For my birthday this year I received the ultimate present – money to buy gardening and nature books. Matthew Biggs’ The Secrets of Great Botanists was one of the books I bought and it turned out to be an excellent choice…
From Pedanius Dioscorides’ seminal work De Materia Medica to Patrick Blanc’s modern, innovative mur végétal structures, Matthew Biggs explores the lives and scientific endeavours of 35 of the most influential botanists of the past 2000 years. Although the histories stand alone as individual vignettes, the beauty of this book is in the way it reveals the progression of botanical knowledge over time, exploring developments like James Edward Smith’s purchase of Carl Linnaeus’ botanical collection after the Swedish botanist’s death and his founding of the Linnean society in 1788.
The author recounts the lives of famous botanists like Leonhart Fuchs, John Lindley and Joseph Banks, but also introduces less well known pioneers such as the botanist-pirate William Dampier who was collecting plants in Australia seventy-one years before Sir Joseph Banks, and the botanical illustrator and plant collector Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe, who designed and oversaw the development of the Maymyo Botanic Garden in the early twentieth century.
Although only eight of the 35 stories focus on female botanists, they comprise some of the most remarkable tales in the collection. Who could fail to be inspired by Anna Atkins, who perfected the art of the cyanotype and produced the first book in the world to be illustrated with photographs? Or the indomitable Jeanne Baret who accompanied naturalist Philibert Commerçon on his plant hunting expeditions around the world disguised as a boy, collecting specimens and acting as chief botanist when Commerçon was ill?
The Secrets of Great Botanists is beautifully illustrated with period botanical images including Marianne North’s painting of the pitcher plant, Nepenthes Northiana, and several of Anne Atkin’s fern cyanotypes. The text covers daring exploits and exciting discoveries, but I most enjoyed seeing how the legacies of these botanists influence horticulture and design today. Nikolai Vavilov’s work to conserve genetic diversity and Philipp von Siebold’s introduction to Europe of over twenty hosta species, Wisteria brachybotrys and the infamous Japanese knotweed have never seemed so relevent.
If you would like more inspiring gardening and nature reading, here are some other reviews of books I’ve enjoyed: