In his new book on 200 years of Australian gardens, Planting Dreams, (more on this next week) garden historian Richard Aitkens bemoans the current practice of valuing plants based on their performance as tools – good for hiding walls, or dividing spaces. I’m with Richard on this. We kill of the mystery, magic, history and culture of plants when we ascribe them a limited purpose, or reveal nothing about them but how to kill the insects that like to eat them.
In my desire to explore the culture part of horticulture I’m old school. Real old actually – at one with the 16th and early 17th century naturalists who believed that you could not understand anything in the natural world without looking at every aspect of it – from the words used to name it, to what Pliny et al had to say about, and every poet since. To these polymaths, the literary and mythological aspects of plants were just as important in understanding them as what they looked like and how they behaved.
You can see how this works in an exhibition of herbals from the 16th to 19th century from the collection of the Sydney Botanic Gardens Library, now on display at Red Box gallery in the Herbarium foyer.
One of my favourite herbals is available in facsimile so you can flick through it and have a really good look. It’s John Gerard’s Herball, first published in 1597. Gerard was a great gardener with a fascination for new plants at a time when every arriving ship brought new horticultural treasures from around the world. He was, for instance, the first man in England to eat potatoes he’d grown himself. And he was as good at self-promotion as he was at gardening. He was the first person to publish a catalogue of plants growing in a garden, listing some 900 species in his private garden at Holborn.
Gerard makes a very personable guide through the plant world of the late 16th century, always willing to share his personal experience. Those potatoes, he says, have a texture a bit between flesh and fruit, and are a bit ‘windy’ unless they are roasted in embers and then eaten ‘sopped in wine’.
The slow and patchy metamorphosis from a Renaissance view of the natural world to an Enlightenment one is evident in Gerard’s book. The potato was a New World discovery and so arrived in England without an ancient or poetic or mythological backstory. Gerard reports about it purely from experience. But flick to the back of the volume and you’ll find him anchored in mythological mode.
It’s here, at about Chapter 170, depending on the edition, that you’ll find the barnacle goose tree. Gerard claims to have seen this natural wonder with his own eyes, and writes about it alongside a woodblock print which had been used to illustrate a Dutch herbal half a century earlier. The illustration shows a twisted tree blooming with large tulip-like shells, overhanging a cliff. Beneath the tree birds are shown serenely floating on the waves. Birds falls from the shells produced by the tree, explains Gerard. If they happen to fall on land they perish, but if they fall into the sea they become fowl, bigger than a duck and a bit smaller than a goose.
Enlightenment writers argued for clear-eyed observation. ‘Knowledge is made by oblivion,’ claimed Thomas Brown who argued in 1672 that the only way forward was to forget everything that had come before and start again, using observation as the only criteria for knowledge. But despite Browns’ call, the myth of the barnacle goose tree lived on until 1780 when two French zoologists conducted an autopsy on the story. Their scientific paper migrated to the popular press where the story was told as the ‘histoire du canard’, which is where we derive the meaning of a canard as a tall tale.
One more postscript: the goose tree survived into the early 20th century in Northern Ireland where Catholics still ate ‘barnacle geese’ on Friday and fast days, sneaking in a feast of roast goose or duck thanks to a centuries-old definition of barnacle geese as seafood.