Book of the Month: March – Scottish Plant Hunters

Seeds of Blood and Beauty: Scottish Plant Hunters
Ann Lindsay

This was essentially the extended version of the talk I went to a couple of weeks ago – 14 gardeners and botanists instead of four, and a much more naval story, surprisingly – if there was a ‘classic’ path into plant collecting for these men, it was to study medicine, with its botany classes, in Edinburgh, sign on as a naval surgeon, and be sent off to foreign parts.

There’s more social background here than there was in the talk, but the basic reason why so many gardeners and plant collectors were Scottish still seems to have been that lots of them were Scottish – not only did they encourage young relatives and boys from their areas, but they became known as successful, so that it became fashionable to have a Scottish gardener in order to be successful too.

The first few, Phillips and Forsyth and Aiton, are the gardeners of Kew and the Chelsea Physic Garden – Masson, who went to South Africa, is the first of the wanderers, and the first on a naval ship, sailing on Cook’s Resolution as far as Cape Town, and remaining there for the next three years before returning home. Another 18th century collector, William Wright, served as surgeon on naval ships in the West Indies for several years before settling as a surgeon in Jamaica.

Probably the most interesting story of the book is that of Archibald Menzies, another naval surgeon who sailed as official botanist, and later as surgeon, on Vancouver’s mission of exploration to the Pacific North West, involved in exploring and charting the bays and islands of the region, and also visiting other parts of the Americas, including the Galapagos Islands. Having already read about these events from Vancouver’s point of view, I knew Menzies only as the character who signed on to a naval mission for naval pay while under orders from Joseph Banks to keep a secret record of anything the captain – however correctly – did which went against his own entirely non-naval agenda. And I still think that was completely wrong, but I’ll accept that it would have been difficult for anyone to stand against Banks, and Menzies seems to have been a likeable and successful character in his own right.

David Douglas (my favourite as well as the author’s!) is one of the first of a new type of collector, sent on commercial rather than scientific missions, and he was followed by Thomas Drummond, who met Douglas in Canada and also died young in America, and John Jeffrey, also sent to the American North West, who simply vanished in mysterious circumstances in California.

David Lyall was one of a new set of Victorian explorers, sailing as a naval surgeon and naturalist to the Antarctic with James Clark Ross, on an expedition which reached further south than anyone else ever did by sail, and later visiting the Arctic and being stationed on Vancouver Island and visiting the Rockies. Thomas Thomson, in contrast, is the one army surgeon of the book, sent with the Army of the Indus into Afghanistan, but fortunately coming out again.

Unfortunately, the book could really have done with a good editor, or just with more care being taken with it in the first place – issues range from typos and plain wrong words (I liked ‘straightened circumstances’), to silly mistakes like mixing up Thomas Gladstone with his Prime Minister brother, or writing about the ‘1707 Union of the Crowns’ (a previous borrower had taken exception to this and scored out ‘of the Crowns’ – unfortunately it was clear from the context that the 1603 union was intended!), to a whole chapter given the dates of George Don junior and a title referring to his life (‘From Angus to Africa’) which turned out to be about the work of his father, who certainly never went near Africa. Enough to make you wonder how many silly mistakes are mixed in where you don’t know enough about the subject to catch them, which is a shame, because there are some interesting stories here.

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