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Plant Explorers
by Mary Stickley

Columbus, Cortes, Magellan, we are taught a few names in school. These men risked their lives for the discovery of new lands. But have you heard of John Clayton or David Douglas? How about John Bartram? Forgotten in history now, men like these were truly some of the greatest explorers of the world.

Carl Linneaus (1707-1778)

Back in the latter 1600s, a movement began to find new plants in the world. Between kings wanting to show off amazing gardens and later, Carl Linneaus seeking specimens for scientific description, many a “botanist” set out to explore the unknown. Some were trained, others were not. But imagine getting into a wooden ship, not the modern day cruise ship, but a ship the size of a fishing trawler. It’s damp and moldy, and you are bunked in with 20 or 30 sailors sleeping in hammocks strung up in an area smaller than a modern living room. There is no electricity, no heat, no air conditioning, no bathing and no refrigeration. Toilets are a bucket dumped over the side of the boat when it’s full. Food is either dried or salted and drinking water is warm and stagnant in its wooden barrel. Clothes are whatever is on your back, and you are there for three to five years – if you return at all.  

Quite a few died in passage, but some made it to another country to brave the elements and local peoples, just to find some new plants that they collected and packed into crates to bring back to Europe. Of course, until the invention of the Wardian case (basically a terrarium) in the late 1800s, most of the specimens rotted in the holds long before they made it back to the sponsors.

Various styles of the Wardian case

Philibert Commerson (1727-1773)

It was into just such a situation that Frenchman Philibert Commerson accepted the invitation to join Louis Antoine de Bougainville on a world circumnavigation. His wife had recently died, so he went. And he and his assistant, a young man named Jean Baret, botanized at every stop, collecting over 3,000 plants. They reached Tahiti where they first saw the vine that later was named bougainvillea. They also had a bit of an adventure there when the locals kidnapped his assistant. And surprise, in the struggle for the young man’s return, it was discovered that he was really a she. History has not revealed whether Commerson had known of her secret or not. But she did continue on as his assistant and later as his housekeeper when they returned to France.

Some of my greatest admiration goes to John Clayton and John Bartram. John Clayton moved from England to Gloucester County, Virginia, in his early 20s to serve as county clerk. He loved plants and soon began to collect them. His garden was quite famous and his contemporaries made a point of traveling out of their way to visit. Many plants he had shipped from England and Europe, but he also incorporated many plants he had discovered growing naturally in the countryside around his home. And he started traveling farther and farther afield in his quest for more. He wrote descriptions of most that he found, and although he received no credit for it, his work made up the first compilation of the plants of Virginia. It was also his plant specimens that made their way to Carl Linnaeus who used them to develop his method of naming species.

John Bartram (1699-1777)

Clayton continued to collect well into his 70s. He went on horseback with a packhorse to bring supplies and haul the plants back. Sometimes he had a servant with him, but often he went alone for weeks at a time. It is unknown exactly how far he traveled as his home and records were destroyed in fires. However, it is believed that he explored most of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. He was certainly the first white man to see the Shenandoah Valley, and it is thought he was the first Englishman to see the Mississippi River. This man single-handedly discovered and described the majority of the plants growing native in that region of the Southeastern United States.

John Bartram was a Quaker farmer in Pennsylvania. He started to explore during his off months when he wasn’t planting or harvesting. Self educated, he was much older when he started exploring. He traveled with friends or his son and explored the interior of Pennsylvania, New York, and also later South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. His most famous discovery is the Franklin tree, which was named for his friend Ben. He found a small grove of these in Georgia and collected the seeds, which he planted at his home or gave to other gardening friends. His son returned to the site several years later to find the stand had died. It turns out those trees were the last of this species to be found in the wild. He agonized for years that his visit had introduced whatever killed them. But the seeds he collected also saved this beautiful tree from total extinction.

David Douglas was a young Scotsman that was sent to the Americas by the Royal Horticultural Society of England in 1823. After the Lewis and Clark expedition, Europe was frantic to learn of all the new species to be found in the American Northwest. Douglas’ commission was to last until 1826 but he ignored his summons home and stayed for another year. There were too many new plants that he didn’t want to leave behind. He spent two years back in England and then returned to America for more collecting.

David Douglas (1799-1834)

From 1830 until 1833 he collected more from Oregon and California, then decided to go to Hawaii for the winter. He focused mostly on conifers but also gathered shrubs and perennials. He sent thousands of specimens to his sponsors in England.

And stories are numerous of his “adventures.” He almost drowned when he fell into a river, and he also lost his gun and all his supplies. Then he had a several week trek to make his way from the wilderness with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. He ran into Indians time and again, several times barely escaping with his life. His eyesight was failing due to injuries and he was mostly blind in one eye. Finally in Hawaii his luck ran out. He was there just a few months when he fell into a bull trap and was killed at the age of 36. But we still remember him through the Douglas fir, just one of his many discoveries.

There are hundreds of these brave people. They left home and loved ones to head out into the totally unknown.  So many of these characters have been almost totally lost to history, but their contributions were remarkable. So when you look around at your forsythia, hosta, azaleas, rhododendrons, spruce, camellias, chrysanthemums and hydrangeas, say a quiet thanks for all these men and even women went through just to bring these beautiful plants to your gardens. 


Digital Exclusive. All images from this article are in the public domain.

Posted June 2011


Mary K. Stickley is a horticulturist, landscape designer and a certified arborist through the International Society of Arborists. She currently works as Manager of Gardens and Grounds for the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. She also owns and operates Countryside Consultations, helping homeowners in their gardening endeavors.



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