The Indian hand-book of gardening

With the Garden’s India-themed Orchid Festival drawing to a close, and the University’s recent launch of a year-long celebration of its ties with India as part of UK-India Year of Culture, it seems an appropriate time to explore items we hold here in the Cory Library relating to India and South Asia.
Although not an extensive collection, there are some varied and interesting volumes. For example, John Forbes Royle’s 1839 Illustrations of the botany and other branches of the natural history of the Himalayan mountains includes fabulous hand coloured plates depicting local flora and fauna, whilst a number of published travel journals from the likes of James Herbert Veitch and Frank Kingdon-Ward give insight into the dramatic expeditions of nineteenth and early twentieth century plant collectors in the region.

However, it’s to a much more practical book that we turn as the subject for this month’s Library Pick. The Indian hand-book of gardening, or guide to the management of the kitchen, fruit and flower garden in India, by G.T. Frederic Speede, was published in Calcutta by Thacker & Co. in 1842 (2nd edition). In his rather self-effacing preface Speede declares that his work’s “only claim to attention [is] that it is the first attempt to embody in one work the practice of the Indian Gardener … as no one has yet attempted to adapt the horticulture of other climes to this”.

The work consists of 350 pages of largely practical advice and guidance, all of which Speede is keen to point out are “results offered having occurred in the course of his own practice or observation”. Alongside general thoughts and observations there is a “kalendar”, which describes month by month the activity necessary in each area of the garden. There are also a number of lists, including tools and equipment (illustrated), suitable plants (with descriptions and instructions) and a section on “destructive animals, insects, etc.”. This includes the jackal and wild cat, and under destructive birds is listed the “flying fox”, in fact the greater Indian fruit bat (Pteropus giganteus), “to be dreaded in the fruit garden, especially as he generally destroys more than he eats”.

This type of content (practical advice, plant lists, calendars) is typical of the many gardening manuals published in the nineteenth and earlier centuries, of which the Cory Library has a small collection. The earliest book of this kind held here is a copy of the fourth edition of Thomas Hill’s Gardeners labyrinth, published in London in 1594. Much of the wisdom Hill presents is derived from Classical authors such as Pliny, as was the literary convention of his day, rather than gleaned from his own gardening experiences. Nevertheless it was a tremendously popular work and reprinted many times, such was the sixteenth century appetite for books on gardening (which continues to the present day!).

Although books like Speede’s Indian hand-book and Hill’s Labyrinth have long been surpassed in usefulness as practical gardening manuals, they continue to provide a fascinating insight into the cultural, social and horticultural context from which they came.


Jenny Sargent
Cory Library Manager
March 2017