By Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin
Oxford University Press, 2008, 332 pages, ISBN 9780192807182.
This is one of those Christmas purchases which I gleefully swooped on in early December, then gave to my wife, telling her in our matter of fact way: “You’re giving me this book for Christmas”. (This cuts both ways – she often brings home handbags or, most recently, some lovely earrings in ‘her’ colours, hands them over and tells me that I’ve just bought them for her.)
And so, having finally opened up my perfect gift on Boxing Day, I devoured it over the next 48 hours. I love books in the format of a cluster of potted biographies on a theme, and this is one of them. *
‘Flower Hunters’ tells the story of the lives of 11 famous botanist-explorers, while along the way giving the supporting cast of other notable botanists of the era sufficient limelight to illuminate the whole exciting world of hunting for new plants in the 18th and 19th centuries. The ‘First XI’ selected for full chapters are Carl Linnaeus (as it turns out a dud of a flower hunter, but the chapter on this eccentric father of botany nevertheless gets the book off to a great start), Sir Joseph Banks, Francis Masson & Carl Peter Thurnberg, David Douglas, William & Thomas Lobb, Robert Fortune, Marianne North, Richard Spruce, and Joseph Hooker. The ‘12th man’ in the team is John Ray (1627-1705), a pioneer explorer-botanist who forms the prologue to the book.
Packed with anecdotes and biographical detail, each chapter is well written and very easy to read. It never bogs down, and as a nice touch, at the end of each chapter the authors summarise which garden plants we owe to these intrepid explorers.
‘Intrepid’ is undoubtedly the best word to describe some of these adventurers, who suffered mightily in conditions ranging from frost-bitten blizzards to mosquito-plagued swamps in their search for specimens. Along the way some of them brought back plants not merely pretty to behold in a garden or glasshouse somewhere – they made significant discoveries that benefit our lives today.
Richard Spruce made possible the mass production of quinine, to treat malaria, made from the bark of the Chinchona trees he brought back from the jungles of South America. Robert Fortune smuggled both Camellia sinensis and the expertise to cultivate it out of China to create the great tea-growing plantations in India.
I was particularly fascinated to read about how plants were kept alive and transported over such vast, difficult distances back then. No, they didn’t just rely on seeds, although of course they were very important in many cases. By the middle of the 19th century they had developed what we now call ‘terrariums’, perfected by Nathaniel Ward in the 1830s, to such an extent that our plant hunters were able to take numerous ‘flat-pack’ terrariums (á la Ikea) with them into the field, and then assemble them only when needed.
Some of our heroes lived long, distinguished and celebrated lives, such as Banks and Hooker, but others died young, their health broken by their efforts. The worst demise undoubtedly belongs to poor David Douglas (of ‘Douglas-fir’ fame) who, while botanising in Hawaii, managed to fall into a big pit dug to trap the wild bulls which were a problem then. Unfortunately Douglas fell into a pit already occupied by a wild and angry bull, and that was that.
I could only find fault with this book in a few usual but minor quibbles with proof reading and the spelling of a few names which I know here in Australia. It’s a bit under-illustrated for one thing, but as these are often the most expensive part of the production the authors probably have no control over that matter. However, the reproduction of adventurous botanical artist Marianne North’s amazing works has opened up a new avenue of exploration for me.
I had always been in the market for a book such as this, and it has provided me with a launching pad for reading more about several of the people profiled. Robert Fortune, for one, really stands out as being worth a fine biography, so too Joseph Hooker, but should I stumble into a bookstore, do my usual trick and pick up a biography of any of these amazing people and find a few minutes later that I’ve already read several pages without noticing the passage of time, I’m a customer.
* My favourite other book of potted biographies is ‘Short Lives’ by Katinka Matson (Pan Books, 1980) which was, according to the cover, “portraits of writers, painters, poets, actors, musicians and performers in pursuit of death”. Many of them died young (Janis Joplin, Thomas Chatterton, Jack Kerouac), but quite a few choices, such as Judy Garland, Edgar Allen Poe and Dylan Thomas merely departed the stage earlier than they should have, after a life where they often skated close to death before the scythe finally got them.