Philip Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary

Student Guest Page by Laurie Pazzano, University of Massachusetts Boston

 

Beginnings 

Philip Miller was born just after the Glorious Revolution in 1691.   His father was a nurseryman in Deptford who ensured his son received a good education. Miller was fluent in multiple languages and as a young man he traveled throughout England, Flanders and Holland observing and exploring horticulture, gardening and agriculture in these rich and diverse countries.  After his travels Miller settled in London, establishing his own nursery in Southwark at St. George’s Fields until 1722 when he was appointed Head Gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden .(1)  During his tenure at the Chelsea Physic Garden, Miller transformed the private medicinal garden into the greatest botanical garden in Europe through the building of an extensive network of friends and correspondents around the world.  These people provided Miller with information and newly discovered plants from around the 18th century world. 

 

Miller was also a member of the Society of Gardener’s, a small group of the London’s leading nurserymen who met every month during the 1720s at Newhall’s Coffee House in Chelsea to discuss horticulture.(2)  Together with the Society of Gardeners, Miller published his first two-volume work entitled The Gardeners and Florists Dictionary, in 1724 beginning a lifelong writing career.(3)   The Society disbanded in the 1730s and Miller continued his writing on his own, publishing the first Gardeners Dictionary in 1731.(4) 

 

Gardeners Dictionary

I have asked several of the greatest and best horticulturists, both   in England and America, what author  and what book they had found and believed to be the best in horticulture . . . they have all answered with one mouth, Miller’s Garden Dictionary.   Either in folio or the abstract in octavo was best of all . . . The same answer I have got from several distinguished persons who had themselves had a particular pleasure in planting trees and plants with their own hands.  If any of the Lords or great‘Herren’ in England wished to lay out an new garden or remake an old one, Mr. Miller would always show them how it ought to be done.  When the greatest  lords drove out to their estates, he often drove out with them in the same carriage.  In a word the principal people in the land set a  particular value on this man.

                     

Pehr Kalm(5)                                                                                                 

 

The 1731 Dictionary significantly expanded and expounded upon the earlier Gardeners and Florists Dictionary.  Containing directions for the kitchen garden, fruit garden, flower garden and the wilderness Miller introduced vegetables through the seasons, showed the correct methods of pruning, gave directions on raising together exotic and domestic flowers and how to make correct choices in shrubs and trees for the landscape.  He gave exacting (and illustrated)instructions on building greenhouses and stoves as well as instructions on vineyards from information he had received from his correspondents in France and Italy.(6)

 

Members of the nobility, scientific community, universities and the navy along with nurserymen and booksellers from various corners of England are listed among the 400 first edition subscribers.  They included:  Edmund Halley, Astronomer Royal, Botany Professors from Dublin and Edinburgh Universities, the Duchess of Gainsborough, the Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, the Collector of the King’s Customs at Plymouth, members of the Royal Society and 16 booksellers. Abroad the book was shipped to subscribers in Leiden, Amsterdam, South Carolina and Boston.(7)

 

This large group of support ensured the Dictionary’s success over the next 37 years as Miller published a total of 8 folio editions of the Dictionary. Two years after the 1731 edition came the second edition.  The third was followed in 1737 and included a garden calendar and information on cultivating pineapples, Miller’s favorite fruit.  The sixth edition, published in 1752 had to be redesigned following the publication of a “piratical” edition in Dublin and the seventh edition adopted the new Linnaean system of plant classification.(8)  The 8th edition, published in 1768 shows the growth of the work and the field of plant cultivation within England. Weighing in at 17 ½ lbs, it contains 333 folio sheets (666 sides of text) and measures 430 x 90 mm.  In comparison, the 1731 edition contained 215 folio sheets.  In Miller’s estimation the number of plants cultivated within England had doubled over the years due to the growing industry, Miller’s extensive international correspondence, and the work being done at the Chelsea Physic Garden. In his preface he acknowledges that he had sought the advice of  “the masters” in the scientific community and goes on to thank them – Halley, Hales and Newton (among others).(9)

1768 Edition 

          The largest and final edition of the Dictionary begins with an explanation of botanical terminology followed by 3 pages of illustrations showing the various parts of plants and fruits and the structures of flowers.  The main text of the Dictionary covers almost every corner of the world:  “plants from the Alps, the Pyrenees, Bohemia, the Levant, Egypt, Siberia, North and South America, the East and West Indies, China and Japan are included.(10)  Miller dealt with cultivation, arculation (propogation by layering), grafting, hoeing, inarching, inoculating, layering, planting, ploughing and pruning.  He advised on avenues, borders, edges, groves, hedges, hotbeds, manures and pastures.  And he expounded (with the help of others), on the hazards of frost, fire, ice, rain, snow, water and wind and warned against blights, mildews, caterpillars and “troublesome vermin” such as earwigs.  His Dictionary is full of practical advice, detailed instructions and beautiful plant illustrations for the 18thcentury gardener, horticulturalist and botanist.  Latin and English indexes are included as are 7 practical lists of plants, from those “generally termed as Weeds” to exotic American plants.  Equally impressive is Miller’s bibliography, which covers 120 works published between 1558-1765.(11)

 

The expense of his folio editions of the Dictionary,  led Miller to publishing the more affordable octavo abridgment editions for the average 18thcentury gardener.  These multi-volume editions began appearing in 1735 with the same practical and plant species information of the folio edition, but on a smaller page.  Six editions of the popular multi-volume abridgment were published between 1735-1754.(12)      

    

Conclusion

Following Miller’s death in 1771, Thomas Martyn, Professor of Botany at Cambridge published a revised edition of the Dictionary in 1807, updating and adding his own information to Miller’s encyclopedic text.  Thus began the lineal descent of horticultural works from Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary to the present day Dictionary of Gardening, published by the Royal Horticultural Society.(13) Two centuries after the final publication of the Gardeners Dictionary, the world of horticulture remains indebted to Philip Miller and his monumental work for popularizing the encyclopedic style, providing a solid foundation for all horticultural works to follow and most importantly, for recording the monumental progress of horticulture in England from 1721 to 1768.(14) 


1. Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, The Story of the Garden.  , (Boston: Hale, Cushman and Flint), p. 190 and Hazel Le Rougetel, The Chelsea Gardener:  Philip Miller 1691-1771.  (London:  British Museum, 1990), 90-98 and Le Rougetel, 169.

2.  Le Rougetel, pp. 29-30. 

3.  Ibid, pp. 28-31 4.  Ibid, p. 99

5.  Ibid, pp. 30-1

6.  Ibid, p. 56

7.  Ibid, pp. 90-91

8.  Ibid, p. 91

 9.  Ibid., p. 93 and Sinclair Rohde, p. 190

10.  Le Rougetel, p. 93

11.  Ibid, p. 94

12 Ibid., pp. 94-5

13.  Ibid, pp. 96-7

14.  Ibid, p. 189 and Sue Minter, The Apothecaries’ Garden:  A New History of Chelsea Physic Garden  (Phoenix Hill:  Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2000), 21. 15.  Le Rougetel, pp. 94, 98, 169.

 

 

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