Sharp, vest-pocket sketches of a dozen intrepid plant collectors by the veteran popular-science team (Annus Mirabilis: 1905, Albert Einstein, and the Theory of Relativity, 2005, etc.).
From the mid-17th century through the end of the 19th, pioneering botanists passionately strove to understand the natural world. At first blush, plant collecting seems an innocuous activity, but the Gribbins make it clear that the great collectors were a special breed: They traveled to distant places and combined extraordinary fortitude with the talents of polymaths, diplomats and logicians. Though the authors’ prose can be prim and obvious (“it seems appropriate to look at the work which made his reputation”), for the most part they invest their subjects with a well-deserved air of adventure. These individuals battled government interference with the free pursuit of knowledge and grappled with evidence that the world was much older than biblical chronology allowed. To puzzle out obfuscations and gather their quarry, they spent years in remote climes, where they were frequently regarded with dangerous suspicion and almost as frequently became direly ill. Among these swashbucklers were Richard Spruce, who obtained the seeds of the quinine tree; Robert Fortune, chiefly responsible for developing the black tea industry in India; Joseph Hooker, who brought home the rhododendrons of Sikkim; and Francis Masson, whom we have to thank for the Red Hot Pokers. Awarded the Star of India for his work, Hooker wrote happily that he felt this was recognition “of hard work under difficulties, of obstacles overcome, and of brilliant deeds.” This description applies equally well to Marianne North’s astonishing travels to almost every continent and countless remote islands in search of the exotic plants she captured in botanical paintings now exhibited at Kew Gardens: “a beautiful, and scientifically valuable record.” The Gribbins also spend time on the plant hunters’ incidental activities, such as observing the transit of Venus and identifying the magnetic pole.
Occasionally staid but erudite portraits of heroic botanists.