Book Review: The Flower Hunters
As a certified botanical nerd, “The Flower Hunters” by Mary and John Gribbin immediately caught my eye when I spotted it at the Salt Lake City library. The book tells the stories of ten of the greatest botanists from the rough and tumble days of plant exploration, from John Ray and Carl Linnaeus in the 17th and 18th Centuries to Richard Spruce and Joseph Dalton Hooker in the late 19th. The book is organized so that each chapter is devoted primarily to one botanist (or team of botanists), and details their life, adventures, and contribution to our knowledge and cultivation of plants – although as you might imagine there is a fair bit of overlap and intersection in the lives of our various heroes.
I was incredibly excited to read this book, but unfortunately I was rather disappointed once I actually picked it up. It turns out to be another case of an academic book masquerading as a popular science book. While it is incredibly thorough and contains a wealth of obscure and fascinating history, the writing style is ponderous and dry and tends to talk over the head of someone who is not deeply familiar with the time period being discussed. For example, the first chapter assumes a detailed knowledge of the religious politics and church/university structure in 17th Century England which this reader did not possess. The reason why King Charles II making the Covenanter’s Oath void resulted in John Ray losing his teaching position Cambridge was not immediately apparent to me, nor I suspect to many other readers.
The other thing beyond the style which surprised me about the book was how heavy on the history and how light on the botany it was. It was a series of biographies of botanical explorers, and spent much more time on their early education, travels, perils, and politics than it did on their actual discoveries. Of course the most important ones were mentioned along the way, and a section of each chapter was devoted to listing the common plants we use today that we can thank that chapter’s protagonists for, but in general it was much more of history book than a scientific one. The plants are not the stars of the show, but the impetus for our heroes to have their adventures.
This is not to say that I hated the book. I finished it and I even enjoyed it (the prose does get better after a few chapters and I got more used to the style which made the reading less cumbersome). I always find it fascinating to hear about travels and discoveries several centuries ago. It’s a particularly interesting time period because things were still very dangerous and unexplored in many areas, and more than a few of the botanists in this book lost their lives in their pursuit of scientific understanding. And yet there were also established ports and mail routes, and they manage to send back specimens simply by entrusting them to whomever happened to be heading in the right direction. The fact that anything got anywhere it was supposed to and that people actually managed to meet up in remote places amidst all the naval wars and ongoing tragedies and without timely communication is astounding to me!
I also found many of the tangential historic anecdotes and facts in the book well worth the trouble. Did you know that Australia was only discovered when it was because the Royal Society listened to Edmund Halley and sent a ship to take measurements of the transit of Venus in 1769? I certainly didn’t. Such stories, and the connections between the great botanists chronicled in this book definitely helped weave together a better picture of both the time period and the origins of the knowledge and practices we still use today than I had before I read this book. But it was hard fought, and not at all what I expected when I picked it up. The stories of the men (and occasionally women) who brought many of the plants we still use for food, decoration, and medicine and who first laid down a system of categorizing and studying them are compelling, even if the way in which they are told here may not be the easiest to take in.
Bottom line: If you are truly interested in history and are willing to slog through some academic language to learn about it, read this book. But if you are really interested in botany and want more than just a sketch of the plant discoveries themselves, keep looking.