The international author talks flowers and gardens with contributing Editor Susan S. Elliott
flower Contributing Editor Susan S. Elliott was fortunate to catch up with international author Andrea Wulf in March at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. She attended Wulf’s lecture, “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation,” and chatted with Wulf about her inspiration.
flower: You have such an interesting background, having been born in India, moving to Germany as a child, and then studying at London’s Royal College of Art. Tell us about that. ANDREA WULF: Being brought up in different countries and not being from any one place does make you feel somewhat rootless, and so because of that I have always been interested in international collaborations. I see myself much more as a European than as any one nationality. When I moved from Germany to England, I noticed that the English are crazy for gardening. Twenty-year-olds were asking me about my tomatoes. Learning about the history of gardens and gardening gave me another way to understand the English and their culture. At London’s Royal College of Art I studied design history, which is really the history of material culture, the history of everything that is man-made. I was always really interested in the 18th century. In the 18th century, you could not look at architecture and houses without looking at what was going on in the gardens and in the landscape. So I suppose the combination of the English being crazy about gardens and my training as a historian gave me a wider window from which to view gardens. Not coming from the perspective of a practical gardener, but rather from a historian’s point of view.
What inspires you to write about the history of gardening and botany? Because it grows, it is never finished, and is something in a state of flux—not static history. And I am really interested in the people behind the stories. Gardeners are a very particular breed of people. I believe that the happiest people I meet today are professional gardeners. The letters and primary sources from the 18th century just draw one into their world. In a way, gardening is the only discipline that bridges science and art because of the way plants grow and the ornamental nature of a garden, and I really like that combination of subject matter. Gardens can also make a political statement, and I find that interesting.
Do you have a garden at your home in London? I recently sold my house and have just bought a flat. It has a roof terrace, so I will have to learn about container gardening. I really don’t have a clue and must call myself definitely an amateur. When I give a lecture, I always hope no one asks me how to fertilize a rose garden, because truly I haven’t a clue.
We all have different gifts. And finally, Andrea, do you have some favorite gardens? Definitely Monticello and Painshill Park in England, which is full of American plants and shows how it would have looked in the mid-18th century full of American plants in the English landscape. Studley Royal in Yorkshire, England, is a really amazing, crazy garden with the ruin of an abbey. It is also spectacularly beautiful in winter, which is unusual for a garden. I also love woodlands, and I think the woodlands garden right here at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens is lovely. Another of my favorites is John Bartram’s garden in Philadelphia; it is not a big garden but one that is steeped in history, like an oasis. It is a forgotten place and a really important historical garden for America. I believe that John Bartram’s garden should be right up there after Monticello and Mount Vernon in terms of importance of American gardens.
It’s fascinating that we can learn so much about history simply by visiting a garden like John Bartram’s. Thank you so much, Andrea!