‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

WEEKENDER: The Plant Hunters, by Wiggia

E H Wilson, left, with Charles Sprague Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum

Two things started me on this short story. First was my re-kindling of interest, the digging out of books and catalogues for research for my new to be garden, several shelves of material that had been gathering dust since I retired and a brain that needed kick starting into action; amazing what a few short years of relative idleness does to the old grey matte - plants that I could rattle off all the Latin names of I suddenly couldn’t even remember their common names. So that was one part.

The second was when I started reading some of this material and the realisation was reignited in my mind of how much we owe today to those intrepid plant hunters, of whom so many were British during mainly the Victorian period, and how much we and the world owe them, not just for the wonders they returned with from all those far-flung lands but also the fruits and vegetables that we now take for granted on our supermarket shelves.

It is pure coincidence that this small event in the scheme of things should happen at a time when our own PM is blaming the industrial revolution that this country started and gave to the world for being the main cause behind Climate Change and somehow we should atone for it all. To trash your own country for what was one of the major drivers to the prosperity we and the west have today, though maybe not tomorrow because of his and others' policies, has to be one of the most crass statements from a British politician in history.

What also occurred during that period of the revolution was incredible wealth for the few which in turn gave rise to the demand for the wonders and materials from far-off lands. One of those items was a desire to plant and grow exotic items as status symbols that were brought back from the four corners of the globe by a group of people who became known as plant hunters, and the largest proportion of them were from the UK.

Johnson is not alone in his criticism of the effects of the industrial revolution; it was intertwined with our expanding Empire, and today even Kew Gardens takes a woke line on the plant hunting era...

“Although the bounty of 19th century plant hunters benefited our gardens at home, they thought very little about the impact plant collecting had on the origin country. Expeditions to bring home exotic flora were intertwined with British imperialism and the expanding power of European empires.”

I doubt the the collection of plants had any effect on China. Our imperialism was no different than that of any other nations over thousands of years. In the Victorian age we did it better than anyone else, no one thought about it any other way and it was of its time. This woke muck-racking and soul-searching is becoming tedious in the way it continually finds new ways to denigrate our once great nation and peoples past; no one really criticises the Roman Empire, we only speak of all the advanced infrastructure and social structure they left behind - strange, that!

The landscaping and the planting of the great estates of the land became a contest among the wealthy who having engaged people like Capability Brown and Humphry Repton to landscape their estates then later had to find the most rare and exotic species to display to their neighbours as they started to appear, and many of these wealthy landowners sponsored the trips to these far-flung continents to bring back ever more wonders of the natural world as well as new fruits and vegetables for the table. It was for many a race to have the biggest and best inventory of plants which in turn resulted in the hugely diverse ranges of flora we can all purchase today.

The collecting of plant material started long before the Victorian age. The potato was used as a culinary product in Peru for around 3,000 years and there are recordings of the humble plantain arriving firstly in Spain in the late 1500s and a little later here in the British Isles; by the 19th century it had become the most important foodstuff in Europe - the link gives an interesting story of the development of the humble spud:

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2019/august/how-did-potatoes-adapt-to-europe.html

Long before this, spices had found their way to Europe via the trade routes across Asia and later spices from the Americas arrived. Also, Columbus was thought to have imported the first tomatoes in the 16th century.

The earliest plants to come to Britain were mainly in ancient times and had a food value. For example Sweet Chestnut, Bay and Walnut plants arrived during this period; these were from Europe, plus plants of medicinal value such as Lavender, Rue and Rosemary.

Before the great period of plant exploration the first organised plant expedition from this country was by John Tradescant in the 17th century. He was gardener to Sir Robert Cecil the first Lord Salisbury and his initial journey on behalf of his employer was to France and Holland to buy plants from nursery gardens. Lord Salisbury died and Tradescant then went further afield in his quest for new plants, firstly to Russia, though little is recorded of the trees and shrubs he was said to have returned with, then a Mediterranean adventure whence many new species were recovered to Britain including Cistus and Cytisus which were introduced to more northern climes.

Tradescant had a son of the same name who followed in his footsteps but in another direction In 1637 he sailed for the New World. There were further expeditions to the same area and among the plants gathered were the Black Locust, Robinia Pseudoacacia and the Tulip Tree (Liriodendron Tulipifera); other visitors to the New World including missionaries started sending back oaks, maples and walnuts soon after. 

Liriodendron Tulipifera – the Tulip Tree

The eighteenth century saw an explosion of plant material being found and sent back to these shores and the rest of Europe. The expanding Empire and our position in the world meant that more and more lands opened up for exploration. Collections were gathered at botanical gardens such as Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society and this was really start of gardening as we know it today.

But this is about a specific group of explorers, many who today have their names added to the plant species they found on their travels.

The British were not alone in this hunt for the new: many other Europeans also became plant gatherers, but the bulk of the famous ones were British.

In 1824 David Douglas, one of the greatest of all plant explorers, went on his first expedition to North America. He spent three years travelling collecting large amounts of seed of many very good trees and shrubs including several Pines, Mahonia and Ribes and most famously seed of the tree named after him the Douglas Fir (though it had been discovered earlier). His second trip went as far as California and the collecting included Garrya Elliptica. In 1834 he had travelled as far as Hawaii and died tragically when he fell into a pit containing a wild bull.

Another Scot, Robert Fortune followed. He was sent by the RHS to the east coast of China over the next three years and during two other trips he sent back Jasminum, Viburnum Plicatum, Lonicera Fragrantissima (honeysuckle) and Wiegala Florida, all now staples of English gardens.

Rhododendron Fortunei, named after its finder Robert Fortune

The middle of the 19th century was the most exciting time for the plant hunters. Plants had been returning to Europe from Japan via a Dutch nursery owned by one Dr Philip von Siebold, a German eye surgeon who had lived in Japan. Sir Joseph Hooker's expedition to Sikkim, Himalaya resulted in many fine Rhododendrons and William Lobb a Cornishman went to Chile and California and Oregon and among many plants he returned with from there were Berberis Darwinii, Desfontainia Spinosa, Embothrium Coccineum, among others.


The Orient beckoned for many. The reports from the Far East of exotic species far outstripped anywhere else in those early days, and China and its environs contained many of the prize finds during this time. One plant hunter is probably the most famous of all for his explorations in that area and became known as Chinese Wilson; E H Wilson made several trips to the far east and is credited with a lengthy list of magnificent finds.

He was not the first European to explore China: French missionaries Pere Armand David, Pere Jean Marie Delavay and Augustine Henry an Irishman, all preceded him and all have a large number of plants with their names attached as the finders to the Natural History Museum in Paris and many fine gardens, many hundreds are there in catalogues today; but Wilson was an accomplished botanist and scoured the country for suitable plants to send back to Britain, and used the information of Henry in particular to source the right areas for the best chances of finding those rare exotics.

He was also not the first of the English to explore in China; this was Charles Maries who was in China, Taiwan and Japan collecting on behalf of the Veitch nursery in Chelsea. This amazing nursery employed as many as a dozen explorers at one time during this period, such was the demand for new and wonderful plants. Charles Maries introduced the Chinese Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Mollis.)

The Veitch nursery was the biggest family-run nursery in Europe in Victorian times and through its plant hunters introduced hundreds of plants to the gardeners of the time. It ceased trading in 1914 and its Exeter branch, the original, was sold off in the Sixties.

“Henry had information on where a specimen of the now almost legendary Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata, was growing, and it took Wilson 10 days to travel upriver to find the one tree he had come halfway around the world to see. It had been cut down to make way for a new house. As he tried to make the most of it, he investigated the local flora and found Actinidia deliciosa, now known throughout the world as 'Kiwi Fruit' (this was because of a very successful marketing campaign, the vines are in fact not native to New Zealand). Barely a month later, however, Wilson did find a magnificent grove of Davidia and was able to collect a large quantity of the seed.“

Wilson made four trips to China between 1899 – 1911, two for the Veitch nursery and two for the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. His finds included the paperbark Maple Acer Griseum, Berberis Wilsoniae, Berberis Julianae, Clematis Armandii, Clematis Montana Rubens and Rhododrendron Lutescens among others. He sent back over a thousand woody plants during this period, so many of which are standard garden material today.


“All in all, he collected thirty-five Wardian cases full of tubers, corms, bulbs and rhizomes, and dried herbarium specimens representing some 906 plant species along with the seed of over 300 plant species.”

This was from his first expedition. Wardian cases were an early form of miniature glasshouse used for keeping specimens in whilst travelling.

In all he introduced some two thousand plant species to the West including 60 that bear his name. He was also a photographer and an account of his travels is kept by his employer the Arnold Arboretum, and can be seen and read here in this PDF document: 

http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1976-36-5-e-h-wilson-photographer.pdf

Acer Griseum, the Paperbark Maple

By the start of the twentieth century China was awash with plant hunters, such was the fervour for the new and rare. George Forrest, another Scot had probably the longest career as a plant hunter: thirty years and seven expeditions in the border areas of China,  Burma and Tibet. Again he is remembered for numerous Rhododendrons, Pieris Formosa Forrestii and Magnolia Campbellii Mollicomata being the memorable ones from hundreds he found. At the same time in China we had Reginald Farrer and Frank Kingdom-Ward; Farrer was a specialist in alpine species perennials, whereas Kingdom-Ward who was the longest serving plant hunter and made 25 expeditions to mainly Tibet, Yunnan, Assam and Burma before dying in 1958 was responsible for the introduction of an enormous range of plants and seeds including Rhododendron Wardii, Rhododendron Macabeanum with its huge leaves and Sorbus Wardii.

Magnolia Campbellii Mollicomata

Others were active during all this time but these were the main men from this country. When Kingdom– Ward died the Golden Age of plant hunting died with him. China and Nepal in the Sixties and Seventies the discovery process became a lot easier and still a stream of plant material emanates from this fertile region. The full list of plants from the above hunters fills pages, many are instantly recognised by almost any gardener today and they form the backbone not just of the those 19th century gardens but also today's, through those brought back and the many hybrids from them that are still being propagated around the world.

The debt owed to these men and their enthusiastic sponsors is something that can never be realised. What a drab world it was before they ventured forth and on the same basis what was gained in culinary terms is equally amazing. To take all this for granted and then cast a cloud over the whole period is not something I can take seriously; if it hadn’t been for the Industrial Revolution little of this would have taken place. We should raise a glass or two to those who enhanced our lives and surroundings then, now and into the future.

5 comments:

Mark In Mayenne said...

I have a wonderful book of botanical paintings calmes Curtis' Flower Garden Displayed. I do like botanical paintings.

Paddington said...

I don't think that Columbus was around in the 16th century.

As for these beautiful plants, one must always beware of doing things like planting kudzu in the American South.

wiggiatlarge said...

Mark, there are some wonderful botanical illustrated books, quite amazing so many were hand coloured and of course the originals were actual paintings, my grandfather gave me one years ago, he was an avid gardener, but I lost it in a house move very sad, a lot get dismantled for the individual lithographs which is a shame.

Sackerson said...

@Paddington: Columbus died 1506, so yes, squeaked into the 16th C.

Paddington said...

@Sackerson - I sit corrected.