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Three books on plants from China

Reviewed by Ross Ferguson

Gifts from the gardens of China

By Jane Kilpatrick
Hardback, 288 pages
Published by Frances Lincoln, London, 2007
ISBN-10: 071122630X, ISBN-13: 978- 0711226302
£35.00 ($NZ100.00)

Hortus Veitchii

By James H. Veitch
Hardback, 648 pages, 1906, reprinted 2006 by Caradoc Doy, Exeter, England
Limited to 1000 numbered copies
ISBN: 9780955351501, previous ISBN: 0955351502
£95.00 ($NZ295.00)

British naturalists in Qing China
Science, empire, and cultural encounter

By Fa-Ti Fan.
Hardback, xi + 238 pages
Published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2004
ISBN 0-674-01143-0

The great plant collector E. H. Wilson entitled one of his books China, mother of gardens. This was a little self-serving because Wilson had himself collected predominantly in China, but there was also an element of truth. China has an extraordinarily rich and diverse flora and it has contributed more to the temperate gardens of North America and Europe than any other equivalent area. We can understand why Wilson said “China is the country to which the gardens of all other lands are so indebted.” We need only to think of magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons,
primulas, gentians, hydrangeas, ‘Japanese’ anemones, forsythias, wisterias, clematis, peonies and tiger lilies. In New Zealand with our temperate gardens we too can acknowledge the debt to China – we can also be grateful for kiwifruit.

The two best general accounts of plant collecting in China are probably Emil Bretschneider’s magisterial History of European botanical discoveries in China (first
published in 1898 and subsequently reprinted), and E. H. M. Cox’s Plant hunting in China: a history of botanical exploration in China and the Tibetan Marches (first published in 1945 and subsequently reprinted). Bretschneider was physician at the Russian Legation in Peking for nearly 20 years and he had the great advantage of knowing personally many of those about whom he wrote or, at the least, had corresponded with. History of European botanical discoveries in China is a detailed and unusually accurate work and, although it stops at the end of the 19th century, it and Bretschneider’s other botanical writings are essential for anybody with a serious interest in plant collecting in China. However, Bretschneider is by no means an easy read and the excitement and challenges of plant collecting, particularly plants of horticultural merit, are more apparent in Cox’s Plant hunting in China. Cox was himself a plant collector and likewise he knew personally many of those about whom he wrote. The one serious failing of his book is that he provides no references or citations even though he is likely to be correct.

Initially, many of the Chinese plants that were introduced to Europe were those grown by the Chinese in their own gardens. Access to the interior of China was restricted and plant collectors were largely limited to visiting Chinese nurseries or gardens. Gifts from the gardens of China; the introduction of traditional Chinese garden plants to Britain 1698–1862 covers this initial period from the visit of Dr James Cunninghame in 1698 until the last of Robert Fortune’s trips in 1862. Chinese nurserymen would take advantage of the Europeans, charging exorbitant prices or substituting common plants for the rarities requested. Seed would often not germinate and it was frequently suspected that the seed had been killed. Taking the plants back to Europe was also a challenge. Dr John Livingstone, a surgeon at Canton for 20 years at the beginning of the 19th century, estimated that for every plant that survived the trip back to England, a thousand had been lost and that each plant that had been successfully introduced had cost at least £300, an astonishing cost. Kilpatrick includes delightful engravings of potted plants being watered on the deck of a ship and of a traveller determinedly carrying ashore his treasured plants at the end of the voyage. Perhaps it is telling that he carries only two small plants – how many had died on the way? It is impressive how quickly information became available in Europe as to which Chinese plants were worthy of collection; this is shown by the detailed ‘shopping lists’ prepared by Sir Joseph Banks and the London Horticultural Society, with an emphasis on plants that were hardy in Britain.

Gifts from the gardens of China is a well-written and balanced account of the early efforts of mainly British plant collectors in China, although Kilpatrick also describes the activities of some Jesuit priests such as Incarville. It is well referenced and there are many apposite quotes. I particularly enjoyed the illustrations, especially those of Chinese flowers from painted wallpapers or porcelain and of Chinese export paintings. There are also many fine reproductions of illustrations from early botanical magazines of the plants successfully introduced. This book is beautifully produced and is a most useful reference source.

Hortus Veitchii is also beautifully produced, with great care taken to ensure the appropriate paper and binding, even if the page size is somewhat reduced. The subtitle of Hortus Veitchii is A history of the rise and progress of the nurseries of Messrs. James Veitch and Sons, together with an account of the botanical collectors and hybridists employed by them and a list of the most remarkable of their introductions. The title just about says it all and this must be the most sumptuous of any vanity publication prepared by a nursery firm. Veitch and Sons were for many years the greatest of all British nursery firms and Hortus Veitchii is an exhaustive and extravagantly prepared description of their many achievements. It is particularly interesting for the accounts of their travellers in China, Charles Maries (1877–1879) and E. H. Wilson (1899–1905). Plant collectors were no longer limited simply to acquiring plants from nurseries close to the ports; travel was now possible into the interior of China and a great wealth of new plants was becoming accessible. Hortus Veitchii describes the plants collected by Maries and Wilson, although at the time of publication most of Wilson’s plants had yet to prove themselves. The original edition of Hortus Veitchii was not for sale but complimentary copies were sent to universities, libraries, eminent botanists and good customers. Copies come on the market only very occasionally and now fetch high prices. This facsimile edition is therefore most welcome and makes an important reference work much more accessible. The nomenclature is now often outdated, but Caradoc Doy is intending to prepare a supplement listing name changes and indicating the status of the plants in the wild.

British naturalists in Qing China emphasises just how dependent European plant collectors and naturalists were on the Chinese. The Europeans’ knowledge of desirable plants to collect was mainly based initially on export paintings by Chinese artists working in a different tradition, aiming to please aesthetically, not to be ‘scientifically accurate’ as understood by western botanists. It is not surprising that the Horticultural Society in London hesitantly instructed Robert Fortune on his first voyage in 1843 to enquire about “peonies with blue flowers, the existence of which is, however, doubtful” or “camellias with yellow flowers, if such exist”. The information available was at best patchy but the paintings (and the porcelain) did, however, indicate the wonderful and enticing range of plants that might be available, if only the problems of transport could be overcome. British naturalists in Qing China again emphasises how dependent the Europeans initially were on Chinese nurseries at the ports. Once travel to the interior became possible after the Opium Wars, naturalists, who generally had other responsibilities, were still dependent on Chinese workers to collect specimens. Augustine Henry relied on his Chinese workers to collect his many thousands of herbarium specimens; E. H. Wilson travelled with a large entourage of workers and collectors. There is also the distinction between naturalists and plant collectors. Henry collected thousands of plant specimens but introduced very few plants into cultivation; Wilson was a plant collector with clear commercial goals.

I found British naturalists in Qing China a most rewarding book. It is clear and well written. It is the best account I have read of 19th century British naturalists in China and
supplements the information available in other works with their greater emphasis on natural history. My only regret is that Fan restricted himself to British naturalists and did not also consider the great French collectors as it would be interesting to compare the activities of these priests, such as David, Delavay and Farges, often living for years in the interior of China, with the British collectors, normally associated with trade or the Chinese Maritime Customs. There is a wonderful reference list which will provide reading for several years and the use of Chinese sources adds greatly to its value. This is one of those rare stimulating books providing many new ideas.

Each of these very different books should be in any comprehensive horticultural library.

New Zealand Garden Journal, 11(2), 2008, Page 25-26

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