Monday, 8 October 2012

The Romance of Gardening

This is a rare review by H.E. Bates from 1935, of a gardening book written by F. Kingdon Ward. A lesson to us all on how you should write a review.

"We are all collectors. To acquire something, to keep it, tend it, improve it, gloat over it and exhibit it to our friends - these are among the strongest and commonest of human characteristics. To ourselves, whatever others may think, it is very natural that we should collect old matchboxes, fossils, railway tickets, Swiss china, cigarette cards, old masters, historic collar-studs or rare books. It is not only natural but amusing. Nevertheless we do not intend or expect that our collections of cosmopolitan matchboxes shall benifit mankind. The acquisition of the collar-studs of Charles I or Charlie Peace may be highly interesting, but we cannot hope that it will contribute a single atom to the happiness or development of human society.
There are collectors, however, to whom such remarks do not apply. And Mr. Kingdon Ward is one. For over twelve years he has collected, from the mountains and remoter places of China, Tibet, Assam, Burma, and Indo-China, species of flowering trees and plants not known to cultivation. He has not only collected plants, but has introduced them to the gardeners of the world. He is most famous as the introducer - though not the discoverer - of Meconopsis Baileyi, the blue Tibetan poppy which yearly dazzles the uninitiated at Chelsea; and but for him we migh never have seen Gentiana sino-ornata, the gentian that blooms in November. In short, since flowers, unlike matchboxes, are living things, and moreover things of beauty on which the devotion of the civilised world is being more and more concentrated, Mr. Kindon Ward has every reason to be called a benefactor of mankind.
The Romance of Gardening, however, is not a history of plant collecting. Neither is it a contribution to that branch of gardening literature in which 'sweet peas are now coming along nicely in cold frames'. It is in fact neither historic or instructional. It is not even, from the popular point of view, very romantic. But for a book written by an expert loaded with highly specialized knowledge it is extraordinarily light, colloquial and fascinating. It is packed with experiences and facts about plant life which will deal unpleasant blows at those who not only imagine English gardens are the finest in the world but who cherish also an insular and patriotic notion that they are filled exclusively with dear old English plants. The total British flora is about 2000 species of flowering - not necessarily garden - plants. Whereas English gardiners cultivate at least 12,000 species. Of the 200,000 species of flowering plants known in the world today, it is estimated that 60,000 alone are found in South America. We are, indeed, not a nation of shopkeepers, but a nation of flower importers.
The spirit of acquisitive curiosity which has made us the greates explorers in the world has also made us the most catholic gardeners in the world. We think nothing of growing, side by side, flowers from Tibet, Mexico, Japan, America, New Zealand, China and the Russian steppes - and then of regarding them as English into the bargain. On these and other horticultural matters Mr. Kingdon Ward sets us right. He is not only well in formed and interesting, but highly provocative and dogmatic. There are points on which I would wish violently to disagree with him. The place is not here. I can only rejoice in his achievements and vitality and share cordially in his love of flowers, his passion for new species and the romance to which his book is dedicated.