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Botanist Explorers of Two Continents

Plants have been hunted since the days of the Pharaohs, writes William Seymour; but, in more recent times, two resolute Scottish botanists led particularly adventurous and courageous lives.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Loudon noted that out of 13,140 plants being cultivated in Britain, only 1,400 were native. Perhaps not many of those who now visit our gardens and parks, are aware of the sweat and agony that went into the introduction of so many of the plants they see.

‘Good God! When I consider the melancholy fate of so many of botany’s votaries I am tempted to ask whether men are in their right minds who so desperately risk life and everything else through their love of collecting plants.’

Thus Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist, writing in 1737. But it all began many years before that; indeed, the first recorded plant-hunting expedition was mounted on orders of Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt in 1482 B.C., when she sent ships to the coast of East Africa to collect seeds and plants for her gardens at Kar-nak.

And there followed a long series, stretching over the centuries and the countries, of intrepid adventurers, who, for little reward save the thrill of discovery, spent much of their lives scrambling over mountains, through forests and valleys, searching for the hitherto unknown. Nor were the perils any less in the centuries after Linnaeus had despaired of botanists’ sanity, as can be seen from even a brief account of the adventures of two rugged, resolute Scotsmen, David Douglas and George Forrest.

Before their perils are recounted, something must first be said of the difficulties confronting collectors after they have gathered their seeds or plants. Transportation - even of seed - from distant continents presented an enormous problem in the days of sail, and even later. There were two distinct phases in the journey of a collector’s treasures from the place of discovery to the nursery in Britain.

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