Subtropical gardening seems to have begun in northwestern Europe, particularly in what is now England. Perhaps it was the dismal weather and lack of native flora comparable to that from the Mediterranean that first compelled the ancient Romans to introduce plants from home as they colonized Britain around the time of Christ. “ . . .The range of plants recovered from waterlogged deposits and identified as having been cultivated in Roman Britain is wide” and includes such plants as grapes, figs and almonds (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992). Any achievements made by the Romans growing Mediterranean climate plants in Britain were lost during the Middle Ages (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).
It was not until well after the Renaissance that Europeans found themselves well off enough to create and enjoy gardens again. A general interest in gardening followed the Renaissance where it began in Italy, and finally found its way to England by the 17th century. Gardening seemed to take hold in England with the general public more than in the rest of Europe (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992). Once again, this is likely because the dismal climate of the British Isles compelled people to find some good reason to be outdoors, and because a lack of interesting native flora (by most people's standards) in the British Isles compelled people to grow showier plants in gardens, which would have to come from elsewhere.
Subtropical gardening really took off in England during the Victorian Era. Numerous factors, including British imperialism and a strong economy, combined to fuel a passion for collecting plants from across the globe, rapidly broadening the spectrum of plant material available to gardeners. Italian and French influences on the styles of gardening in England became popular in the 1840s and 50s (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992). Numerous extravagant private subtropical gardens were established throughout warmer parts of the British Isles (Amherst, 1896), and the national collection of plants at Kew Gardens in London grew exponentially. Other European countries began to follow in Britain's stead.
The first World War in 1914 abruptly put an end to all this (Reynolds, 2001), turning Britain's attention, finances, and resources elsewhere and occupying the rest of Europe. While Europe's attention was focused towards political and economic strife for the next 30 years, many of the great Victorian subtropical and other gardens fell into disrepair (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).
After the end of the Second World War, the passion for gardening among the general public had been mostly lost as a result of social and economic changes in Europe. Some gardeners in the United States and Latin America became interested in subtropical gardening for the first time, but generally on a much smaller scale than what had occurred in England before the war. Some collectors in warmer parts of the United States began to make progress towards gardens incorporating a wider variety of exotic plants, but not generally with the aim of achieving a climate defying subtropical look, as had been the case in Victorian England.
Within the last 15 years or so, an interest in subtropical gardening has begun to grow and spread once again. The relatively recent formation of local "palm societies" for various temperate regions of the world has allowed people with this common interest to meet and learn from each other. British gardeners are once again taking an interest in the old abandoned Victorian gardens and in some cases finding the resources to restore them (Nelhams, 2000). The Internet has also been an essential tool in the sharing of information about subtropical gardening and the plants used.
So then, the history of subtropical gardening developed rather slowly at first, then very rapidly in Victorian England, then came to a halt during the early 20th century, and is now beginning to grow once again. Now we will look at two of these periods in more detail.
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