2017 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Joseph Dalton Hooker, botanist, explorer and plant collector, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, friend of Charles Darwin, but most famous for having been the subject of my PhD dissertation (ahem).
I have curated a small exhibition about Hooker at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew (25 March–17 September 2017). It got a wonderful review in the New Scientist on 5th May.
I led a tour of the exhibition in April that went so well that I’ve been asked to do another one in July; there will be details on the Kew website soon. I will also be speaking at a conference there on 30 June to celebrate his birthday.
The Times Literary Supplement reviewed the book recently (24 Feb 2017), and commented that “Endersby loves all the myth-making that became entwined with the orchid, and explores with great acuity the various ways this was exploited. But, as a Reader in the History of Science at the University of Sussex, he is as adept at laying out the facts as the fiction”. London’s Sunday Times recently called my new book Orchid: a Cultural History, “lively, gripping stuff” (15 Jan 2017), and I was interviewed about it on US public radio station WCIN. You can hear the program online.
From pseudocopulation to human flight…
… was the title that the Institute of Historical Research used for their list of ten of the most interesting historical articles published last year. I was utterly thrilled to discover that a recent paper I wrote about Darwin and orchids was one of them (and the only history of science paper in the list). I was asked to write a short piece about how my paper came about by Cambridge University Press (it appeared in one of their journals); if you’re interested, you can read it here.
Orchid: A Cultural history
The book covers the history of these extraordinary, beautiful and much-mythologised flowers, ranging from their earliest history, via Charles Darwin’s work on their fertilisation, orchids in film and literature, to a recent scientific study of the impact of climate change on native British orchids.
Every plant that has ever been important to humans – whether it provided food, shelter or bouquets for lovers – has acquired a rich range of complex (and often contradictory) associations. Humans seem to secrete allegories the way spiders secrete silk, so it is not surprising that particular flowers have come to symbolise everything from sentiments to nations, others feature in poetry or folk superstitions, still more feature in our mythologies, as well as in our religions, literatures, and medicine. Each human culture has constructed its own set of meanings around particular types of flowers. So the fact that orchids have their own very specific set of meanings is only to be unexpected but the meanings of orchids are some of the weirdest ever to have become linked to a plant. They are sexy but deadly. Slightly kinky, luxurious and expensive. Delicate “hot house” flowers, not really adapted to the real world, but capable of killing. Mostly found in mysterious distant jungles, orchids are often feminine and delicate, which may be why larger-than-life male heroes have to be imagined as the only ones who can bring them home safely. People will commit crimes for them, even kill or die for orchids.
I will be talking about orchids at various venues over the next year and will be post information here when I have it, but in the meantime:
- BBC Radio 4 broadcast a program I made about orchids on 26th January 2016. You can listen to it online, here.
- I gave the John Innes Centre’s annual history of science lecture (21st April 2016) on orchids.
- I talked about my orchid research last year, when I give the annual Founder’s Day lecture at the Linnean Society of London (2 December 2014). They recorded the talk, so you can watch me in action.
There is more about the book on the Orchid page.