A Surprisingly Sexy History of Plants and Their Propagator


Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729) emerges in this charming book as a gentle nurseryman whose benign labors helped to make gardening into a national obsession in Britain and to spread its charms around the world.

Fairchild's great contribution was to make the hybridization of plants a normal practice of nurserymen at a time when he, along with a few other plant men, was turning the enjoyment of plants from the exclusive province of wealthy landowners into practical gardening accessible to the average Londoner.

A most graceful and easy writer, Michael Leapman tells us in "The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild" that there is evidence the Chinese had been hybridizing roses and camellias for centuries. The technique, though, had not spread to Europe.

There growers knew only three ways of innovation: growing replicas of plants that had hybridized naturally, as farmers had been doing since Neolithic times; selection, by uprooting plants of a less-favored color before they could seed; and plant-hunting in distant corners of the world.

Not until the 17th century in Europe did botanists and nurserymen begin to understand that plants, like animals and humans, reproduced sexually. This growing realization was both liberating and unnerving. It freed nurserymen like Fairchild to develop plants suitable for the fast-growing gardening business.

But it was also unsettling, for Christian Europe still believed that God had created all creatures, once and for all. Change was unthinkable; humans could not dare to meddle with the Creator's grand design. And the introduction of sex into plant life caused no little prurient interest and ribald commentary. The similarity between the sexual parts of plants and mammals was at once fascinating and embarrassing.

Fairchild was doing his work even as Europe was moving by fits and starts into an understanding of the world as described by science. Even Sir Isaac Newton, president of the Royal Society, held that God and Jesus Christ had a place, Leapman writes, "in the arrangement of the world whose mysteries [Newton] was otherwise helping to explain so rationally."

It was to the Royal Society in its narrow building in Crane Court that, one evening in 1720, Fairchild, not a scientist but a nurseryman from the village of Hoxton (just north of London), presented his curious plant specimen.

It came to be known as "Fairchild's mule," after the hybrid animal that was also sterile. It crossed a sweet William and a carnation.

It is not known whether Fairchild discovered his mule or created it, but it was not long before he was creating new plant hybrids for his growing list of customers. In 1722, he published a book, "The City Gardener," which Leapman calls "the first gardening book not directed primarily at owners of country estates."

Fairchild was much concerned to discover what plants could live best in the thick coal smoke and dust that was then beginning to envelop London: "Therefore I have made it my business to consult what plants will live in even the worst air of chimneys," he wrote in "The City Gardener."

Leapman thinks that, were Fairchild living now, he would be "a perfect television gardener, swarthy and weather-blown, dispensing sound and authoritative advice to experts and novices alike, without talking down to any of them."

Among the fine color and black-and-white plates in this nicely made book is one of Fairchild, his ruddy face resting in one hand as he smiles pleasantly at the viewer.

Leapman writes candidly that no one knows how Fairchild resolved the apparent conflict between his Anglican faith of those days and his scientific endeavors.

It is known, though, that in his will he left 25 pounds to St. Leonard Church in Shoreditch for an annual sermon on "The Wonderful World of God in the Creation or on the Certainty of the Resurrection of the Dead Proved by the Certain Change of the Animal and Vegetable Parts of the Creation." Known as "the vegetable sermon," it is given annually to this day.

"The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild" is a beguiling treat for readers interested in gardens, Georgian London, the development of science, or just an enticing tale of human curiosity and ingenuity.

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