2012 Annual Dinner Lecture Report

The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants

Plants migrate across the globe by hitching rides on exported building materials, riding as seeds in the entrails of animals, stowing away in the luggage of plant-loving travelers, or simply floating on wind that sweeps across continents. Author-neurologist Judith M. Taylor not only traced the migratory movements of numerous plants but also introduced botany’s earliest explorers, collectors, and researchers at the Institute’s 2012 annual dinner on November 9.

After noticing that geraniums, begonias, and petunias abound in gardens worldwide, Taylor wondered how that had happened. She decided to examine a standard horticulture encyclopedia with 15,000 entries. “I turned it into a database,” Taylor said, “listing the name of the plant and where it came from. Leaving aside hybrids, the encyclopedia contained about 6,000 species of plants.” The beauty of this approach was that it covered plants likely to be grown in ordinary people’s gardens.

The database showed that “a majority of plants grown in this country are of foreign or exotic extraction,” says Taylor. “It’s an application of statistics not widely used in horticulture.” About 29% of plants come from Asia; 18% from Europe; 17% from North America; 11% from Africa; 9% from South America; 5% from Mexico; and 4% from Australia. The crossover seemed to have been complete by the 1870s, according to Taylor’s maps and statistics. Many plants originated in unexpected locations: roses in China, for example, spreading to Turkey and Iran and eventually, to Italy, where three towns specialized in growing them. The wallflower is associated with England but originated in  France. Taylor traced the wallflower to building materials exported from Normandy to Dover, where imported stones were used to build fortresses and castles. “Everybody thinks the tulip is Dutch, but many originated in Russia and the Crimea,” says Taylor. “Greece, Turkey, and the Greek islands were primary sources.” Gradually, tulips spread westward and flourished in Holland because of the flat land, excellent soil, and climate.

Early plant collectors were explorers, adventurers, and couriers for governments and businesses. William Dampier (1651-1715) was a scholarly Englishman of high birth. He became a maritime explorer and started plundering ships on the high seas, eventually earning the sobriquet “the pirate with the exquisite mind.” In 1699, Dampier sailed down the west coast of Australia, where he was the first European to go ashore. He took the Dampiera, the Wildampia, and a gorgeous red Sturt’s pea back to England, where the actual specimens are still in existence, in the botanical museum at Oxford. He became so respected that his portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

For years, Francis Masson (1741-1805) collected bulbs in South Africa and sent them back to the Horticulture Society of London. Masson carefully packed the bulbs, but invariably some died during long months at sea. Throughout the late 1700s, seafaring was a hazardous undertaking, and most plants transported as cargo died en route.

London dentist and amateur botanist Nathaniel Ward (1791-1868) cultivated ferns. To protect his beloved plants from dirty city air, he built a glass-sided box, soon known as the “Wardian Case.” Built in large numbers, these cases solved the plant mortality problem. “After 1830, these plants survived in large numbers,” says Taylor. “The glass sides allowed sunlight to enter the case. Moisture enclosed at the outset, continued to condense and recirculate without evaporating.”

Scotsman Robert Fortune (1812-1880) collected plants in China while employed by the East India Company. He found plants in Shanghai nurseries and private gardens, but he preferred hunting them in the wild. In 1858, the U.S. government sent Fortune to China to collect tea plants. Fortune sent numerous tea plants to the patent office in Washington D.C., but the federal government never established tea as an American crop.

Because plants have traveled ever since the wind has blown, animals have trodden, and people have ridden, the English cottage garden is now a multiethnic melting pot. And because of Taylor’s database, we also know the exotic ancestry of every plant in that melting pot.

—Elizabeth Nakahara

California and the West Events

Summer 2020: Harlem of the West: The Fillmore Jazz Era and Redevelopment, an online lecture by Elizabeth Pepin Silva, a documentary filmmaker, photographer, writer, and former day manager of the historic Fillmore Auditorium, August 16.

Fall 2019: An event-filled two-day excursion to Sacramento, a tour of Marin Civic Center, and presentation by member Bonnie Portnoy on The Man Beneath the Paint: Tilden Daken.

Summer 2019: Reading of Judith Offer's play, Scenes from the Life of Julia Morgan

Fall 2018: Public Program, "South Asians in the South Bay: The Privileged Immigrants"

Spring 2018: Excursion to Niles area of Fremont with historic train ride and silent film museum

Spring 2018: The California and the West study group initiated the two public programs on "The Future of the Past in the Digital Age" and Benjamin Madley's talk on An American GenocideThe United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873.

Fall 2017: Martinez Adobe Fandango; Public Program: “Siberia and California: Connections During the Russian Revolution and Civil War”

Fall 2016: Amador County

Summer 2016: San Francisco Presidio

Winter 2016: Berkeley History Center

Spring 2015: Sonoma Plaza

Winter 2015: San Francisco Public Library

Summer 2014:  Red Oak Victory and World War II Homefront National Historic Park, Richmond

Spring 2014:  Los Gatos History Museum, "American Bohemia: The Cats Estate in Los Gatos”

Winter 2014:  Tour of California Historical Society exhibition on Juana Briones, January 25

Summer 2013:  Green Gulch Farm Zen Center visit, August 15

Spring 2013: Visits to Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum and the McCune Collection at the Vallejo Public Library, April 13

Play Readers Upcoming Meeting

In the abundance of caution recommended by heath authorities, the group has decided to take a break from regular meetings.

The group welcomes new members.  If you wish to be placed on our email list and receive announcements, contact Joanne Lafler.

Writers Group Upcoming Meetings

Sunday, October 11, 1:30 pm, via Zoom. Cathy Robbins will present.


Public Programs

Saturday, September 26, 1:00 pm, Public Program  via Zoom - pre-registration required Revealing San Francisco’s Hidden 19th-Century Black History: A Tour of California Historical Society Artifacts Part of San Francisco History Days, this event is co-sponsored by the California Historical Society and the California African American Museum. Join Susan D. Anderson, history curator of the California African American Museum, for a talk and tour of artifacts that reveal the hidden history of San Francisco’s 19th-century African American past. Anderson’s talk begins with the Gold Rush and weaves the state’s raucous beginnings into the national narrative. The photographs, manuscripts, and publications in this presentation allow viewers to experience the urgency of early campaigns for civil rights and the fervent hopes of the African American community. Learn about the beloved ship’s captain who has a street named for him in West Oakland. Hear a Civil War poem by a distinguished Black poet and friend of John Brown proclaimed in public in 1864 San Francisco. See court documents of the lawsuit brought to challenge discrimination on streetcars 90 years before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This presentation proves that California history is more challenging, complicated, and fascinating than we’ve been taught. Hosted and co-sponsored by the Institute for Historical Study, co-sponosred by the California Historical Society and the California African American Museum. This event is free but pre-registration is required.  
Public programs have included panel discussions, individual presentations, and film series. Programs are co-sponsored with other institutions, including public libraries, universities, museums, and archives. Read More...

Next Monthly Program

Sunday, October 18, 2 pm, Monthly Program  via Zoom. Anne Evers Hitz will present: Lost Department Stores of San Francisco: Six Bygone Stores That Defined an Era In the late nineteenth century, San Francisco's merchant princes built grand stores for a booming city, each with its niche. For the eager clientele, a trip downtown meant dressing up — hats, gloves, and stockings required — and going to Blum's for Coffee Crunch Cake, or Townsend's for creamed spinach. The I. Magnin empire catered to a selective upper-class clientele, while middle-class shoppers loved the Emporium department store, with its Bargain Basement and Santa for the kids. Gump's defined good taste; the City of Paris satisfied desires for anything French; and edgy, youth-oriented Joseph Magnin ensnared the younger shoppers with the latest trends. Drawing on the memories of former employees and native San FranciscansAnne looks back at the strong, colorful personalities who created six major stores — including Gump's (revived recently, greatly reduced) and White House — that defined shopping in San Francisco before the eras of big-box stores and the Internet.  Anne Evers Hitzis an IHS member and proud fifth-generation San Franciscan with a longstanding interest in The City's history and lore. She is the author of Emporium Department Store (Arcadia, 2014), San Francisco's Ferry Building (Arcadia, 2017), and Lost Department Stores of San Francisco: Six Bygone Stores That Defined an Era (The History Press, 2020)She is a guide at the Ferry Building for City Guides, a group of local volunteers who give free walking tours of San Francisco. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Anne is a writer, editor, and project manager who has had her own communications consulting firm in San Francisco for over 25 years. She worked as publicity director for the University of California Press and as an editorial assistant at the publishers Oxford University Press and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York. Anne received an IHS mini-grant to assist in the preparation of her latest book.      

About Us

The Institute for Historical Study is a community of researchers, writers, and artists. Our common bond is a devotion to history in its many forms. Through wide-ranging programs, we share research, ideas, and practical advice and provide a public forum for the discussion of history. 


We Promote:

  •  the study and discussion of history outside the traditional classroom setting
  •  research, writing, performances, exhibitions, and other expressions of historical study
  •  non-traditional and interdisciplinary areas of study as well as traditional approaches to history



Member News

Welcome to our newest members David Goldberg and Stephen Barton. Learn about them under Member Profiles. Welcome back to Paula Gillett, a founding member and first president of our board of directors. She is now professor emerita in the Humanities Department of the College of Humanities and the Arts at San Jose State.

Members' Recent Activities:

Laudatory reviews of Karen Offen’s latest volumes on The Woman Question in France have appeared in the Journal of Modern History (Vol. 92, No. 1, March 2020) and in the American Historical Review (Vol. 125, No.2, April 2020).

Tim Welsh has kept busy with updates to his website sfinfilm.com, detailing life in San Francisco during the shutdown as compared to earlier or “vintage” years.

Jody Offer's Pullman porters play (“Compared to What”) is contracted for an August 2021 run at the Masquers Theatre in Point Richmond. She continues her series of poems about “Drumpf and his cohort.” Her interview by Nina Serrano, a regular reviewer of poetry books, was broadcast on KPFA on April 14th. Under discussion was Jody’s collection of poems, The Grating of America.

Katya Miller was the featured speaker at the Cal Alumni Club in Sonoma County in February. She presented her work on the Statue of Freedom, erected on the Capital dome in 1863 in middle of the Civil War.

Joe Miller gave his talk, “Wild Women Suffragists and Their Reputation as Sex Radicals” to the Sonoma Valley Historical Society in February. “The audience laughed in the right places, and the feedback from them was encouraging.”

Maria Sakovich contributed another vignette to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation cache of stories at the Immigrant Voices website, “The Contrasting Cases of Two Russian Choral Directors” 

Congratulations to Our 2019 Mini-Grant Recipients:

Joe Miller, for his article on “Wild Women Suffragists” 

Anne Evers Hitz, for her book, Lost Department Stores of San Francisco.

Members:  Please submit news of your history-related publications, lectures, awards, research finds, etc. to webmaster@instituteforhistoricalstudy.org.

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Berkeley, CA 94708

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