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Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Jennifer Potter, Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants (London: Atlantic, 2006), xxix + 464 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £19.99 (hbk), ISBN 1-84354-334-6

This necessary and timely book, which restores the Tradescants to their place in history after the ‘racey’ makeover they were given in the 1990s, is hugely enjoyable.* Jennifer Potter has an engaging style, which carefully documents the lives of the John Tradescants, father and son, who remain of such peculiar interest that in just over twenty years they have had two biographies and a historical novel written about them. In contrast to Philippa Gregory’s earlier historical novel, through Potter’s meticulous research in England and Jamestown, Virginia, we now know that the Younger John Tradescant did not make more than one journey to Virginia.

John Tradescant the Elder gardened for the most prominent, the First Minister Robert Cecil and for the Stuart favourite the Duke of Buckingham, and throughout these times he made numerous and extensive plant buying trips to the Continent. It was the John Tradescant the Younger who went to Virginia, but his father who had set the pace, plant foraging, first north to Archangel in 1618, then with the Duke of Buckingham on his ill-fated naval expeditions to Algiers and La Rochelle. Following Buckingham’s assassination Tradescant the Elder was employed by Charles I as gardener and keeper of the royal vines and silk worms. Tradescant the Younger gardened and collected with his father and took over his position with Queen Henrietta Maria at Oatlands Palace, Surrey. He voyaged to Virginia in 1637, from where he returned with two hundred specimens, not all new, including Liriodendron tulipifera and Taxodium distichum.

In spite of this intrepid venture and his acknowledged gardening skills, he does not present as the considerable person who his father was — and neither did he to his father’s friends. One such, John Morris, who had had great regard for the Tradescant the Elder, described his son in 1638 as skilled in gardening matter, but as ‘unschooled and obviously uncivilised’. The Tradescants amassed collections of ornamental flowers and trees, most notably fruit trees, and a catalogue was published in 1634. In an age of discovery, the new and diverse were highly desired and the Elder Tradescant introduced many varieties from the Continent. To these botanical collections was added a hoard of rarities, natural, manmade and fanciful curiosities, rare birds, gems and coins, poisoned arrows, Henry VIII’s hawking bag and spurs, a salamander, and the hand of a mermaid. Collected from all over the known world these were in the catalogue of 1656. Alas the plight of this collection and the manoeuvrings of that perfidious lawyer Elias Ashmole, who was first indispensable to the publication, and later resorted to skulduggery and litigation to wrest the collection from the family. Hestor Tradescant, the surviving widow, drowned herself.

As a consequence of Ashmole’s action, and the installation of the collection in a museum named after the lawyer, the Tradescants became known primarily as royal gardeners, as emphasized by the title of Prudence Leith-Ross’s biography, Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen (1984).** But Potter cites the work of the principal royal gardener and designer, André Mollet, in quotations from the parliamentary inventories of Oatlands and other royal gardens taken during the Interregnum. These are extraordinary reading, but they are the work of Mollet the Royal Gardener, not the Tradescants. Their lives revolved around the acquisition and propagation of plants and procuring rarities and they were the first to open a museum to the public, Tredeskins Ark in South Lambeth. There amongst marvels of sea shells, fossils, crystals, beasts, birds, fishes, snakes and insects could be found Powhatan’s ‘habit’ and a stuffed dodo. It is their entitlement to this historic role as collectors that was so successfully obscured by Ashmole, and now reinstated by Potter.

Potter does address the Tradescants’ reputations as gardeners and plantsmen, putting them, most notably Tradescant the Elder, securely within the plant, and increasingly the botanic, world of the time. John Parkinson and John Gerard were good friends of the Elder Tradescant, and the much younger diarist John Evelyn became a mutual friend of the Morin family in Paris, again nurserymen and collectors and with whom the Tradescants exchanged plants over the years. Some of these plants were listed by the Elder Tradescant in his copy of his friend John Parkinson’s book, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris … (London, 1629). Throughout Potter’s book there are glorious plant lists of exotic and rare fruits, countless different cherries and apples, tulips, anemones and a host of flowers, and there are lists too of what to take on the voyage to Virginia. The wealth of detail surrounding the Tradescants and their contemporaries portrays the society of plantsmen, collectors, and intrepid explorers in the seventeenth century and makes for an absorbing and informative book, a treasury for anyone with a glancing interest in English social history.

Rosemary Lamont

* Philippa Gregory, Virgin Earth (London: HarperCollins, 1999).

** Prudence Leith-Ross, The John Tradescants Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen (London: Peter Owen, 1984).

35:1 (Summer 2007)

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