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Adventure and discovery around the world with the plant hunters

Michele Losse
18 February 2011
Plant hunters frequently travelled across the world to discover new plants for science. Discover some of their adventures here with stories from Kew's Archives.

The Archives team at Kew has been hosting tours and talks as part of the national Archives Awareness Campaign on the subject of plant hunters, and my blog contributes to this event.

Plant hunters were botanists and horticulturalists who were willing to take risks to travel the other side of the world, sometimes for several years, to discover new plants for science and to ornament people’s gardens. They had a real passion for discovery and plants and I’m going to introduce you to a few of these remarkably intrepid travellers. 

Joseph Hooker in the USA; Colorado Expedition in 1877 with Dr. and Mrs. Asa Gray amongst others  

Introducing Sir Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour’s voyage to the South Pacific (1768-1771), was appointed as an informal director to the Gardens by George III in 1773. Banks sent the first Kew collectors around the world, including Francis Masson, Allan Cunningham and James Bowie. Their love of plants and willingness to explore unknown shores, despite obvious dangers, resulted in many specimens being shipped to Kew from all over the growing British Empire. Under Banks’ supervision, Kew became one of the foremost botanical gardens in the world, during the golden age of plant hunting.

William & Joseph Hooker

Others in the 19th century followed in their footsteps, even though the Gardens, now a public institution, could not afford to send plant hunters as Joseph Banks had done. However, the Empire was well established and the thirst for new plants was far from quenched. Kew still contributed to expeditions by lending either expertise or botanists and gardeners to others’ expeditions. Sir Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), the son of Sir William Hooker (Kew’s first public Director) and later himself Director at Kew, took part in several expeditions. The first voyage was in 1839-1843 onboard HMS Erebus, an Antarctic expedition, and he later travelled to the central and eastern Himalaya (1847-1849), having obtained a government grant for the trip. In Sikkim, Hooker and his travelling companion, Archibald Campbell were arrested for border violation, only being released when the British Government, threatened to invade Sikkim. Hooker collected c.700 species in India and Nepal and added 25 new rhododendrons to the 50 already known, helping to create a rhododendron craze amongst British gardeners.

20th century plant hunters

In the 20th century, Kew used its own botanists to bring plants back from around the world, and self-made plant collectors still sent plants to Kew. Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958), often referred to as the last of the great plant collectors, sent 120 plants to Kew. He explored regions such as Yunnan in China, Burma and Tibet in the 1920s and 1930s. He was so enthused by Burma’s landscapes that he later returned with his second wife Jean in 1953/4. However, he found the country much changed and some of the habitats he had so admired had been destroyed to make way for agriculture.


Frank Kingdon-Ward's Diary for the Lohit Valley Expedition 1950 FKW/1/25 (f 4)

His diaries make a fascinating read and are far from being dry, scientific writings. He was interested in everything, and talks about the geography, weather, plants as well as native people encountered in an anecdotal manner and with great humour. He also published numerous books about his expeditions which are still widely available today.

Plant hunters were individuals of great courage and determination, equipped with passion and devotion, sometimes enduring weeks of loneliness and physical hardship, bringing back with them the extraordinary plants which can be seen in our gardens today.

- Michele -

Further information

See our interactive book for iPad, The Plant Hunters, featured as new and noteworthy on the Apple iBookstore

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