Meeting 12 November 2019

We were delighted to welcome once again our guest speaker Matthew Biggs, author and broadcaster last night to talk about ‘Secrets of Great Botanists’. The last time we met him he was on the panel of Gardeners Question Time when the Society hosted the broadcast from Park Hall in December 2015.

Matthew chose four leading botanists and plant finders through the centuries to illustrate his talk. First being Leonhart Fuchs who first made his name in botany with the publication of his 1542 De Historia Stirpium (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants) One of the most beautiful books ever printed due to its exquisite hand coloured drawings. It was also the first time that many species from the New World were featured in Europe for the first time including widespread plants like tomatoes, potatoes, corn and chillies.

He gained a BA at 14 and studied physics, philosophy and medicine in Bavaria. Fuchs first found fame for the fatal English sweating disease using plants including rosemary and various types of gentian. Many years after his death in 1566 the fuchsia was named in memory of him.

When Philibert Commercon joined Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s 1776 expedition to circumnavigate the world he took Jeanne Baret his housekeeper/lover and botanical assistant with him disguised as his male valet! In those days women were not allowed to travel on these voyages. She therefore became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and proved herself a resilient and intrepid plant collector and plant hunter  due to her knowledge of medicinal plants. Among her discoveries in the forests of Brazil was the famous Bougainvillea spectabilis. Jeanne Baret has only recently been commemorated through the name of the plant.

William Dampier(1651-1715) on leaving school became apprenticed to a seaman in Weymouth, fought briefly in the Anglo-Dutch War was employed on a Jamaican sugar plantation, traded in dye in Mexico. His pay was so bad he became a pirate raiding through Spanish towns along the coast of Mexico. He made enough money to return to England and marry. Dampier travelled widely across the Pacific, the South China Sea, the coasts of South East Asia. He was the first seventeenth century Englishman to navigate the globe. To capitalise on his now notoriety he published a book ‘A new voyage around the world’ giving a detailed description of the flora and fauna and people he encountered on his travels. In all he circumnavigated the world three times. Collected plants from Australia 71 years before Cook arrived. He was the first to describe Breadfruit in English described the Galapagos turtles before Darwin and produced the first recipe for guacamole!

George Forrest (1873-1932) was a robust, fearless Scotsman who started life working in a chemist shop producing herbarium specimens before moving on to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. A wealthy Liverpudlian Arthur Bulley was recommended to hire George to collect plants for his garden from the mountains of Yunnan in China. A year into his time in China violence broke out causing him to flee for his life. Over the coming days he avoided capture and certain death by scrambling over precipitous mountainous terrain and wading through water to leave no tracks for his pursuers. Lesser men would not have wanted to ever return to China but Forrest returned 7 times over 28 years mainly to Yunnan province which is so rich in flowers. He introduced over 1,200 new species. Among them were 509 rhododendrons ,over 50 primulas to the excitement of botanists. Most of his letters and artefacts are stored in the archives at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

Matthew provided us with a fabulous, stimulating and exciting insight into the intrepid and often swashbuckling world of four of our greatest botanists who pioneered the discovery of thousands of plants we enjoy in our gardens today.


Matthew’s book, RHS ‘The Secrets of Great Botanists’ illustrated with beautiful period botanical watercolours and vibrant photographs is published by Mitchell Beazley and is available in all good book shops at £15.99

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2 Responses to Meeting 12 November 2019

  1. George French says:

    A superb review of a great talk enjoyed by many members at the meeting.

  2. Janet Warr says:

    Very interesting read – at the end of the talk i was wishing that i had a better memory. i’m not good at remembering names at all, but now it is not a problem. i have printed this out and can read again at my leisure,
    Looking forward to the next one.

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