Many of the world’s most beautiful ornamental plants such as magnolias, roses, rhododendrons, tree peonies, lilies and blue poppies have their origins in China.
In the mid-19th century, professional plant-hunters were dispatched by nurseries and botanic gardens to collect specimens from China for cultivation in Europe, and it is these adventurers who are often credited with the explosive bloom of Chinese flowers in the West. But as Jane Kilpatrick shows in Fathers of Botany, the first Westerners to come upon and document this bounty were in fact cut from a different cloth: the clergy.
Following the Opium Wars, European missionaries were the first explorers to press further into the Chinese interior and send home evidence of one of the richest and most varied floras ever seen, and it was their discoveries that caused a sensation among Western plantsmen. Both men of faith and talented botanists alike, these missionaries lent their names to many of the plants they discovered, but their own stories disappeared into the leaf-litter of history. Drawing on their letters and contemporary accounts, Jane unearths a lost chapter of botanical history by focusing on the lives of four French missionary botanists: Peres Armand David (of Davidia involucrata and discoverer of the giant panda), Jean Marie Delavay, Paul Guillaume Farges and Jean André Soulié, as well as a group of other French priests, Franciscan missionaries and a single German Protestant pastor, who all amassed significant plant collections. In so doing, the author reminds today’s gardeners and botanists of the enormous debt owed to these obscure fathers of botany.
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