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The Secrets of the Great Botanists by Matthew Biggs


From the gorgeous cover which looks like a William Morris wallpaper, to the many pages which are rich with replica botanical plates, this is a book which is perfectly designed to reflect the content. Nor does the content itself disappoint.


The author, Matthew Biggs, trained at Kew Gardens and is a regular on radio and TV programs, as well as being a lecturer and the author of numerous books and a contributor to many magazines. And - like the subjects of this book - Biggs is widely travelled and fascinated by global gardening.


As but one example, The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where Biggs himself trained, was transformed by the naturalist and botanist Joseph Banks whose early work had seen him elected as a Fellow of the Royal society at the tender age of 23. Banks’s abilities made him a natural selection – no pun intended - for the first voyage of Captain Cook when he collected more than 3,600 dried plants, of which 1400 were new to science.


Of course, the science of plants began well before Banks made his enormous contribution to it. Throughout our human history as hunter gatherers, the selection of useful plants has grown from one of trial and error to the primary emergence of medicinal botany. The earliest historical records of medicinal plant use were recorded by Sumerians on clay tablets in 1550BC.


But the ‘Father of Modern Pharmacology’ is said to be the Roman herbalist, Pedanius Dioscorides, whose extensive travels throughout Europe and Northern Africa from AD50 lead to the publication of De Materia Medica 20 years later. This became the basis of medicine for 16 centuries, and it would be difficult to think of a more impactful book than this.


And I was naturally drawn to the story of the great herbalist and author Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (b1630) whose 12-volume herbarium was compiled from plants drawn from all parts of the world to her London garden and Gloucestershire estate. She was wealthy, connected, and a generous benefactor - but above all a keen gardener - whose legacy lives on.


Of equal fascination is the story of the poor French countrywoman Jeanne Baret (b 1740) who bound her breasts and disguised herself as a boy so that she could become the valet of the great botanist Philibert Commerson on his great global circumnavigation.


This is just a small taste of the extraordinary stories compiled by Biggs in this remarkable collection, which celebrates a great deal more than the worthy science of botany. It’s a wonderful book to dip in and out of; perfect for our times as we celebrate the return of cooler days and some welcome rain for our parched gardens.


Reviewed by Peta Stavelli.

Exisle Publishing RRP $34.99.

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