March 16, 2011
Book Review - “The Romance of Gardening”
by Judith M. Taylor
Members [of the San Francisco Gardening Club] may wonder why I devote a lot of attention to books written many years ago. There are several reasons, but the principal one is that they are in the majority on our shelves. The library was created in the earliest days of the club, during the 1930s and 1940s. The honorary librarian at that time, Miss Willard, took her responsibilities very seriously. She purchased each important horticultural text as it appeared.
Frank Kingdon Ward's work is a case in point. He was one of the most remarkable of the great plant explorers of the inter-war generation. Ward was a driven man. He alienated his first wife by unintentional but nonetheless hurtful neglect. She did not wish to spend her life climbing icy cold mountains in an inhospitabable region and waited for him to go back to England at some reasonable intervals. This seldom happened. His second wife was herself a botanist and scientist. She accompanied him on his expeditions gamely.
Ward was the son of a professor of botany at Cambridge University and decided he wanted to collect plants in the Orient at the age of eighteen. No other career appealed to him or even occurred to him as an option. As soon as he had finished college he took the first post which allowed him to go to China.
Not only did he find and send back many of the most wonderful plants we now grow in our gardens but he also wrote extensively. There are seventeen magnificent books outlining his exhausting journeys and horticultural observations, of which the one above is a sample.
This book came at the end of his career. He dwelled lovingly on the contents of the English garden and on English wildflowers rather than solely on the exotics from the Orient. About 12000 species of foreign plants were cultivated in England in his day, among which which he had introduced the Tibetan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) and the Giant Cowslip Primula (P. florindae).
Ward expressed himself with some pungency, eg ” perpetual warfare against the Bolshevik menace of encroaching weeds.” Hybrid or “improved” flowers might look pretty in a flower show but in his opinion they were sick plants. He compares them negatively to the force-fed geese which provide foie gras. Ward's opinion of the extravagant phraseology of nurserynmen, if not downright falsehoods, was not much better. You always knew where you stood with him.
Ward never retired. He died at the age of seventy two as he was preparing to go to Vietnam for yet another expedition.
Ward, Frank Kingdon. The Romance of Gardening. London: Jonathan Cape, 1935.
Find this book in the Arboretum Library catalog here.
We're fortunate to be featuring book reviews by horticultural history author Judith M. Taylor. After a career in neurology she retired to northern California and now “practices history without a license.” She is currently working on her forth book and is the honorary librarian and book editor for the San Francisco Garden Club. Her website is Horthistoria.