Favorite Garden Books: Flower Hunters
|I first happened upon Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin (Oxford University Press, 2008) when I was doing some research for a post on forsythia (Five Views of Forsythia). I was so enchanted by their chapter on Robert Fortune that I decided to go back to the beginning of the book and read the whole thing cover to cover.
The Gribbins are interested in the contributions of early plant explorers to the development of scientific botany and of gardening. As they explain in their introduction,
Botany may seem like a safe, stay-at-home occupation, like stamp collecting. But that certainly was not the case for many adventurous botanists from the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. Where, after all, did the plants that now are so familiar in Europe come from? From the Douglas-fir and the monkey puzzle tree to orchids and azaleas, they were found in distant regions of the globe by intrepid botanist explorers who travelled on foot or horseback through wild and often unexplored country, up previously unclimbed mountains and through almost impenetrable jungle, often encountering hostility from the locals, overcoming hunger and disease to send back the fruits of their labours. (p. 1)
In Flower Hunters, Mary and John Gribbin develop the story of these explorations through portraits of eleven individual explorer-botanists, beginning with Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and ending with Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911). The book’s chapters are arranged chronologically so that each one features one or more flower hunters whose lives overlap both with those in the preceding chapter and those in the following chapter. In this way, the reader gets carried forward in time almost without noticing it until, at some point, the Gribbins point out how conditions of exploration have changed from earlier times.
In many ways, Flower Hunters reminds me of another favorite garden book, Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners (Favorite Garden Books: The Brother Gardeners), and those who enjoy one of these books will probably also like the other. But there are also important differences between them. Where the Gribbins organize their historical account around the explorations of individuals, Wulf organizes hers around a series of relationships between and among “brother gardeners.” And where Wulf is focused primarily on the development of English gardening, with botanical explorations as part of the story, exploration is at the center of the Gribbins’ account, with a brief section at the end of each chapter noting the contributions of the featured explorer to our gardens. Wulf’s novelistic style makes it difficult for me to imagine a reader detaching part of her story from the whole, but each chapter of Flower Hunters can easily stand alone (although those chapters also reference and inform one another).
Some of the plant explorers in the Gribbins’ book were familiar to me (Carl Linnaeus, Joseph Banks, Robert Fortune, Joseph Hooker) and others were familiar names because of plants named after them (David Douglas, Richard Spruce), but there were some whom I had never heard of before (Francis Masson, Carl Thunberg, William and Thomas Lobb, Marianne North). My favorite chapter was the one focused on Marianne North, an amateur botanical illustrator who traveled around the world (literally; she circumnavigated the globe twice) hunting and painting tropical flowers. I was drawn to North for a number of reasons. Not only was she the only woman featured in Flower Hunters, but unlike many of the men, who did their exploring when they were young, she did not begin her botanical explorations until she was forty, the year her father died. As a young woman, Marianne had promised her dying mother that she would never leave her father; so she remained unmarried, kept her father’s household, and traveled extensively with him. These travel experiences with her father, along with the family’s wealth and aristocratic connections, probably made North’s later career as a plant explorer possible. The Gribbins present North as a delightfully sociable character who made her way around the world by striking up friendships and carrying letters of introduction that opened doors for her. She also comes across as very much an intrepid traveler. Here is an example:
She was back in England on 8 May, and joined in the pleasures of a London season, including weekend visits to various country houses. It was at one of these weekend gatherings, in the middle of July, that she fell into conversation with ‘some people I had never met before, Mr. and Mrs. S’. After listening to North’s traveller’s tales, they asked where she planned to go next. ‘Oh’, said North, plucking a name more or less out of the air, ‘Japan’. ‘You had better start with us’, they said, ‘for we are going there also, on the 5th of August.’ North implies that the offer was not entirely serious, but ‘to their surprise, I said I would’. Two and a half weeks later she was on her way. (p. 224)
Not only does North seem like someone I would love to have crossed paths with in my own solo travels, but I find the color plates of her paintings that the Gribbins have included in their book breathtaking. I found myself dreaming of owning some of them and being able to look at them every day. Although that is not likely, North donated her botanical paintings and a gallery for displaying them to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, where they are still displayed in the recently refurbished Marianne North Gallery. This is now on my must-see list for my next visit to England.
Until that time, I can continue to enjoy armchair travels with authors like Mary and John Gribbin. If you are interested in botanical history or if you like your garden lore spiced with adventure, Flower Hunters is a book for you.