We are surrounded by plants that are not native to the countries in which we live. Some are accidental arrivals but many are deliberate introductions. The first step in the introduction process is the collection of a plant sample. Stating that a handful of seeds or dried plant specimens was taken from their native habitat and transferred to a garden or herbarium oversimplifies intricate, complex networks of interpersonal relationships. Fascination with these networks and the long-term environmental, social, biological, economic or political consequences of plant movement and establishment unites researchers across diverse academic disciplines. Such networks involve negotiations among a variety of actors, with multifarious motivations, from across nationalities, societies, classes, ages and genders. Some nodes and links in collection and introduction networks have been studied to a greater or lesser extent, for example, plant collectors and their sponsors, academic and amateur botanists or wealthy horticulturalists and their head gardeners. Cultivating Commerce focuses on comparing and contrasting deliberate plant movements in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Britain and France, and introduces the importance of the commercial plant trader. Botanically, 1760 to 1815 is a period of great interest. Many new species of living and dried plants were arriving in Europe from imperial possessions. Horticulturalists were extending their use of technologies to grow exotic plants and the tasks of plant description and classification were being augmented by people asking questions about how plants functioned and changed. Some accounts from academic botanists, wealthy garden owners and plant collectors of the period, on both sides of the English Channel, are well known. Easterby-Smith gives forceful and informative voices to a group that frequently remains silent – the high-end plant traders – by drawing attention to the activities of commercial nursery gardeners James Lee and Lewis Kennedy (Britain) and Adélaïde d’Andrieux and Philippe-Victoire Lévêque (France). Focus on the high-end plant traders proves productive because of the quality of relatively unexplored records available. As Easterby-Smith acknowledges, there are many other players in the networks who remain mute; they have apparently left no permanent records of their contributions. Through six chapters, Easterby-Smith investigates the interplay among plant traders and collectors and their customers, and how together they contributed to botanical scholarship. High-end plant traders cultivating new plants were able to trade them, and the unique knowledge they possessed, with their curious customers through cultures of politeness and connoisseurship. Easterby-Smith provides fascinating insights into the roles of the amateur, particularly women, in the botany of the period, and their sometimes uneasy relationships with the ‘professional’. Practitioners of botany and horticulture in the period of investigation enjoyed considerable cooperation as the two disciplines were seen as different parts of a whole. Consequently, Easterby-Smith is able to present a fascinating account of the complex interactions among botanists interested in wild plants and the activities of florists and plant breeders, the geneticists of their day. Interplay among horticulturalists and amateurs and professional scientists of different botanical disciplines remains essential today as we try to understand the diversity of plants, and how they work and evolve. One might expect social upheaval to have had adverse consequences for the practice of many different sciences and communication among their practitioners. Histories of botany focus on the difficulties experienced by botanical explorers with the collection and movement of physical plant specimens during periods of political conflict– for example, Humboldt and Banks in late eighteenth-century Brazil. Easterby-Smith extends and enriches this narrative by considering how conflicts between 1760 and 1815 influenced the cultivation of botanical ideas and the maintenance of intellectual networks in Britain and France. This analysis highlights the importance of place for network evolution after a conflict. Easterby-Smith uses the richness of unexplored records of the living plant trade in late-Enlightenment and early nineteenth-century Britain and France to show the power of this evidence to reveal relationships between science and social context. Another source of evidence, often unexplored by historians of science, is the physical plant specimen collected and traded to form permanent scientific collections; herbaria often evolved in parallel with gardens. Easterby-Smith offers insight into the potential of such evidence in the account of the networks of communication cultivated by the Scottish gardener Thomas Blaikie. The many themes raised in Cultivating Commerce are not only of interest to researchers in the history of science. The intricacies of how plant collections (living or dead) originated, specimens were acquired and collections evolved are central to the continuing value of natural history collections for research, teaching and public engagement across disciplines. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the History of Collections – Oxford University Press
Published: May 28, 2018
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