Modern Plant Hunters – Review

There is no shortage of books on the ‘golden age’ of plant hunting, generally considered to have ended with the death of Frank Kingdon Ward in 1958. However, exploration for new plants goes on, whether it is for medicinal plants and the work of scientific institutions, or for plant conservation and the identification of new breeding material to increase diversity.

Modern Plant Hunters – Adventures in Pursuit of Extraordinary Plants’ by Dr Sandy Primrose, brings the story of modern-day exploration right up to date and is a rip-roaring and thrilling read from start to finish.

There have been more new plant introductions in the past 30 years than ever before and the challenges, botanical adventures and perils associated with this vital area of horticulture are just as pertinent now as they were in Ward’s day.

Divided into two parts, the author looks in Part 1 at the practicalities of modern-day plant hunting while in Part 2, he takes a look at the plant hunters themselves. They are divided up into collectors of ornamental plants, plant hunters from scientific institutions, orchid hunters and those who hunt for medicinal plants. By dividing the book in this way, Sandy takes the reader through the various challenges and reasons why we still search for plants, often in the world’s most remote areas, as well as sharing many exciting individual stories.

John Wood, for example, who had to contend not only with illness and insects but also with being caught in the crossfire between opposing groups in Yemen and Michiel van Slageren, who was caught in the war between Israel and Hezbollah on one of his trips to the Lebanon. Contending with stinging nettles, snakes and leech, not to mention dim-dam fly, modern-day plant hunters face not only very real danger but also have the added problems of political logistics and all the new regulations now affecting plant hunting and the botanical world.

(pictured above: Porters building a bridge across a river in India, page 45)

Today, the underlying mission is plant conservation and the identification of new breeding materials to combat the impact of disease and such hazards as global warming. Sandy points out that coffee, with over two billion cups drunk around the world every day, is 70% derived from the cultivars of one bean – Coffea arabica. However, C.arabica, which originated in the cool tropical forests of Ethiopia and South Sudan, is closely linked to climatic conditions. So new varieties of Coffea are required and in 1996 Aaron Davis, a tropical botanist at Kew, was given the job of finding them! To-date he has found initially at least twenty new Coffea varieties in Madagascar but his most ardent hopes are set on the wild C.arabica species of Ethiopia, and as the author says, watch this space!

Reading about the exploits of the various plant hunters is not only enjoyable but as good as any  adventure novel. Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, Dan Hinkley, Sandy Knapp, Roy Lancaster and the Coxes of Glendoick are all included. The Chapter on Michael Wickenden, (Cally Gardens, Scotland) the ‘rebel plant hunter’, I particularly liked, with details of his expeditions to Chile, Ecuador, China and Myanmar, where he sadly died on an expedition in 2016. Details of each expedition taken by various plant hunters are given and there is also a chapter on the rainforest and its elusive miracles and standards for Traditional Chinese Medicine. (pictured right: the late Michael Wickenden with porters in the Mishmi Hills 2007, page 7)

‘Modern Day Plant Hunters’ is a thoroughly researched and well-written book. It is entertaining, informative, educational and a joy to read with captivating photographs giving the reader that sense of adventure and ‘being there’. It’s ideal for anyone who wants to explore further how modern plant hunting takes place but it is also a book worth reading for anyone interested in horticulture and plants and where they come from as well as for sheer enjoyment.

Dr Sandy Primrose, MBE., PhD, has spent his professional life as a biologist, initially in academia and then as a senior manager in pharmaceutical, diagnostic and life science companies. He is a keen gardener and lectures extensively on plants, horticulture and gardening.

(above: Autumn Colour and evening light in the Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh p.34.)

‘Modern Plant Hunters – Adventures in Pursuit of Extraordinary Plants’ by Dr Sandy Primrose is published in hardback by Pimpernel Press Ltd ( at £30.

A complimentary copy of the book was kindly supplied by the publisher for the purpose of review.

Picture credits: Middle and right-hand plates are all strictly ©Estate of Michael Wickenden.