“I like this wild life we are living, half in the open air; everything is an incident; and as we never know who is to come, or what is to happen next, we have the constant stimulus of curiosity to bear us to the end of every day.” Excerpt; Maria Graham’s Diary, Valparaiso, Chile 1812
Do you have a camellia in your garden, or a China rose? Or perhaps a wonderful Australian bottlebrush tucked in a corner? You might know these plants’ country of origin, but have you ever wondered how they made the journey from their native lands to your garden?
Unearthing the tales of men who braved flood and famine, disease and even imprisonment in enemy camps to collect plants in days gone by is a natural starting place. One day, I came across a distinctly female name in a list of plant explorers working hundreds of years ago. I was so surprised by this unusual reference that I began digging. The more I looked, the more I found. These were women whose names I had never heard, and whose lives were truly amazing.
This Wild Life: Heroines in the History of Botany 1650-1850 by Lucretia Weems (the author of this article) recounts the remarkable stories and accomplishments of seven women who made enormous contributions to the field of botany before that word even existed. Each of them was talented, determined, intelligent and brave. And, working alongside an overwhelming majority of men, their contributions were often barely acknowledged.
Their stories span the era that came to be called The Age of Discovery, when sea trade gave rise to an expanded global marketplace. A tremendous range of materials would be collected and shared beyond their native lands for the first time.
Henrietta Clive and her two teenaged daughters collected while circumventing the Mughal Empire in India by elephant for eleven months. Sarah Lee collected in West Africa. She survived pirate raids and mutiny but lost her husband there to fever. Maria Graham was in Valparaiso, Chile for the famous earthquake of 1812, which lasted a full five minutes. She collected and catalogued plants in South America, India, Madeira and Tenerife.
Lady Anne Monson collaborated on the first English translation of Linnaeus’ original work on taxonomy, which completely revolutionized access to botanical knowledge in the 1700s. Anna Maria Walker was a humble army wife who became a leading light in the botany of Ceylon.
In the late 1600s, Mary Somerset cultivated and catalogued thousands of plants newly arrived from around the globe in her garden. Margaret Bentinck created a true ‘think tank’ for botany and the natural sciences at her home in Buckinghamshire.
The book’s Introduction includes vignettes of more heroines. We meet Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh ruling Egypt in 1450 BCE. She was the very first person to successfully import and naturalize foreign plants, sending ships down the Red Sea to modern-day Somalia for trees. Nur Jahan, who ruled the mighty Mughal Empire singlehanded in the 1600s, collected the beautiful blue lily, Nymphaea nouchali, in Kashmir. She naturalized it in India, where it would become famous when her stepson planted it en masse at the Taj Mahal.
I have been a garden designer for many years, a woman in the world of plants. When I came across these extraordinary forgotten women, I knew their names and lives had to be shared. Each woman defied the conventions of the era, and each one’s accomplishments were – and remain – dazzling. Learning about them and their work has been an inspiring and fascinating adventure in itself. I am delighted to offer their stories to you, that these heroines may be known and celebrated anew.
You are cordially invited to these upcoming live conversations with me about
Garden History Heroines.
Medford Library, Wednesday July 19, 2:00. Author Talk and Book Signing
A conversation about the book, the process of writing the book, as well as a few stories I was not able to include.
Ashland Library, Thursday August 24, 1:00. Heroines in the History of Botany
This is the final presentation in my three-part monthly library series on garden matters.
Lucretia Weems was trained at U.C.L.A. in the Landscape Architecture program and is a Master Gardener. She has been designing gardens in the western United States for over 20 years and has created landscapes small enough to step across and large enough to get lost in. She lives, works and gardens in Oregon’s Rogue Valley. This is her first book.
Learn more at gardenhistoryheroines.com/.