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Head Gardener Advances

June 29, 2009

The head gardener has achieved far more than just a pretty garden. In fact, through advances in plant physiology, pathology and breeding, head gardeners have left an indelible stamp on today’s horticultural science. It’s time to celebrate the scientific contributions of these often overlooked individuals, says Toby Musgrave, a leading authority on garden history and the author of The Head Gardeners (Aurum Press Ltd, 2009). Musgrave will be championing the head gardener in a talk at the annual meeting of the British Society for the History of Science.

It was in Victorian and Edwardian Britain that the head gardeners’ star reached its zenith. But these polymath servants, a creation of their time and masters of an array of interdisciplinary sciences and arts, did more than create and maintain vast and diverse gardens. “They also rapidly and comprehensively advanced horticulture,” says Musgrave. “Today, however, these invisible artisans and their diverse, influential works are largely overlooked.”

Musgrave will shine light on these forgotten heroes at the BSHS’ annual meeting in Leicester, UK on 3 July. He will reveal how Sir Joseph Paxton’s glasshouse designs turned the wealthy classes onto conservatories, which in turn stimulated plant hunting expeditions to jungles all over the world to collect new hothouse plants such as orchids.

Head gardeners like John Caie, John Gibson and John Fleming rose to the challenge of presenting tender summer annuals in bedding displays, a form of planting that came to epitomise the Victorian garden and which remains fashionable today.

And, says Musgrave, head gardeners are also responsible for breeding many of our favourite garden plants and edible crops. For example, Anthony Parsons’ passion was “the improvement of various florists’ flowers” and his pioneering work his work on dahlias, pansies, verbenas, petunias, hollyhocks and achimenes resulted in dozens of new hybrids, the forefathers of many we grow today.

“The head gardeners’ advances and discoveries made in the sciences of horticulture, botany, plant physiology plant pathology, and plant breeding, as well as engineering and architecture shaped the emergence of modern horticultural science and popular gardening,” concludes Musgrave. “Understanding the head gardeners’ role in developing new garden styles is central to understanding the conditions of their making, the evolution of the garden art form, and the continued influence these forgotten heroes exert on garden styles today.”

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