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The Wild World of Plant Hunting.

Updated: Feb 23

A series of green overlapping plant leaves with various foliage patterns.

Most of us regard our gardens as green havens, offering a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Many of us adorn our homes with house plants, luxuriating in the tranquillity they instil, our mood enhanced, the air we breathe purified. Little do we realise that we are in fact surrounded by monuments to courage in the face of extreme peril. Forget Indiana Jones, plant hunters faced immeasurable challenges as they toiled to bring new and unusual plants to our shores. Their swashbuckling adventures made them the talk of all society.

The collection of specimens from the wild, plant hunting, has a history that dates back centuries to 1495 BC when Queen Hatshetsup sent botanists from Egypt to Somalia to find incense trees. It was the Victorian age, however, that was the zenith of the plant hunter, with the voracious demand for exotic plants resulting in the transformation of our botanical gardens. The plant hunters were an intrepid bunch, some might say foolhardy, facing earthquakes, raging storms, tropical diseases and understandably incensed locals – one man’s ‘specimen collection’ being another man’s ‘theft’. They were funded handsomely by folks back home motived less by horticultural interest that the opportunities for empire-building, kudos, fame and fortune.

One such fellow, who had the necessary blend of brains and brawn, was David Douglas born in Perthshire in 1799. Despising the schoolroom, Douglas would instead roam the Scottish hills in search of young eagles and owls to keep as pets. Apprenticed to a local nursery at 11, Douglas later caught the eye of William Hooker director of Kew Gardens. When the Horticultural Society – a group of wealthy botanists who gathered for meetings above the Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly – decided they wanted some unusual plants for their newly leased garden, Douglas was an obvious emissary.

Unfortunately, China was out of the question, judged too politically tempestuous, so Douglas was posted to North America. Over the course of three expeditions, Douglas introduced more than 200 new species to the UK including the Lupin, the Pacific Aster, the California Poppy and, of course, the Douglas Fir, which along with other conifers such as the Monterey Pine and Grand Fir transformed both the British landscape and timber industry.

Douglas was certainly a colourful character, keeping a golden eagle as a pet and telling yarns about shooting dead an attacking grizzly bear and nearly drowning in a whirlpool. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he struggled to acclimatise to normal UK life so set out yet again in 1833 to Hawaii in what was to be his final expedition. He had snow-blindness in one eye, an old injury dating from the collection of peonies in the Blue Mountains, and unfortunately because of this he stumbled into a cattle pit on the sides of the Mauna Kea volcano. The only other resident of the pit was an angry bull who proceeded to gore and trample poor Douglas to death.

It took another decade for the Horticultural Society to find someone to travel to China – yet another indomitable Scot, 29-year-old Robert Fortune exploited his skills of guile and charm to acquire a miraculous diversity of Chinese exotics, among them Camelias, Jasmines, Mahonias, Chrysanthemums and Azealas. Disguising himself as a Chinese Mandarin, he entered the Forbidden City where he found a climbing double yellow rose and a gardenia with striking white blooms. On yet another occasion, and while stricken with fever, he fought off attack by five pirate ships. Predictably his skills were much in demand and he went on to work for the East India Company, smuggling tea seedings from China to India and thus helping to launch the Indian tea trade, now the second largest in the world.

Pretty wild stuff then, but in fact it was arguably plant hunter George Forrest (yet another Scot!) who faced the worst hardships.

In 1904 he travelled to the Himalayas and was soon sending back impressive crates of seeds including species such as Rhododendrons, Gentians, Primulas, Meconpsis, Clematis and Alliums.

Unfortunately news failed to reach him of the British invasion of the Tibetan city of Lhasa, and he was not aware of the resulting tensions.

The politics of war are ugly and complex but ultimately this event led to warrior Tibetan priests (known as Iamas) torturing and killing any foreigners or locals perceived to have contact with foreigners.

Forrest was lodging at a French Jesuit Mission at the time and had to flee for his life with the other residents when a heavily armed milita of Tibetan Iamas launched an attack.

As Forrest writes: ‘Our little band … numbering about 80, were picked off one by one, or captured, only 14 escaping.’

Travelling by night and hiding by day, Forrest barely escaped and spent nine days and nights trapped in a four-mile stretch of the Mekong valley.

Eventually, hallucinating with hunger, his hat pierced by poisoned arrows and one foot impaled on a bamboo spike, Forrest was saved by the local indigenous people who disguised him as a Tibetan and helped spirit him through the dense jungle to relative safety.

Fascinating as these stories of plant hunting are, they do truly seem part of another age or even another world. Brave they may have been, these guys could also be considered reckless plunderers, some might even say pirates. These days the profession is alive and well, but the focus is conservation rather than glory or economic benefit. Partnerships are crucial with local policy makers inviting outside botanists to cooperate in order to establish protected areas and conserve endangered species.

And just like every garden plant, every houseplant has a descendant in the wild and a story to tell about how it came to live alongside us in our homes. Commercial plant hunters still get the fascinating job of travelling across the globe, looking for new and rare specimens. These days cuttings are taken (not to disturb the natural habitat) and these are then grown on in a high-tech lab to discover which conditions they favour. Testing in a normal home follows and if the plant proves that it can thrive here then it will then be sold commercially. Out of around 100 cuttings only one or two will make the grade.

So maybe next time you are purchasing a new plant for your home or garden, pause to think about the stories it or its ancestors could tell you. If only they could talk!

Letters from the workplace – plant hunter style!

“Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous... certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever.”

Joseph Hooker writing from Darjeeling, 1849

"I was made a prisoner, for being a Sorcerer, exiled, and finally banished"

Robert Lyall, Mauritius, 1830

“I take the opportunity of an interval between the earthquakes to write to you which is but to describe the train of misfortune which have befallen me.”

George Edward Massee, 1869 "I ultimately lost everything in attempting to pass the river in a swollen state and escaped half drowned and mangled by the rocks."

George Edward Massee, 1869

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