“Stranger,
here you will do well to linger; here our highest good is pleasure”
Epicurus

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Hookers Odyssey

June 9, 2020

The great and the good of 19th century society loved nothing more than going on a jolly shooting party and the rhododendron became their shrub of choice to provide crucial cover for game birds on country estates.

But before this flowering evergreen became part of the British hunt it was a favourite quarry for Victorian Britain’s most prolific plant hunter, a man whose epic expedition to the Himalayas saw him collect 7,000 plant species including dozens of undiscovered rhododendron; examples of which still thrive in Britain to this day.

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Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) is a rather unsung hero of horticulture. He was a botanist, writer, illustrator, taxonomist and a close friend of Charles Darwin, eventually becoming the director at Kew Gardens and transforming its influence.

But unlike Darwin, Joseph wasn’t a wealthy chap and his first expedition in 1839 was working as a junior surgeon on a sailing ship exploring Antarctica, collecting plant samples at every stop during the four year journey.

In 1847 he hunted down a £450 grant to be the first European botanist to study the Himalayas and in November he set sail for South Asia.

It was certainly no pleasure cruise, taking free passage on HMS Sidon from England to the Nile before crossing the desert to Suez, sailing to Calcutta and then making the slow slog via elephant, pony and a boat up the river Ganges to Darjeeling.

In 1849 he travelled to the secretive kingdom of Sikkim and was promptly imprisoned by the Raja, but once released he soon identified 45 local species of rhododendron, many of which were unknown to the world of botany.

Hooker’s three year expedition was a resounding success and unlike previous botanists he sent thousands of seeds back home which were later used to cultivate commercial plants for Britain’s craze for landscaped ornamental gardens; the very same gardens from which the Broken Clock’s story and recipe are derived.

So whether you’re stalking game with your Purdey over-and-under shotgun this week or just out for a stroll amongst the azaleas in your local park, spare a thought for plant hunter Joseph Hooker and his remarkable rhododendron odyssey.