Economic Botany

9781108068703fc3dAs a major new series begins on BBC Radio 4, we look at the CLC books on ‘plants which changed the world’.

The BBC is beginning today a major series, ‘Plants: From Roots to Riches’ on BBC Radio 4, weekdays at 1.45 p.m. The puff says it will examine ‘Our changing relationship with plants over the last 250 years – from tools to exploit, to objects of beauty, to being an essential global resource we have to conserve.’ The first programme will deal with plant-finding in the eighteenth century and the Linnaean revolution, but in its honour I thought I would compile a list of books which discuss economically significant plant products, an important subset – which we owe to the expert advice of Dr Mark Nesbitt at Kew Gardens – of our Botany and Horticulture series.

There are two books which give an overview of worldwide botanical products at the end of the nineteenth century: Commercial Botany of the Nineteenth Century, by John R. Jackson (1890) and The Uses of Plants (1889) by George Simonds Boulger (who also published Wood: A Manual of the Natural History and Industrial Applications of the Timbers of Commerce, in 1902). Chapters in both include ‘food, food-stuffs, and food-adjuncts’, materia medica, oils and oil-seeds, gums, resins, dyes and tanning materials, fibres and paper materials, timber and other woods, agricultural plants, India-rubber and gutta-percha.

George Watt published his massive Dictionary of the Economic Products of India (6 volumes in 9 parts) between 1889 and 1896, listing everything from Abaca (plant of the banana family, grown for its leaf fibre) to Zygophillum (Zygophyllum simplex, camel fodder and the source of an infusion for the eyes, apparently). Plants form a very large proportion of the entries – tea (the Camellia plant and the product) gets eighty dense pages.

Flückiger and Hanbury’s Pharmacographia (1874) focuses on drugs and medicines, as do Nicolas Guibort’s four-volume Histoire naturelle des drogues simples (1849–51), Jonathan Pereira’s The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (2 volumes in 3 parts, 1854–7), and John Lindley’s Flora Medica of 1838. And let’s not forget herbals, and the origin and development of the Chelsea Physic Garden.

We have also reissued books on specific products. The ecology, processing and social significance of tea in China is covered by Robert Fortune,

Robert Fortune, looking determined

Robert Fortune, looking determined

Rolling tea leaves on a bamboo table, from Fortune's 'Three Years of Wanderings in the Northern Province of China'

Rolling tea leaves on a bamboo table, from Fortune’s ‘Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China’









but we will soon be reissuing The Natural History of the Tea-Tree (1772), by John Coakley Lettsom, physician, abolitionist and philanthropist, who was convinced that tea-drinking is very bad for you. (Mangel-wurzels and bees, however, are good.)

John Coakley Lettson and his family. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

John Coakley Lettson and his family. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

More recently, The Tea Industry in India (1882), by Samuel Baildon, attempts to describe the perils of the profession of tea planter, which is apparently bad both for your finances and for your mental health… Meanwhile, an interesting side-light on the social respectability of tea is shown in Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, when the newly impoverished Miss Matty is persuaded that she could augment her income by selling tea without losing caste: ‘No shop-window would be required. A small, genteel notification of her being licensed to sell tea would, it is true, be necessary, but I hoped that it could be placed where no one would see it.’

A coffee plant, from Ellis’s book

A tea plant, from Lettsom's book

A tea plant, from Lettsom’s book










On coffee, we have John Ellis’s Historical Account of Coffee (1774) and The Early History of Coffee Houses in England (1893) by Edward Forbes Robinson – and don’t forget that Cambridge Jokes is made up in part from The Jokes of the Cambridge Coffee-Houses in the Seventeenth Century, compiled by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps.

I don’t know how to pronounce the alternative name for India-rubber in Thomas Hancock’s Personal Narrative of the Origin and Progress of the Caoutchouc or India-Rubber Manufacture in England (1857), but it tells you all you need to know about the processing of the raw sap, while Sir Henry Wickham’s Rough Notes of a Journey through the Wilderness, from Trinidad to Pará, Brazil (1872) reminds us of the days before his taking of Hevea seed to Kew, from where seedlings were shipped to the Far East – the origin of the British Empire’s rubber plantations.

Some rubber products, from Hancock's book

Some rubber products, from Hancock’s book

Cotton in the southern states of the USA, and sugar in the West Indies, were of course grown and processed by slave labour. We have a large number of titles in our series on Slavery and Abolition, and most focus on the socio-economic consequences of slavery rather than the treatment of the raw product. But on the technology side, we will soon be reissuing Sir William Fairbairn’s Treatise on Mills and Millwork (1863–6), while in 1867, R.P. Cola published How to Develop Productive Industry in India and the East, in which he argued for investment in up-to-date technology to allow India to compete with northern England on a level playing-field. (And on the English cotton industry, we mustn’t forget Mrs Gaskell’s North and South.)

On the paper trade, we have the slightly eccentric (or way ahead of his time) inventor Matthias Koops with his 1800 Historical Account of the Substances Which Have Been Used to Describe Events, and to Convey Ideas, from the Earliest Date, to the Invention of Paper and the rather more sober Paper and Paper Making, Ancient and Modern by Richard Herring (1855).

I know that silk isn’t a botanical product (though think of the essential mulberry leaves!), but I can’t resist bringing them in. Fortune discusses the silk industry of China in Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China; and here is a silk-spinning machine from France in 1764.

A silk spinning machine, from 'Essai sur les moulins à soie', by Charles-Bruno Le Payen

A silk spinning machine, from ‘Essai sur les moulins à soie‘, by Charles-Bruno Le Payen

Of course, many of the French Huguenot families who ended up in Britain after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes were skilled silk-weavers: look out for our forthcoming reissue of Samuel Smiles’s The Huguenots, which will contain some very familiar names! I am also looking forward to The Art of Rearing Silk-Worms (1825), by Conte Vincenzo Dandolo (no relation of the doges, apparently).

This barely scratches the surface of the economic importance of plants – thinking mostly in terms of transmogrified or value-added end products, I haven’t attempted to cover more straightforward agriculture or horticulture. And I hope for much more botanical inspiration from the new BBC series!


This entry was posted in Gardening, History, Life Science, Slavery and Abolition, Travel and Exploration, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Economic Botany

  1. Pingback: Rhubarb | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s