Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Introducers of Exotic Flowers, Fruits, Etc.

There has been a class of men whose patriotic affection, or whose general benevolence, have been usually defrauded of the gratitude their country owes them: these have been the introducers of new flowers, new plants, and new roots into Europe; the greater part which we now enjoy was drawn from the luxuriant climates of Asia, and the profusion which now covers our land originated in the most anxious nursing, and were the gifts of individuals. Monuments are reared, and medals struck, to commemorate events and names, which are less deserving our regard than those who have transplanted into the colder gardens of the North the rich fruits, the beautiful flowers, and the succulent pulse and roots of more favoured spots; and carrying into their own country, as it were, another Nature, they have, as old Gerard well expresses it, “laboured with the soil to make it fit for the plants, and with the plants to make them delight in the soil.”

There is no part of the characters of PEIRESC and EVELYN, accomplished as they are in so many, which seems more delightful to me, than their enthusiasm for the garden, the orchard, and the forest.

PEIRESC, whose literary occupations admitted of no interruption, and whose universal correspondence throughout the habitable globe was more than sufficient to absorb his studious life, yet was the first man, as Gassendus relates in his interesting manner, whose incessant inquiries procured a great variety of jessamines; those from China, whose leaves, always green, bear a clay-coloured flower, and a delicate perfume; the American, with a crimson-coloured, and the Persian, with a violet-coloured flower; and the Arabian, whose tendrils he delighted to train over “the banqueting-house in his garden;” and of fruits, the orange-trees with a red and parti-coloured flower; the medlar; the rough cherry without stone; the rare and luxurious vines of Smyrna and Damascus; and the fig-tree called Adam’s, whose fruit by its size was conjectured to be that with which the spies returned from the land of Canaan. Gassendus describes the transports of Peiresc, when, the sage beheld the Indian ginger growing green in his garden, and his delight in grafting the myrtle on the musk vine, that the experiment might show us the myrtle wine of the ancients. But transplanters, like other inventors, are sometimes baffled in their delightful enterprises; and we are told of Peiresc’s deep regret when he found that the Indian cocoa-nut would only bud, and then perish in the cold air of France, while the leaves of the Egyptian papyrus refused to yield him their vegetable paper. But it was his garden which propagated the exotic fruits and flowers, which he transplanted into the French king’s, and into Cardinal Barberini’s, and the curious in Europe; and these occasioned a work on the manuring of flowers by Ferrarius, a botanical Jesuit, who there described these novelties to Europe.

Had Evelyn only composed the great work of his “Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees,” his name would have excited the gratitude of posterity. The voice of the patriot exults in the dedication to Charles II. prefixed to one of the later editions. “I need not acquaint your majesty, how many millions of timber-trees, besides infinite others, have been propagated and planted throughout your vast dominions, at the instigation and by the sole direction of this work, because your majesty has been pleased to own it publicly for my encouragement.” And surely while Britain retains her awful situation among the nations of Europe, the “Sylva” of Evelyn will endure with her triumphant oaks. It was a retired philosopher who aroused the genius of the nation, and who, casting a prophetic eye towards the age in which we live, contributed to secure our sovereignty of the seas. The present navy of Great Britain has been constructed with the oaks which the genius of Evelyn planted!

Animated by a zeal truly patriotic, De Serres in France, 1599, composed a work on the art of raising silk-worms, and dedicated it to the municipal body of Paris, to excite the inhabitants to cultivate mulberry-trees. The work at first produced a strong sensation, and many planted mulberry-trees in the vicinity of Paris; but as they were not yet used to raise and manage the silk-worm, they reaped nothing but their trouble for their pains. They tore up the mulberry-trees they had planted, and, in spite of De Serres, asserted that the northern climate was not adapted for the rearing of that tender insect. The great Sully, from his hatred of all objects of luxury, countenanced the popular clamour, and crushed the rising enterprise of De Serres. The monarch was wiser than the minister. The book had made sufficient noise to reach the ear of Henry IV.; who desired the author to draw up a memoir on the subject, from which the king was induced to plant mulberry-trees in all the royal gardens; and having imported the eggs of silk-worms from Spain, this patriotic monarch gave up his orangeries, which he considered but as his private gratification, for that leaf which, converted into silk, became a part of the national wealth. It is to De Serres, who introduced the plantations of mulberry-trees, that the commerce of France owes one of her staple commodities; and although the patriot encountered the hostility of the prime minister, and the hasty prejudices of the populace in his own day, yet his name at this moment is fresh in the hearts of his fellow-citizens; for I have just received a medal, the gift of a literary friend from Paris, which bears his portrait, with the reverse, “Société de Agriculture du Département de la Seine.“ It was struck in 1807. The same honour is the right of Evelyn from the British nation.

There was a period when the spirit of plantation was prevalent in this kingdom; it probably originated from the ravages of the soldiery during the civil wars. A man, whose retired modesty has perhaps obscured his claims on our regard, the intimate friend of the great spirits of that age, by birth a Pole, but whose mother had probably been an Englishwoman, Samuel Hartlib, to whom Milton addressed his tract on education, published every manuscript he collected on the subjects of horticulture and agriculture. The public good he effected attracted the notice of Cromwell, who rewarded him with a pension, which after the restoration of Charles II. was suffered to lapse, and Hartlib died in utter neglect and poverty. One of his tracts is “A design for plenty by an universal planting of fruit-trees.” The project consisted in inclosing the waste lands and commons, and appointing officers, whom he calls fruiterers, or wood-wards, to see the plantations were duly attended to. The writer of this project observes on fruits, that it is a sort of provisions so natural to the taste, that the poor man and even the child will prefer it before better food, “as the story goeth,” which he has preserved in these ancient and simple lines:—

The poor man’s child invited was to dine,

With flesh of oxen, sheep, and fatted swine,

(Far better cheer than he at home could find,)

And yet this child to stay had little minde.

“You have,” quoth he, “no apple, froise, nor pie,

Stewed pears, with bread and milk, and walnuts by.”

The enthusiasm of these transplanters inspired their labours. They have watched the tender infant of their planting, till the leaf and the flowers and the fruit expanded under their hand; often indeed they have ameliorated the quality, increased the size, and even created a new species. The apricot, drawn from America, was first known in Europe in the sixteenth century: an old French writer has remarked, that it was originally not larger than a damson; our gardeners, he says, have improved it to the perfection of its present size and richness. One of these enthusiasts is noticed by Evelyn, who for forty years had in vain tried by a graft to bequeath his name to a new fruit; but persisting on wrong principles this votary of Pomona has died without a name. We sympathise with Sir William Temple when he exultingly acquaints us with the size of his orange-trees, and with the flavour of his peaches and grapes, confessed by Frenchmen to have equalled those of Fontainebleau and Gascony, while the Italians agreed that his white figs were as good as any of that sort in Italy; and of his “having had the honour” to naturalise in this country four kinds of grapes, with his liberal distributions of cuttings from them, because “he ever thought all things of this kind the commoner they are the better.”

The greater number of our exotic flowers and fruits were carefully transported into this country by many of our travelled nobility and gentry;1 some names have been casually preserved. The learned Linacre first brought, on his return from Italy, the damask rose; and Thomas Lord Cornwall, in the reign of Henry VIII., enriched our fruit gardens with three different plums. In the reign of Elizabeth, Edward Grindal, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, returning from exile, transported here the medicinal plant of the tamarisk: the first oranges appear to have been brought into England by one of the Carew family; for a century after, they still flourished at the family seat at Beddington, in Surrey. The cherry orchards of Kent were first planted about Sittingbourne, by a gardener of Henry VIII.; and the currant-bush was transplanted when our commerce with the island of Zante was first opened in the same reign. The elder Tradescant, in 1620, entered himself on board of a privateer, armed against Morocco, solely with a view of finding an opportunity of stealing apricots into Britain: and it appears that he succeeded in his design. To Sir Walter Raleigh we have not been indebted solely for the luxury of the tobacco-plant, but for that infinitely useful root, which forms a part of our daily meal, and often the entire meal of the poor man — the potato, which deserved to have been called a Rawleigh. Sir Anthony Ashley, of Winburne St. Giles, Dorsetshire, first planted cabbages in this country, and a cabbage at his feet appears on his monument: before his time we had them from Holland. Sir Richard Weston first brought clover grass into England from Flanders, in 1645; and the figs planted by Cardinal Pole at Lambeth, so far back as the reign of Henry VIII., are said to be still remaining there: nor is this surprising, for Spilman, who set up the first paper-mill in England, at Dartford, in 1590, is said to have brought over in his portmanteau the two first lime-trees, which he planted here, and which are still growing. The Lombardy poplar was introduced into England by the Earl of Rochford, in 1758. The first mulberry-trees in this country are now standing at Sion-house. By an Harleian MS. 6884, we find that the first general planting of mulberries and making of silk in England was by William Stallenge, comptroller of the custom-house, and Monsieur Verton, in 1608. It is probable that Monsieur Verton transplanted this novelty from his own country, where we have seen De Serres’ great attempt. Here the mulberries have succeeded better than the silk-worms.

The very names of many of our vegetable kingdom indicate their locality, from the majestic cedar of Lebanon, to the small Cos-lettuce, which came from the isle of Cos; the cherries from Cerasuntis, a city of Pontus; the peach, or persicum, or mala Persica, Persian apples, from Persia; the pistachio, or psittacia, is the Syrian word for that nut. The chestnut, or chataigne in French, and castagna in Italian, from Castagna, a town of Magnesia. Our plums coming chiefly from Syria and Damascus, the damson, or damascene plum, reminds us of its distant origin.

It is somewhat curious to observe on this subject, that there exists an unsuspected intercourse between nations, in the propagation of exotic plants. Lucullus, after the war with Mithridates, introduced cherries from Pontus into Italy; and the newly-imported fruit was found so pleasing, that it was rapidly propagated, and six-and twenty years afterwards Pliny testifies the cherry-tree passed over into Britain. Thus a victory obtained by a Roman consul over a king of Pontus, with which it would seem that Britain could not have the remotest interest, was the real occasion of our countrymen possessing cherry-orchards. Yet to our shame must it be told, that these cherries from the king of Pontus’s city of Cerasuntis are not the cherries we are now eating; for the whole race of cherry-trees was lost in the Saxon period, and was only restored by the gardener of Henry VIII., who brought them from Flanders — without a word to enhance his own merits, concerning the bellum Mithridaticum!

A calculating political economist will little sympathise with the peaceful triumphs of those active and generous spirits, who have thus propagated the truest wealth, and the most innocent luxuries of the people. The project of a new tax, or an additional consumption of ardent spirits, or an act of parliament to put a convenient stop to population by forbidding the banns of some happy couple, would be more congenial to their researches; and they would leave without regret the names of those whom we have held out to the grateful recollections of their country. The Romans, who, with all their errors, were at least patriots, entertained very different notions of these introducers into their country of exotic fruits and flowers. Sir William Temple has elegantly noticed the fact. “The great captains, and even consular men, who first brought them over, took pride in giving them their own names, by which they ran a great while in Rome, as in memory of some great service or pleasure they had done their country; so that not only laws and battles, but several sorts of apples and pears, were called Manlian and Claudian, Pompeyan and Tiberian, and by several other such noble names.” Pliny has paid his tribute of applause to Lucullus, for bringing cherry and nut-trees from Pontus into Italy. And we have several modern instances, where the name of the transplanter, or rearer, has been preserved in this sort of creation. Peter Collinson, the botanist, to “whom the English gardens are indebted for many new and curious species which he acquired by means of an extensive correspondence in America,” was highly gratified when Linnæus baptized a plant with his name; and with great spirit asserts his honourable claim: “Something, I think, was due to me for the great number of plants and seeds I have annually procured from abroad, and you have been so good as to pay it, by giving me a species of eternity, botanically speaking; that is, a name as long as men and books endure.” Such is the true animating language of these patriotic enthusiasts!

Some lines at the close of Peacham’s Emblems give an idea of an English fruit-garden in 1612. He mentions that cherries were not long known,2 and gives an origin to the name of filbert.

The Persian Peach, and fruitful Quince;3

And there the forward Almond grew,

With Cherries knowne no longer time since;

The Winter Warden, orchard’s pride;

The Philibert4 that loves the vale,

And red queen apple,5 so envide

Of school-boies, passing by the pale.

1 Alexander Necham, abbot of Cirencester (born 1157, died 1217), has left us his idea of a “noble garden,” which should contain roses, lilies, sunflowers, violets, poppies, and the narcissus. A large variety of roses were introduced between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Provence rose is thought to have been introduced by Margaret of Anjou, wife to Henry VI. The periwinkle was common in mediæval gardens, and so was the gilly-flower or clove-pink. The late Mr. Hudson Turner contributed an interesting paper on the state of horticulture in England in early times to the fifth volume of the “Archæological Journal.” Among other things, he notes the contents of the Earl of Lincoln’s garden, in Holborn, from the bailiff’s account, in the twenty-fourth year of Edward I. —“We learn from this curious document that apples, pears, nuts, and cherries were produced in sufficient quantities, not only to supply the earl’s table, but also to yield a profit by their sale. The vegetables cultivated in this garden were beans, onions, garlic, leeks, and others.” Vines were also grown, and their cuttings sold.

2 This is, however, an error. Mr. Turner, in the paper quoted, p. 154, says, “It may fairly be presumed that the cherry was well known at the period of the Conquest, and at every subsequent time. It is mentioned by Necham in the twelfth century, and was cultivated in the Earl of Lincoln’s garden in the thirteenth.”

3 The quince comes from Sydon, a town of Crete, we are told by Le Grand, in his Vie privée des François, vol. i. p. 143; where may be found a list of the origin of most of our fruits.

4 Peacham has here given a note. ”The filbert, so named of Philibert, a king of France, who caused by arte sundry kinds to be brought forth: as did a gardener of Otranto in Italie by cloue-gilliflowers, and carnations of such colours as we now see them.”

5 The queen-apple was probably thus distinguished in compliment to Elizabeth. In Moffet’s “Health’s Improvement,” I find an account of apples which are said to have been “graffed upon a mulberry-stock, and then wax thorough red as our queen-apples, called by Ruellius, Rubelliana, and Claudiana by Pliny.” I am told the race is not extinct; but though an apple of this description may yet be found, it seems to have sadly degenerated.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53