Young Adult Creative Non-fiction, History
LONG LIVE THE PLANT HUNTERS: BUCCANEERS OF THE BOTANICAL WORLD
Chapter One: Introduction
On 5 October 1789, I was dispatched without delay or deliberation to the village of Versailles, seat of the royal family that had ruled France for more than 800 years. I was sent to warn my colleagues at the King’s Garden of the coming storm, for this was no ordinary squall from the heavens. This was a gale of humanity. And its intensity was increasing with each enraged footfall.
The women of Paris were starving. Their children and their aged, as well, were starving. A hailstorm had wiped out France’s wheat crop that year. Now all but the richest lacked daily bread, their main—and sometimes only—source of food.
They were angry. Their hunger—and the quiet urgings of those wishing to fan the flames of revolution—had transformed their anger to fury. Their fury, in turn, was driving them to madness.
That morning at Paris’ central marketplace, Les Halles, an outcry over the price of bread erupted into a spontaneous demonstration. A group of women marched to City Hall, the Hotel de Ville, demanding food. They beat drums and brandished kitchen knives, encouraged by revolutionary agitators.
Their cries for justice attracted more and more women until their numbers swelled to as many as 10,000. They surged through the gates of the Hotel, ransacking its stores and weapons. But they wanted not just one meal. They sought assurance that bread would once again be plentiful and affordable to the masses. But rather than answer the women’s anguished appeals, the city’s governors merely fled.
All at once a rallying cry was heard: “À Versailles ! To Versailles!” someone shouted. And just like that the women were away, on foot, ready to march the 23 kilometers to the king’s Chateau.
They set out to petition their Queen, Marie-Antoinette, for an audience. They hoped to persuade her to flee her gilded cage, to come to Paris to witness their suffering. Surely a woman and a mother—even a queen—would understand their torment.
Sprinkled among them, the furtive revolutionaries had another motive: They wished to take advantage of the women’s misery to force the king, his court and governors—The Assembly—to leave Versailles and return to Paris for good.
On learning of the chaos, my chef at the King’s Garden in Paris, Chief-Botanist-to-the-King Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, compelled me to outrun the women if I possibly could. Upon arrival at the Chateau, I was to go immediately to the aid of the palace botanists and gardeners and under-gardeners. They had no knowledge of the tempest that approached to threaten their masterpiece: the lush tapestry woven from nature, 150 years before, at the hands of history’s greatest landscape artist, André Le Notre.
The gardens at Versailles were Le Notre’s magnum opus, fashioned from the contributions of generations of plant hunters, the brave buccaneers of the botanical world who had already been forgotten by time. We could not allow the mob to lay waste to their legacy. It had to be safeguarded.
But the King’s Garden in Paris was also under threat that day. And my older, more established colleagues wished to defend its riches, as was their right. Thus, it fell to me to warn our counterparts at Versailles of the gathering danger en route from Paris.
I was the newest member of staff at the King’s Garden then, fresh from my study of botany at the University of Marseilles. Born into a bourgeois household, I knew only an existence of privilege. I had no knowledge of riots and starvation. I had never been in company with such people as these. I jumped at their cries for justice or blood. I flinched each time one of them brandished a makeshift weapon.
All along the route, I watched as more women dropped their washing and their brooms and left their children to join the fray. I grew more consumed with apprehension with each fretful step. Sweat dripped in rivulets from my brow. I wondered what I could possibly do to help calm a cyclone of humanity gone out of control.
Just stop now, my subconscious argued. No one will ever know if you never reach Versailles. And yet I kept advancing toward the torrent that surely lay ahead.
I knew not what would happen to the gardens, or to me, in the hours that ticked down to minutes faster than the ever-increasing beating of my heart. But I did understand this: Everything royal was under threat that day if the king and queen failed to do the crowd’s bidding. Even the soil that had been cultivated these 150 years to raise the crops intended for the king’s table.
Indeed, the yields of its furrows could well prove the salvation of the starving throng.
That was the answer!
I steeled my nerves and picked up my pace. I had to move quickly. The future of the King’s Garden depended on it.
Meet me at the Chateau de Versailles. Join me in the garden, at the location where I faced the angry mob. En route, enjoy this homage to France’s forgotten plant hunters: the courageous and dedicated heroes whom time overlooked in favor or tales of kings and war. These are the true fathers of natural science. They risked life and limb to traverse the earth at the service of country and king. They braved dangers far more life threatening than my own. At Versailles their life’s work was writ large by the master-gardeners of France’s last absolute monarchs: Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. In the gardens, you are transported to their life and times. Join me there to find out what happened the fateful day, 1789 October 6, when the 800-year-old French Monarchy fell forever.
CHAPTER TWO: The Perils of Plant Hunting
The roots of the King’s Garden burrow deep within French history, starting with the adventures of Pierre Belon. Belon was France’s first plant hunter and the idol of all of us who came after him. His story dates back a few hundred years to the King’s expedition of 1546. A different King, Francois I, reigned then. That year, he sent a mission to Constantinople to secure his alliance with Suleman the Magnificent, Grand Sultan of the Turkish Empire. Included in the voyage was young Belon, a restless doctor and naturalist only 29 years of age. His role: to gather healing treasures from the East and learn how to harness their curative powers.
In February 1547, Belon left the mission temporarily to explore the plant life of the Greek Islands. He obtained there the first of many discoveries: a sticky, brown resin used to make the perfumes coveted by kings.
The Greeks collected the resin by driving goats into the forests overgrown with labdanum bushes. They then scraped the resin from the beasts’ coats, using a special wooden comb with long, straight teeth. It was difficult work, done only in summer, under the murderous heat of the Mediterranean sun. This made the resin rare and, unbeknownst to Belon, quite valuable.
Pirates from the southern, or Barbary, coast of the Mediterranean considered the resin more precious than gold. They laid siege to Belon’s ship, carrying off both his resin and his companions.
Belon was lucky. Barbary pirates usually killed their victims or forced them into slavery. Belon was left alone in an empty boat, forced to navigate the sea on his own…