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Fathers of Botany: The Discovery of Chinese Plants by European Missionaries

Many of the world’s most renowned and exciting ornamental plants—including magnolias, roses, rhododendrons, tree peonies, lilies, and blue poppies—have their origins in China. In the mid-nineteenth century, professional plant hunters were dispatched by nurseries and botanic gardens to collect living botanical specimens from China for cultivation in Europe, and it is these adventurers and nurserymen who are often credited with the explosive bloom of Chinese flowers in the West.

But as Jane Kilpatrick shows in Fathers of Botany, the first Westerners to come upon and document this bounty were in fact cut from a different cloth: the clergy. Following the Opium Wars, European missionaries were the first explorers to dig further into the Chinese interior and send home evidence of one of the richest and most varied floras ever seen, and it was their discoveries that caused a sensation among Western plantsmen. Both men of faith and talented botanists alike, these missionaries lent their names to many of the plants they discovered, but their own stories disappeared into the leaf litter of history. Drawing on their letters and contemporary accounts, Kilpatrick focuses on the lives of four great French missionary botanists—Pères Armand David (of Davidia involucrata—the dove tree—and discoverer of the giant panda), Jean Marie Delavay, Paul Guillaume Farges, and Jean André Soulié—as well as a group of other French priests, Franciscan missionaries, and a single German Protestant pastor who all amassed significant plant collections, as she unearths a lost chapter of botanical history. In so doing, she reminds today’s gardeners and botanists—and any of us who stop to smell the roses—of the enormous debt owed to these obscure fathers of botany.

224 pages | 250 color plates | 9 3/8 x 11 | © 2014

Biological Sciences: Botany


“Kilpatrick has . . . explained these committed Christians’ achievements with admirable clarity and freshness. Their individual stories are not new, but she draws them very ably into a related whole. Historians and gardeners can all gain from her unmissable book Fathers of Botany. . . . With only a few converts and to many of us, a hopeless aim, it would be easy to write wryly of these French priests’ hopes of spreading the Gospel. Excellently, Kilpatrick shows the Christian church built in Cigu in 1867, on the Tibetan borderlands, where once the fathers had struggled to give the Eucharist to only a few converts. Now there are more than 10 million Catholics in China and the faith is growing far faster than in old Europe. One day a Pope will be Chinese, but I doubt if he will bring unknown rhododendrons to the Vatican. On many of the hillsides near towns in western China they have been felled as firewood, making way for farming, not for gardening of the future.”

Robin Lane Fox | Financial Times (UK)

"The subjects of Kilpatrick’s book are major contributors to the Western world’s knowledge of the striking and valuable flora of China. She is an experienced historian and garden writer with the skill to make historical information very lively reading. . . . While many of their discoveries are now relatively common staples in ornamental horticulture, the stories of the missionaries' struggles and experiences have not been told until now. The author successfully illuminates their contributions and thereby raises them from their undeserved obscurity. Their many adventures, some involving serious dangers, are engagingly described and accompanied by beautiful and thoughtfully chosen maps and black-and-white and color photographs. This book serves a very valuable function in documenting the history of China’s botanical contribution to the world’s horticultural treasury. . . . Recommended."

L. G. Kavaljian, California State University, Sacramento | Choice

“Presents an age that has been nearly forgotten. The author explores this history through published articles and reports, personal letters, rare and old travel journals, botanical magazines, and government and/or official documents. . . . A useful reference for . . . students in botany, plant sciences, forestry, horticulture, and economic botany.”

Saikat Kumar Basu, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada | Plant Science Bulletin

“This beautifully produced and illustrated book is heartily recommended to anyone interested in the history of plant discovery or that of the Missions Etrangères and its brave men.”

John Grimshaw, Yorkshire Arboretum | Catholic Historical Review

“Exciting. As an account of the lives and dedication of these (mostly) French missionaries and plant discoverers, Fathers of Botany will be of wide interest. A fascinating account of some very frightful situations.”

David Boufford | Harvard University Herbaria

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