Mark Laird’s A Natural History of Gardening ( Yale University Press, $75 ) is one of those books that would look swell on a cocktail table: impressively hefty, eye-catchingly colorful. Its cover is a romantic enticement par excellence, all spotted moths, butterflies, and Sweet Williams the color of raspberry jam, a bit like the chintz pattern you’ve been looking for your entire life but have been unable to find.
Actually, the enticing flora and fauna come from a 1769 English watercolor that takes up the whole of page 208, and they are joined by hundreds of other period illustrations that explore gardening as it was done, pondered, examined, painted, recorded, and scientifically advanced in the 17th and 18th centuries, a time when England was flooded with explorers bringing back exotic plants from distant shores.
A mournful-looking moose in a wooded landscape—painted by George Stubbs in 1770, more famous for his portraits of champion horses—finds a home here, recalling the menagerie assembled by a duke. So does a 1665 engraving of a dissected blue fly (an example of what Laird calls the “wonderment of nature’s microscopic construction”), an early 18th-century depiction of convolvulus sturdily staked with bamboo (the image “shows how exotics were used in flower borders”), landscape plans of country estates, an 1808 aquatint illustrating garden staff at their labors (including pulling a lawn roller), and collages by Mrs. Delany, an infernally active 18th-century widow whose paper flower collages fascinated a generation of aristocrats.
For people who might have little interest in the subject, the absorbing illustrations support an unexpectedly engrossing text. Laird divertingly explores the dramatic lives of the great and often pioneering gardeners of the day, from the prickly Dowager Duchess of Beaufort, an important patron of the horticultural arts, to amateur entomologist Eleanor Glanville, whose her family attempted to steal her fortune by equating her passion for butterflies with mental illness. Artists are illuminated, as are the publishers who answered the public’s hunger to learn more about the most extraordinary flowers and their cultivators; so too the rise of the landscape gardener as a profession and the inevitable competitions between noblemen that were sparked as gardens became prideful trophies rather than merely escapist pleasances.
A Natural History of English Gardening is not a how-do guide though it is filled with inspiration. I, for one, dream of building a lidded “seed trough” (basically a bird feeder) like the fetching elevated one John Evelyn created for his magical and now vanished garden at Sayes Court in Deptford—and I’m fully in accord with Mary Beaufort in her passion for striped flowers, like the beloved auriculas she nurtured along with a staggering number of other species from around the world (she was hugely fond of American plants). Laird’s book is filled with the kind of information that will blossom in your mind as you deadhead or weed, linking your own speck of the planet to the long ago and the far away.