1 WHY GO PLANT HUNTING?
The first recorded plant hunter is the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, who in the fifteenth century BC sent an expedition to the Land of Punt at the southern end of the Red Sea to collect incense trees. Then, as now, incense was important for therapy, meditation, ceremony, as a deodorant, an insectifuge and in embalming. The expedition was enormous for its time. Five ships, each seventy feet long with a crew of 210 men, including thirty rowers, set out and returned two years later with thirty-one living frankincense trees. The trees had been carefully excavated and the root balls enclosed in cloth for the long voyage back. Hatshepsut had these exotic trees planted in the courts of her Deir el-Bahari mortuary temple (near present-day Luxor). It would become the first known transplanting and establishment of foreign trees. We know about this today because it is fully illustrated on the temple walls. Much later, in the third century BC, Alexander the Great brought bamboo and bananas back from his travels to the Indian subcontinent. These expeditions can be thought of as examples of ‘economic botany’, i.e. the collection of plants with value as medicines, food, timber, dyes or for clothing manufacture.
Apples are probably the best example of economic botany. From their evolution in Kazakhstan in Central Asia they have spread all over the temperate world. Later, Alexander the Great supposedly found dwarf varieties during his travels in Asia. Apples came to England with the Romans, along with pears and peas, and were reintroduced after the Norman Conquest. The variety probably became important when Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to establish large-scale orchards in Kent and to scour the known world for the best varieties. Other food examples of economic botany include tomatoes, potatoes and maize. It is not clear who first found tomatoes in Central America: it may have been Christopher Columbus or it could have been Hernán Cortés but,
10 • MODERN PLANT HUNTERS