Young Adult Historical Fiction
LEGEND OF THE PLANT HUNTERS
Chapter One: Introduction
It’s not every family that can claim to have an asteroid named after them. But mine can. The flying rock is called Jussieu. That’s my last name. My first name is Laurent. It’s an old family favorite I share with a couple of ancestors who made history once upon a time, but were then forgotten by all but their heirs.
You can call me Larry, most of my friends do. They think I’m exotic because my parents are French, but I grew up all over, a “citizen of the world.” They consider me smart because I’m 100% bilingual. But lots of people are, in one language or another. That’s not really so unusual. They call me a nerd, because I wear glasses – I prefer frames that are dark and thick, like Clark Kent’s – and because I like history.
I think they’d like history too if they knew the part their family played in making it.
The truth is, I’m not all that interesting. But my forbears are. And it’s their story I’m going to tell you now.
It’s more legend than story, passed down through the generations starting with the famous but forgotten de Jussieus I just mentioned. It’s the story I grew up with and enjoyed, but refused to believe was anything more than a tall tale until I learned that we were worthy of an asteroid. That was also about the time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. And crazy as this may sound, that movie turned me into a believer.
Indiana Jones possessed the same bravery and determination that my real-world ancestors were said to have had. They were the king’s gardeners and so-called “fathers of botany,” inventors of the modern system for grouping and sorting plants. Until I met Indiana, I’d imagined them as grizzled old men with over-sized green thumbs. But they did much more than dig in the dirt and mow lawns. They traveled the world to find what they planted. They had extreme adventures and endured terrible sacrifices to search for the sources of coveted medicines, exotic foods, material needed for never-before imagined products of human invention – even for poisons.
If they managed to survive their trials, they brought their specimens back to France and figured out how to make them grow there. Sometimes it took years, in special greenhouses they built with their own hands from their own designs. But once adapted these plants were then cultivated in the King’s gardens. My great-great-great-great-uncle Joseph even went crazy doing it!
By the time they reached me, their stories seemed too fantastical to be true: like how they’d risked life and limb at the service of the Kings of France to contribute to creating the great gardens of Versailles; then how they stood up to an angry mob of thousands to save the gardens from destruction during the French Revolution.
I thought it was all make believe. A really fun bedtime story. Then I found out about our asteroid and I encountered Indiana Jones. And then, we studied the French Revolution in school.
When we hit the chapter on the October March of Women, my palms turned sweaty and my heart started racing. I nearly fell out of my chair. That was where the family legend ended – on the terrace of the Versailles gardens just outside Queen Marie-Antoinette’s apartments on the day she, Louis XVI, and their children became prisoners of the mob.
Then I just got mad. I mean, if these guys really did make history, why didn’t the world know?
No one in my family seemed to care if the legend of the plant hunters was fact or fiction, so I decided to find out for myself. When I told my Maman that I wanted to take a gap year and spend it in France researching our history, she put her hand up to my forehead. She said, “Laurent, are you feeling alright?”
But I felt fine. I feel even better now to be able to share this: The story of my ancestors is the story of Versailles. It’s the story of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, and the story of the final 100 years of the French monarchy. It’s the story of the great 18th century race between Britain and France to measure the circumference of the Earth. It’s also the story of the fall of feudalism and the rise of democracy. It’s our story.
All these stories grow from the seeds discovered, named, and cultivated by my forefathers, the Plant Hunters. They weave together to form the tale that was passed down to me, starting with my great, great, great grandfather, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, who was witness to Revolution and the fall of the 800-year-old French Monarchy. And who, if family legend can be trusted, was at the Chateau de Versailles on the fateful morning of 6 October 1789 when the 800-year-old French Monarchy teetered and fell.
Meet me there. At Versailles. While you’re on your way, I’ll fill you in on the backstory, for the tale begins even before Antoine Laurent. I’ll be waiting for in the gardens at the place where I believe he faced down a frantic and desperate mob.