Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India

Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India

Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India

Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India

Synopsis

Like their penchant for clubs, cricket, and hunting, the planting of English gardens by the British in India reflected an understandable need on the part of expatriates to replicate home as much as possible in an alien environment. In Flora's Empire, Eugenia W. Herbert argues that more than simple nostalgia or homesickness lay at the root of this "garden imperialism," however. Drawing on a wealth of period illustrations and personal accounts, many of them little known, she traces the significance of gardens in the long history of British relations with the subcontinent. To British eyes, she demonstrates, India was an untamed land that needed the visible stamp of civilization that gardens in their many guises could convey.

Colonial gardens changed over time, from the "garden houses" of eighteenth-century nabobs modeled on English country estates to the herbaceous borders, gravel walks, and well-trimmed lawns of Victorian civil servants. As the British extended their rule, they found that hill stations like Simla offered an ideal retreat from the unbearable heat of the plains and a place to coax English flowers into bloom. Furthermore, India was part of the global network of botanical exploration and collecting that gathered up the world's plants for transport to great imperial centers such as Kew. And it is through colonial gardens that one may track the evolution of imperial ideas of governance. Every Government House and Residency was carefully landscaped to reflect current ideals of an ordered society. At Independence in 1947 the British left behind a lasting legacy in their gardens, one still reflected in the design of parks and information technology campuses and in the horticultural practices of home gardeners who continue to send away to England for seeds.

Excerpt

The novelist Penelope Lively devotes an entire chapter of her autobiography to her grandmother’s gardens over several generations. With their lawns, informal walks, lily ponds, snowdrops, bluebells, and roses, they are virtual palimpsests of English garden history as it is most familiar to us: “Essence of Englishness, you would think, the English garden.” But in fact, as Lively points out, there is hardly anything in these gardens except the yew trees and primroses that is native to the British Isles. the garden is rather a “cacophony,” filled with plants from all over the world. and when her family moved to Egypt, her mother created a garden there that was unabashedly English in design, even if many of the shrubs and trees were perforce adapted to a warmer climate.

A walk through Kew Gardens reinforces this experience of gardens as a “global reference system.” On a May morning Rhododendron Dell is ablaze with the blossoms of these glorious shrubs. But while the dell was laid out by Capability Brown, giant of eighteenth-century English natural landscape design, it had to wait until the next century for the rhododendrons that . . .

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