When we humans, about 10,000 years ago, adopted agriculture as a means of food production we began a process of landscape change that has continued unabated to the present day. The visual character of the earth’s surface has been transformed as wild landscapes have, over about ten millennia, been progressively converted into cultural landscapes as our most familiar surroundings have changed from wild nature to cultivated scenery, to rural countryside, then urban streetscape.
Today most of us live in cities. We may see plants around us, but they are not the plants of forests, steppes, tundra or grasslands, or even those of woodland, wayside, and field . . . they are the plants of parks and gardens.
The urbanization and industrialization that occurred between 1839 and today has introduced a layer of cultural complexity to modern existence in which plants have been deeply but inconspicuously woven into the fabric of our lives.
Darwin’s English countryside, with its meadows, wheatfields, narrow lanes, hedgerows and ditches, had its rustic agricultural charm, but already in Darwin’s day there was little indication of what Britain might have looked like before humans set foot on its soil. City streets were lined with avenues of trees in a tradition dating back to antiquity; there were a few public parks, and cemeteries were beginning to replace the cramped church graveyards. There were the carefully designed gardens of the wealthy, and the simple gardens of country houses and cottages.
Humans returned to Britain about 11,000 years ago, as warmth returned after the last Ice Age. The agricultural method of managing land for food arrived in Britain in about 6000 BP, having spread to Britain from its origins in the Near East in about 12,000 BP. It took about 8000 years to cross the European continent and reach the British promontory which was, at that time, its north-west corner.
The Roman occupation of Britain that lasted from 43 to 410 CE introduced new technology and a more efficient form of agriculture. Roman garrisons also introduced the continental tradition (dating back several thousand years to the Bronze Age cities of the Fertile Crescent) of gardening, exemplified by the carefully designed ornamental villa gardens. The Romans also introduced market gardening, vineyards, orchards and architecturally elegant buildings made of stone.
Britain was at this time an incongruous land peripheral to the European culture that was centred on the Mediterranean. This all changed in the Age of Discovery with the establishment of maritime trade routes, not only westward across the Atlantic Ocean but both westward and eastward to the lands around the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In 1900, sixty years after Darwin’s statement (above) Britain could boast the most powerful navy in the world, the British empire commandeering about one quarter of the world’s people and land mass. European and especially British traditions had spread across the world to form ‘Neo-Europes’ like North America, Australia, parts of India, South Africa, South America, Pacific Islands, and beyond. The cultural legacy of this tradition, like the English language itself, has been adopted by much of the world.
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The landscapes we have created around us are just one indication of our interaction with the plant world. This web site examines the way that this history unfolded and the role that plants can play in the creation of a sustainable future.