One of our favorite sections of the Land Library tells the tales of legendary plant hunters of the past few centuries. Their stories are equal parts natural history and adventure. Many of the plant hunters faced considerable hardship, and beyond a doubt, they greatly expanded our appreciation for the seemingly endless diversity of plant life.
Here are just a few of our favorite volumes, starting above with Philip Short’s In Pursuit of Plants: Experiences of Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Plant Collectors, which taps into the correspondence and journals of intrepid naturalists in exotic lands. Also pictured above: Plant Discoveries: A Botanist’s Voyage through Plant Exploration by Sandra Knapp — a beautifully illustrated book that celebrates the botanical artists who accompanied naturalists on their plant collecting treks.
There is one particular plant hunter who has earned a shelf of his own at the Land Library:
Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958) took part in over 25 expeditions, exploring Tibet, northwestern China, Burma, and India. Among his most significant finds was the first viable seed of Meconopsis betonicifolia — the Himalayan blue poppy. And somewhere along the way, Frank Kingdon-Ward also carved out time to be a spy for the British in India. A full life indeed!
In the Land of the Blue Poppies: The Collected Plant-Hunting Writings of Frank Kingdon-Ward provides an excellent introduction to a remarkable life. As does A Plant Hunter in Tibet, an adventure filled account of his 1933 expedition. Filling out our Kingdon-Ward shelf are a few more classic volumes: Mystery Rivers of Tibet, Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges, and Plant Hunting on the Edge of the World.
And here’s two more plant explorers of note:
Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker: Traveller and Plant Collector by Ray Desmond (Hooker was one of Charles Darwin’s closest collaborators, and his travels took him to the Himalayas, the Middle East, Morocco, and the American West), and The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest by Jack Nisbet (Douglas, 1799-1834, also botanized in his native Scotland, and in the distant isles of Hawaii).
The Land Library also strongly recommends two excellent overviews of the golden age of botanical exploration:
The Plant Hunters: Tales of Botanist-Explorers Who Enriched Our Gardens by Tyler Whittle, and Flower Hunters by Mary & John Gribben.
Of course, plant hunting continues to this day, most notably in pursuit of medicinal cures. But there’s another global search afoot, the subject of the Land Library’s most recent addition to its Plant Hunting Collection that we hope continues to grow and grow:
The Last Great Plant Hunt: The Story of Kew’s Millenium Seed Bank by Carolyn Fry, Sue Seddon, and Gail Vines. With partners in over 50 countries, the Millenium Seed Bank seeks to preserve the seeds of the globe’s most threatened plant species.
For more on this ongoing effort, be sure to visit the Millenium Seed Bank website!