Ingenuity, dedication, out-of-the-box thinking and the overwhelming desire to explore and share. What we can all learn from plant hunters…
Kew Gardens has long been on the list of London landmarks well worth a visit. 300 acres of rolling park, towering palm houses, tree-top walks and scented rose gardens, an ideal tourists’ afternoon outing make. And for that very reason I’ve avoided it, despite my London base (read sister’s flat), being just a stone’s throw away.
The exotic wild, contained
But with a Feed on my hands and the sun shining, I started to look into what Kew Gardens actually had to offer. It captivated me. Particularly the Palm Houses. Built in the 1840s, the Kew Palm House, like others all over the country, was originally intended as a symbol of status – demonstrating the owners’ ability to house and tame the exotic plants of the wild in a land where they would otherwise have perished.
It took smart thinking, hard work and boundary-pushing technology (at the time) to turn these giant glass greenhouses into climates that would allow the gathered plants to flourish. At Kew, the main Palm House was kept warm and moist by vents releasing damp heat through the floors, powered by fires burning in a smoke stack hundreds of metres away – connected by a long tunnel running under the Gardens themselves.
And although patrons’ egos may have been the driving force behind these ingenious structures, the intrepidation required to fill them cancels out the vanity in their foundations.
Brave, bold, aware and fervent – the plant hunters that populated Kew were definitely Stranger Collective’s kind of people. They travelled across the world, facing natural disaster, hostile locals, war and worse, in order to seek out, document and bring home samples for physicians, patrons and scientific study. In Plant Hunting in North America, Mexico, South Africa and the West Indies, A.M. Martin recounts the adventures, perils and maladies of a handful of leading plant hunters, reporting on their discoveries and their – often untimely deaths – in the name of botany.
These men and women changed our social and physical landscape forever, opening our eyes to different cultures and possibilities along the way.
From frostbite and drowning to malaria, the tales of men like David Douglas (after whom the now ubiquitous Douglas Fir was named), – who was ‘gored to death’ in 1834 after exploring the Americas – make for compelling reading.
These men and women changed our social and physical landscape forever, introducing plants that today we consider common place like rhododendron, camellia and lillies, finding botanical remedies to ailments and illnesses which blighted thousands and opening our eyes to different cultures and possibilities along the way.
They sailed seas, scaled trees, climbed mountains, survived capture and faced starvation to discover the new, the different and the revelatory.
But most crucially, then they shared what they found.
Plant hunters were passionate, driven and ambitious. But they weren’t selfish. These were scientists and explorers at the top of their game, channelling their skills and expertise to go further and discover more than had been discovered before. But discovery for them wasn’t about ego or vanity. It was about bettering opportunities for human kind, expanding all of our horizons and sharing knowledge.
For them wasn’t about ego or vanity. It was about bettering opportunities for human kind, expanding all of our horizons and sharing knowledge.
Take Marianne North. One of many female plant hunters writing to Kew from around the globe, North was particularly committed to the pursuit of plants and knowledge. Her letters and personal papers are held at Kew and recant her travels and adventures all over the world, capturing in her paintings the plants and landscapes she came across.
From North to Douglas, there’s a valuable lesson we can all learn, whatever discipline we’re working in: it takes commitment and risk to discover something new, but that discovery is tantamount to worthless unless it is shared.
Ultimately, keeping your knowledge locked away serves little purpose, where open learning and sharing can actually change the world.
Food for thought. Thanks Kew.