by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin
Publisher: Oxford University Press (March 2009)
ISBN 978-0199232075 Paperback £9.99
Every year the Trust receives a book to review about plant hunters. This one involves the overlapping lives of 11 botanical explorers, many who are well-known for their discoveries and for their adventures, others who are less familiar. We read how the hunters faced inhospitable terrain, inhabitants and weather, close brushes with death and, in the case of David Douglas, a dramatically sticky end.
The Prologue introduces John Ray, a 17th-century botanist who, the Gribbins claim, did more than anyone else to lay the foundations for the scientific study of the world of plants. After their first subject, Linnaeus, who they admit didn’t do much exploring but had a huge influence on other plant hunters and on botany, they cover the lives of Banks, Masson and Thunberg, Douglas, William Lobb and Thomas Lobb – who ended his days as a recluse tending his garden at Devoran. Robert Fortune made a major contribution to human happiness by getting tea out of China. Marianne North, the only woman in this account, has left us with a beautiful and scientifically valuable record in paint of the plants she saw. Richard Spruce significantly improved human health by getting quinine out of South America. This history ends with the peaceful death of Joseph Hooker, in 1911.
The title, Flower Hunters, is something of a misnomer, making me think of annuals, perennials and shrubs rather than the trees, bamboos, palms and sedges which they also found and are included. There is, however, disappointingly little about the plants themselves, most detail being given at the end of chapters where ‘In the Garden’ summarises the botanists’ introductions and their uses today. I also wish that the two small sections of contemporary plant illustrations, portraits and photographs could have been expanded and the illustrations themselves made larger.
Flower Hunters is a thick paperback, densely packed with text but also very readable. Concluding with Notes, Sources and Further Reading, and a comprehensive index, it is a book to interest both the garden historian and anyone who enjoys a good biography.