Did you know that the age-old perception of flowers and gardens as being feminine is more than just a cliché? In fact, the history of women and botany goes way back, and it’s not actually a rootless stereotype (pun intended). There has been a timeless association between the natural world and women, starting with ancient goddesses of the land and elements. Father Nature, anyone? Not really a thing. While men concerned themselves with the spiritual and the intellectual, women were involved in the physical, from mixing herbal remedies to experimenting in alchemy (a.k.a. medieval chemistry). And it turns out that women played a large role in the popularization of botany as a scientific endeavour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
During the age of imperialism, when Europeans were introduced to a whole slew of new culinary ingredients (and beverages like tea, which you can read all about here), exotic sartorial styles, and commodities such as plants and flowers, there was a massive global cultural exchange (which you can read about here). As new plant specimens were discovered in faraway lands, they were brought back to nations like England to be studied, documented, and domesticated. And many of the people labouring to do this were women, despite the very male face of science that history has left us with. Large-scale botanic gardens and scientific societies emerged, and while women were not granted access to these professional institutions, they were indeed involved in the botanic process in unexpected and unconventional ways. And over the course of the eighteenth century, amateur botany had become a recreational activity for fashionable ladies, joining the ranks of feminine “accomplishments” like dancing, music, and French.
Now, read on to discover three roles that women took on in the process of popularizing the study of botany in English society and in integrating new plants and flowers into the culture and geography of their homeland.
A Glimpse into the History of Women and Botany Through 3 Important Roles:
1. Collectors of Curiosities
Countless colonial wives scoured the faraway lands that they were sent to for new and exotic plants, collecting large quantities of seedlings to either bring back with them or to send back overseas. Meanwhile, several well-known aristocratic women back in England were active in collecting and displaying botanical discoveries for both the purpose of scientific study and for the curious public to come see. For example, Mary Capel, Duchess of Beaufort collected exotic plants in her impressive gardens. The seeds she collected were brought to her from all over the world, ranging from locales as diverse as Virginia and the Cape of Good Hope. Likewise, Margaret Cavendish Bentwick, Duchess of Portland dedicated her life to the study and collection of exotic plants and flowers. She displayed them in her Portland Museum for the public to see, drawing in masses of visitors who came to get a glimpse of the fascinating exotic plants that came from around the world.
2. Displayers and Documenters
Botanical drawing became exalted as a leisurely female accomplishment by the 1760s, and many women who were taught this domestic art put it to scientific use. Don’t forget: in pre-camera times, accurate illustrations were not just pretty to look at, but were integral to scientific study. The nurseryman-author James Lee was assisted by his daughter Anne Lee, who diligently documented countless species in a folio of drawings. And Mary Granville Delaney, an important artist, became widely renowned for creating beautiful plant illustrations from small strips of coloured paper. They were so realistic that even Joseph Banks, the legendary king of botany himself, was impressed. Likewise, Marianne North is another famous painter that was known for accurately depicting exotic new plant specimens. She actually explored the world herself, visiting places like Jamaica, Brazil, Canada, the United States, Singapore, Japan, India, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. Her plant paintings even received support from Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and from the legendary Charles Darwin. Women also picked up their pens to document the plants they discovered in faraway lands, and the Victorian era saw the flourishing of women’s botanical publishing. Elizabeth Twining’s Chief Natual Orders of Plants, Fanny Elizabeth Mole’s Wild Flowers of Australia, Dorothy’s catalogue of Nigeria’s flora, and Arabella’s of South Africa are a few of the works that went out in this time.
3. Patrons and Promoters
Last but not least, many scientifically-minded aristocratic women used their positions of power to patronize and promote the practice of botany. Remember the avid collector, the Duchess of Portland? Well she played another important role: that of the patron. She did not travel the world collecting the plants in her vast collection herself. Instead, she was an influential patroness to botanical agents overseas. She had personal connections with important naturalists like Daniel Solander, who she enlisted to curate her collection, as well as with his boss Joseph Banks, both of whom travelled on Captain James Cook’s scientific voyages. She was also a great friend and patron of Mary Delaney the artist, who looked to the Portland gardens as a source of knowledge and inspiration for her illustrations. After the Duchess died, Mary Delaney found a new patron: Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III. And Charlotte’s botanical sponsorship did not end here. She also generously supported the botanic garden at Kew, which was likely the most important institution for botanical study at the time. She became known as the Queen of Science for her important role in the popularization and appreciation of botany in Britain. And in fact, she became the face of the “polite” scientific woman of the age. In 1773 Joseph Banks honoured her majesty by naming a newly discovered exotic bird of paradise flower “Strelitzia Reginae.” (To learn more about the scientific patronage of aristocratic women, read my paper on the topic here)
So there you have it. From taking on the roles of collector to documenter to patron, women played an important part in the popularization of botany in England and abroad, helping to integrate new plant specimens into the culture and landscape of their homeland.
Related Post: The Forgotten Feminine Tale of Tea
Want to learn more about the history of women and botany? Try one of these books:
Britannia’s Daughters: Women of the British Empire by Joanna Trollope. Get it from Amazon here.
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