Tuesday 16 May 2017

In search of the plant hunters: Sue Purkiss

At the end of September, I have a new book coming out. It's called Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, it's published by Alma Books, and it's about a boy and his uncle who go off plant hunting to the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century.

I say it's about plant hunting, and in a way it is. But it struck me when I re-read it recently that you could also say it's about conquering your fears. And you certainly needed to be able to do that if you were a plant hunter in those days - and in fact you still do, as we shall see later: because hunting for new plants meant heading off into remote and often inhospitable places, without the conveniences of good roads (or indeed any roads) or communications technology - and just dealing with whatever you happened to find. And you could find some pretty scary things: pirates, unfriendly locals, precipitous paths and swaying rope bridges, swamps, turbulent rivers, dense forests inhabited by leeches, snakes and animals which wanted to eat you - and so on.

Many of the plants we have in our gardens are not native to Britain - think of clematis, tulips, horse chestnuts, lilies, magnolias, orchids, jasmine. Of course, plants have been migrants for centuries; the Romans took favourite plants with them as their empire expanded, and later, monks in mediaeval monasteries were enthusiastic gardeners who swapped plants, as gardeners always do. But it was in the seventeenth century that plant hunting, in the sense of purposefully going off to explore new territories with the aim of finding new plants, really took off.

Looking back from where we are now, it's uncomfortably clear that plant hunting often went hand in hand with colonial expansion. So the Tradescants, for example, went to Canada and Virginia for plants because North America was being explored with a view to it being settled by the British and others from Western Europe. Sir Joseph Banks didn't set off with Captain Cook to explore the Great Southern Continent purely out of a Romantic desire for knowledge (though I'm sure that was a big part of his motivation); what Britain could get out of it was a big factor.

But the aspect of plant-hunting that really seized my imagination when I first began to read up on it some years ago (I read about the Tradescants in Philippa Gregory's hugely enjoyable Virgin Earth and Earthly Joys, and about the plant hunters generally in the excellent and very informative The Plant Hunters, by Toby Musgrave et al) was how insanely brave these people were: some of them didn't survive their adventures. I imagined a boy, an orphan; one of those children who's always getting into trouble because he's just got so much energy, and because he doesn't think ahead. My boy Jack wants to be an explorer, and can't believe his luck when his aunt, driven to distraction, declares that she can't manage him any longer, and it's the turn of her brother - who, in a move which is utterly uncharacteristic, has just decided to set off on a plant hunting expedition to the Himalayas.

Ton Hart Dyke
As I mentioned earlier, plant hunting can still be a dangerous activity. Tom Hart Dyke is a plant hunter whose family has lived for centuries in Lullingstone Castle in Kent. He was catapulted into the news when he and his friend, Tom Winder, were kidnapped while plant hunting in the Columbian jungle in 2000, and held for nine months. You can read here about their ordeal - and about how the experience led to him conceiving the idea of creating a 'World Garden', which he set about creating at Lullingstone on his return home.

I shall return to those insanely brave earlier plant hunters over the next few months. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out - who needs to hunt for ancient archaeological artefacts when you can hunt for plants?  (Oops - just remembered a certain scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - not literally, Indie: not literally...)

And finally, a little hint as to what Jack and his uncle desperately want to find...


Unknown said...

Loved this post, Sue! I recently visited Kew Gardens, so I'm in a good position to agree with you about the tenacity of all those early plant hunters who brought back so many wonderful plants - the rhododendrons, just now, are in full bloom and absolutely spectacular.

A fascinating and informative post. Thank you.

Penny Dolan said...

Delightful news! Looking forward to reading about Jack Fortune's adventures.

Sue said...

Fascinating, Sue. Really looking forward to reading the book.

Leslie Wilson said...

So interesting!