You can listen to this page as an audio file.
The plant hunter’s atlas: A world tour of botanical adventures, chance discoveries and strange specimens by Ambra Edwards 2021. Greenfinch [an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd, which is a Hachette UK company].
Despite its name, The plant hunter’s atlas by Ambra Edwards is not a guide to countries from which you can source plants for your own garden [although many of the plants from remote lands showcased in the book have found their way into England’s gardens…]. Rather, it is a collection of stories about plants and the people who have collected them from around the globe. In that respect, its sub-title A world tour of botanical adventures, chance discoveries and strange specimens probably gives a better idea of the book’s scope and breadth. First off, I should say that rarely have I been so conflicted about my assessment of a plant book [yes, I suppose that is a sort of ‘spoiler alert’].
This is a beautiful botanical bonanza…
The 297 pages of the main text in The plant hunter’s atlas packs a powerful plants-and-people punch. Dividing the world into six geographical regions – e.g. Australia and the Pacific, Europe and the Mediterranean, and North America and Mexico – Edwards celebrates 44 plants. The entry for each of the highlighted plants (which are all seed-bearing plants, featuring a good mix of gymnosperms and angiosperms – both monocots and dicots) starts in a formulaic way: a small map (to show where in the world the plant was originally found), the Scientific name (the plant’s binomial), Botanist (the individual(s) credited with first finding the plant), the Location (in words that match the featured map), and a Date (of the featured plant’s first documented discovery?) The individual entries generally run over 4 or 8 pages and are a brain- and eye-pleasing combination of very well-written and stylish text [e.g. “Soon the monkey puzzle became the 19th-century equivalent of the Porsche or Prada handbag” (page 275)] and gorgeous illustrations (usually in colour and selected from the extensive collection held by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which august institution co-published the book).
Whilst there’s a good deal of botany for each plant entry, there’s probably more about the human dimension, particularly the tremendous trials and tribulations undergone by such intrepid globe-trotting plant-hunters as Jeanne Baret, Maria Sibylla Merian, David Douglas, Ernest Henry Wilson, George Forrest, and Frank Kingdon Ward. Which is fine by me and makes for a great mix of plants and people. After all, although the plants featured in The plant hunter’s atlas are frequently found in European gardens (and other plant collections globally), many are far removed from the original ‘homes’. Those plants didn’t just appear there by accident; in almost all cases a person was responsible for their long-distance translocation from far-flung parts of the globe. It is therefore rather sobering to read of the time and trouble taken – and terrible truncation of life expectancy that resulted in some instances – by amazing individuals who sought to bring these botanical treasures to greater prominence and to a wider audience.
Although some of the plant stories are probably quite well known – e.g. fever tree (Cinchona, source of anti-malarial medicine quinine famously refused by Oliver Cromwell, who may – or may not – have died of the disease (Sanjay Saint et al., Am J Med Sci 353(4): 398-401, 2017; doi: 10.1016/j.amjms.2016.11.024)), ginkgo (a tree that survived the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II), and breadfruit (which is forever associated with the mutiny on The Bounty), there is much more that was entirely new to me. Which is why The plant hunter’s atlas is a most welcome addition to the flourishing literature in the plants-and-people genre.
Although the bulk of the book is devoted to the 44 ‘plant portraits’, I’d like to make special mention of the Introduction. This section is not only a great introduction to the utility of plants, but it’s also an important reminder that the empire-building aspirations of European states from the 15th century onwards was at the root of much of the plant exploration and discovery considered in the book, and that some of the earliest plant hunters were missionaries. The Introduction provides a succinct summary of the history of plant-hunting and gives an important ‘shout-out’ for the wonderful Wardian case which revolutionised the business of transporting tender tropical plants to cold European climes. And ends with this great quote: “The plant collector’s job is to uncover the hidden beauties of the world, so that others may share the joy” (page 17) (attributed by Edwards to Frank Kingdon Ward). Plants bring many types of joy, not least of which is a fund of fascinating facts…
… that’s full of quirky plant facts…
So, if you are keen to find out: What Australia’s Botany Bay was originally called; the name of the first Australian plant to be cultivated in England; what plant tree shrews and nocturnal rats use as a toilet; who was known as the Grand Old Man of British botany; which individual has been described as both The Green Samurai and the Japanese Linnaeus; which Welsh plant-hunting/farming pair had to hide from “gun-toting thugs guarding opium fields in Thailand” (page 138) whilst out plant-hunting; the identity of the Gardener King; the tree species hired out “a branch at a time” (page 222); what tree, planted at the White house by US President Andrew Jackson in memory of his wife, was axed in 2018 by Melania Trump; which notable Perthshire (Scotland) plant hunter was known by his Chinook travelling companions as “the Grass Man” (page 231); which mountain Prussian explorer extraordinaire Alexander von Humboldt’s gave him insight into the latitudinal distribution of plant diversity over the globe; and discover the name of the author whose books for children “somehow always sneaked in an element of botany” (page 288), then The plant hunter’s atlas is just the book for you!*
… but that’s not without its flaws
The list of plant – and people and places – facts amassed in Edwards’ book (the depth and breadth of which is only hinted at in the paragraph immediately above) is a great tribute to her diligence in digging [yes, a horticultural ‘pun’…] through the literature to unearth such intriguing information. That, and the other comments above, must be viewed as great strengths of The plant hunter’s atlas – because they are. However, when one looks more closely into the specifics [as a critical reader must], a number of issues become apparent.
The book ‘name checks’ 44 plant taxa in its main entries. But, nowhere could I find out why those particular plants were chosen. The great majority are what one might classify as ‘ornamentals’, or plants one would otherwise see on display in botanic gardens or gardens of stately homes. But, some decidedly ‘utilitarian’ plants are included, e.g. tea, coffee, and wheat. Wheat is not a ‘garden plant’ – and neither is tea or coffee really. Whilst all of these botanics are worthy of inclusion, it would be interesting to know the author’s rationale. Also of note, although many of the entries are species, several are genera – e.g. Tulipa, Stapelia, Lithops, Coffea, Dahlia, and Cinchona. Also notable is the fact that there is usually a lot more plant- and people-related material in an entry than just the named plant. Take, for example, showy Chinese gentian (pages 116-123). Although that entry is illustrated with a painting of Gentiana sino-ornata on page 117, this entry primarily highlights the exploits of George Forrest and his explorations in China [which noted plant hunter is certainly worthy of this treatment because Edwards tells us he collected >1200 spp. new to science, and has >30 taxa named after him]. But, Magnolia campbelli is also written about and pictured in that entry, as is Primula littoniana; also included are other Primula spp., Camellia spp., and Rhododendron spp. In fact, G. sino-ornata only gets a paragraph of dedicated text amongst its 8-page entry(!). Not that there’s anything wrong in giving the reader lots of plant stories, but it leads one to question the real focus of each entry. For completeness, it is worth mentioning that only the binomial for a plant species is included. Had the Authority also been provided, it would make it quite clear that in almost all cases the Botanist who discovered the plant was not the person who first – officially – named it,** and should help to resolve some of the controversy surrounding Dates.
Dates are specified for the majority of plant entries. But, it is sometimes difficult to know what the date stated actually means. I couldn’t find any guidance on how to interpret the descriptive panel that begins each plant entry, so have assumed the Date is the year in which the plant was first ‘discovered’. Sometimes that appears to be the case when the same date is also mentioned in the text for the plant entry. But, it’s not always clear. For instance, what are we to make of a Date of 1851 for Nepenthes raja? In the accompanying text 1851 is only mentioned as the date of Britain’s Great Exhibition, where “a spectacular display of pitcher plants” (page 59) was staged. As a pitcher plant, maybe that’s where N. raja was first shown off to the public? But, surely the plant would have had to have been ‘discovered’ before it could be displayed? Elsewhere in the text, Edwards tells us it was 1844 when Thomas Lobb sent “the first two Nepenthes species back to Britain” (page 59), so the featured plant must have been discovered by that year at the latest? Were these species other than N. raja? We’re not told. There’s also confusion regarding the declared Date of 1897/1901 [why there are two dates of discovery is not disclosed] for the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), because it is clearly stated in the text that it was found in May 1888. And why is the Date for fever tree (Cinchona) shown as 1860 when the text tells us that quinine was extracted from its bark in 1820, and its curative powers had already been observed by Spanish missionaries in Lima as early as 1633? Finally, was wheat (Triticum aestivum) really not discovered until 1921, by Nikolai Vavilov, in Leningrad? The only mention of that year in the associated text is this: “By spring 1921, Russia was in the grip of yet another famine…” (page 170), which doesn’t give much reassurance as to the true date of wheat’s ‘discovery’. Checking the Authority for wheat’s binomial shows that the species was first named by Linnaeus. Since Linnaeus was born in 1707 and died in 1778, T. aestivum must have already been discovered – and long before 1921 – for Linnaeus to have given it a scientific name? For those who like such things, the oldest plant discovery in The plant hunter’s atlas is saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) (page 148) “Before 2400 BCE”; the most recent is Linsonyi (Talbotiella cheekii), “a giant rainforest tree, 24m (79ft) high…” (page 204) that wasn’t found until 2017.
Most of the plant entries have named individual(s) associated with them under the descriptor of Botanist. Although I couldn’t find an explicit statement in the book of what ‘Botanist’ actually means, I assume it to mean ‘name of the person(s) not native to the place where the plant was found who is deemed to have been the first to have discovered the plant’. Most often the stated Botanist is a white European male. This ‘quirk of history’ Edwards tackles head-on in the Introduction and recognises that it is a direct consequence of the global expansionism of European countries – and attendant enslavement of indigenous peoples of many of the colonised territories – since the maritime voyages of the so-called Age of Discovery of the 15th century. Sadly, for an activity that brings so much joy to those who gaze upon its discoveries, plant-hunting is an activity that is associated with great sadness and human suffering. Edwards recognises that in many instances the plants were already known by the indigenous people living alongside them – for example, the tree named Talbotiella cheekii was called linsonyi by the locals in Guinea long before it was ‘discovered’ by Xander van der Berg in 2017, and the giant redwood was “well known to the local First Nation population” (page 239) before it was found by grizzly bear-pursuer Augustus T Dowd [Somewhat curiously William Lobb is noted as the Botanist for this species’s discovery on page 236]. Because the association of people and plants is so ancient (e.g. also Carl Sauer, Geographical Review, 37(1): 1-25, 1947; doi:10.2307/211359; Jo Day, Journal of Experimental Botany 64: 5805–5816, 2013; https://doi.org/10.1093/jxb/ert068; Barbara Schaal, Plants People Planet 1: 14-19, 2019; https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.12), we will probably never know the name of those who first found/discovered a particular plant species. But, is a name that is documented – even if more often than not it’s by a European and maybe thousands of years after the plant’s original discovery – better than no name?** Maybe. But, there are instances in The plant hunter’s atlas where no name is shown, e.g. cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) [but which is curious since a Date of 1636 is noted for this species, and that presumably documents an event or activity that can be related to a person…], and saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) [not so curious as cedar of Lebanon since saffron’s Date is “Before 2400 BCE” (page 148)].
It’s also worth commenting that it’s not always clear that the named individuals are actually Botanists. For example, in the case of frankincense (Boswellia sp.) the Botanist recorded is Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut (shown as Hatsheput in the Index on page 301) was a female Egyptian Pharaoh who “sent a force to the fabled Land of Punt in search of incense trees” (page 176). As phrased it suggests that she didn’t herself go to the Land of Punt and therefore didn’t actually discover the trees, which were returned to Egypt by those in her force that did find them. One also wonders if she was actually a Botanist, as well as Pharoah. On the other hand, the individual connected with the discovery of the corpse lily (Rafflesia arnoldii) is recorded – and somewhat unusually given the Eurocentricity that is so evident elsewhere in the book – as “Unknown servant of Sir Stamford Raffles” (page 52). Although it’s a shame that the servant is unnamed, one likes to think that s/he was indeed a Botanist – as well as a servant.
Are these merely ‘quibbles’? If there was only the odd one or two, then maybe. Sadly, these issues are numerous throughout The plant hunter’s atlas. Even so, are they that important? I think they are. After all, this item is published on a blog site that is designed to serve the interests of the botanically curious worldwide. Were I not to have mentioned these ‘quirks’ I would have been negligent in my duty to the botanical community in presenting an honest appraisal of the book. If a revised edition of the book is planned the inclusion of a note about how to interpret the information panels could remove much of the apparent confusion noted above. However, for all of the irksomeness of these points, there is one matter that rather eclipses them.
My major reservation…
… relates to the ‘disconnect’ between the information incorporated into the text that Edwards has collated from the work of others and the “select bibliography” and list of “selected journal articles” at the back of the book. And that concern goes direct to evidence of the intellectual rigour that is an important feature of the author’s books according to her biography (e.g. here, and here). Don’t get me wrong: I have no reason to doubt that Edwards has done extensive research in amassing the facts, etc. that are included in this book. But, what is not at all clear is how the books and scientific articles listed relate to the statements of fact or quotations in the text, and therefore to whom the original information should be credited. Knowing of Edwards’ intellectual rigour I really did expect such a link to be made explicit so that readers can appreciate the sources used for statements made in the book. Had the connections been made between text and sources, then the author’s intellectual rigour would be evidenced to all. Since this is an evidence-based matter, I will give some specifics.
Occasionally, it is reasonably clear from the use of inverted commas in the text that passages from specific works are being quoted – e.g. ‘hiding in a hollow under a rock’ (page 118), and ‘then descended to the stream, entered the water and waded up west for nearly a mile…’ (pages 118/119) in a section about George Forrest. However, there’s no indication in-text from what source(s) these quotes were taken, and no work by Forrest is included in the bibliography or list of scientific articles. And there are many such similar instances throughout The plant hunter’s atlas. In some instances, the quotes are so substantial that they are inset as blocks of text, e.g. on pages 30, 46, 59, 89, 111, 186, 216, 257, 284 – but in none of those cases was it clear where they were taken from.
Similarly, for facts stated in the book; there is no obvious way to track down their source from the works listed (apart from rather tedious trial-and-error by trying to get hold of a potential source – from those listed by Edwards – and reading through it). For this appraiser of the book, the true hallmark of intellectual rigour is not just to have engaged in it, but to make it clear to your readers that you have. And we’re not talking about excessive shows of learning and wide-reading to prove how clever one is. Rather, it’s what I see as the much humbler writer’s duty to provide proof of the evidence-based research that has been undertaken. One of the most important ways that can be demonstrated is to make explicit the sources used for statements made so the reader can see where the information has come from.*** Ideally, every statement needs its source to be clearly stated. That also – and importantly – gives due credit to the original author, and helps to avoid any charge of plagiarism that might be made.
Although such source-stating can be achieved by including the names of the source’s author(s) in brackets within the text, that can be rather off-putting to the reader not used to such a referencing technique – and interrupts the narrative flow of the text for all. A good alternative – and one that is becoming more common these days in fact-based plant books – is for the source’s details to be given a unique note number and all of those to be brought together in a notes section at the back of the book. Each note [therefore source] can be indicated within the text by a discreetly placed super-scripted number in the appropriate place. It’s not enough just to list items in a bibliography with no indication to what they relate to within the text – particularly since that listing in The plant hunter’s atlas is described as ‘select’. ‘Select’ implies it is not a complete list of all book sources used and is consistent with Edwards’ admission that “The sources I consulted in researching the book are too numerous to fit on these pages” (page 299). Nevertheless, one is left wondering what other sources were used and which should also have been listed but aren’t. Some sense of the omissions is indicated by in-text mention of works such as Parkinson’s A journal of a voyage to the South Seas (page 37), Curtis’ The student’s flora of Tasmania, and The endemic flora of Tasmania (page 42), all of which appear absent from the bibliography. Similar comments apply to the list of ‘selected journal articles’. For example, regarding saffron, Edwards states that “two recent (2019) studies make a convincing case that this crocus originates from an area close to Athens in Greece…” (page 148), but I couldn’t find either of those two studies in the list of selected journal articles. In my view this lack of joined-up-ness between facts/quotes in-text, and the listings of sources – and apparent absence of some sources used – rather undermines a claim of intellectual rigour for this tome. And that’s a great shame because it mars the usefulness of an otherwise great book, which contains much of relevance that I would like to cite in my own scholarly work. Yes, one could cite Edwards (2021) as the source. However, although such a ‘work-around’ would satisfy the requirement to state one’s source, it doesn’t really do justice to the original authors. It would therefore be a great service to the reader if this matter could be addressed in any future revision/new edition of the book.
Ambra Edwards’ The Plant hunter’s atlas is ideal botanical reading material for those who’d love to go abroad and experience other countries’ floras but whose floristic forays are currently confined to their home country because of covid-constrained travel restrictions. It’s also ideal for those who’ve ever wondered where many of today’s garden flowers actually come from. Having read the book one can only hope they will be intrigued as I was by the travails undergone by those intrepid plant hunters who braved many long and arduous journeys to uncover and share the world’s botanical bounty. For those reasons The plant hunter’s atlas is another great addition to the plants-and-people literature. However, it is rather disappointing that the wealth of plant information it contains is not appropriately sourced, which limits the value of this book as a suitable academic platform for one’s own exploration of the relevant original literature.
* One bit of botanical trivia that is missing from the book is to know if Dr Winifred Mary Curtis (named Botanist for scoparia (Richea curtisiae)) is any relation to the Curtis of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine fame (which august publication is mentioned on page 44 in connection with that plant entry).
** There is a school of thought which states that a plant doesn’t exist [i.e hasn’t been discovered] – and overlooks the inconvenient truth that it may have been known to, named and used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years – until it’s been officially described and given a proper scientific name. On that basis, most of the Dates given in the book should be the date when the plant’s scientific name was officially accepted. But, that would probably mean that quite a lot of the plants in The plant hunter’s atlas would have the same Date and be attributed to Botanist Linnaeus, which would not give us anything like the rich range of plant-hunters and their stories that are such a welcome feature of Edwards’ book…
*** If I were marking The plant hunter’s atlas as coursework that my university students had produced I would have to have a very stern conversation with them about the absolute necessity to give due and appropriate credit for the work/words/ideas of others that they had used in the text. And remind them that such credit must be shown explicitly, in a way that matches statements made with items in the books, journal articles, etc. they had gathered together at the end of the piece.