plant collector

Botanomania and the secret history of women plant collectors

It’s that time of year again, when Art In Bloom brings Mia’s collection to life through floral artistry. For four days every April, we enjoy blossoms from all over the world in the museum’s galleries, paying little regard to their bloom cycles, and it all seems quite “natural.” But the flowers are only here, in Minnesota, because modern floriculture and expedited shipping have squashed those old obstacles, space and time.

Science and Sociability

Installation highlighting women’s involvement in 1700s botany in “Science and Sociability,” on view in Mia’s Queen Anne and Georgian period rooms through early June 2018.

If you are curious about how we got to this point, swing by “Science and Sociability,” an installation in Mia’s Queen Anne period room that considers how ordinary citizens contributed to the study of the natural world in 1700s Britain. Much of it deals with botany. Plants were a national obsession then, as ships returned from the edges of the empire loaded with exotic ornamentals, and innovations in hothouse technology helped tropical plants survive the northern winter. Of all the sciences, botany was seen as particularly “good” for women. It allowed them to get fresh air, sharpen their drawing skills, and develop expertise in herbal remedies—which made them better caregivers.
But “botanomania” also opened new opportunities for gardening and plant collecting. Through these practices women collectors had a direct impact on the global distribution of plants, and experts and the general public alike benefitted from publications of the “new” plants that women imported. The botanical books displayed in “Science and Sociability” over the past year have highlighted renowned collectors like the Duchess of Portland or the Duchess of Somerset—aristocrats who assembled world-class gardens filled with rare specimens. But they have also drawn more obscure figures into the light.

James Sowerby, et al. British, 1757–1822 William Curtis, author British, 1746–1799 Myrtus tomentosa (Woolly-Leaved Myrtle), 1794 Plate 250 from Botanical Magazine, vol. 7 London: Stephen Couchman, 1787– Hand-colored engraving Courtesy of The Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, University of Minnesota

An engraving of a woolly myrtle plant in a 1794 issue of The Botanical Magazine, on view in Mia’s “Science and Sociability” exhibition. “Mrs. Norman” of Bromley is credited with the plant’s introduction to England. Image courtesy of The Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

Currently on view is a 1794 issue of The Botanical Magazine that depicts an Asian plant, known then as Myrtus tomentosa, or Woolly Myrtle. The author credits “Mrs. Norman” of Bromley, now a London borough, with introducing the plant to England from China decades prior. In the interim, the plant made its way into the royal botanic garden at Kew, as well as other private collections.
Mrs. Norman of Bromley was credited elsewhere in the botanical press for introducing other plants to Britain: the Mexican Great Flowered Acacia (1769), the West Indies Ciliated Passion Flower (1783), and the South African Cluster-Leaved Crane’s Bill (1784). She may also have been the first to import the Scarlet Azalea, a native of Georgia and South Carolina.
But who was Mrs. Norman, I wondered, and how was she the first person to import a number of exotic plants? They could not be bought from a florist. They couldn’t even be acquired from the royal gardeners at Kew, given that the gardeners themselves were on the receiving end of Mrs. Norman’s collecting activity. Obtaining such rare plants required exclusive access to overseas plant hunters or shipping networks, connections that were usually limited to government officials and aristocrats.

Fanny Burney, depicted by her cousin Edward Francisco Burney in a painting at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Fanny Burney, depicted by her cousin Edward Francisco Burney in a circa 1784–85 painting at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

My research into the standard history texts turned up nothing on Mrs. Norman. But a 1778 letter from the novelist Fanny Burney, a popular contemporary of Jane Austen, offers some background. Writing to her sister, Burney mentions that she met Mrs. (Eleanor) Norman of Bromley during an extended stay at the home of a politician, Henry Thrale, and his wife, Hester.
According to Burney, the Thrales were swept up in “botanomania.” A tour of their hothouses revealed plants overflowing with melons, grapes, peaches, nectarines, and pineapples—the most coveted of all hothouse fruits, and a delicacy Burney enjoyed daily throughout her August stay. (The natural fruiting season for this plant in its native Brazil was November.)
The chance meeting with Mrs. Norman happened at a party hosted by the Thrales on August 31st. The party included such illustrious company as Dr. Samuel Johnson, the father of the modern English dictionary and a good friend of the Thrales. Eleanor was there with her husband, James Norman, and John Cator, both wealthy timber merchants based in and around Bromley. (James Norman specialized in the Norway trade, not exactly conducive to the hunting of exotic plants.)
A botanical network starts to emerge here: John Cator’s wife, Mary (whom Burney describes as a “sort of Mrs. Nobody”), was the daughter of Peter Collinson, famed English botanist and global conduit of rare plants. John Cator himself apparently possessed a green thumb—Collinson once marveled at the extensive gardens surrounding his son’s-in-law first estate, Stump’s Hill. Cator later moved to Beckenham Park, and this estate survives today as a public park.
John Cator was even rumored to have communicated with Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern botany, a connection that Collinson could easily have made. Could Mrs. Norman have tapped Linnaeus’s worldwide plant network through her green-thumbed neighbor, Cator? The idea seemed less far-fetched when I found “Mrs. Norman of Bromley” on a list of subscribers—essentially financial supporters—of Travels into North America (1771), a book by Pehr Kalm, one of Linnaeus’s students.

Portrait of Banks, Cook, Solander, Hawkesworth, Lord Sandwich

Key figures in the British exploration of the Pacific: from left to right, Swedish naturalist and Linnaean protégé Dr. Daniel Solander, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook, Dr. John Hawkesworth, and John Montagu, aka Lord Sandwich or the 4th Earl of Sandwich. The painting by John Hamilton Mortimer, circa 1771, is in the National Library of Australia.

But in her letter, Burney identifies Mrs. Norman as the former student of Dr. John Hawkesworth, and here we find another good potential source for exotic plants. Hawkesworth was known for many things: teaching at a girls’ school in Bromley run by his wife, being a good friend and admirer of Samuel Johnson, and editing a popular account of the first Pacific voyage of Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks—Banks had a deep interest in botany and became the director of Kew in 1772 and President of the Royal Society, Britain’s most important scientific institution, in 1778. Hawkesworth’s editorial appointment was orchestrated by his friend, Lord Sandwich, who was not only in charge of the Royal Navy, but a great proponent of scientific exploration. Hawkesworth was paid a huge sum of money for his editorial work, and used part of his fortune to buy a position as director of the English East India Company in 1773.
As company and royal ships sailed throughout the British Empire, they collected plants ultimately destined for the royal gardens at Kew. As a company director and friend of the highest ranking naval official, Hawkesworth might have been able to pull a few strings for Eleanor, his botanically inclined former star student, perhaps putting her in contact with overseas collectors or siphoning off plants here and there from returning ships.
There is no way to be certain, without Eleanor’s own correspondence, of her source or sources for plants from around the world. But her story reveals the reach and accessibility of Britain’s botanomania. It suggests that someone as seemingly anonymous as a “Mrs. Norman of Bromley” could play at the highest level of elite plant collecting and cultivation, and succeed.
Top image: Detail of Benjamin West’s Portrait of Diana Mary Barker, from 1766, now on display in Mia’s “Science and Sociability” exhibition in the Queen Anne period room. While it’s unknown whether Barker was an avid gardener or botanical collector, her association with plants in this portrait reinforces the connection between women and botany in the 1700s.