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

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 cancel its March meeting. The next time we do meet we will begin reading a 20th century version of a Greek tragedy, Antigone, by the playwright Jean Anouilh.

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, July 12, 1:30 pm,  via Zoom. Pam Peirce will present

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 Monthly Program

Sunday, May 17, 2:00 pm:  Oliver Pollak will speak via Zoom on “The treatment of the Black Death, Bubonic Plague, epidemics and pandemics in World Civilization textbooks and other sources” We are always looking for speakers for Monthly Programs; please consider sharing your research and writing with your colleagues and getting their feedback on your work. And/Or, consider hosting a meeting. We also need a new coordinator of Monthly Programs! For now, contact: Ann Harlow, annharlow@pacbell.net or 510-559-3616.    

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: Elise Ackerman, Kevin Knauss, Pam Peirce, and Anne Schnoebelen. Learn about them under Member Profiles.

Members' Recent Activities:

Taryn Edwards has an article in the latest Argonaut (Journal of the San Francisco Historical Society) on “Before the Midwinter Fair: The Mechanics’ Institute’s ‘Pacific Rim’ Industrial Exhibitions of 1869 and 1871."

In October Peter Stansky and his co-author Fred Leventhal are publishing with the Oxford University Press Leonard Woolf: Bloomsbury Socialist. In April, Peter published an “Afterword” to Elisabeth de Waal’s Milton Place (Persephone Books), a novel written shortly after the war but hitherto unpublished. “It came to light through a meeting I had with her grandson, Edmund de Waal, author of the highly regarded memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes.”

Christopher L. Webber has just published Christian Psalms for Worship and Prayer. “The
traditional psalms written between two and three thousand years ago are an irreplaceable treasure,” Christopher writes, “but they can create problems for modern users. They come from an age unimaginably different from ours and take for granted patterns of life unfamiliar to most of us. To supplement, not replace, these psalms, I have taken passages from the writings of some of the greatest Christian teachers of every era, for example, St. Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and restructured them in the poetic style of the Biblical psalms which rhyme ideas, rather than sounds, to provide texts that can be used either in formal worship or in private meditation.”

In May, as part of the series of talks for the Supporters of the Museum of Russian Culture, Maria Sakovich presented “Russian Choral Music in San Francisco in the 1920s and 1930s: Cultural Riches and Cultural Sharing.” She was very pleased to have Rob Robbins in the audience. In the June 22 issue of Russian Life her talk from last year in the same series was published with photos: “Last Steps of a Long Journey – First Steps of a New Life” (part of a panel presentation about the USAT Merritt’s 1923 Russian refugee-emigrant passengers). Anatol Smelov kindly translated the article from English to Russian.

Ann Harlow wrote an article about the history of Berkeley’s City Hall for the Berkeley Historical Society newsletter and is working with a group on a self-guided history walking tour of Solano Avenue. She recently attended the Conference of California Historical Societies in Placerville, as did Peter Meyerhof.

Jody/Judith Offer writes that she is “enjoying readings and some sales of her new
‘soon-to-become-history’ chapbook, The Grating of America, about the disastrous consequences of our current administration and some of the people fighting it. Copies are available at several bookstores in Oakland and Berkeley and online. If you have any ideas for bookstores, clubs, or churches/synagogues that might schedule a reading, please contact me."

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.”

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

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Berkeley, CA 94705

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