Extreme plant hunting in the Archive

Alice Evans, gives a glimpse into some of the fascinating letters from Victorian plant collectors and female travellers she has discovered in the Archives.

Foliage, flowers and fruit of the Nutmeg tree, and Humming Bird, Jamaica

As a recent graduate in English Literature with a particular fascination for the Victorian period and travel writing, Kew’s Archive is a continually fascinating place to explore and experience the work of archivists.

In November of last year the Archive team gave several talks to members of the public as part of the nationwide ‘Explore Your Archive’ week, highlighting some of our favourite pieces from the Archive. I chose to share some of the letters I have come across which illustrate the extreme lengths and situations plant hunters found themselves in.

Plant Hunters in the Archive

The Victorian push to explore, document and collect from new and undiscovered lands has always captured my interest. At this time, many travellers were setting out to collect and document exotic and unknown plant specimens. Many of these were sent back here to Kew for identification, and have been documented in the archive.

Being at Kew has given me new perspectives to these stories, particularly through reading letters in our Directors’ Correspondence collection. The letters are full of accounts of the great lengths plant hunters and travellers went to while collecting specimens.

I take the opportunity of an interval between the earthquakes to write to you which is but to describe the train of misfortune which have befallen me.

George Edward Massee writing to Joseph Hooker from Ecuador, 5 Aug 1869, DC 204 f. 629


Researching my talk I found some incredible accounts of shipwrecks, attacks, imprisonment: "I was made a prisoner, for being a Sorcerer, exiled, and finally banished" (Robert Lyall, Mauritius, 1830, DC 52 f. 17), and general bad luck: "I ultimately lost everything in attempting to pass the river in a swollen state and escaped half drowned and mangled by the rocks" (Massee, DC 204 f. 629). All in the name of plant collecting.

Joseph Hooker in the Himalayas

One particular expedition that caught my interest was in the personal papers of the second director of Kew, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, who spent his youth travelling on botanical expeditions to the Antarctic and the Himalayas.

His journal and letters – which are currently being digitised as part of the ongoing Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project – are full of both the everyday details of his journeys, as well as more exciting accounts of his plant collecting.

I staid [sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect there seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy... Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous... certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever.

Joseph Hooker writing to William Hooker, from Darjeeling, 1849, JDH/1/10 ff. 146-147

As well as surviving these dangerous situations, Hooker was also imprisoned during the expedition by the King of Sikkim for illegally crossing the border into Tibet. Luckily his release was negotiated and the trip was ultimately successful as he discovered 25 new species of Rhododendron which he brought back to Kew.

The intrepid Marianne North

I have also been intrigued to read letters and accounts written by women during this period. Although many people assume that strict Victorian society prevented women from travelling as freely as men, this was not necessarily the case, and many women travelled during the Victorian period, for health and tourism, as well as with artistic and scientific aims.

We can see in letters held in the Directors’ Correspondence collection that many women were writing to Kew from around the globe, as well as in the personal papers we hold of the eminent Victorian artist and traveller, Marianne North.

Portrait of Marianne North (1830-1890) at her easel, Grahamstown, South Africa, from Kew Illustrations Collection

Marianne North is perhaps the most famous female associated with Kew at this time, and her story is fascinating and unique. On the death of her father when she was 40, North left her home to travel first to America, and then all over the globe, painting the plants and landscapes she came across. Although not technical botanical illustrations, North’s efforts should not be underestimated. She travelled unaccompanied to areas still fairly remote in the eighteenth century, including the relatively unexplored Japan which she was captivated by: "I was enchanted with the oddities of the strange islands’ (North writing to Joseph Hooker, from ‘between Japan and China", 1875, DC 151/842). She then went on to commission her own gallery to display her art work here at Kew which remains in its original state today.

"How I got up and how I got down is still a mystery to me", Marianne North writing to Dr Allman, from Seychelles, 1883, MN/1/2/10

Her letter above is a humorous example of the extremes she also too went to, sketching herself perched in a tree to better view the plants she wished to draw..

Alice Evans - Archives Graduate Trainee


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