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A Short History of Flowers by Advolly Richmond with illustrations by Sarah Jane Humphrey

Garden and social historian Advolly Richmond of BBC’s Gardener’s World (UK TV show) unravels the surprising histories of 60 flowers that shape our gardens in 'A Short History of Flowers: The stories that make our gardens', illustrated by Sarah Jane Humphrey. Published March 2024 by Frances Lincoln, Quarto Group.


Reviewed by Emma van Klaveren, Botanical Illustrator and ABA Committee and Education Team Leader



 

Have you ever wondered where your favourite flowers came from or what inspired their names? Or why some go in and out of fashion?


“Tales of exploration, everlasting love and bravery bring these beautiful flowers to life. Advolly has dug down to uncover the royalty, scholars, pioneers and a smuggler or two that have all played a part in discovering and cultivating some of our favourite species. These plants have played pivotal roles in our societies, from boom to bust economies, promises of riches and making fashion statements. These unassuming blooms hold treasure troves of stories.” (Quarto Publishing)


The book is divided into sixty short chapters, one per plant, ordered alphabetically by their Latin names. Advolly has also included ten mini bios of historical figures, horticulturists, naturalists, apothecaries and botanists.

'Bougainvillea spectabilis'
'Bougainvillea spectabilis' (image courtesy of publisher)

One plant history that stopped me in my tracks was that of the Bougainvillea spectabilis. Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) a ‘herb woman’ accompanied her partner, Frenchman Philibert Commercon (1727-1773), on the first French expedition to circumnavigate the world under the command of Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811). He was to be the ship’s doctor and naturalist.


“…ignoring the prohibition of women aboard the King’s ships, Baret bound her breasts with strips of linen beneath loose-fitting men’s clothes and quietly skipped on board the Etoile minutes before it set sail.”


During a stop in Rio de Janeiro, the couple found an amazing magenta climber and named it "Buginvillæa".



Another plant of interest for me was lily of the valley, favourite flower of the late Queen Elizabeth II and Christian Dior. I have tried to grow this pretty flower but nothing has sprung yet! Did you know that in the sixteenth century in Italy, the flower was brewed with lavender and rosemary to make golden water used to treat “headaches, hysterical manifestations and faintings”. In France it has its own festival on the 1st of May, a tradition begun by King Charles IX in 1561. So many lovely anecdotes by the author in bitesize, digestible chunks.

'Convallaria majalis', lily of the valley
'Convallaria majalis', lily of the valley (image courtesy of publisher)

I first met lovely Sarah Jane Humphrey, the book’s illustrator, at the Saatchi Gallery in June 2023 when she won an RHS gold medal for six seaweed watercolours. The book’s extensive body of 60 full-colour plant illustrations (eleven with dissections) is very impressive and beckons the reader in with its colourful display. She also adds some black and white line drawings to further illustrate the stories around the plants.


I was excited to read this sumptious hardback of 208 pages. It brings together all my favourite things: botanical illustration, art, gardening and garden history. There were lots of ‘a-ha’ moments in the book and connecting of dots, learning whom plants are named after and why they fall in and out of vogue. I appreciated being introduced to historical characters, such as the African American floral folk artist Clementine Hunter and John Ystumllyn, “Britain’s first well-recorded Black person and horticulturist in North Wales”.


It is humbling to learn the history, the travels, the characters and even human deaths that have occurred for plants I may casually pick up at my local garden centre. I will never look at bougainvillea in the same way again!

 

Author Biographies


Advolly Richmond is a garden historian, TV and radio presenter and independent researcher in garden, landscape, plant and social history. A regular on BBC Gardeners’ World as well as on BBC Gardeners’ Question Time, she is also the presenter of The Garden History Podcast, an A-Z. She lectures on garden history from the 16th to 20th centuries and provides one-day courses for interested historians. She is passionate about promoting garden history in all its branches and likes to encourage people to value their garden and landscape heritage. She is a plant loving practical gardener with probably far too many roses and a collection of snowdrops, which kindly share their space with a range of pre-1900 heritage daffodils. She even has a variety of snowdrops named after her.

 

Sarah Jane Humphrey is an award-winning botanical artist who has won four RHS Medals, including the 2023 Gold medal for her collection of seaweed paintings. Much of her work is published in books and magazines and she has an array of high-profile clients, including the Royal College of Physicians, BrewDog, the Eden Project, the Duchy of Cornwall and Jo Malone.


To purchase this book: Published by Frances Lincoln, Quarto Group, ISBN:https://www.quarto.com/ourbooks/bookinfo.aspx?ean=9780711282223&bkey=115219002.

Also available internationally online and in bookshops.


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