Did you know that the age-old perception of flowers and gardens as a feminine interest is not just a cliché? In fact, the history of women in botany goes way back—it’s not a rootless stereotype (pun intended). The association between women and the natural world is timeless, going back to ancient goddesses of the land and elements. Father Nature, anyone? Not really a thing. While European men often concerned themselves with the spiritual and the intellectual, women tackled the physical, from gardening to mixing herbal remedies to experimenting in alchemy (a.k.a. medieval chemistry).
In fact, women played a large role in the popularization of botany as a scientific endeavour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
During the age of imperialism, when Europeans were introduced to a whole slew of new culinary ingredients like various curry spices, beverages like tea and coffee, new exotic sartorial styles, and foreign plants and flowers, there was a massive global cultural exchange. As plant specimens were discovered in faraway lands, they were brought back to nations like England to be studied, documented, and domesticated. And many of the people laboring to do this were women, despite the perception of science as “masculine” that history has left us with.
Large-scale botanical gardens and scientific societies emerged, and while women were not granted access to these professional institutions, they were involved in the botanic process in unexpected and unconventional ways. Botany was an important aspect of the daily lives of upper-class women, and over the course of the eighteenth century, amateur botany become a recreational activity for fashionable ladies, joining the ranks of feminine “accomplishments” like dancing, music, and learning the French language.
So, read on to discover three roles that women took on in the process of popularizing the study of botany in English society and in integrating new plants and flowers into the culture and geography of their homeland.
01. Collectors of curiosities
Countless colonial wives scoured faraway lands for exotic plants, collecting large quantities of seedlings to either bring back with them or to send back overseas. Meanwhile, several well-known aristocratic women back in England were active in collecting and displaying botanical discoveries for both the purpose of scientific study and for the curious public to see.
For example, Mary Capel, Duchess of Beaufort (1630–1715), collected exotic plants in her impressive gardens. The seeds she collected were brought to her from all over the world, ranging from locales as diverse as Virginia and the Cape of Good Hope.
Likewise, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1717–85), dedicated her life to the study and collection of exotic plants and flowers. She displayed them in her Portland Museum for the public to see, drawing in masses of visitors who came to get a glimpse of the fascinating exotic plants that came from around the world.
02. Displayers and documenters
Botanical drawing had become exalted as a leisurely female accomplishment by the 1760s, and many women who were taught this domestic art put it to scientific use. Don’t forget: in pre-camera times, accurate illustrations were not just pretty to look at—they were integral to scientific study.
The nurseryman-author James Lee was assisted by his daughter, Anne Lee (1753–90), who diligently documented countless specimens in a folio of drawings.
Mary Granville Delaney (1700–88), an important artist, became widely renowned for creating beautiful plant illustrations from small strips of coloured paper. They were so realistic that even Joseph Banks, the preeminent botanist of the day, was impressed.
Marianne North (1830–90) is another famous painter who was known for accurately depicting exotic new plant specimens. She actually explored the world herself, visiting places like Jamaica, Brazil, Canada, the United States, Singapore, Japan, India, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. Her plant paintings received support from Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and from the legendary Charles Darwin.
Women also picked up their pens to document the plants they discovered in faraway lands, and the Victorian era saw the flourishing of women’s botanical publishing. Elizabeth Twining’s Chief Natural Orders of Plants, Fanny Elizabeth Mole’s Wild Flowers of Australia, Dorothy Talbot’s catalogue of Nigeria’s flora and Arabella Rouppel’s of South Africa are a few works from this time.
03. Patrons and promoters
Last but not least, many scientifically-minded aristocratic women used their positions of power to patronize and promote the practice of botany.
Remember the avid collector, the Duchess of Portland? She played another important role: that of the patroness. She did not travel the world collecting the plants in her vast collection herself. Instead, she was an influential patroness to botanical agents overseas. Her collection was largely fed by the commercial networks facilitated by the East India Company, and she had personal connections with important naturalists like Daniel Solander, whom she enlisted to curate her collection, as well as his boss Joseph Banks, both of whom travelled on Captain James Cook’s legendary scientific voyages. She was also a great friend and patron of Mary Delaney the artist, who looked to the Portland gardens as a source of knowledge and inspiration for her illustrations.
After the Duchess died, Mary Delaney found a new patron: Queen Charlotte (1744–1818), the wife of King George III. And Charlotte’s botanical sponsorship did not end there. She also generously supported the botanic garden at Kew, which was likely the most important institution for botanical study at the time. She became known as the Queen of Science for her important role in the popularization and appreciation of botany in Britain. In fact, she became the face of the “polite” scientific woman of the age. In 1773 Joseph Banks honoured her majesty by naming a newly discovered exotic bird of paradise flower “Strelitzia Reginae.”
Unfortunately, historians have observed that as science became increasingly professionalized within nineteenth-century culture, women became more restricted in their participation. But from the study’s very beginnings, amateur female botanists were engaged in the discovery, documentation, and dissemination of exotic flora from around the world. Women played an important part in the popularization of botany in England and abroad, helping to integrate new plant specimens into the culture and landscape of their homeland.
To honor our foremothers’ contributions, I encourage you to step out into the garden. If you choose to cultivate plants in your home garden or become involved in the collection and study of exotic plants, know that you’re participating in a long and beautiful tradition of women’s involvement in botany.
Editor’s note: Sources for this piece include Women, Science, and Medicine 1500-1700: Mothers and Sisters of the Royal Society, edited by Lynette Hunter and Sarah Hutton; Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760-1860 by Ann B. Shtier; Britannia’s Daughters: Women of the British Empire by Joanna Trollope; and Five Centuries of Women & Gardens by Sue Bennett. For more citation information, please feel free to contact us.