Hunting for Plants

By: Judith Taylor

Judith M Taylor, a retired Oxford-trained neurologist, now practices history without a license in San Francisco. She has published several…

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Alice Coats. 1960. The Plant Hunters. New York: McGraw Hill.

Tyler Whittle. 1970. The Plant Hunters. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company.

BJ Healey. 1975. The Plant Hunters. New York: Scribners Sons.

Charles Lyte. 1983. The Plant Hunters. London: Orbis Publishing.

Sitting at my desk, I am surrounded by four books, each entitled The Plant Hunters. Apart from the obvious issues of copyright (four books with the identical title), the fact that all were written by English people, and the common ground of the topic, the variation in approach and content is remarkable.

The possibilities for exploring this subject are limitless. The life history of just one of the brave and adventurous plant explorers would easily fill a book. The explorers were Western, mostly from the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Holland, and Russia. Italians, Austrians, Germans, and a few Spanish and Portuguese scientists also joined in the pursuit.

Although the connection may seem remote, politics were just as central to the botanical and horticultural endeavors of the past as they are today. The center of gravity for many years was the United Kingdom, which dominated world politics in the nineteenth century. This domination trickled down to such frills as finding new flowers for its gardens. Who chose to go, and where they went, depended a good deal on the outcome of wars and treaties around the world.

Traveling to China became almost commonplace once the exasperating efforts to keep Westerners out of the “Flowery Kingdom” collapsed in the mid-nineteenth century. The French sent missionaries, and the British sent merchants and administrators to create permanent footholds. The East India Company had established isolated “factories” on the Chinese seaboard two hundred years before. These provided a home base for future exploration.

Plant hunters followed the expansion of the British Empire into the Southern Hemisphere, another source of plants now commonplace but once extraordinary. Australia revealed botanical riches that outshone anything seen before. The first plants collected on Australian soil in 1699 by Captain William Dampier, a “pirate of exquisite mind,” are still in the herbarium at Oxford University. New Zealand also sent numerous new species, as exciting as those of its neighbor, but utterly different; among them were daisies the size of trees and giant carrots with wickedly sharp leaves.

Britain “shared” South Africa with the Dutch, particularly the Cape of Good Hope. The Western section of this relatively small corner of the continent was packed with endemic species, more per square meter than any other place on earth. The Dutch also had the rights to Japanese commerce in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. For more than a century their compound on the island of Deshima was the sole European presence near that island nation. Their physician, Engelbert Kaempfer, did pioneering botanical work in the region, often describing a handsome plant fifty or a hundred years before someone else “found” it and popularized it.

South America was beyond the British sphere, and the plant explorers there were a more cosmopolitan group. The most famous among them was Alexander von Humboldt, a German polymath for whom the Humboldt Current is named, as well as Northern California’s Humboldt River and countless plants.

The French scientist Charles-Marie de la Condamine had been active in South America fifty years before, laying the groundwork for what was to follow. Also working in South America were a few British botanists, including Richard Spruce, a self-educated scientific collector whose work led to the modern exploitation of quinine. Britain’s venerable Veitch nursery sent William Lobb up and down the South American continent. He rewarded them with dazzling finds, such as begonias, araucarias, and other conifers of enduring value.

North America was primarily a preserve of the British, even after the colonies became independent. In the nineteenth century, German botany became transcendant, and the school at St Petersburg in Russia rose to prominence.

The leading text on plant exploration in China is Emil Bretschneider’s monumental European Botanical Discoveries in China, published in 1898, shortly before his death. The book contained information that was accurate to that time; scholars who have studied it thoroughly have found no inaccuracies or errors of fact in the work. What has changed since its publication is the nomenclature for many of the plants discussed.

Bretschneider wrote his book in fluent idiomatic English, itself an extraordinary feat, since he was of German descent and born in Russia. He was physician to the Russian legation in Peking (Beijing), but spent a good deal of time scouring the countryside for new plants.

The authors of the four books in question have all drawn heavily on his material but the book, itself, is intimidating by its size and comprehensiveness. It reminds me of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s enormous, thirty-seven-volume history of the Western states. Almost everything that has been written on Western history since then is a mere regurgitation of his work, whether the author loved him or hated him. Such books are indispensable, however, and cast a long shadow.

When starting to write works of this sort, an author must decide where to place the emphasis: on the plants or on the people who found them. Charles Lyte prepared thirteen chapters, one for each explorer whom he considered important, offering a great deal of significant detail about the life and travels of that individual. Tightly organized and succinct, his book is a valuable resource. An experienced and skilled journalist, Lyte was the educational correspondent for the London Daily Mirror.

Tyler Whittle, whose name was actually Michael Tyler-Whittle, was also adept at writing history. He undertook a broader narrative, with a long timeline that began in the pre-Biblical period. People and plants are successfully mingled in his story, which smoothly incorporates the facts into the whole.

BJ Healey wrote a gardening column for an English journal and had written other books about horticulture. Each of his nine chapters deals with the highlights of a particular period, starting with Adam in Biblical times. He explores the seventeenth century in some depth, and focuses on the Bartrams and other collectors in the Americas. He ends with an examination of plant collecting in the mid-1950s, once again seriously affected by the world war and ensuing political upheavals. This book is less encyclopedic than the others but remains of considerable value.

I have saved Alice Coats’s book for last, because I consider it the best. Miss Coats was an artist and writer with a passionate interest in plants from early childhood. She was not trained as a professional historian but wrote three masterworks in horticultural history, which stand today. It is clear that she plumbed many primary sources.

Alice Coats struck a good balance between the people and the plants. The book is organized by both geography and chronology. Each chapter opens with a table of the leading plant explorers of a particular region and the dates during which they were active. These explorers’ names are presented in boldface type when they appear for the first time in that chapter. Such a methodical approach makes it easier to assimilate the enormous number of facts she accumulated. Even relatively minor figures get their share of attention here, with details about specific journeys and often harrowing experiences. This book is the nearest to that by Bretschneider in its comprehensiveness.

I have learned an immense amount from all of these books and continue to do so. I often go from one to another to refine the information I’m searching for on a particular subject. All four are a valued part of my library.