Inspiration, happy accidents, and outright obsessions have all had their way with gardens—but nothing has done more to shape the modern garden than plants themselves. In a story that ranges from continent to continent and spans four centuries, botanist and gardener David Stuart reveals how the garden as we know it was created not by garden designers but by ordinary gardeners responding to exotic and novel plants that suggested new spaces, places, and means of display. The history begins with two earth-changing events—the establishment of colonies in the Americas and the spread of the Turkish empire. Both brought the first astonishing wave of flowering exotics to gardens across Europe. Stuart relates how, over the following centuries, the influx of new plants inspired a frenzy of hybridization (at first by a new breed of gardener, the “florist,” later by nurserymen), which in turn led to such features as the familiar herbaceous border, flower bed, and rose garden, as well as the now little-known rockery, shrubbery, and “wilderness.”
From the Dutch tulip mania, the eighteenth-century European passion for “American gardens,” and on to the rhododendron craze of the nineteenth century, Stuart’s book traces the shape of the modern garden as it changed with the fashion, returning at last to classic, cottage garden varieties long neglected in favor of the foreign and new. In conclusion, Stuart looks at plant prospecting today—now that the collecting of plants may prove essential to protecting botanical diversity and preserving plant species rapidly disappearing from the wild.