look futuristic. They emphasize human proportions, they limit rather than impose the size of the houses, and encompass the entire yard into the garden—the whole property is a garden, with a house or cottage at its center. This is actually the new movement in early 21st century garden design. Look at Julie Messervy and Sarah Susanka’s work. It is exactly the same idea as Jekyll and Lutyens.
- A few rules:
- Remember, first, that a “new” plant is one that you have not grown before. It is remarkable how the same plants can change appearance and “feeling” from garden to garden.
- If you decide to collect vegetables, be aware that they have challenges distinct from perennials and shrubs, and vice versa. Yet, annual vegetables, as well as flowers, are a terrific way to begin collecting plants. They’re easy, fast and amusing for the beginner. Some people never quit or proceed to shrubs and trees. This underscores the truth that collecting is personal, and always should be. If it doesn’t give you pleasure and soul satisfaction, it will simply be hard work. So, relax and collect what you know in your heart that you like.
- Follow the rules. First, know them. The Interior Department has different rules for plant collecting in the various states. Follow them strictly. Otherwise, you’re a renegade collector, and that is an unnecessary guilt trip.
- Collect for your group of zones or micro-climate. It is fun to “push the envelope” and experiment to see if you can grow a mountain banana plant in a zone 5. But it is wasteful to push too hard, just as it is so immensely satisfying to discover a new plant that is unexpectedly ideal for you, your home, and your climate. A happy plant is like a happy child. It is a precious miracle to behold.
- Experiment not just with “collecting”, but also with “shaping” or forming your collection. I like Pelargoniums. There is no way to do it but to grow them in rows and blocks. That is my style, but others have their own styles. It is fun and interesting to continue to challenge yourself.
Thank you. Any questions?