Fathers of Botany

The Discovery of Chinese Plants by European Missionaries

About the Book

A beautiful book detailing the fascinating stories behind some of our best-loved plants, including magnolias, roses, rhododendrons, tree peonies, lilies, and blue poppies.

Many of the world’s most renowned and exciting ornamental plants have their origins in China. In the mid-nineteenth century, professional plant hunters were dispatched by nurseries and botanic gardens to collect living botanical specimens from China for cultivation in Europe, and it is these adventurers and nurserymen who are often credited with the explosive bloom of Chinese flowers in the West. But as Jane Kilpatrick shows in Fathers of Botany, the first Westerners to come upon and document this bounty were in fact cut from a different cloth: the clergy.

“Much has been written about the golden age of plant-hunting in Asia (roughly the mid 19th century to the Second World War), particularly on collectors such as George Forrest, Frank Kingdon Ward, Joseph Rock and Ernest Wilson. Although their contribution was considerable, they were not the first to exploit the floral wealth of Asia. The first westerners to exploit this botanical richness were missionaries, mostly french – the subject of this book. Those covered include Armand Davis, Jean Marie Delavay, Paul Guillaume Farges and Jean Andre Soulie. They endured extreme hardship, disease, famine, warring tribes, and several were horribly murdered.

Jane Kilpatrick has conducted scholarly and detailed research, bringing together a great deal of information about these pioneering plant explorers. The book is not just factual but it is also a jolly good read, with chapter titles such as Land of the White Bear and A Dangerous Vocation. The text is supported by numerous contemporary photographs of the missionaries as well as excellent modern photographs of the places and plants. The reference section is extensive and thorough.
While the day-to-day work of these missionaries would have been pastoral, their names live on in the numerous plants and animals they discovered. Besides plant introductions to gardens their important scientific collections now reside in major world herbaria.

This is an inspirational account that will be of keen interest to not only those fascinated by the history of plant exploration, but also by the great wealth and diversity of Chinese plants that enhance our gardens today. To these pioneers we owe a debt of gratitude. This handsome volume fills an important gap in our overall knowledge and understanding of plant exploration. Perhaps, more importantly, it gives us a detailed insight into those many individuals who braved hostile Chinese lands in their quest.”

Chris Grey-Wilson, RHS The Plantsman, June 2015


“Historians and gardeners can all gain from her unmissable book Fathers of Botany, about the remarkable men who took Christianity to remote parts of China and put such energy in to collecting superb plants, unknown at the time in the west.”

Robin Lane Fox, Financial Times

“This handsome volume fills an important gap in our overall knowledge and understanding of plant exploration. Perhaps, more importantly, it gives us a detailed insight into those many individuals who braved hostile Chinese lands in their quest.”

Christopher Grey-Wilson, The Plantsman

“This beautifully produced and illustrated book is heartily recommended to anyone interested in the history of plant discovery or that of the Missions Etrangères and its brave men.”

John Grimshaw, Catholic Historical Review

“The subjects of Kilpatrick s book are major contributors to the Western world s knowledge of the striking and valuable flora of China. She is an experienced historian and garden writer with the skill to make historical information very lively reading. . . . While many of their discoveries are now relatively common staples in ornamental horticulture, the stories of the missionaries' struggles and experiences have not been told until now. The author successfully illuminates their contributions and thereby raises them from their undeserved obscurity. Their many adventures, some involving serious dangers, are engagingly described and accompanied by beautiful and thoughtfully chosen maps and black-and-white and color photographs. This book serves a very valuable function in documenting the history of China s botanical contribution to the world s horticultural treasury. . . . Recommended. ”

L. G. Kavaljian, California State University

“Presents an age that has been nearly forgotten. The author explores this history through published articles and reports, personal letters, rare and old travel journals, botanical magazines, and government and/or official documents. . . . A useful reference for . . . students in botany, plant sciences, forestry, horticulture, and economic botany.”

Saikat Kumar Basu, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada "Plant Science Bulletin"

“Exciting. As an account of the lives and dedication of these (mostly) French missionaries and plant discoverers, Fathers of Botany will be of wide interest. A fascinating account of some very frightful situations.”

David Boufford, Harvard University Herbaria

Jane Kilpatrick

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