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Favorite Garden Books: Flower Hunters

April 1, 2012
cover image - Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin (Oxford University Press, 2008) 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.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2012 9:03 pm

    This sounds like such an interesting book filled with adventure, history, and knowledge about plants. The world of books takes us on so many wonderful journeys, and this particular book seems as if it would be a great read. I had not heard of this book nor these authors, and so I am very glad to be introduced to them by you…thank you.

    • April 5, 2012 10:13 pm

      Michelle, I was lucky to happen upon this book in my college’s library; it was a treat to read.

  2. April 1, 2012 9:31 pm

    One of the treats of Kew Gardens in the vast number of Marianne North’s paintings. Utterly intrepid with a rare facility for documenting what she saw.

    • April 5, 2012 10:15 pm

      Patricia, It’s great to hear from someone who has actually seen the Marianne North paintings; I’m kicking myself for having missed them during my previous visits to Kew. But then it just provides a good reason to get there again. 🙂

  3. April 1, 2012 10:15 pm

    Jean I love history and how things are discovered…sounds like a perfect book for me…I will definitely check it out…been dabbling in botany a bit too 🙂

  4. April 2, 2012 12:32 am

    If you’re ever in that neck of the woods, Pithlochry in Scotland has “The Explorers’ Garden”, telling the tale of Scottish plant explorers through the plants that they brought back. It’s quite interesting, though I was unfortunate enough to see it a bit late in the season on a very grey and rainy day.

  5. April 2, 2012 1:25 pm

    Ahh, this is fascinating. I am going to request it from our library.

    Thanks dear!

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

    P.S. My garden is going into full tilt spring mode and so I am HAPPY to be a stay-at-home!

    • April 5, 2012 10:17 pm

      Donna and Sharon, I hope you both enjoy the Gribbins’ book.

      Soren, I think I remember you posting about this garden. I think I would enjoy it much more now that I know something about these explorers.

  6. April 2, 2012 4:45 pm

    I know how silly it is to judge a book by its cover, but I’m in love with the cover art, and especially that illustration! Is it North’s work? Thanks for the review, Jean–the book looks fascinating.

    • April 5, 2012 10:21 pm

      Stacy, I do tend to judge gardening books by their covers — at least to the extent that the cover is often what draws me in to look at the contents more closely. I also wondered whether the cover art was North’s work. The book jacket doesn’t actually name the artist, just the book the image came from, but I don’t think it’s North’s work. If you click on the link to the Marianne North Gallery, you can actually look at digital images of her paintings; they seem to me to feature more vivid colors than this cover art, and they also have a style that is somewhat reminiscent of Van Gogh.

  7. Elephant's Eye permalink
    April 2, 2012 4:46 pm

    My mother told me about the Marianne North gallery at Kew – she loves to read about intrepid Victorian women who went exploring the world. And Thunberg is part of our Cape botanical history.

    • April 5, 2012 10:22 pm

      Diana, You’re way ahead of me on this! I had never heard of North, much less the gallery of her paintings. How nice that the Gribbins have remedied that for me.

  8. April 3, 2012 8:00 am

    Thank you so much for this book review. I love reading about explorers of all types, but people in search of new plants are of special interest.

  9. April 4, 2012 8:32 pm

    I will definitely put this book on my list—it sounds fascinating. Plant exploration continues today and can be hair-raising if not quite as dangerous. I have been regaled with tales of their trips by horticulturalists from the Morris Arboretum who travel to remote parts of China.

    • April 5, 2012 10:31 pm

      Mary, If you love reading about explorers and you’re interested in plants, this book seems like a perfect choice.

      Carolyn, Have you read James Dodson’s Beautiful Madness? It’s a charming book in many ways, but I particularly enjoyed his tales of accompanying Tony Avent and others on a plant-hunting trip to South Africa.

  10. April 8, 2012 11:16 am

    Jean – what a thought-provoking post. With me still early in endeavors into gardening, it never occurred to me that gardens could have a history that was treacherous and even life-threatening. Late in August, my husband and I will be new semi-empty nesters – with 2 in college; perfect time to get caught up on one of my favorite pastimes – reading!

  11. April 8, 2012 5:13 pm

    Wonderful review. It really is amazing what people went through not so many years ago to get their hands on new plants. What a love of gardening they had!

  12. maureenfb permalink
    April 12, 2012 1:12 pm

    Sounds a wonderful book. Havent been to Kew since I was a child although it is only 30 miles from me. Hope to visit soon

  13. April 21, 2012 11:20 pm

    I have just finished reading the “Flower Hunters”. Each chapter left me wanting to know more about the individual explorers, especially Marianne North. I thought the photograph of her by Julia Cameron revealed great depth and sensitivity and also a hint of sadness. Intriguing to say the least.

  14. July 29, 2013 1:58 pm

    Hey there! I’ve been reading your website for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Austin Tx! Just wanted to say keep up the great work!

  15. December 19, 2013 6:02 am

    Really a veryy awesome books…


  1. Favorite Garden Books: Flower Hunters « Jean's Garden | Books Palace

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