Plant Hunters Still Search for Exotics

Plant hunters still search for exotics.

Traveling around the world in search of plants for the home garden may seem like a dream job.

The plant however sometimes turns out to be more than just a plant.

Sarah Rose’s book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History tells the story of English plant hunter Robert Fortune (1812-1880).

She traces the  mid-nineteenth century journey of Fortune into China to bring back tea plants. Fortune hoped they would grow in India and thus compete with the Chinese tea market.

Kew Garden

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

That reminded me that when visiting London a couple of years ago it was important that I see the Palm House at Kew. Here is my first view of it that sunny day. [below]

The Palm House, built from 1844-48, at Kew Garden in London to house plants collected abroad.

The size of this shiny structure overpowers you as you approach.  How impressive it must have been in the nineteenth century when greenhouses and conservatories were only available to the wealthy until eventually the price of glass fell.

Plant hunters, like Fortune, represented horticultural institutions such as 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 later listed the plant as a garden favorite, and so American gardeners would plant weigela as well.

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.  The result is that such plants can overrun the local landscape.

The interior of the Palm House at Kew.

Rose writes, “Today there is only guarded enthusiasm for the mass globalization of indigenous plant life.”

Nonetheless, plant hunters like Fortune still search the world for exotic plants that will grow in the American garden.

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