The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth

The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth

by Anita Silvey

Hardcover(First Edition)

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Driven by an all-consuming passion, the plant hunters traveled around the world, facing challenges at every turn: tropical illnesses, extreme terrain, and dangerous animals. They battled piranhas, tigers, and vampire bats. Even the plants themselves could be lethal! But these intrepid eighteenth- and nineteenth-century explorers were determined to find and collect new and unusual specimens, no matter what the cost. Then they tried to transport the plants—and themselves—home alive. Creating an important legacy in science, medicine, and agriculture, the plant hunters still inspire the scientific and environmental work of contemporary plant enthusiasts.

Working from primary sources—journals, letters, and notes from the field—Anita Silvey introduces us to these daring adventurers and scientists. She takes readers into the heart of their expeditions to then-uncharted places such as the Amazon basin, China, and India. As she brings a colorful cast of characters to life, she shows what motivated these Indiana Jones–type heroes. In The Plant Hunters, science, history, and adventure have been interwoven to tell a largely forgotten—yet fascinating—story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374309084
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/10/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.60(d)
Lexile: 1170L (what's this?)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Anita Silvey is among today's foremost authorities on children's books. She is the creator of both the online and the print editions of the Children's Book-a-Day Almanac, and teaches courses in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the Children's Literature Program at Simmons College. A frequent contributor to NPR, Ms. Silvey lectures around the country on children's and young adult books. Her books include Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier, Patriot, I'll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, and Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

The Plant Hunters

True Stories of their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth

By Anita Silvey

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Anita Silvey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9529-4



I walked along the beach to observe a group of crocodiles asleep in the sun, their tails, covered with broad scaly plates, resting on each other. Small herons, as white as snow, walked on their backs, even on their heads, as if they were tree trunks ... As I looked in that direction I saw [a tiger] lying down under the thick foliage ... eighty steps away from me. Never had a tiger seemed so enormous ... I carried on walking, without breaking into a run or moving my arms ... The further away I got the more I quickened my pace. I was so tempted to turn round and see if the cat was chasing me! Luckily I resisted the impulse, and the tiger remained lying down.

— Alexander von Humboldt

In these words, Baron Alexander von Humboldt recorded one of many near-death experiences he had while exploring uncharted regions of Venezuela and Brazil in 1800. For several months, Humboldt, who came from a wealthy German family, and his traveling companion, Pierre Bonpland from France, had been thrilled by the sights, smells, noises, animals, and plants of the area. As they traveled, they sketched, took extensive notes, and gathered specimens. Well supplied with equipment, they brought with them forty-two advanced scientific instruments: microscopes and telescopes, thermometers and barometers, a rain gauge, quadrants and sextants, a Leyden jar for storing static electricity, a magnetic needle, a galvanometer to measure electric currents, and a pendulum. They even carried an instrument that compared degrees of blueness in the colors of the sky.

Although he had traveled throughout much of Europe, Humboldt marveled at the plants in this part of the world. "What magnificent vegetation!" he wrote. "Cocoa-nut palms from fifty to sixty feet in height ... bananas, and a host of trees with enormous leaves and sweet-smelling flowers as large as one's hand, all of which are entirely new ... How brilliant the plumage of birds and the colours of the fishes! — even the crabs are sky-blue and gold!" In his journals, published in 1814 as Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, he described in detail the breathtaking plant and animal life he discovered.

But the joys of this journey were definitely tempered by tremendous challenges. Humboldt was stalked by jaguars (a type of South American tiger), tormented by insects, threatened by crocodiles, and abandoned by his guides. He narrowly escaped being poisoned. Yet even these terrifying events did not diminish his enthusiasm for his mission.

The rain forests of Venezuela, one of the first habitats that Humboldt saw in South America, contained over five million botanical and animal species; in fact 15 percent of the world's plants are found there. These jungles stretched out like an ocean. Gigantic trees rose from the ravines. Their black bark, burned by the sun, contrasted with the thick green carpet of climbing vines, called lianas, that covered them. Orchids blanketed the trunks; lianas stretched from one tree to another, a hundred feet in the air. Humboldt marveled at the smell of the thick jungles — a tantalizing mixture of the aromas of flowers, fruits, and even the tree wood itself.

After exploring the forests, Humboldt and Bonpland, traveling in a boat piloted by native guides, headed down the Orinoco River, which flows into the Amazon. In the boat's large cabin, covered with leaves to shelter them from sun and rain, they placed their equipment and provisions for the coming month — oranges, tamarinds, bananas, eggs, and chocolate. The baron also brought along a large mastiff, called simply "the dog," for companionship. As they traveled, they added specimens to what quickly became a floating zoo, which included several primates, ranging in size from small squirrel monkeys to a large woolly one (now called Humboldt's woolly monkey), and two dozen caged birds (a macaw with purple feathers, other parrots, two cock-of-the-rocks, and a beautiful toucan, a bird of unusual intelligence). The zoo kept the boat lively; when it rained, the toucan tried to fly and the monkeys attempted to hide.

During the day, as they floated down the river, Humboldt observed an enormous number of wild animals. In the leafy treetops, howler monkeys traveled in packs of thirty or forty, creating a constant racket. In a kind of dance or ballet, they moved slowly from one high branch to another — every monkey in the group repeating the last action of the monkey before it. Jaguars appeared at the water's edge, drinking from the river and then eventually disappearing back into the jungle. Other animals emerged, one after another — American panthers, magnificent black pheasants, flamingos, pink pelicans, spoonbills, and herons. Crocodiles, often in large groups, stretched out on sandbars. Capybaras, large rodents that could swim, lived in herds of up to sixty and became food for the predators. Humboldt found this scene to be "like paradise."

Every night when they established a camp, they placed the birds, animals, and instruments in the center, arranged hammocks for sleeping next to them, and built a fire ring on the outside to scare off jaguars. One full-moon night, the jungle vibrated with such raucous animal noises that sleep was impossible. Jaguars, pumas, sloths, and howler monkeys created a deafening roar. When jaguars approached the camp, the giant mastiff — who had been barking all night in response to the symphony of sounds — retreated under Humboldt's hammock.

But of all the Amazon's predators, nothing proved more lethal to the travelers than its insects. The men were constantly attacked by mosquitoes, large and small gnats, and tiny venomous flies. These pests caused the baron's hands to swell, making it difficult for him to do what he had come to do: harvest plants. Completely miserable, the baron wrote: "However much you try to observe the object you are studying, the mosquitoes ... will tear you away as they cover your head and hands, pricking you with their needle-like suckers through your clothes, and climbing into your nose and mouth, making you cough and sneeze whenever you try to talk." To counteract the insects, the baron buried himself in dirt, slept in trees, rubbed his body with crocodile fat and turtle-egg oil, and slapped at the attackers — all to no avail.

Preserving plant species under these conditions proved daunting. However, the baron and Bonpland learned that the natives lived in small hornitos, or ovens, "small spaces without doors or windows, which they slide into on their bellies through a low opening." Inside these dwellings, a fire of green unseasoned wood, which gives off plenty of smoke, expelled all the insects. The men put these hornitos to use. Bonpland spent many hours in them, pressing and drying the plant specimens that they gathered daily.

While Bonpland baked himself and the plants in the hornitos, Humboldt wrote in his journal, making notes on the location of plants and drawing detailed pictures of the impressive vegetation all around him. He marveled at the zamang, the rain tree. The branches extended like an enormous umbrella, providing a home for the multitude of plants that lived on them. At another spot, he noted the cow tree, sometimes called the milk tree, whose sap provided a nourishing substance for those living around it. He discovered some beautiful Malabar chestnuts covered with enormous purple flowers, a rare long-leafed bamboo plant that grew sixty feet high, and a Brazil nut tree that could have been five to eight hundred years old. When the Brazil nut's fruit ripened in May, the huge balls, each containing fifteen to twenty-two nuts, crashed onto the ground. Then monkeys, squirrels, and parrots rushed to the spot to fight over the prized booty.

To provide food along the way, Humboldt's guides often fished for a tasty little item that they called the caribe, known in English as the piranha, the most ferocious, bloodthirsty fish in the world. Related to the catfish, the piranha inflicts incredible damage with its sharp, interlocking teeth. A school of piranhas can strip a carcass in a minute; piranhas also habitually attack things much larger than themselves.

Crocodiles and snakes also infested the river. At one point, a violent gust of wind swamped the boat with so much water that it looked like it might sink. The guides jumped overboard and swam away. But the baron was not a strong swimmer. Fortunately, his good friend Bonpland remained loyal and tried to help Humboldt swim to shore — more than a mile away. As they moved slowly in the water, they could spot at least a dozen crocodiles. "Even if we had gained the shore against the fury of the waves and the voracity of the crocodiles, we should infallibly either have perished from hunger or been torn to pieces by the tigers," Humboldt later wrote. But after struggling in the water, they realized that the same gusts of wind that had threatened to sink their boat now filled its sails again. With great effort, Humboldt and Bonpland managed to climb back into the boat and maneuver it to shore. Although the guides later returned to the vessel, many valuable plant specimens had been lost, carried away by the river.

In the town of Esmeralda, on the Orinoco River, the baron stopped to research one of the most infamous products of the region — nerve poison, or black curare, generated from local plants and used by the Tikuna tribe on the tips of lethal arrows. This poison kills a bird in two or three minutes and a pig in twelve; it is also quite capable of killing a human being. When it enters a person's bloodstream, the victim becomes nauseous, vomits, and is tortured by thirst.

Humboldt watched the tribe members use clay boilers to create the poison that "kills silently, without the victim knowing where it comes from." He tasted the bitter concoction without any ill effect — as the poison only proves fatal when it pierces the skin. But his travels almost came to a tragic end when a jar of the curare accidentally spilled on his clothes. Some seeped into a sock, which he began to pull over his foot. Since he had bleeding sores from insect bites all over his feet, this chance encounter with the black curare would have killed him. Luckily he discovered the spilled poison in time.

Returning to Cumaná, Venezuela, Humboldt and Bonpland both suffered from violent fevers. At one point, Humboldt feared that Bonpland had died, only to discover that he had merely fainted. Slowly, over time, both men recovered.

With so many near-death experiences, the baron's journey reads like an escapade of Indiana Jones or some other action hero. But when it came to plant hunting, Humboldt was just your typical, ordinary collector. Many who came after him had just as amazing escapades.



Why did these adventurous souls, like Baron von Humboldt, willingly face crocodiles, piranhas, and jaguars just to bring home seeds, leaves, and flowers? Examine any plant. It is stationary. It appears uncomplicated, even boring. It doesn't walk or speak. Yet in pursuit of these seemingly placid objects, every plant hunter faced extraordinary danger.

Although they came from different countries and different backgrounds, most plant hunters shared similar characteristics. They loved being outdoors in the natural world. They enjoyed traveling to places often unseen by others, and they found alien landscapes mysterious and beautiful. Sometimes a passion for travel gripped them, as if they were migratory birds. In great physical shape, capable of walking and climbing long distances, they all possessed stamina, endurance, and perseverance. They chose lives that offered little physical comfort. Often they gained mastery of several languages, because they needed to negotiate with people in South America, China, Mongolia, or Turkistan. All enjoyed extended periods of being and traveling alone. Plant hunting required a temperament that flourished in isolation.

As an occupation, plant hunting strongly favored male collectors who could easily leave their homes and travel around the world by themselves; however, over the years a few determined women made their mark in the field. From the age of six, Alice Eastwood (1859–1953) had been a plant enthusiast, having been introduced to botany by her uncle. In her twenties, she organized the herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Traveling in the Yukon for Harvard University at the age of fifty-five to study the plants of this cold region, Eastwood adapted to living in a rough cabin with a defective woodstove, a floor covered with ice, and insufficient provisions. But, she wrote, "I don't mind anything when I want to get something."

Ynés Mexía (1870–1938) did not even experience her first plant-hunting expedition until she had turned fifty-five. She then made multiple expeditions to Central and South America, where she used her ability to speak Spanish to gain access to areas unexplored by others. Mexía wrote that she finally found in her later life "a task where I could be useful ... while living out among the flowers."

Most plant hunters wanted to make scientific discoveries. They were inspired by the life and work of the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the father of modern botany, the scientific study of plants. As a young boy, the son of a pastor in a small Swedish village, Linnaeus faced poverty and hunger. He often had to patch his shoes because he could not afford better ones. Known as "the little botanist" from the age of eight, Linnaeus also became obsessed with making lists. He initially created a list of his toys; later he would make lists of cows. His need to organize and arrange his world became one of his defining characteristics — and eventually it helped make him famous.

With support from his community, Linnaeus managed to attend the University of Uppsala to pursue a degree in botany, a discipline then in the forefront of the scientific revolution. Even before he had graduated, Linnaeus — dressed in leather trousers, knee-high boots, and a hat with netting — journeyed one hundred miles, with only crude maps, in Sweden's rugged Lapland region to gather plants.

While publishing his scientific notes from that trip, Linnaeus began to develop a new system of classification for plants. At that time, different scientists named and identified plants according to their own concepts. Linnaeus believed that a universally accepted classification grid would make the exchange of scientific information easier. Returning home with no less than one hundred previously unknown species, he published his own ideas about plant classification, building on work that had already been done by John Ray of England and Joseph Tournefort of France. Based on the concept that species should be grouped together because they shared physical characteristics, Linnaeus's system, with some changes, still forms the basis of all scientific classification today. It was simple, logical, and easy to understand, and it could be mastered quickly.

Linnaeus divided the natural world into three kingdoms: animal, vegetable, and mineral. He then added other qualifiers — phylum, class, order, genus, and species. As he named everything from buffaloes to buttercups, he began to create order out of the natural world, or, as his motto has been translated, "God created. Linnaeus organized."

Every living creature was given a descriptive Latin name. Each name was short, unique, and standardized. It began with the genus (general family name) and was followed by the species (a unique name). Just as humans had a family name, Smith or Jones, and a personal name, John or Juanita, plants and animals would have similar names in Latin. Human beings became Homo sapiens under this system, household cats Felis catus, and the common daisy Bellis perennis. Lions and tigers, members of the same family, became Panthera leo and Panthera tigris.

This system provided for all creatures a unique name that could be universally adopted. The common dog rose, for instance, had been called Rosa sylvestris inodora seu canina by some scientists and Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro by others. Linnaeus renamed it Rosa (the genus) canina (the species). Information could now be communicated easily from one scientist to another, no matter where they lived or what language they spoke.


Excerpted from The Plant Hunters by Anita Silvey. Copyright © 2012 Anita Silvey. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
"Botanomania": A Passion for Plants,
Chapter 1: The Indiana Jones of the Nineteenth Century,
Chapter 2: Why Did They Do It?,
Chapter 3: Bringing the Plants Home Alive,
Chapter 4: Bringing Themselves Home Alive,
Chapter 5: Plant Superstars,
Chapter 6: Contemporary Plant Geeks,
Time Line,
Author's Note,
Illustration Credits,
About the Author,

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The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Bobbi01 More than 1 year ago
Indiana Jones has nothing on these intrepid adventurers as they travel the world in search of the exotic – plant! Anita Silvey draws upon letters, diaries and journals to tell the story of these little known daring-do scientists. Passionate about their discoveries, plant hunters “…love being outdoors in the natural world. They enjoyed traveling to places often unseen by others, and they found alien landscapes mysterious and beautiful.” While many went into plant hunting with the hope of becoming rich, most also wanted to make scientific discoveries, inspired by the life of Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Considered the father of modern botany, Linnaeus created the system to classify plants. “As he named everything from buffaloes to buttercups, he began to create order out of the natural world, or, as his motto has been translated, ‘God created. Linnaeus organized.” Anita opens with the amazing tale of Alexander von Humboldt. In his quest across South America, von Humboldt encountered a jaguar, is “…tormented by insects, threatened by crocodiles, and abandoned by his guides.” At one point, he was poisoned by curare, a nerve poison used by the Tikuna tribe living on the Orinoco River. The adventure didn’t end once the hunters found their specimens. Transporting the discoveries back to the museums, arboretums, and royal gardens sometimes proved more difficult. Sometimes it could take weeks or months before the plant was ready to harvest, then it had to be carried by mules then by boats, being carried across land and ocean, exposed to all kinds of weather and environmental changes. Because plant hunters wanted to make sure their specimens survived, they collected sometimes thousands of specimens, and in doing so, created an environmental disaster. Joseph Hooker’s workers cut down ten thousand trees in order to gather four thousand orchids living at the top of them. The irony of destroying so much in order to gain the prize could lend itself to a wonderful discussion about current environmental concerns. Anita includes an impressive collection of original drawings, paintings, photographs to illustrate the landscape and characters of her subject. This book is a remarkable blend of history, science and adventure.