The Victorian era witnessed its share of botanical odysseys, but few can compare with the Himalayan travels of Joseph Dalton Hooker. His trip began in 1847 and he encountered, catalogued and sent home seeds of hundreds of previously unknown species including olives, wild bananas, tree ferns, magnolia and poppies. Nothing caused more of a stir than the rhododendrons. They did very well at their initial destination – the well-suited climate of Ireland – and they were soon being shipped off to adorn gardens in London, New Zealand and Jamaica.
Seamus O’Brien describes Hooker as the ‘greatest exploring botanist of the 19th century’ and it is difficult to disagree. He also proved to be an accomplished geographer and cartographer, and he wasn’t too shabby with a paintbrush. One of this book’s great joys is the wealth of illustrations. Hooker seems to have secured funding with an ease that would astonish modern researchers. This sometimes had unfortunate consequences. When it came to forays into Tibet, ‘the Admiralty, who were footing the bill... expected a little more than natural history collections in return’. In the midst of the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain over control of Central Asia, Hooker’s maps and exploration of mountain passes were of strategic value and, ultimately, his Tibetan journeys paved the way for the annexation of the lower half of Sikkim into British India.
At heart, though, Hooker was a scientist, ready to brave sweltering heat and the deepest snows, and O’Brien does him justice in this wonderful chronicle. You will learn about the curious travel arrangements (‘our elephant was an excellent one, when he did not take obstinate fits’) and discover that Hooker rated giant rhubarb ‘the handsomest herbaceous plant in Sikkim’.
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