A Brief History of Plant Hunters

How the precarious adventures of botanists have shaped gardening as we know it today.

| October 2018

  • Plant hunters were adventurers, often charting new territories and plant species alike.
    Illustration by Dave Hopkins
  • “The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations” by Abigail Willis taps into the history of gardening through the eyes of the botanists and explorers who cultivated it.
    Cover courtesy of Laurence King Publishing

The Compendium of Gardening Innovations (Laurence King Publishing, 2018) by Abigail Willis explores the history of gardening and the ingenious discoveries that shaped it into the productive past-time, passion, and livelihood that it is today. Willis is a qualified gardener through the Royal Horticulture Society in the UK. She writes for the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, and has authored another book called The London Garden Book A-Z. The illustrations are by Dave Hopkins whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Economist and Mojo. The following excerpt discusses the explorations of plant hunters


For an occupation usually regarded as sedate, gardening has a surprisingly swashbuckling hinterland. Gardeners have long lusted over exotic plants, and for centuries plant hunters have travelled the globe, braving all kinds of dangers, to procure new specimens – sometimes, as in the case of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s 1804 – 6 expedition across America for Thomas Jefferson, quite literally charting new territory as they botanized.


Lewis and Clark at least made it home (having discovered such garden-worthy treasures as Philadelphus lewisii and Clarkia pulchella). The story of plant hunting is otherwise littered with corpses, catastrophes and pitfalls of the most literal kind.

Robert Fortune’s exploits on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society included fighting pirates, smuggling tea plants out of China, contracting malaria and dangling over a boar pit. David Douglas (he of the fir) was not so ‘Fortunate’; having botanized successfully across America, he met an untimely end in 1834, aged just 35, at the bottom of a wild bullock trap in Hawaii. French missionary and botanist Père Jean-Marie Delavay was felled by bubonic plague in the plant-rich territory of Yunnan in 1895, but not before bequeathing the blue poppy Meconopsis betonicifolia to Western gardeners. Modern-day planters do not have it much easier: in 2000 Tom Hart Dyke spent nine months in captivity, having been kidnapped while searching for orchids in the Panamanian jungle. Douglas and Delavay may not have made old bones, but their names, like those of other plant collectors, live on in plants such as Quercus douglasii and Paeonia delavayi.



The earliest recorded plant-hunting expedition was instigated by the pharaoh Hatshepsut in 1500 BC and successfully relocated a number of frankincense trees from the African Land of Punt to the queen’s funerary garden. Relief carvings show how the highly prized specimens were transported, root ball and all, to their new home in Egypt.

Later plant-hunting sponsors included not just royals and statesmen but also churchmen like Bishop Compton (whose garden at Fulham Palace was the first in Britain to contain a Magnolia virginiana, retrieved from Virginia for him by the missionary Reverend Banister), nurseries such as Veitch, and scientific institutions including the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and Kew Gardens in London. Kew’s first official plant hunter was Francis Masson, whose expedition to South Africa in the 1770s introduced over 40 species of Pelargonium. The Encephalartos altensteinii cycad brought back by Masson to Kew in 1775 flourishes still: the world’s oldest pot plant.






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