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

Member News

Welcome to our newest members, Gail Greene and Ernest Hook.

Steven Levi is working on his 8th book of creating thinking.  Using history as his guide, his work Off the Wall Thinking illustrates how off-the-wall ideas which were greeted with jeers when introduced have sometimes changed the world. Some of the ideas include toilet paper, braille, “creative equivocation” and other concepts.  This will be Levi’s 82nd book.  His next mystery novel, The Matter of the Dematerializing Armored Car, will be out in time for  Christmas.

Dot Brovarney is publishing a book this fall called The Sweet Life: Cherry Stories from Butler Ranch. Besides editing the collection of stories and photographs, she has provided historical context to the book about a cherry ranch in the hills west of Ukiah. At the center of The Sweet Life stand longtime owners George and Ella Butler, who through their u-pick orchard and a generosity of spirit created a unique sense of community in Mendocino County for over sixty years.

With mention of a body of work including her newest book, Framed by Sea & Sky: Community Art in Seward, Mural Capital of Alaska, and noting that she “meticulously collects, records, and shares the stories of the people, history and culture of Seward through her research, presentations, and publications,” Jackie Pels (Hardscratch Press) has received the 2017 Historic Preservation Award in her hometown of Seward, Alaska. She says she is most pleased by that word “meticulously.”

Ann Harlow has been elected president of the Berkeley Historical Society and continues to serve as editor of its quarterly newsletter (as well as copy editor of our newsletter, the newsletters of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, and the magazine American Art Review).

Monika Trobits will be teaching her third course for San Francisco State’s OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), beginning in late August. “‘San Francisco Urban Journeys’ will consist of 5 walking tours exploring the Embarcadero, the Haight, Civic Center, and Russian Hill. These journeys will begin at 10 a.m. the week of August 21, on either Monday or Wednesday (the course schedule is still being worked out). For more information and to register: (415) 817-4243 or www.olli.sfsu.edu.” “Meanwhile,” she writes, “I continue to fine tune my second book for publication in late 2017 or early 2018. This one will trace the story of a commodity in the San Francisco Bay Area from the gold rush era to the present day.”

On June 24, the City of Sonoma unveiled a fullscale bronze statue of city-founder General Mariano Vallejo portrayed sitting on a bench in the central Plaza. Peter Meyerhof was one of the seven-member committee of citizens which planned all aspects of this monument, hired the skilled artist Jim Callahan to fabricate it, and raised the necessary funds entirely from private donations. This interactive creation was given to the city at a dedication ceremony attended by approximately 300 people. Because of General Vallejo’s historically invaluable memoirs, Peter made sure that he was depicted holding a book entitled Recuerdos.

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

California and the West Events


Dates not set: Book discussion on Benjamin Madley's An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe; public panel on new methods of history study; excursion to Niles Canyon (Fremont); visit to Marin County Civic Center and its history room with a talk by Bonnie Portnoy on artist Tilden Daken.


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

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


Join Us

We welcome all men and women who have a commitment to historical study, which may be demonstrated in one or more of the following ways...


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. 


Play Readers Upcoming Meeting

Tuesday, February 20, 1 p.m., home of Ross and Phyllis Maxwell, San Francisco

We will continue reading and discussing Longitude, by Arnold Wesker. Based on the book of the same name by Dava Sobel, the play dramatizes the fascinating story of John Harrison, a carpenter and clock maker from Lincolnshire who, in 1730, competed for a prize for the creation of a marine chronometer that would make it possible for ships at sea to calculate longitude — a challenge that had baffled European navigators since the beginning of long-distance sailing. The group welcomes new members.  If you wish to be placed on our email list and receive announcements, contact Joanne Lafler.

Public Programs

Public programs usually occur once or twice a year and have included panel discussions, individual presentations, and film series. Programs are co-sponsored with other institutions, including public libraries, universities, museums, and archives.


Writers Group Upcoming Meetings

Sunday, January 14, 1:30 p.m., home of Joanne Lafler
Discussion topic: “writing about social issues in an environment of high political interest.”

Next Medieval Studies Meeting:
Monday, January 29, 2018, home of Ellen Huppert Nancy Zinn presenting. Please contact Lyn Reese if interested in joining this group.