The names of James Petiver, Leonard Plukenet, and Hans Sloane have come up a number of times in the last three posts on plant collectors in Asia (1,2,3). This is despite the fact that none of them traveled East, and only Sloane ever left Europe, spending a couple of years in Jamaica. However, these men are important to the story of early botanical discovery in Asia because they were the recipients of specimens collected there. Without them, the finds might not have survived for well over 300 years. All three had a passion for collecting and were members of the Temple Coffee House botanic club. In the case of Petiver and Plukenet, they were also driven to write about botany. Sloane did produce a two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, which has fascinating descriptions as well as illustrations of the island’s flora and fauna, but it took him decades after his visit to complete the project. The other two were more consistently prolific, drawing on their collections for subjects. I should also say that everything I write about the three is slanted in that I only deal with plants, while they all collected broadly, especially Sloane, whom I’ve discussed in an earlier post. Plukenet and Petiver published on new animal as well as plant species, especially insects since they were the easiest to transport.
Leonard Plukenet (1642-17106) trained in medicine and had an affluent medical practice that supported his family of seven children and his collecting habit as well. In 1690, he was made supervisor of the king’s gardens at Hampton Court Palace, so he moved in high social circles, but he also had a botanical network. Like Petiver and Sloane he was a member of the Temple Coffee House botanic club and in addition was connected with such outstanding botanists as John Ray, who thought highly of his plant knowledge. Plukenet collaborated with Ray on the second volume of the latter’s Historia Plantarum. He also published his own work, beginning with the three-volume Phytographia (1691-1692) that had 250 plates and was produced at his own expense. Another volume came out in 1696, followed by three other works. All were published together in 1720. James Dandy (1958), who cataloged Sloane’s herbarium, where Petiver’s and Plukenet’s collections eventually ended up, wrote that Phytographia was an important publication because it described so many new species and included illustrations of them. It was used extensively by Carl Linnaeus, who in many cases relied exclusively on Plukenet’s text and images to name species. There are some wonderful gems in Plukenet’s collection including specimens from John Banister who collected in Virginia, the pirate William Dampier material from India, and the James Cuninghame specimens I mentioned in the last post.
James Petiver (1658-1718) was an even more avid collector than Plukenet. He did not have Plukenet’s economic resources, so he had to finance his publications by subscription. Most of these works were each composed of descriptions of 100 species, primarily plants. And as with Plukenet’s writings, his were cited by Linnaeus. Petiver was scrupulous about giving credit to the collectors who sent him specimens, because this was a way of rewarding them and also encouraging them to send more material. He worked hard at cultivating travelers of all kinds as collectors. In a biographical sketch, Raymond Stearns (1952) writes: “Anyone who went abroad, especially if they were educated were asked: friends, friends of friends, customers, fellow apothecaries, physicians, surgeons, captains, merchants, planters, and missionaries” (p. 261). However, he wasn’t just interested in exotic plants; those from Britain and the continent were also well received, and he participated in the Temple Coffee House botanic club’s Sunday field trips as well.
Petiver even wrote an instruction sheet on collecting. This included a N. B.: “As amongst Foreign Plants, the most common Grass, Rush, Moss, Fern, Thistle, Thorn, or vilest Weed you can find, will meet with Acceptance, as well as a Scarcer Plants” (p. 365). He also wrote that plants in fruit or flower were more desirable, and that fleshy fruits should be sent in spirits or brine. He was happy to provide jars, papers, and other needed supplies, and was willing to pay for specimens. In some cases, he supplied medicines for the collectors’ physical complaints. He also scolded them if they didn’t come through, and one collector was so angered he sent nothing more. Of course, materials often were lost in transit, and it was particularly frustrating to Petiver when letters got through but the specimens didn’t; the letters promised wonders that he then didn’t receive. The picture painted by Dandy and Stearns is of a man obsessed, and Petiver’s passion was obviously fueled by discussion at the coffee house, where the group connived schemes to send collectors to areas of interest. This even involved encouraging one of the members, Bishop Henry Compton, to assign a botanically trained Anglican priest to North America.
There is something about this group that intrigues me: a band of plant zealots meeting over coffee for many years. Petiver joined when the group began in 1689 and was still a member at his death in 1718. When I was in London a few years ago, I went to the Temple Bar area and found the lane where the coffee house once stood. This is a part of the city that has retained many of its old buildings and narrow streets, so it was relatively easy to visualize these men hurrying to reach their meeting place on a dark winter’s night, have a nice hot coffee, and look at plant specimens. What could be better than that?
Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of Natural Science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.