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.
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|
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...|