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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Plant Hunters, written by Anita Silvey. Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2012. $21.95 ages 12 and up

"Who were these adventurers? They were not soldiers or pirates; they followed a profession with zeal, but were not missionaries, doctors, or spies. They had a different purpose, a very dangerous mission. They risked their lives to find something seemingly ordinary: plants."

After having watched much of the coverage of London 2012 and the Olympics, I find myself, once again, in awe of the men and women who have such passion for the work that they do. They train daily for four years to take part in their sport, and to represent their country. I am in awe of their love of sport, the sense of purpose they have to train endlessly, and the chance they take that their day of competition will proceed without incident.

This book is about that same kind of dogged determination. The men and women described in these pages by noted author and children's literature expert, Anita Silvey, will do what it takes to find a plant. They face unbelievable conditions of weather and danger to further the research for medicine and science. They let nothing stop them!

You will know people like them. She begins with a most compelling and gruesome introductory paragraph:

"One got eaten by tigers in the Philippines; one died of fever in Ecuador; one drowned in the Oronoco River; one fell to his death in Sierra Leone. Another survived rheumatism, pleurisy, and dysentery while sailing the Yangtze River in China; only to be murdered later. A few ended their days in lunatic asylums; many simple vanished into thin air."

Now there's a beginning! 

Ms. Silvey goes on to describe the men (and a few women) who have put their lives on the line for money; but, also to improve life for the people of the world. The text is accompanied by lovely, detailed lithographs, oil paintings, watercolors, maps, and archival photographs; all add to the appeal and the general knowledge of the reader.

The stories are adventurous and terrifying. The plant hunters faced unexpected dangers, as did the plants they were carrying. They were often far from civilization and needed to be sure they carried what they would need for their day's search. They kept careful, detailed accounts of their work, their specimens, their surroundings. In spite of everything they did to ensure safe transport, many of the collected specimens did not survive, or failed to germinate once they were planted.

Each story will hold fascination for budding botanists, and those interested in adventure and history.
These scientists made invaluable contributions to scientific research.  It moves from the long-ago past to the present, ending with Richard Ree, a modern-day plant hunter preparing specimens in Tibet. I found it consistently fascinating to read these well-researched tales of travel, passion for nature, and danger.
The back matter includes an extensive time line, an author's note, chapter notes, a bibliography and an index...all are most useful and informative. What fun it would be to share in any class work concerning plants and gardening, or even for Earth Day.

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