Plant Hunters and Botanical Art

As winter sets in and my outdoor time is limited by bad weather and short days, I find myself enjoying a wonderful range of books on botany.

Two of the books I just read have the same name.  I looked for The Plant Hunters by Anita Silvey, which came out this year, at the library and also found The Plant Hunters by Carolyn Fry, which was published in 2009.  In fact, there are quite a few books with plant hunters in the title, and they all seem to promise great reading on a rainy or snowy day.

In the calm of a park or garden, one can hardly imagine the tumultuous history of the relationship between humans and plants.

The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth, by Anita Silvey, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012, is aimed at children and young adults, but it’s a great read and visual feast for anyone interested in botany, gardening and the natural world. It is generously illustrated with botanical art, old maps and photographs.  Silvey works from primary sources — journals, letters, notes from the field — to bring the stories to life.

“One got eaten by tigers in the Phillipines; one died of fever in Ecuador; one fell to his death in Sierra Leone.  Another survived rheumatism, pleurisy, and dysentary while sailing the Yangtze River in China, only to be murdered later.  A few ended their days in lunatic asylums; many simply vanished into thin air.”

Collecting plants from all corners of the world became something of a mania, especially from 1700 to 1900, when Europeans were besotted not only with gardening, but with ideas of finding hardy food crops, medical plants and exploitable cash crops. I wonder sometimes who is in control of this evolution of plants — is mankind their servant?  Through our explorations and cultivation, plants like coffee, tea, tulips, corn, and potatoes have spread far beyond their original territory.  People have in turn reaped better food crops and been given the great gift of ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers.

Silvey’s writing is crisp and compelling.  The prose never gets bogged down but still provides a lot of information and history. The book briskly covers the time when Queen Hatshepsut of Ancient Egypt sent a convoy to Africa for frankincense trees up to modern times and the building of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in Norway, in 2006.  I loved reading about modern plant geeks and the surprising fact that hundreds of new plants are still being discovered every year.

This is an informative, fun and beautiful book for plant lovers of any age.

The Plant Hunters: The Adventures of the World’s Greatest Botanical Explorers, by Carolyn Fry, was published by Andre Deutsch, in 2009.  It’s in an album type binding and contains fold-outs and enclosures of  documents, journal entries, sketches and drawings.  Vellum and paper envelopes are attached throughout the book so you can handle facsimiles of  herbal manuals and Dutch tulip catalogs from the 17th century,  the oldest known map of the Kew Gardens, pages from Linnaeus’s Lapland journal and dozen more pieces of historical ephemera.  Here again are examples of botanical art that are just breathtaking.

Fry’s narrative is a bit more dense and detailed than Silvey’s.  Every turn of the page tells a new story and it feels like I’m touring a natural museum from my chair.  This book also delves more deeply into how the history of  plants is tied to imperialism and slavery.  However, most botanical adventurers were driven more by a love of nature, travel and adventure.

These books make the simple act of planting a tulip bulb or buying an orchid at the grocery store seem a little more miraculous.

I can’t let this opportunity to go by without promoting a favorite book of mine, Cultivating Delight, A Natural History of My Garden, by Diane Ackerman.  She takes us through her gardening process by season.  A poetic and discursive writer and natural historian, Ackerman’s book has been a huge comfort to me since I can no longer garden.  I let her do the gardening and enjoy the lush descriptions of flowers, wildlife and the antics of that most peculiar of species, the human gardener.

Since Ackerman has spent her life studying and writing about natural history, and is, as she states, an “earth-ecstatic,” I always get a deep appreciation for life on Earth whenever I read her work. Even something as seemingly simple as a backyard garden has a wealth of intricate beauty that she brings to light — although hers is a huge garden, with hundreds of roses and dozens of other plants.   Here is one of my favorite descriptions of rain, which shows her style of taking a detail and making it a whole universe:

“I’d call this a gentle rain, but no rain is gentle.  The shape of rain changes as it falls. Raindrops are never round for long; they’re high-speed shape-shifters.  Pulsating wildly 300 times a second, they become domed, flat-bottomed, elongated, egg-shaped, swollen, skinny, flat, pill-like, tall. Watching a raindrop fall in slow motion, I see the well-rounded peace of a tiny world, not furious crack-ups and mutations.  It reminds me of the gradualness of growth, biological or personal.  People appear to be whole, and yet they are countless small processes holding one another in equilibrium. Wishing to move beyond some outworn behavior, one might lament, “I’m not there yet,” without realizing that there isn’t a there there, since growth happens in minute increments.  A time may come when one says, apropos of an awkward incident, “Oh, I feel like I’m reacting differently than I used to,” but one never knows how one got there.  A thousand tiny oscillations were happening in every round moment.  It’s like the shape of rain, which is constantly changing, yet staying recognizably the same, though at times it may have assumed opposite forms.”

I read this book whenever I feel out of touch with the marvelous.

All this reading about plant hunters with their beautiful illustrations made me hungry for more botanical art, which I’ve always loved.  Luckily, there are great books out there for any botany-maniac that show the exquisite structures and colors of plants.

The Art of Instruction, Vintage Educational Charts from the 19th and 20th Century, Introduction by Katrien Van Der Schueren, Chronicle Books, 2011, has reproductions of amazing botanical and zoological anatomy charts.  I don’t think there were any like it in my schools — they are from Europe, mostly French and German publishers.  This oversize volume inspires a sense of wonder at the diversity of life — from the cross section of a tulip to the anatomy of a kangaroo.  This is a captivating look at the history of science, art, education and design.

David Attenborough’s Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery, with Susan Owens, Martin Clayton and Rea Alexandratos, Yale University Press, 2007, focuses on the natural history drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci, Alexander Marshal, Maria Sibylla Merian, and Mark Catesby from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.  Practically every page has fantastic illustrations and insightful commentary on mankind’s desire to illustrate the natural world. It’s so interesting to see the way the styles and sense of perspective change with each artist.  The writing is as rich as the material presented.  From the precise chalk drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci to the almost surreal rich watercolors of Maria Merian, this book is a delightful journey and gives me a sense of what people thought about plant and animal life throughout history.

A New Flowering, 1000 Years of Botanical Art by Shirley Sherwood, Ashmolean Museum, 2005, is a book cataloging Sherwood’s collection of botanical art as they were exhibited by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.  Sherwood’s comprehensive collection contains work beginning with illuminated volumes from the 15th century to the present day.  Older works are published alongside the newer ones and it gives great perspective on the history of the art.  It’s amazing to me how drawings of the same plant can be rendered so differently and still be accurate.  Part of the delight of seeing all this work is the underlying insight it gives into how we see.  The reproduction are very clear and beautifully printed.

If you are missing the flowering of summer, any of these books will be a feast for your eyes.  And I got copies at that most marvelous of institutions, the Multnomah County public library.


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