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The incredible story of the Victorian plant hunters

BY TL Mogford

18th Aug 2022 Life

The incredible story of the Victorian plant hunters

Forget Indiana Jones—the real action heroes of history were a group of Scottish botanists, who risked their own lives to feed Victorian society's flora fever

When quizzed by The New York Times about how long she planned to stay in the music business, Taylor Swift replied, "When I’m in my fifties, I kind of think I’ll want to be in a garden."

Most people think about gardens in a similar way to Taylor Swift. Somewhere to escape the slings and arrows of everyday life. Havens of tranquility where danger and threat have no place.

But these fragrant sanctuaries conceal exhilarating secrets. Take a seat in an average garden, and you are likely to find yourself surrounded by monuments to deadly peril and nerve-shredding courage.

Because the chances are that the commonplace plants around you—camellias, jasmines, lupins—will be descended from blooms once considered so exotic that brave adventurers would risk, and sometimes forfeit, their lives to find them.

Plant hunters have been around since time immemorial—there are Ancient Egyptian annals detailing a botanical expedition dispatched by Queen Hatshepsut to Somalia to bring back myrrh trees.

But the profession really hit its stride in Victorian Britain, when new technology in glass manufacture and coal-fired boilers led to the creation of elaborate, heated greenhouses.

Ally this development with the country’s burgeoning wealth, and thirst for exploration, and a lucrative market for exotic plants was born.

Pioneering for plants in North America

Old black and white sketch of head and shoulders of Victorian plant hunter David DouglasDavid Douglas rapidly graduated from plant hunting in the Highlands to North America, where he gathered more than 200 plant species

In order to meet unprecedented demand, nursery owners and private collectors invested huge sums of money sending people to remote parts of the world in search of rare plants.

And not just anyone would do—the job required unlimited courage, resourcefulness and a high level of botanical knowledge. An unusual combination of brain and brawn.

David Douglas had both in spades. Born in Perthshire in 1799, the young Douglas found himself in constant trouble at school. An incorrigible truant, he spent his days roaming the Scottish hills in search of owlets and eaglets to keep as pets.

His preference for the natural world over the schoolroom saw him apprenticed to a local nursery aged 11; Douglas excelled at the work, quickly advancing to a position at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow.

There he met William Hooker, future Director of Kew Gardens, who, recognising something in the young man, invited him to join him on walking tours of the Highlands to gather material for his book, Flora Scotica.

When the Horticultural Society—a group of wealthy botanists who first met above Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly—began looking for a botanical collector to provide plants for their newly leased gardens in Chiswick, Hooker had no hesitation in recommending Douglas.

"During his travels, Douglas developed a reputation as a larger-than-life character, famed for keeping a golden eagle as a pet"

Initially, the Society had hoped to dispatch Douglas to China, but political turbulence there meant that they opted for a North American expedition instead.

Arriving in New York in August 1823, Douglas took to the work and the country like a duck to water, completing three separate expeditions, which resulted in the introduction of over 200 species to Britain, such as the garden lupin, the Pacific aster and the towering Douglas fir, which bears his name.

During his travels, Douglas quickly developed a reputation as a larger-than-life character, famed for keeping a golden eagle as a pet (until it accidentally throttled itself on its restraining cords), shooting dead a grizzly bear when it attacked his camp in Oregon, and almost drowning in a whirlpool on the Fraser River.

Such colourful adventures made him the toast of London society, but Douglas found it difficult to settle back into ordinary life, and embarked on what was to become his final expedition, arriving in Hawaii in late 1833.

Permanently snow-blinded in one eye after an earlier trek to collect paeonies in the Blue Mountains, Douglas stumbled into a cattle pit on the sides of the Mauna Kea volcano. An angry bull awaited him, and he was found gored and trampled to death on July 12, 1834.

The Great British tea robbery

Black and white photograph of Victorian plant hunter Robert Fortune sitting in chairThe East India Company employed Robert Fortune to break China's monopoly over the tea industry by stealing its ancient but well-kept secret to tea making

Almost a decade later, the Horticultural Society finally found a hardy Scot to send to China. At the time of his commission, the 29-year-old Robert Fortune was working as Superintendent of the Society’s Hothouse Department in Chiswick.

Setting off for Hong Kong on February 26, 1843, Fortune proved an inspired choice, deploying a devastating mix of guile and charm to acquire a dazzling array of Chinese exotics for the Society—camellias and jasmines; forsythias and mahonias.

On one occasion, Fortune even disguised himself as a Chinese mandarin in order to enter the forbidden city of Suzhou, where he procured a double yellow rose and a gardenia with sumptuous white blossoms.

"On one occasion, Fortune disguised himself as a Chinese mandarin in order to enter the forbidden city of Suzhou"

But Fortune’s physical courage more than matched his cunning. Stricken with fever aboard a cargo junk bound for Ningbo, he was roused from his sickbed with the news that no less than five pirate ships were bearing down on their boat.

Dusting off the 12-bore shotgun that the Society had provided, Fortune scrambled up onto deck.

The pirates had guns of their own, and were already firing at the junk, but Fortune held his nerve, lying flat on the deck until the nearest pirate ship was just 20 yards away.

Then, springing to his feet, he let off both barrels, so surprising the pirates that they turned tail and fled.

Fortune’s expedition for the Horticultural Society was deemed so successful that his services as a plant hunter were immediately in demand. His next employer was none other than the East India Company, who tasked him with the job of smuggling tea seedlings out of China and into India.

Donning another disguise, Fortune succeeded in his mission, and the Indian tea trade was launched, now the second largest in the world. But of all the plant hunters of the era, perhaps none endured greater hardship than George Forrest.

Dodging death in Tibet

Black and white photo of Victorian plant hunter George Forest standing on mountain with dog and walking stickGeorge Forrest nearly lost his life when he accidentally found himself in the epicentre of the 1905 Tibetan Rebellion

Another Scotsman, George Forrest was employed by the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh when he was put in touch with Arthur Bulley, a wealthy Liverpool merchant with ambitions of opening a plant nursery.

"He is a strongly built fellow," Bulley was told by the Keeper of the Garden in a letter of April 28, 1904, "and seems to me to be of the right grit for a collector."

The description proved accurate, and the 31-year-old Forrest showed himself to be a born plant hunter, departing that year for the Himalayas on Bulley’s behalf, and soon despatching crates of seeds back to England—rhododendrons, gentians, primulas, meconopsis.

"Forrest spent nine days trapped in the Mekong valley as the lamas tried to hunt him down"

But Forrest’s plant-hunting career was almost cut short in the summer of 1905. Lodging at an isolated French Jesuit mission in the foothills of the Himalayas, he had no concept of the unrest being stirred up by the British invasion of the Tibetan city of Lhasa.

When word filtered through that a heavily-armed militia of Tibetan monks (known as lamas) was on its way to attack the Mission, Forrest and his fellow residents fled for the hills. The lamas soon caught them up, and a massacre ensued.

"Our little band," Forrest wrote, "numbering about 80, were picked off one by one, or captured, only 14 escaping."

Forrest spent nine days and nights trapped in a four-mile stretch of the Mekong valley as the lamas and their mastiffs tried to hunt him down.

Eventually, hallucinating with hunger, his hat pierced by poisoned arrows and one foot impaled on a fire-hardened bamboo spike, Forrest fell into the company of some friendly villagers, who helped him over the snowline to safety.

Plant hunting grows up

The adventures of Douglas, Fortune and Forrest seem to belong to a different world, and these days, men who were once regarded as intrepid heroes are seen by many as ruthless plunderers; even pirates. So what of plant hunting today?

According to Renata Borosova, senior curator-botanist at Kew Gardens, the profession is alive and well, but its focus now is on partnership and conservation; on ecology rather than profit.

"In-country partners typically invite botanists to join expeditions,’ Renata tells me. "We undertake botanical surveys, often describing new species in the process, and work with local policy makers on establishing protected areas where endangered species can be conserved in situ."

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the potential for thrills and adventure. In the course of her work, Renata has been attacked by leeches in Yunnan, kept vigil for icebergs aboard a boat on the South Atlantic, and used broom-handles to protect herself from aggressive seals in South Georgia—all in the name of plant hunting.

The inescapable conclusion is that Taylor Swift should reconsider her retirement plans. Horticulture is not as sedate as it seems…

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