Here’s a story I want to see on a streaming service soon. It has passion, danger, cross-dressing and great plants: what’s not to love? The star of the show is Jeanne Baret, who disguised herself as a boy to join her lover Philibert Commercon on Louis de Bougainville’s 1766 expedition. Jeanne was a knowledgeable herbalist, amateur botanist and plant-collector, like Commercon. They were partners – in love and science – and she acted as his assistant and valet on the expedition.
The crew was suspicious – the naturalist’s valet had a surprisingly smooth chin, and even more tellingly, never pissed in public – but they just couldn’t believe that a woman could do what Jeanne/Jean did. “How was it possible to discover the woman in the indefatigable Baret?” marvelled Bougainville in his memoirs. She climbed frozen mountains in Tierra del Fuego, stood against gales in the Falklands, trudged through tropical jungles in South America and the South Pacific, all the while carrying the provisions, arms and equipment she and Commercon required to collect their specimens and make their notes.
Commercon was often bothered by gout and it’s now thought he was in bed when Baret, working alone in the Brazilian jungle, collected their most famous specimen – the flamboyant scrambling climber later named for the expedition leader, bougainvillea.
Jeanne’s story is told in The Secrets of Great Botanists by Matthew Biggs (Exisle, $35). Botany is the study of plant life, so is crucial to our survival, but Biggs’ focus is not on planetary health, species extinction, human and animal food sources, medicines or other forms of economic botany. Instead, it focuses on the impact that a selection of botanists working over thousands of years have had on domestic gardens.
He includes three still-living botanists. Mikinori Ogisu has the status of ‘living national treasure’ in Japan for his work in preserving Japanese horticulture and ornamental plants, especially Japanese iris, of which he has collected more than a thousand cultivars and hybrids. The Welsh plant-collectors Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones botanise in developing countries, sharing the knowledge they gain with local scientists and making new plants available to home gardeners through their nursery.
The final inclusion is Patrick Blanc, the French designer famed for vertical gardens, such as that at Central Park on Broadway. Blanc used the knowledge he acquired as a research botanist specialising in tropical forests to develop self-sustaining green wall plantings that mirror nature’s vertical habitats.
While Blanc has received plenty of accolades for his work, recognition was slow coming for Jeanne Baret. It was only in 2012 that a plant was finally named for her. The distinguishing feature of Solanum baretiae is that its leaves have different appearances, which just goes to show that botanists, among other things, have a sense of humour.