Hunting the Plant Hunters

Ambra Edwards has compiled a fascinating overview of those responsible for many of the plants in our gardens today. She talked to Jess Morency.

Searching for Ambra Edward’s cottage provides a tiny insight into the thrills felt by the plant hunters she writes about. For when I eventually find it, set high on the Dorset and Devon border with a view stretching down to the sea, it’s certainly worth it. Descending in steps, the garden is an explosion of textures and colours—and immaculate.
‘Nature wasn’t very important when I was growing up,’ she tells me over tea and biscuits in her conservatory. ‘My parents were absolutely townies. But when you come to a place like this, it’s just so beguiling. Very calm, very quiet. During lockdown I felt I was in a parallel universe because my life had hardly changed. The lane’s a bit busier now, but twenty years ago the appearance of a car was a major event.’
Ambra was originally a copywriter, working for boutique London ad agencies. Next came freelancing for design companies, interspersed with travelling around the world to places as remote as Tierra del Fuego and the Himalayas. ‘I’ll never forget the astonishment of being in Nepal and seeing seventy-foot rhododendrons.’
A few years later it was a job at a garden magazine that turned her into a garden writer. Or, more accurately, writing about the people who garden. ‘Gardens are stories. It’s like theatre, but using so many more dimensions. You have time, space, and the people behind them, their thoughts and feelings. Garden history tells you what people believe in. Which is what brought me to plant hunters.’
The Plant Hunter’s Atlas is a wonderful combination of human courage, adventure, politics and humour, creating—in 44 short chapters—a fascinating overview of some of the people responsible for many of the plants in our gardens today. ‘Weren’t they incredible?’ Ambra says, her enthusiasm for her subjects catching. ‘That was the absolute joy of doing the book. Deeply bonkers, a lot of them, but wouldn’t you liked to have met some of them? If you think what it must have been like, setting off on a little ship into this great unknown, and there may or may not be these mythical continents.’
If you’d told me that a book about plants would make me laugh out loud, I might have raised an eyebrow. But one of the great things about it is that every chapter contains so many humorous, tragic, or fascinating facts. There’s a rollicking chapter on Philipp Franz von Siebold, who was responsible for introducing the pernicious Japanese knotweed in a single female plant. There are the colossal pitcher plants: one designed as a toilet bowl for the tiny rodents that balance on the rim, another which has adapted to offer perfect bat-sized sleeping bags. Then there’s poor Robert Fortune who, at a time of tense political tension with China, was sent in to collect plants armed with nothing more than a big stick (optimistically described as a ‘life preserver’).
It took Ambra a year to do the research, often reading whole autobiographies and relevant articles in order to find her pithiest lines. Instead of accessing the libraries at Kew, lockdown forced her to do much of it on-line. ‘There are wonderful institutions like the Biodiversity Heritage Library and Project Guttenberg which have lots of these classic texts digitised. Some of these 19th century writers were not exactly snappy, and luckily it meant I could do searches and not have to read every word of three volumes. However, some hunters, like Robert Fortune and Kingdom Ward, are really good writers, very funny.’
I ask if she hopes to encourage her readers to seek out these primary sources. ‘Absolutely. Fortune’s account of his three years wandering in China is wonderful. He gets into major sulks because he’s robbed and he says some very rude things about the Chinese. But what’s really interesting is seeing the world through the plant hunter’s eyes. On the whole they’re quite perceptive.
‘There’s this idea of plant hunters being moustachioed white men in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, and I wanted to debunk that myth. Plants have always moved around the globe, offering an incredibly precise vector of economic, political, intellectual and religious tides in world history. And what we can’t do is look at people collecting at a time of imperial expansion through 21st century eyes: for by the intellectual, political and moral standards of the time many of them believed that they were doing good. But we certainly do need to be less Eurocentric. Acknowledge, for example, the huge resource of plant knowledge that existed in the Islamic world during its Golden Age—7th to 13th centuries. Which was disseminated in medical schools and teaching gardens long before the first university botanic gardens in 16th century Europe.
‘Another thing I wanted to do was recognise the work of the people on the ground. And, even then, hunters took very different approaches. Some were anxious to learn from the indigenous communities, aware of the immense knowledge that had never been written down. Interestingly, women were particularly sensitive to this, people like Maria Graham and Maria Sibylla Merian.’
I suspect that she holds a particular fondness for the latter. ‘Definitely. She was just so intrepid and independent-minded. Here’s a woman—old at 52—who’s already overturned conventions by leaving her husband. She sets off at a time when people didn’t go further than the next town, across the planet to this place she knows nothing about—apart from a few things she’s spotted in a cabinet of curiosities. When she finally makes it to the Dutch colony of Surinam she has to find her way through a society that’s only interested in growing sugar, whereas she is fascinated by possibilities of science and research.
‘And indeed, once the local indigenous Amerindians have hacked her a way through to the remotest of plantations, she finds moths with foot-wide wingspans and spiders so large they can feed on birds. Later, back in Amsterdam, she creates dazzling illustrations of the plants and animals she encountered. Yet she still ends up buried in a pauper’s grave. And how was she treated subsequently? As someone whose work was both gross and fallacious. And yet, wow, what courage and independence of mind.’
The book brings us right up to present-day hunters—and there are still plenty of new plants found every year, listed in the Kew annual report. One example is Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones, whose names are linked to a spectacular rice paper plant they discovered in Taiwan. ‘They were previously dairy farmers, forced to stop because of Mad Cow Disease. Since starting Crûg Farm Plants they’ve visited more than 40 countries looking for garden plants, and are about the only private organisation to have all the same permits as the scientific institutions. I went there a few weeks ago and it’s truly amazing—all these polytunnels full of things you’ve never seen.’
But it’s not just the unusual she finds fascinating. ‘Something like the brazil nut—which I’ve always enjoyed enrobed in chocolate at Christmas—is just so intriguing. Here’s this thing that you take completely for granted and yet it has this extraordinary eco-system. Its flowers can only be pollinated by particularly large female bees, who will only breed with the males if they’re wooed by a particular perfume found in a particular rainforest orchid. So you need: the orchid, the bees, the rainforest, the perfume… And then the nut is fertilised and when it’s formed in fifty-metre high trees the outer shell is so hard that even though it crashes to the ground it still doesn’t break. So then you have this rodent that comes along and makes a hole in the casing to get the nuts out; at which point, because it can’t eat all the seeds, it buries the extra ones; hence you get more brazil nut trees. There have been many attempts at cultivating them commercially but it just doesn’t work.
Throughout the book, mention is made of the destruction of various habitats; although, like everything else, it’s done with a light touch. ‘You can’t ignore things like the impact of deforestation in Indonesia (which puts at risk the vine on which the giant parasitic Rafflesia flower depends). And even though the excitement of scientific discovery still exists, how tragic is it that you find this incredible plant, known as the Orchid of the Falls, that’s adapted to grow in the middle of a crashing torrent. But you only find it when you’re doing a survey for a dam that’s going to wipe it out.
‘On the plus side, plant hunting today is about conservation. It’s about our children and grand-children—and there is nothing more important than protecting the planet. And some of the most highly regarded scientists are women. Which as we know, hasn’t always been the case. That’s where I’d like to go next: the female botanists who haven’t had the attention they deserve. There were so many stories I wanted to tell, but didn’t have the space.’