Plant Collectors Still Search the World for Exotic Plants

Just finished reading a new book that I could not put down. I know you hear that often, but this book, For All the Tea in China, kept me interested from the start.

The Palm House, built from 1844-48, at Kew Garden in London.

The author Sarah Rose traces the  mid nineteenth century journey of English plant collector  Robert Fortune into China to bring back tea plants that would grow in India and thus compete with the Chinese tea market.

Rose mentioned that Fortune visited Kew Garden in London, the center of botanical research for the “entire world” as she puts it. She writes: “Fortune steps up to a great greenhouse, the Palm House, gloriously situated on a hill.”

When visiting London a couple of summers ago, it was important that I  see the Palm House at Kew. Its shiny structure overpowers you as you approach it.  How impressive it must been in the nineteenth century when greenhouses and conservatories were only available to the wealthy until finally the price of glass fell.

Plant collectors, like Fortune, represented horticultural institutions like Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society in their quest for the newest plant varieties for the English garden.  At Kew the plants would find a home in the new Palm House.

In many cases plants like the weigela which Fortune brought back from China in the 1840s eventually became part of the English garden palette.

Nineteenth century American seed companies and nurseries would later list the plant as a garden favorite, and so American gardens would plant it just as the English had earlier.

Rose writes: “Fortune popularised a remarkable variety of flora in the wake of his Chinese travels.” His “discoveries” included the bleeding heart, the white wisteria, twelve species of rhododendron, and the chrysanthemum.

We now know that  when plants from other habitats become part of a new environment, there may be no natural predators or competitors.  The result is that they can overrun the local landscape.

The interior of the Palm House at Kew.

There still are plant collectors like Fortune who travel the world looking for the newest plant varieties for the garden.  Rose says, “Today there is only guarded enthusiasm for the mass globalization of indigenous plant life.”   Nonetheless, plants collectors still search the world for exotic plants that will grow in the American garden.

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