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 2019: Reading of Judith Offer's play, Scenes from the Life of Julia Morgan
Saturday, July 27, 10:30 a.m.
Berkeley History Center
Veterans Memorial Building, 1931 Center St., Berkeley (1-1/2 blocks from Downtown Berkeley BART)

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

Tuesday, August 20, 1 pm:  We will finish The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett.

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, August 11,  1:30 pm, at the home of Jim Gasperini in Kensington. Dan Kohanski will present a chapter from his work, a secular review of the history of religion.

Public Programs

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 World History Meeting:

Please contact Lyn Reese for information.  

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

Congratulations to Our 2018 Mini-Grant Recipients:

Jim Gasperini, for editing and other expenses in preparation of a book manuscript with the working title Fire in the Mind: How We Imagined the Non-Living Relative that Gave Us Control of the World.
Richard Hurley, to revise and reprint panels of a traveling exhibit, California in the Civil War.
Joe Miller, for research, editing and illustrations for an article, “Wild Women Suffragists and the Sex Scandals that Almost Sank the Movement.”

New Members, Fall 2018:

Dana Bernstein has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin and has taught in several lecturer/adjunct positions at the University of San Francisco, San Francisco State, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount University among others. Her research topic has been the criminal code in Colonial India. A new career in public history is her aim.

Susan Nuernberg, retired professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, is a Jack London scholar and editor of three books and author of several articles on the California writer. She is currently working on a scholarly biography of Charmian Kittredge London, Jack London’s second wife and curator of his legend.

Amy Elizabeth Robinson’s Ph.D. is from Stanford University in the history of modern Britain and the British Empire. She is currently teaching a course at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Sonoma State and will be teaching another in the history department at Stanford: “Borders and Migration in the British Empire.” Amy is also revising her dissertation, “British Colonial Migration, Repatriation, and Relief, 1880-1910,” for a book.

Other Member News:

One of Gretta Mitchell’s photographs was included in the latest exhibition at Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco, “Women of the West.” “As you may know,” she writes, “I am focusing on my fine art work now and am producing small “legacy” books of various bodies of work from many years. The first one was Iconographies in 2015 and the second was Island Dreams in 2017. I’m working on gathering images for the next few books!”

Peter Meyerhof gave a presentation to the Sonoma/Petaluma State Historic Parks Association on September 20 entitled “General Vallejo’s Printing Press and Its Significance in California History.” This press, better known as the Zamorano Press, was brought from Monterey to Sonoma in 1837 and used to publish a variety of items including California’s first medically-related imprint. Peter provided evidence that the actual printer in both Monterey and Sonoma was not Zamorano but Jose de la Rosa.

After a 20-year research and writing journey, member Bonnie Portnoy has completed her manuscript, “The Man Beneath the Paint,” an art book and biography of California Impressionist Tilden Daken (1876-1935), “the grandfather I never knew.” She is now compiling a book proposal for submission to agents and publishers, a daunting but necessary requirement for non-fiction writers in today’s challenging publishing environment (unless you happen to be Hillary Clinton, Bob Woodward, or the likes). In 2019 Bonnie will be presenting an illustrated talk on her “talented, prolific, and adventurous artist” to Institute members (date pending). And for members looking to market their books or works-in-progress on social media, Bonnie has received tremendous response to her posts (images and stories) on targeted Facebook groups containing 20,000 or more members, such as “California History.” In the meantime, learn about the artist at www.tildendaken.com.

Jeanne Farr McDonnell reports that on October 18th, the Los Altos History Museum opens its exhibit “Inspired by Juana: La Doña de la Frontera,” based on her book, Juana Briones of 19th Century California. It will be the first bilingual exhibition offered by the Museum, and the first incorporating student projects. The exhibit runs through March 31, 2019.


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

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