Election Section

Literature of the Plant Hunters in the Giving Season By SHIRLEY BARKER

Special to the Planet
Friday December 17, 2004

As the season for exchanging gifts approaches, presenting something to read to an experienced gardener is a challenge. How-to books for beginners must surely number in the thousands. What book would most please the expert who has long gone beyond the double-digging and the companion planting, who requests a gardening book with humorous or scientific clout, who wants, in short, reading matter that rises above the mundane? 

My mother, lover of words as much as of gardening, allowed me as a child to sit in the herbaceous border among the lupines and oriental poppies while she weeded. I would lisp after her the floral mantras we both enjoyed, mesembryanthemum, dimorphotheca, eschscholzia. Afterwards, during a siesta, she would read. A favorite was Greenfingers, a series of books on the perils of gardening, that would wrench from her, like most mothers a woman of uncertain response to childish jokes, deep chuckles. I only remember one couplet: “There was a girl / who was so pure / She could not say / the word manure.” These books unfortunately are no longer in print. 

A comparably humorous writer in prose is Henry Mitchell, whose The Essential Earthman is also out of print. 

This out of print business is a problem in the more arcane reaches of the gardening world, it seems. A serious but no less entertaining genre concerning plant hunters can also be hard to find. Yet without these benign, intrepid, and often ambassadorial collectors, our nurseries and private gardens would lack the abundance of species that now prevails. Indeed in England, such is the paucity of its native flora, there would be next to no flowering plants. When one thinks of Sissinghurst and Kew, this is hard to imagine. 

It behooves us then to exert ourselves to search for these elusive authors as diligently as they looked for their plants. There are numerous titles. Mea Allan’s books on the topic, The Tradescants, The Hookers of Kew, and Darwin and his Flowers, although not available in bookstores, can be found online at abe.com, where prices diverge from $16 to over $80. Excellently written and researched, her books are highly recommended. 

A more readily available starting point is with the generic title The Plant Hunters. Several authors, or groups of authors, have used this title. Such books tend to be compilations of descriptions of the lives of the heroes who suffered privation in the name of horticulture, such as David Douglas (who gave Californians a certain fir), “Chinese” Wilson, and Frank Kingdon-Ward. This type of book helps one to decide whether to pursue the field, or a specific collector, in greater depth. Often there is an extensive bibliography for further reading. Musgrave, Musgrave and Gardner’s version of The Plant Hunters, subtitled “Two Hundred Years of Adventure and Discovery,” lists over seventy related books. This volume can even be found in local bookstores, including Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts on College Avenue. 

Kingdon-Ward’s own writings are also out of print—unfortunately, because he was brave, insouciant, had much to say and said it with charm. In 2003 an edited collection of his writings, In the Land of the Blue Poppies, appeared under the Modern Library imprint. This is available from Cody’s in paperback at a modest price. Kingdon-Ward’s second wife joined him in his later expeditions as photographer. Judging from a picture of the state of her shoes and the look on her face, she enjoyed every minute of their shared hardships. 

Plant books of any kind tend to be difficult to digest. Just as the everyday manual of basic gardening lore often elicits agonies of guilt and frustration, so can tomes by renowned designers such as Gertrude Jekyll produce yawns of ennui. Plant hunting strikes a more compelling, more rewarding note. It combines real-life detection and adventure without loss of connection to the natural world. 

Plant hunters were often away from home for years. Conditions were frequently horrible and occasionally lethal. After the invention of the Wardian case, a huge glass structure that provided live plants with the necessary freshwater humidity for their long voyage, vast quantities of seeds and plants were successfully shipped to the United States and Europe from the more exotic realms of the globe, such as Nepal. Many previously unknown species survived, thanks also to the skills of the horticulturists awaiting their arrival.  

How the collectors kept good notes and good spirits in freezing or soaking (or both) weather at dauntingly high altitudes with food running low is pleasurable to learn, so long as one is sitting cozily by a fire or tucked up in bed. Their prose is often witty, as well as gently discursive. Like an after dinner liqueur, it is literature for sipping, savoring, and soothing. 

What could be more appropriate for the festive season?