Ever wonder what dark jungle your houseplants came from or on what remote mountaintop your morning coffee first grew? In fact, most plants we encounter in our yards, our grocery stores, and our garden centers have come from somewhere else. That’s where “plant hunters,” like the one in my latest book, come in.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were replete with a pantheon of colorful historical adventurers, some of the greatest newsmakers of the day. Explorers—notably, Henry Morgan Stanley, John Speke, and Ernest Shackleton—made headlines conquering continents, attempting to reach the South Pole, or documenting the source of the Nile River. “Fossil hunters,” such as Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, whose fierce competition to uncover new species of dinosaurs in the wilds of the American West led to the discovery and documentation of more than 120 new species, populated museums and private collections with skeletons of extinct animals. But “plant hunters,” including Baron Alexander von Humboldt, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Frank Meyer, scoured every corner of the earth, from the jungles of South America to the Arctic tundra to the deserts of Australia, in search of botanical riches.
The first plant hunters were men sent by Queen Hatshepsut of Ancient Egypt to obtain frankincense from the distant land of Punt. Plant-hunting, as an occupation, reached its zenith in Europe and America during the more than two centuries between 1700 and 1925. Some professionals sought the riches that came from exporting and exploiting rare or coveted plants, while others were driven solely by their insatiable curiosity. Many worked for government agencies, scientists, or the great formal gardens of Europe— among them, Kew Gardens in London—aiming to populate their increasingly exotic collections. All had one mission: to find and acquire rare or previously unknown plants for agricultural development, medicinal cures, and to satisfy the era’s obsession with exotic flowers. And their quest changed history.
Some did so through open and honest means; others resorted to subterfuge and theft. All faced extreme risks from animals, the punishing terrain, unpredictable climates, and even the plants themselves. Tigers stalked them, bears attacked them, vampire bats sucked their toes. Being plagued by insects and disease was commonplace. They were abandoned by their guides, drowned in uncharted rivers, and buried in avalanches. Some were poisoned or stabbed by the very plants they sought to possess.
So, the next time you take a sip of tea or admire an orchid, think of the plant hunters who stopped at nothing to bring you that pleasure.
Clara McKenna has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wells College and a master’s in Library and Information Studies from McGill University. She is the founding member of Sleuths in Time, a cooperative group of historical mystery writers who encourage and promote each other’s work. She is also a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Visit her at ClaraMckenna.com.
The novels in Clara McKenna’s delightful Stella and Lyndy Mystery series are set in the Edwardian era, in the lush New Forest region of the United Kingdom, where Stella Kendrick, wild-hearted Kentuckian heiress (or “Dollar Princess,” as they were called) was shipped off to England for an aristocratic marriage to her soon-to-be groom Viscount “Lyndy” Lynhurst. Stella must navigate the strict demands of British high society, scandal, and culture classes as the future Lady of Morrington Hall and finds that her outspoken American nature may be all that keeps her alive when petty scandals lead to murder.
Readers are introduced to Stella in the first Stella and Lyndy Mystery, Murder at Morrington Hall. In the second installment, Murder at Blackwater Bend, Stella—following a whirlwind engagement to Lyndy—is finding that teatime with refined friends can be more dangerous than etiquette faux pas, especially in the company of Lady Philippa, the woman Lyndy was once set to marry, and her husband, the ostentatious Lord Fairbrother. Outrage erupts and accusations fly after Lord Fairbrother’s pony wins for the seventh consecutive year, but Stella and Lyndy are in for a brutal shock when they discover his body floating in the river during a quiet morning fishing trip. Now, Stella and her fiancé must fight against the current to catch the culprit before they’re the next couple torn apart by tragedy.