“The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the golden age of plant collectors: David Douglas who brought the Douglas fir, the Monterey pine and many other conifers to England; John Jeffrey who followed Douglas to the American West; E. H. [Ernest Henry] Wilson who gave us the Chinese dogwood, the Regale lily and the dazzling Davidia or dove tree that in bloom seems to be aflutter with white birds; Reginald Farrer, George Forrest and dozens of others who changed the face of our gardens….
“Plant collecting was a dangerous business then. Douglas was torn to pieces by a wild bull in Hawaii; Farrar met his end in Upper Burma; Jeffrey vanished into the California gold rush; Forrest died of heart failure on his seventh expedition to Yunnan. And since that time the floral storehouses of western Asia have become if anything more difficult to penetrate….
“We hear no more of famous botanist-explorers or newly discovered specimens for the garden. Today it is the hybridizers who revolutionize our plantings, and of these none has wrought more changes than the American lily breeders in the last thirty years. We can now be said to dominate this field, though the lilies themselves have come from every part of the earth.”
From 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells:
“Ernest Wilson, called ‘Chinese Wilson’ because he explored so extensively in China, just escaped sacrificing his life to lilies. He went twice to China, the second time in 1910, to collect the regal lily. He had gathered an enormous load of lily bulbs and was on his way home with them when his mule train was caught by an avalanche. He jumped out of his sedan chair just before it was hurled down a precipice. His leg was shattered by a falling rock. There was a mule train coming the other way, and the only way it could pass without, perhaps, causing another avalanche was for Wilson to lie on his back while more than forty mules stepped over him. He reached safety but was left with what he called a ‘lily limp.'”
I don’t normally repeat quotations from one blog post to another (in fact, it’s a “thing” for me to double-check my blog to be sure I’m not repeating quotes) — but I did this time because of the references to Ernest Wilson, a British explorer and plant collector active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first quote expresses the risks such explorers took as they scoured the world botanically; the second describes in more detail an occasion where one of them almost lost their lives in search of flowering plants.
I honestly never knew such things had occurred; it’s becoming a fun learning experience for me to begin seeing the historical through-line represented by the lives of botanists and naturalists. What I began by simply looking for neat quotations about the flowers I was photographing seems to be morphing into a new (for me!) view into history from an unfamiliar (and unexpected) perspective. I always start a new post by looking for quotations, and now end out digging a little into the lives and times of people I come across, gathering bits of new information in the way I like to learn — a rather messy accumulation that I don’t worry too much about sorting out but just pile on instead.
From a Western or European perspective, the period (roughly) from 1800 through the early 1900s represent the culmination of the “Age of Exploration” — which also coincided with expanding European empire, the rise of the United States as a world-influencing power, the explosion of technological and scientific inventions, and the gradual (though debatable) increase in leisure time. Botany, as a science, has undoubtedly ancient roots; but it coalesced and connected to consumer culture and leisure time during the 1800s as more people became capable of outfitting their homes and gardens with new, and even exotic, plant species discovered by the plant explorers or developed by horticulturists. You may have never thought about it this way, but the fact that you (if you’re a gardener, or even if you’re not) can acquire plants in handy packaging to populate your garden or feature in a kitchen window has a direct historical connection to the plant explorers of the past.
Or, in other words, your trips to a nursery or Home Depot to buy plants and gardening supplies are actually a late-Victorian era invention. Isn’t that something?
With a thankful nod to Ernest Wilson: The photos below are a second batch of Tiny Epic Asiatic Lilies from my garden (the first photos are here: Epic Lilies (1 of 3)), rendered with black backgrounds rather than bricks from my courtyard.
Thanks for reading and taking a look!