DURING THE VICTORIAN ERA, THE BRITISH EMPIRE COMMISSIONED VARIOUS BOTANICAL IMPORTS AND EXPORTS AROUND THE WORLD.
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.
EXPLORATIONS AND CLASSIFICATIONS
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.
INDIAN IMPORTS AND EXPORTS
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.
PLANT HUNTING AND COLONIALISM
“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; carltonbooks.co.uk.