Plant hunters

Plant Hunters. The adventures of plants, botanists and explorers who have enriched our gardens.

Of the irremediable nostalgia of the obsession with hunting out plants.

If, to want to look at things from the point of view of prey, to be removed from their habitat, often brutally by the hunters of plants that call this volume, and then end up at the other end of the world, does not necessarily have been a pleasure , on closer inspection, it was not even an unprecedented denunciation. Plants have always moved to multiply the range of their space and the opportunities of life through the most different strategies, using the most different vectors to spread the descendants: the wind, the sea on which they sail from island to island, the coconuts, animals, … man.
Nomadic collector, then horticulturist and finally, as in this case, hunter … dedicated.
The aspiration to recompose a cartography of the routes covered by the predated plants, an atlas of the migrations induced by our irrepressible desire to appropriate them , the curiosity of tracing the geographic-climatic origin in the often crossed chronology of their new introductions – a phytochrology all Eurocentric – are witnessed by the success of the thick masses of books that recount the daring events (in which – firmly in the armchair – it easily happens to identify with, as in a novel of adventures at the Salgari) experienced by the protagonists responsible for these plant transmigrations, all in various ways victims of that particular form of obsession that is the hunting of plants .

And in this sense, of the ever-present curiosity of the recomposition of those stories, of their human and vegetable protagonists, it is worth republishing this text of 0 on Tyler Whittle ‘s plant hunters , a text translated ten years later into Italian in the then anticipatory necklace of books on nature The Platypus headed by Ippolito Pizzetti.

A text now unavailable, important for the intriguing narrative writing that pervades it and for the breadth of the plant. Which, in a long introduction to the heart of the book, moves from the beginnings of the expeditions in search of incense in ancient Egypt by Hatsheput, until it ends with the modern botanical collecting of the early twentieth century of the itinerant explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward and George Forrest, systematic hunter, specialized in rhododendrons, solitary but skilled in organizing the harvest work. To concentrate, as is evident, mostly on the phase that, from the 00s to the 00s, sees the horizons of the botanical investigation expanding well beyond the home garden.

Retracing these junctions on the thread of the story of the plant hunters, the experimental method converge and techniques to record the observations in a scientific way, in the sign of a renewed need to put order in the nature of things, cataloging them. Together, the proposal for the general classification of the world through the binomial nomenclature of Linnaeus; the role of herbaria as scientific instruments also because of the difficulty of bringing plants from remote places back to their destination (at least as long as they sailed and until the Wardian boxes, a sort of miniserre that will keep the long travel conditions useful for survival); the importance of printing for the dissemination of botanical knowledge and that of drawing in the documentation of plants; the circular of travel reports and scientific explorations that become a kind of success and sometimes end up contributing to financing shipments, and where writing betrays the emotion of the change of scene from the object of laboratory analysis to context, landscape that deserves to be considered; the propulsive role played in the collection and documentation of plants by institutes such as the Royal Horticoltural Society which will send its plant hunters in the world with specific attention to the economic consequences of the spread of “new” plants.

The historical and geopolitical context, the social and anthropological dimension and, often neglected, the interweaving of colonial economic and political interests remain on the background of the coming and going of the stories of plant hunters. In the historical dimension of the conflicts between states and their overseas domains, in the principle of expansion in the North America of the Union to the West and in the exploitation of the revolts in the Far East, in the definition of the geography of the unknown lands, in the opening towards the then almost inaccessible to China and Japan; in making and discarding the design of the borders of states and between states where often our collectors are cartographers (it is the case of Australia but also of Canada and Tibet and northern India – sometimes even unknowingly bent for military purposes) ; in the dimension of the discovery of the other with whom at least it is necessary to collaborate in order to have indications on the plants and in that of the discovery of the habitats that host them, which can not be transposed, in the temperate motherland.

The chasing of dates and places of hunters’ stories, of their unique biographies, prevails in Whittle’s text on the overall design, even when the author doubles, often with irony and even self irony – certainly that of his years and his culture – the anthropological distance from the times and from the men of which he tells . And then, as he tells of the search for plants in the country of chrysanthemums, the impenetrable, at least until , Japan where for a long time you will be forced to pursue them by means of street vendors and nurseries and rummage in the gardens of temples, private homes, taverns, Tyler Whittle lets himself go to an ever-present commentary underlining that “another powerful push to open the Japanese borders was that particular Western fixation of wanting to improve the next one at all costs. There was to be breathless in the face of the impudence with which the Old and the New World assumed they could interfere with their pleasure in the affairs of a highly civilized country like Japan. “

Elsewhere, always with a certain annoyed detachment, the reality of the great history is evoked to mean that, proportionally, we did not pay particular attention to the reported major changes in the “way of hunting plants” in the last years of the 00s (when a more scientific approach was being consolidated in the collection that planned to proceed in a systematic way on the territory) «while … the old world threatened to blow up. The decrepit monarchies of Europe were on the verge of exhaling their last breath. And the same was true of the Manchus, the dynasty that sat in China on the Dragon Throne, though perhaps they did not realize it, “referring to the Taiping uprising …

And, again, speaking of one of his favorite hunters, Joseph Hooker, who traveled from the Antarctic (his Flora Anctartica ) to the north of India and Tibet (redrawing its borders), does not fail to recognize how in the report of his journeys collected in the book Himalayan Journals reveal these “in full the attitude of snarky chauvinism and arrogance typical of the Victorian man abroad, whose memory still embarrasses the most sensitive, rages the Democrats, swollen with regret the hearts of the nostalgic , and makes the most cynical grin. The generalizations of Hooker were exquisite little miniatures of the Victorian hauteur . ” To add that, however, that same text confirmed that in India Hooker “was managing to verify, on the basis of constant observations, his theories on the distribution of plants”.

It is not for nothing that Whittle often counts among the peculiar, recurrent qualities of his pets “the normal indifference of plant hunters to external circumstances”. A congenital inattention for what goes beyond the main object of their passion – which the author seems to share at times.
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There are different models and human types of plant hunters that meet in the various phases described in the book. And they go beyond the fundamental distinction, also often blurred, between naturalists interested in local flowers and garden professionals who are guided by their intuition to pursue the plants that would have been better received on the European market. To the botanists following the great exploration journeys, and to the gatherers sent for research purposes by the scientific institutions, the emissaries of the nurseries are supported. Like the Lobb brothers who, on behalf of the Veeter nursery in Exeter, were sent to South America, William, while the younger, Thomas ended up hunting orchids in Java. This, while some independent collectors were able to finance themselves by aggregating the shares of small groups of wealthy buyers to whom they gradually sent the uncovered plants, a specimen for each. And sometimes, the sale of a single plant could cover the cost of an entire shipment

Sociable or grumpy, enthusiastic amateurs or well-equipped professionals, in organized expeditions or as solitary travelers, botanical missionaries sometimes voted rather to “collect plants than souls”, embassy officials and “honorary commissioners”, uniformed hunters, mostly Russians , institutional researchers, scholars of economic plants that worked on behalf of botanical gardens or for government departments.

Until the adventurers attracted by important gains, which sometimes ended up employed by nurseries specializing in plants from the Far East (in particular, orchids): “ruthless and cruel like the slave traders and the pearl hunters”. Not unlike the precursor, in that case pirate, William Dampier, the living prototype of many ‘villains’ of novels, collector of plants in the second measure and considered an authority on tropical and exotic flora, as well as the author of the famous A New account Voyage Round the World .

They are all men: we do not talk about women except for the case of Philibert de Commerson’s assistant during the cirmumnavigation trip with Louis Antoine de Bougainville, when it turned out to have been disguised as men’s clothes; while it is not considered Marianne North, aristocratic hunter of plants, painter with a sensitivity from ecologa ante litteram, which is the valuable documentation collected during his travels: paintings that illustrate more than 00 types of plants and flowers portrayed in their context natural, preserved in a pavilion in the Kew Gardens of London .

They are all men who, even among them so different for social extraction and cultural baggage, are united by long years of difficult travels and explorations. It includes the enumeration of means of transport (from rafts to stagecoaches, from horse-drawn canal boats and paddle-wheel steamers to wheelbarrows “which were the main form of transport” during Farrer’s expedition to Kansu) and of the dangers continually courses (animals, brigands, avalanches, fragile bridges of ropes suspended on precipices, …).

But moved by a natural predisposition and a huge passion that frequently overcomes the obsessive obsession, conditioning lives and affections.

A good number of them are of humble origins, self-taught, who over the years become great experts. Some, among the major experts of the respective branches and, as the author points out on David Douglas, “we have already noted how the change of fate of botanists – from humble and uncomfortable situations to the conquest of fame and success – looks like often to a fairy tale ».

Certainly also wealthy figures meet, such as the unbridled collector Philibert de Commerson, a sort of irreducible magpie, even if unanimously elected a member of the Academy of France, even if absent from the assembly (special circumstance never before occurred, and d another in his case impossible since he died eight days earlier, but in Madagascar, without the news of his death being already known). Enthusiast rich and powerful: great voters of the newborn scientific societies like Joseph Banks, which is due, among other things, the introduction of Australian flora or scholars like that Joseph Hooker president of the Royal Society and so great expert to be considered by Darwin “as the first authority in this subject, which I consider almost the keystone of the laws of Creation: the geographical distribution of all that lives “.

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Favored by the revolution in the transport system of plants and by the diffusion of specialized nurseries in exotic species that in the face of collectors demand are structured in real companies, the large availability of new plants coming from the four sides of the world – from magnolias to oaks introduced with the first conquest of the eastern colonies of North America , to the specimens that were sent to Europe as they were reached those boundaries of the world of which they knew the existence and little more, from Mexico to Patagonia, to India , to Australia , then, with their progressive opening from China and Japan – contributes to determine a new horticultural awareness, also due to the fact that there is a systematic progress in the collection of plants.

The classificatory attitude and the scientific structuring of knowledge and techniques, of the practical aspects of gardening, add up to commercial needs. Where the attention for the characteristics of the habitat of origin is functional to the attempt to acclimatize with some hope of success the plants in different conditions, and … to be able to sell them.

A new focus therefore for new plant subjects, new varieties, for those exotic greenhouses, but also, to invest the large scale of the landscape, for conifers and deciduous trees from North America with their unusual autumn colors, berry shrubs or early flowering; an attention that reserves a new look also for the individual plants, in itself, for their “natural” shape and their particularities: tree bearing and structure, bark textures, foliage colors …, where these shapes and motifs of the green will inspire to recreate the garden just starting from the same characteristics of the natural elements.

An awareness and a look that will go into the aesthetic process that, breaking the formal schemes, should favor the idea of ​​a garden of English style and the tendency to respect a naturalness of the places, even if often romantic and idealized .

Well beyond the “exoticism” that the encounter with the other also determines in many other spheres of taste (from furnishings to architecture and even in the gardens: for example in the pagodas and pavilions of oriental style, like those of the the botanical gardens of London, the famous Kew Gardens), undoubtedly the merit (the co-responsibility) of our hunters in changing the landscape and the ways and the taste of considering it.

The acceleration of the migratory process of “predate” plants leads to new ornamental fashions in gardens and parks in Europe, modifying landscapes, but also creating new opportunities for exploitation in the timber industry or the pharmacopoeia 0 , not to mention the smuggling of seeds and knowledge for tea processing from China .

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The new aesthetics is being clarified with the emergence of new audiences. Whittle fixes clear chapters since the ordinance in volume chapters. From the period of the orangery collectors to the most widespread botanical and gardener interest in the rich Victorian society. Witnessed by the love for exotic plants, soon so fashionable that it became the object of distinction of taste and the status of those who could afford it, in particular orchids and carnivores, and the spread of the passion for greenhouses in large houses and bourgeois villas – a passion that travels on the wave of the Decimus Burton’s Palm Trees in Kew and the huge glass pavilion, the Crystal Palace for the Universal Exposition, favored, among other things, by the abolition of the tax on the glass in .

And this at least as long as, for reasons of taste, but also for the increasing cost of glass, heating and labor, it will be determined in the late Victorian age A revolution in Western gardening (as with a certain irony a chapter title): for a new public whose finances allowed only the cultivation of rustic and semi-rustic plants, and «whose prophet was an irascible Irishman named William Robinson, destined with the help of Gertrude Jekyll to revolutionize the style of Western gardening and that – as Whittle points out – would have since then tyrannized the gardeners of two continents and given great popularity to that kind of rustic and semi-rustic trees, shrubs and perennial plants that had to be in great abundance and variety in the the jagged valleys and gorges of western China, beneath the white peaks of its great mountains. “

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There, or wherever analogous, ambiguous preys were found by our indefatigable hunters who, save in the cases of the most cynical merchants, always enthusiastically betray the nature of their passion in their travel reports.

That it is, as in the case of Fortune, for the chrysanthemums depicted “with petals that look long and thick hair, red with yellow tips at the ends” or, in the story of how the Buddleia alternifolia sways “on the hills of Löss as a graceful weeping willow with small leaves when it is not in bloom, and as a purest purple cascade at the time of flowering », for Farrel’s pen that tells us how only the reading of the plant in its natural habitat can fully restore the completeness of vision .

An awareness of irreparable nostalgia, so much so that when John Gibson, one of the most experienced travelers in the East, using those cycas, palms, tree ferns, bananas and arias that he had sent to London, he planned Battersea Park with his goal to reconstruct, for the curiosity of his countrymen, what he had admired in the Eastern Tropics, he soon realized that, although it aroused astonished wonder, the result was not in his eyes that “a pale imitation: a phantom, and nothing more, of the dripping and intricate jade forests, enamelled with colors, which he had been able to admire for the first time in Bengal and Assam “.

Irremediable nostalgia, the one that still urges us to reread, to stay with them, the adventures of plants and hunters, irremediable nostalgia for that evoked elsewhere, of that other universe of vegetable presences of unprecedented dimensions, shapes, proportions, colors, fragrances, which for centuries we insist on wanting to possess and replicate with us, to reassemble in a permanent globalization ante litteram, a hybrid that however for some time, often unconsciously, lives in our gardens and in the landscape, not only vegetal, and it seems so familiar to us.

Autochthonous would seem, by now, if you could say – with the comfort of our mad hunters – … since ?

See, for example, John Grimshaw, The Gardener’s Atlas. The origins, discovery, and cultivation of the world’s most popular garden plants , Firefly Books, London 00.

For Italy, Federico Maniero, Chronology of Italian exotic flora , Leo S. Olschki, Florence 0.

On the topic among others, Alice M. Coats , The Plant Hunters: Being a History of the Horticultural Pioneers, Their Quests and Their Discoveries from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century , McGraw-Hill Book, New York 0; Toby Musgrave, Chris Gardner, Will Musgrave, The Plant Hunters, Orion Publishing Group, London ; Carolyn Fry, The Plant Hunters , Carlton Publishing Group, London 00; John and Mary Gribbin, Flowers Hunter , Oxford University Press, London 00, between. en. Plant hunters , Raffaello Cortina, Milan 00; Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession , Heinemann, London 00, trans. en. The brotherhood of the gardeners , Ponte alle Grazie Salani, Milan 0.

For today’s hunters, see Bobby J. Ward, The Plant Hunter’s Garden. The New Explorers and Their Discoveries , Timberpress, Portland 00 and in a local variant, Lucilla Zanazzi, Men and Plants. The passions of the collectors of the green , Deriveapprodi, Rome 0. For a truly sectorial survey on the health hardly put to the test of our hunters, cf. AM Martin, The Perils of Plant Collecting

On the other hand, from the first pages of his work, and then everywhere with his delicate and pungent style, Whittle stigmatizes the intervention of so many victorious Victorian “curators” of the plant hunters’ diaries.

They treat it extensively in the chapter you devoted the Gribbin in their Plant Hunters , cit.

By Baltram and then Douglas.

By Banks with Cook and then George Caley.

For a general overview you can usefully see Franco Panzini, Designing Nature. Architectures of landscape and gardens from their origins to contemporary times , Zanichelli, Milan 00.

Precious and fast growing conifers in North America.

0 The quinine from the bark of Cinchoa of Ecuador.

And the unhappy idea of ​​Joseph Banks to introduce the bread tree in the West Indies to make cheap food for the slaves, with the relative mutiny of the Bounty.

The nod to the debate between the naturalist theoretician, William Robinson, and the formal one advocated by Reginald Blomfield with his The Formal Garden in England () is but a chapter of the pervasive spread in England of a national passion for gardening a little bit in all social strata.

And once again our Whittle does not escape the game to try his hunters, for example in his description (which can be read here on the back cover) of the wonder that gives rise in Gibson to the crossing of East Bengal and Brahmaputra valley: “Where nature was more luxuriant, Gibson faced an extraordinary density: compact masses of ferns and mosses, lichens and mushrooms, gigantic bamboo, thirty feet tall and even more soaring as church bell towers; trees that looked like ships, with sails and ravines of climbing plants, and great epiphytes blazing here and there with trunks and branches; a nature so tumid and throbbing that in the rare moments of silence, where for a moment the squeaks, the lamentations, the screams, in short, the thousand voices of the forest, seemed almost to feel, imperceptibly, grow the plants, mature and swell the cells of that rich vegetation “.

For a quite different perspective, the one proposed by an anthropological reading that moves in relation to a culturally cultivated nature, see the wide-ranging investigation initiated by Jack Goody, The culture of flowers. The traditions, languages, meanings from the Far East to the Western world , Cambridge University Press, Einadi Torino , and the works of Philippe Descola, in particular, Par-delà nature et culture , Gallimard, Paris 00 and which is now translated in Italian The ecology of others. Anthropology and the question of nature , Linaria, Rome 0; more specifically on the themes of exoticism, Jean-Michel Groult, Pour un nouvel exotisme au jardin , ActeSud, Paris 0.