Vic­to­rian Trans­plants


Victorian Homes - - Contents - By Stephanie Agnes-crock­ett

Dur­ing the Vic­to­rian era, the Bri­tish Em­pire com­mis­sioned var­i­ous botan­i­cal im­ports and ex­ports around the world.

To­day, it’s rather common to dis­cover do­mes­ti­cated plants from vastly dif­fer­ent re­gions grow­ing along­side one an­other.

Pomegranates grow near or­anges, and tea is now cul­ti­vated in the United States. But this wasn’t al­ways the case. In Carolyn Fry’s new book, The Plant Hunter, she charts the spread­ing of plants around the globe through­out world his­tory.

“The va­ri­ety of species and cul­ti­vars we now take for granted is thanks to the ex­ploits of nu­mer­ous plant-collecting and hor­ti­cul­tural pi­o­neers,” Fry writes. “In time, as botanists learned to cul­ti­vate plants in new en­vi­ron­ments, ob­tain­ing seeds from far­away coun­tries…be­came a way to make or break a na­tion’s for­tunes.”


At the be­gin­ning of Vic­to­ria’s do­min­ion and through­out her reign, im­ages of flow­ers and plants be­came more ac­ces­si­ble to the common peo­ple, thanks to Wil­liam Curtis’ The Botan­i­cal Magazine. “It was published monthly through­out Queen Vic­to­ria’s reign, with each is­sue con­tain­ing 60 hand-col­ored plant por­traits, mostly of new in­tro­duc­tions,” Fry writes. The pub­li­ca­tion fol­lowed a trend of in­creas­ing in­ter­est in plant di­a­gram­ming. “Dur­ing the mid19th cen­tury, botanic il­lus­tra­tion evolved fur­ther to meet the needs of sci­ence,” Fry writes.

The needs of sci­ence were cer­tainly evolv­ing. Queen Hat­shep­sut of an­cient Egypt was one of the first, im­port­ing resinous species to Egypt. Since then, nu­mer­ous his­tor­i­cal civ­i­liza­tions have fol­lowed her ex­am­ple, trans­plant­ing herbs and fruits. Long be­fore the Vic­to­rian era be­gan, the Euro­pean de­sire for rich spices from “the ex­otic East,” prompted coun­tries to send ex­plor­ers around the world.


Dur­ing the Vic­to­rian era, ex­plo­ration and ex­por­ta­tion con­tin­ued. In 1823, the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety of Lon­don com­mis­sioned Scot­tish-born David Dou­glas to ex­plore New Eng­land’s botan­i­cal re­sources. Dou­glas’ trek, al­most 20 years af­ter the Lewis and Clark ex­pe­di­tion, proved ex­tremely fruit­ful. “[Dou­glas] came back with a wide range of or­na­men­tals plus new va­ri­eties of ap­ple,

pear, plum, peach and grape,” Fry writes. Like­wise, he came upon the fir tree, now known as the Dou­glas fir, which Lewis and Clark had al­ready ob­served. Dou­glas proved a rich con­trib­u­tor to botany dur­ing the Vic­to­rian era. Fry writes, “He in­tro­duced more than 200 species to the UK, in­clud­ing many ‘Cal­i­for­nia an­nu­als,’ and a num­ber of ev­er­greens that are now wide­spread.”

In the 1830s, two Euro­pean botanists “en­coun­tered the giant Ama­zon wa­ter lily for the first time” while ex­plor­ing South America. Fry ex­plains that the first botanist, Ed­uard Friedrich Poepigg, de­scribed the flower with a tra­di­tional Latin name, Euryale ama­zon­ica. The lat­ter plant hunter, Robert Schom­burgk, “sug­gested the plant should be named af­ter Queen Vic­to­ria.” Schom­burgk’s de­scrip­tion, Vic­to­ria re­gia, was not ini­tially per­ma­nent, be­cause “plant nam­ing rules dic­tate that the first published name takes pri­or­ity.” Vic­to­ria would even­tu­ally get her name­sake, how­ever, as the genuses dif­fered slightly.


In the next decade, Eng­land also sent ex­plor­ers to in­ves­ti­gate the trans­plant­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and botan­i­cal of­fer­ings of In­dia. In 1847, Joseph Dal­ton Hooker, the son of botanist Wil­liam Jack­son Hooker, set sail for In­dia. He stud­ied flow­ers such as the rhodo­den­dron, which “he con­sid­ered…‘the most lovely thing imag­in­able,’” Fry writes. Fol­low­ing in his fa­ther’s foot­steps, Hooker would even­tu­ally serve as di­rec­tor for Kew, Eng­land’s Royal Botanic Gar­dens.

In 1848, the East In­dia Com­pany com­mis­sioned Scot­tish col­lec­tor Robert For­tune’s trav­els to China. For­tune sought plants that would grow in In­dia, where tea plants had re­cently been dis­cov­ered.

Eng­land sent ex­plor­ers to in­ves­ti­gate the trans­plant­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and botan­i­cal of­fer­ings of In­dia.

Fry re­ports that “by 1890 In­dia was sup­ply­ing 90 per­cent of Bri­tain’s do­mes­tic mar­ket.” Fur­ther­more, “be­tween 1854 and 1929, the value of its tea im­ports to Bri­tain rose from £24,000 to £20,087,000,” Fry writes.


An­other ex­plorer to South America, Vic­to­rian botanist Richard Spruce was among the ear­li­est to visit Bran­don, fol­low­ing its in­de­pen­dence from Por­tu­gal. While there, Spruce scoured for mar­ketable plants to bring home with him, but also en­coun­tered the rugged re­al­i­ties of jun­gle liv­ing. Then, in 1857, “Spruce re­ceived a com­mis­sion from the Bri­tish For­eign and Colo­nial Of­fice to col­lect qui­nine-con­tain­ing cin­chona spec­i­mens,” Fry writes. “At the time qui­nine was the only ef­fec­tive treat­ment for malaria and Bri­tons be­set by dis­ease and civil dis­or­der in In­dia wanted to se­cure their own sup­plies rather than rely on di­min­ish­ing nat­u­ral sources.” Spruce amassed large quan­ti­ties of qui­nine for plant­ing in In­dia.

The Kew Gar­den, which had estab­lished re­mote branches around the world, also aimed to in­crease the sup­ply of qui­nine. “Af­ter the up­ris­ing of In­dian troops against the Bri­tish in 1857, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment was con­cerned about the health of its sol­diers and called on Kew to ob­tain [qui­nine-con­tain­ing] plants and de­velop plan­ta­tions,” Fry writes. Even­tu­ally, Bri­tain would be­gin trad­ing these plants in Africa, then “the dead­li­est malar­ial en­vi­ron­ment in the world,” thus in­creas­ing Bri­tain’s in­flu­ence even fur­ther.


“The role of plant trans­fers gen­er­ally in aid­ing the ex­pan­sion of the Bri­tish Em­pire is undis­puted,” Fry writes. “That plants and seeds were of­ten ac­quired with­out the agree­ment of the host coun­try, vast swathes of land were stripped of their nat­u­ral veg­e­ta­tion to create plan­ta­tions (caus­ing soil ero­sion), and mil­lions of peo­ple worked as slaves to sus­tain in­dus­tries such as sugar cane, were not al­ways seen as ob­jec­tion­able is­sues in the days of Em­pire.” For this rea­son, Bri­tain was cer­tainly in­stru­men­tal in spread­ing plants around the world, but at a very high cost to nu­mer­ous civ­i­liza­tions.

Long be­fore the Vic­to­rian era be­gan, the Euro­pean de­sire for rich spices from “the ex­otic East” prompted coun­tries to send ex­plor­ers around the world.

ABOVE. Tulips came to Europe from the Ot­toman Em­pire, where they had “long en­thralled” in­hab­i­tants. RIGHT. An­to­nio Targini Tozzetti pic­tured the apri­cot ( Prunus ar­me­ni­aca), in his 1825 text, Rac­colta di fiori, frutti ed agrumi.

Whether peren­nial or an­nual, ex­otic or na­tive, the flow­ers grow­ing in your gar­den to­day have an in­ter­est­ing his­tory.

The Plant Hunters by Carolyn Fry, published by Carlton Books Lim­ited, © 2017; carl­ton­

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