Brave botanist who fell of the edge of the world

Daily Mail - - Friday Books - BRIAN VINER

GREEN GOLD by Gabriel He­mery (Un­bound £10.99, 280pp)

VIC­TO­RIAn plant-hunters were the as­tro­nauts of their age, cap­tur­ing the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion as they set off on ex­otic ex­pe­di­tions to dis­cover new flora and fauna.

Like space travel to­day, these trips were fraught with peril.

When 23-year-old John Jef­frey left his na­tive Scot­land for the Pa­cific coast of north Amer­ica in 1850, he would have been very aware of the fate of his com­pa­triot David Dou­glas 16 years ear­lier. The man, af­ter whom the Dou­glas fir was named, per­ished when he fell — or likely was pushed — into a bull-pit in hawaii.

At least we know what hap­pened to him. Poor Jef­frey, last seen in San Francisco in 1854, dis­ap­peared with­out a trace. In this be­guil­ing book, for­est sci­en­tist Gabriel he­mery of­fers the most in­formed spec­u­la­tion about his fate. Jef­frey kept diaries, now lost. So he­mery, who prob­a­bly knows more about Jef­frey than any­one alive, has used his ex­ten­sive re­search to fic­tion­alise them.

They are in­ter­spersed with ac­tual let­ters and other doc­u­ments, which record that Jef­frey was despatched to north Amer­ica thanks to a Vic­to­rian ver­sion of crowd-fund­ing.

Shares in his ex­pe­di­tion cost £5 each, and the list of 140 sub­scribers reads like a Who’s Who of high so­ci­ety, all look­ing to en­hance their hot-houses with the ex­ot­ica he sent home. Their in­vest­ment reaped some div­i­dends. This spring, vis­i­tors to the Royal Botanic Gar­den ed­in­burgh, can see vi­brant pink bloom Dode­catheon

jef­freyi, also known as Jef­frey’s shoot­ing star, which he found in Cal­i­for­nia.

Jef­frey, a lowly botanist hired by the keeper of that very gar­den, had never even been out of Scot­land be­fore, but he was soon on the hud­son’s Bay Company ship, the Prince of Wales.

The brief was to get him­self across Canada to Van­cou­ver Is­land, and then down through Wash­ing­ton state, Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia as far as Mex­ico.

his in­struc­tions were clear: ‘ You will col­lect seeds of all such trees, shrubs and plants as are not al­ready in­tro­duced into this coun­try.’ They wanted him to send back bee­tles, too. his salary was fixed at £80 a year.

In Au­gust 1850 he ar­rived in Canada. he made the long journey west by dogsled and ca­noe, then crossed the Rocky

Moun­tains on foot. It took him a fur­ther 12 months to reach the Pa­cific coast.

In Novem­ber 1851, a box sent by Jef­frey was ex­cit­edly opened in Ed­in­burgh, by mem­bers of the hope­fully named Ore­gon Botan­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion. It con­tained a few va­ri­eties of pine cone, sev­eral dead birds, and a small bot­tle of bee­tles. They were un­der­whelmed.

Jef­frey’s rep­u­ta­tion back home seems to have gone steadily down­hill af­ter that. He kept send­ing boxes, but they didn’t con­tain enough seeds for the As­so­ci­a­tion’s lik­ing. And Jef­frey’s let­ters got fewer and briefer. One tersely ex­plained that, while camp­ing, most of his seeds had been eaten by a rat overnight.

The Cal­i­for­nia Gold rush was in full swing, and it could be that Jef­frey, dis­il­lu­sioned by the com­ments from Ed­in­burgh, de­cided the earth held trea­sures more al­lur­ing than plants. He­mery’s re­search has un­cov­ered other possibilit­ies: Jef­frey sim­ply fell in love, maybe with a Na­tive Amer­i­can woman, and set­tled down. Or he was robbed and mur­dered.

What we know for sure is Jef­frey’s let­ters dried up al­to­gether and there were no more sight­ings of him, to the fury of his pay­mas­ters. In March 1854, they de­cided to re­lieve him of his du­ties, even though he had ef­fec­tively beaten them to it.

The As­so­ci­a­tion’s min­utes record lit­tle ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what Jef­frey sent home, yet it amounted to at least 400 plant spec­i­mens and the seeds of 199 species.

No at­tempts were made to find him. Now this fas­ci­nat­ing book helps en­sure he is re­mem­bered for his achieve­ments, and not sim­ply for go­ing miss­ing.

Picture: GETTY

His dis­cov­ery: Jef­frey’s shoot­ing star

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