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Book Review: Blue Orchid and Big Tree

Blue Orchid Big TreeSue Shephard and Toby Musgrave,  Blue Orchid and Big Tree: Plant hunters William and Thomas Lobb and the Victorian mania for the Exotic, (Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 2014)

Should you judge a book by its cover?  Thankfully not.  Because I might at first glance have been put off by the rather garish vanda coerulea [the blue orchid of the title]  BUT any book by Sue Shephard or Toby Musgrave would normally be an informative and stimulating read and so I set aside my initial prejudice and ventured inside…and I’m very glad that I did because the story of brothers William and Thomas Lobb is extraordinary.  Both authors have written about the two Cornishmen before. Sue Shepherd wrote the entry about them in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Toby Musgrave has a chapter in his 1999 book The Plant Hunters, but this is a much more rounded and complex account than either of those.

The Lobbs were amongst the most successful of 19thc botanical collectors, and helped their employer, James Veitch change the face of British gardens with their plant introductions.  Interested in plants from an early age the brothers were separately hired as collectors by Veitch, who was a canny commercial nurseryman based in Exeter. William worked for him from the age of 15 and was eventually sent to the Americas whilst Thomas went out to South East Asia a few years later.  Unfortunately they themselves left almost no documentary record of any sort and so their stories have had to be pieced together from other sources, notably the correspondence between Veitch and William Hooker, the Director of Kew, and the occasional article in Gardeners Chronicle.  This means that the narrative of their very lengthy journeys is sometimes patchy, but to add colour, their story has been interspersed with accounts by other travellers so that one gets a better sense of the difficulties and dangers they faced.

Several key points emerge throughout the book. Firstly that plant collecting was potentially big business. But for many exotics, especially orchids, it relied on getting plants home alive and this was incredibly difficult. Consignment after consignment was lost, many others were damaged, jumbled up or the labelling confused. Even when they did reach England alive it did not guard against the stupidity of leaving Wardian cases full of orchids on the dockside in midwinter so that they all perished of cold.  Despite all this, the Victorian mania for new exotic plants to fill the mini-Crystal Palaces that were being built onto middle class villas, meant the financial returns for Veitch, although not the Lobbs themselves, were considerable.  Hooker’s son Joseph collected vanda coerulea in the Himalayas, and on one trip removed “7 men’s loads of this superb plant… but few specimens reached England alive”. He estimated that “an active collector” might make £2-3,000 in one season like this.

Slower but safer and surer was seed collection. It enabled a much wider range of plants, particularly trees and shrubs, to be sent home. The list of what William despatched to Veitch is almost mind-blowing, and includes his most famous single introduction the Big Tree of the title: the Wellingtonia or sequoiadendron giganteum.  There are ’new’ plants mentioned on virtually every page of the book, which ends with a short directory of some of their most important finds.

Veitch’s fame and  family fortune were made for several generations. The firm didn’t finally fold until the 1980s.  He opened another outlet on the Kings Road in Chelsea, selling and even renting plants to London’s wealthy. He also  swept the board at Horticultural Society shows and won a gold medal “ for a magnificent display of sumptuous new plants” at the Great Exhibition.  William Lobb, by contrast,  died of ‘paralysis' in San Francisco in 1864, had no obituary and was soon forgotten. Thomas was also largely forgotten, living quietly in Cornwall until he  died in 1894, although he did merit a lengthy and laudatory obituary in Gardeners Chronicle.

What the book also shows is the devastating effect plant collecting must have had on the places that were pillaged for their plant treasures. A description by Joseph Hooker of the Malayan jungle near Penang in 1850 lists at least 7 European plant collectors with their large teams of workers, which meant  that “for miles it sometimes looks as a gale had strewn the road with rotten branches and Orchideae”. Rare plants that could not be taken were often destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of others collectors. As the authors point out, one of the few good outcomes of the WW1 was to end such ruthless clearance because the European market collapsed.

Blue Orchid and Big Tree is packed with detail, and requires, but repays, careful reading. It will be a very useful addition to reference shelves and I very much hope that authors will now turn their attention to biographies of other pioneering horticultural adventurers with the same verve and thoroughness.

David Marsh
27 August 2014
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