RBGE Scottish Plant Hunters talk

Last week I skived off my usual Thursday night fiddle class to go to a talk at the Botanical Gardens which looked interesting – 18th and 19th century Scottish plant hunters.

The speaker said that she had written a book on the subject a few years ago, having become interested while working on a local gardening project and realising just how many of the people who had brought back the plants were Scots – proportionally more than any other nationality, she thought. (The description of the talk said that we would find out the social reasons behind this, but as presented they were quite simple – the relatively wide availability in Scotland of at least good basic education, and the presence in London of a successful gardener, Philip Miller, who would only have Scots to work for him, so that there was always a supply of well trained Scottish gardeners around.)

She had chosen four men from those she had originally written about for the talk, covering quite a wide range in time and location (but missing out Monty Don’s great great grandfather, who is apparently in the book!).

The first was Francis Masson from Aberdeen, whose big opportunity seems to have come through being in the right place at the right time when Joseph Banks fell out with the Admiralty after Cook’s first voyage – Banks went off to Iceland in the huff, and Masson went to the Cape instead.

His great find there was pelargoniums (which are presumably different from geraniums in some way unknown to me) – only a few years later they were found not just in big gardens, but in the window of every cottage.

Masson made a second trip to the Cape, hampered by the fact that Britain was now at war with the Dutch, and then went to the Great Lakes of America, which he seems to have liked so much that he never came back, dying out there 7 years later in his 60s.

The second was John Fraser, the son of a crofter near Inverness  who went to the Carolinas, bringing back magnolias, among many others. Later on he apparently decided that he was going to go to Cuba and, in spite of the fact that Britain was at war with Spain, who controlled it, just went, with a false American passport which he then lost!

He had foolishly quarreled with Joseph Banks in his youth, which seems to have cut him off from financial success, whether with his plants, or with publishing a book on the flora of the Carolinas written by a dead friend. Eventually he set off on a collecting expedition for Catherine the Great – however he had come into contact with her – only to find that she was dead before he returned!

The next, she said, was her favourite – David Douglas, born in Scone and an apprentice in the garden of Scone palace before moving to Valleyfield in Fife. His seems to have been the start of a new era in plant collecting – no longer the early scientific explorations using navy ships, but a more commercial business under the auspices of the Horticultural Society, with transport and support provided in this case by the Hudson’s Bay Company, with bases at York Factory on Hudson Bay itself and at Fort Vancouver in the west.

His first trip was to the east coast of America, where he was sent to look for better varieties of fruit trees, but it was his second trip, to the north west, which made his name. Along with the famous firs, he brought back flowers including lupins, and she told a story about a sack of lupin seeds apparently lost into the river from Balmoral, which led to lupins growing for miles along the banks of the Dee.

A third trip took him back to the north west, and he had a plan for walking home through Siberia, having already walked back across Canada on the first trip – but a canoe accident led to this plan being abandoned, and instead he sailed to Hawaii where he was killed in an accident at a fairly young age.

The last, and latest, was Robert Fortune, sent to China with what seemed like a shopping list – bring back a blue one of this, and a yellow one of that. His work was not so much exploring for plants as attempting to negotiate for them, in a country not particularly welcoming to foreigners, and he had various adventures, including entering the Forbidden City disguised as a Chinese man, and an encounter with pirates.

Besides flowers, his great discovery was that green tea and black tea came from the same plant, and on a later trip he got hold of the tea plants which were used to start the Indian tea industry. He also brought back porcelain and other Chinese goods, which he was able to sell for a good price back in Britain, and he was one of the few plant hunters to make a decent living from his efforts, publishing a book of his travels soon after his return, and living to retire comfortably and die at home.

I was hoping for a bit more botany and a bit less gardening in the talk – more scientific exploration, and less focus on the flowers grown in gardens now – but it was interesting, and I now have the book to read to find out about the rest of them!

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