Flower Hunters by Mary and John Gribbin - review by Julia Keay

Julia Keay

The World Was Their Nursery

Flower Hunters


Oxford University Press 320pp £16.99

There seems to be an inexhaustible market for books about travellers who risked life and limb in pursuit of fame, fortune or knowledge. Flower Hunters is a welcome addition to the genre. It delivers the stories of a ‘First Eleven’ of botanists: Carl Linnaeus, Joseph Banks, Francis Masson, Carl Peter Thunberg, David Douglas, William and Thomas Lobb, Robert Fortune, Marianne North, Richard Spruce and Joseph Dalton Hooker. Mary and John Gribbin’s selection eschews a thematic or geographical approach: instead they go for the best stories. This is a book for the general reader, perhaps with a garden, who likes travel literature. The writing has a slightly schoolmasterly tone and the authors overuse the first person plural (‘before we tell you that, we would like to tell you this’, or ‘Dare we suggest that …?’), but the stories are wonderful.

The title is slightly misleading. Of the chosen eleven, most were hunting for plants with scientific or commercial potential, not blooms. The exception, and the only woman to earn a place in the eleven, is Marianne North. A well-connected, middle-aged, unmarried watercolourist who had spent fifteen years caring for her

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