Paradoxically, one of the secrets of great botanists is their reluctance to keep a secret. Each of the 36 scientists in this book collected, analysed, painted, pruned, grew, propagated and nurtured plants, with their results disseminated out in the public commons, for the common good. Their secrets were not at all esoteric or abstruse; they comprise some of the pillars of our links with the natural world.
Many of the same secrets have ended up embedded in our gardens. David Attenborough reckons that "the best botanist is a good gardener", and Matthew Biggs' book makes the most out of that symbiosis. After each biography, Biggs includes "inspiration for gardeners", tips drawn from the plants and discoveries related to each botanist. That is an artful and handsome supplement. The hints are concisely drafted, gracefully illustrated, and - for an addicted gardener - truly inspiring.
The first pointer warns of the risks of children being poisoned by Chinese lantern. Subsequent notes are more benign, focused on where to place particular plants in a garden and how best to care for them. The entry on Joseph Banks, for instance, reminds gardeners not to rely on phosphates to fertilise banksias.
Botany's great names adorn these pages: Dioscorides, inventing plant-based medicines for all three kingdoms of nature; Linnaeus, classifying 7700 plants; and Mendel, producing one hybrid variety of peas after another. Each is celebrated with a specific, cleverly researched back-story. Dioscorides taught himself that the bark of a plane tree soaked in vinegar could cure toothache. Mendel concentrated his research on peas because they were easy to grow in large numbers and could produce two generations within a single year.
Accounts of the great and good are often upstaged by stories about less renowned botanists. Biggs casts his net widely. The ambit of botany is here extended to include cytologists (experts in cells) as well as paleobotanists (who leach secrets from fossils). A reader is invited to discover Anna Atkins' 395 plates of British algae, which formed the first volume to be illustrated with photographs. Biggs' own selection of photographs is consistently beautiful, with a close finish for the loveliest of all between a Chinese gentian and a satin poppy from Sikkim (harvested at 3,000 meters above sea level).
Curiosity, scientific expertise, skill in drawing, resilience, understanding companions, all these were essential criteria for botanical success. In addition, having the luck and wherewithal to travel extensively was often crucial.
Dioscorides, first in the lineage, wandered to and fro as a soldier across the Roman Empire. Those adventurers are shamed by Jeanne Baret (1740-1807), a highly skilled botanist who circumnavigated the globe, collecting specimens from Madagascar, Mauritius, Brazil and Java. Baret regularly assumed charge when her superior officer took ill, carried heavy loads and dared assorted perils. Remarkably, she accomplished all these feats while disguised as a boy. To complement the usual criteria for work as a botanist, Baret needed to add baggy clothes, tight strips of linen around her breasts, and a new given name (acquired by deleting the last two letters of "Jeanne").
This decade, in long overdue recognition of Baret's talents, a new species from the Andean cloud forest was named for her. Sweetly, given Baret's versatility in disguise, the plant has numerous different leaf shapes. Baret is one of eight women botanists celebrated by Biggs. To borrow a word from commercially-orientated botany, each of those scientists is finally given a bouquet. Among their number is an indefatigable settler in Western Australia, Georgina Molloy, who spent six years drying, labelling and pressing seeds. On a more cerebral plane, Mary Somerset produced a twelve volume herbarium of pressed plants. Circe, surely the most gifted of classical women botanists, is excluded for perfectly logical, scientific reasons.
Eccentricities among Biggs' male botanists deserve separate note. One, barefoot, was hunted by homicidal lamas. Leonard Fuchs never saw the fuchsia named after him. Dampier actually discovered the plant we know as Stuart's desert pea. John Bartram, assembling his seeds and plants in what were called Bartram's Boxes, sent back from the United States not just the rhododendron and the magnolia but the Venus fly trap as well. Captious critics might complain that Biggs' work is a little too Euro-centric or that he might have emphasised more heavily traditional knowledge of plants, seeds and grasses among Indigenous people around the world. That would be harsh. Biggs has given us 36 openings, each with its counterpart inspiration, into the forming and framing of our natural world.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra reviewer.
- The Secrets of Great Botanists and What They Teach Us About Gardening, by Matthew Biggs. Exisle Publishing. $34.99.