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Joseph Dalton Hooker

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Joseph Dalton Hooker

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Joseph Dalton Hooker is remembered as one of the greatest British botanists and explorers of the 19th century. Among his many accomplishments, he founded the field of geographical botany, served as the director of Kew Gardens, and was responsible for the creation of countless artworks of foreign plants. The Oak Spring Garden Library is home to four rare books by Hooker, which altered the history and future of plants for centuries to come.


Joseph Dalton Hooker was the most illustrious director at Kew Gardens, but this was not his sole accomplishment. He was also an explorer, a passionate botanist, a devoted son, and, famously, the first to know about his best friend Charles Darwin’s controversial theory of evolution.

In 1854, Hooker wrote a letter expressing his love for nature and travel to Darwin. “From my earliest childhood I nourished and cherished the desire to make a creditable journey in a new country, and write such a respectable account of its natural features as should give me a niche amongst the scientific explorers of the globe I inhabit, and hand my name down as a useful contributor of original matter.” Throughout his life, Hooker felt a pressing desire to change the world through science, and expressed this ardently in his notes.

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Starting his scientific studies at the age of seven, Hooker would “go on jog-trot at botany till the end of [his] days,” as he said in another letter to Darwin. As a young boy, Hooker began his botanical education following his father’s footsteps. He attended William Jackson Hooker’s lectures, but debated a number of careers not including botany—during his early years, the practice was seen purely as pressing flowers, an art reserved for women and children. So Hooker took a medical degree in Glasgow and embarked on an expedition as assistant surgeon, but with every intention of collecting and illustrating plants along the way. The HMS Erebus was to set off on a four-year scientific voyage to the Antarctic.

Hooker's personal publications were numerous, including the stunning illustrations of Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya; Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India; and several reputable articles on the relationship of American and Asian floras, prompted by his experiences in the Rocky Mountains. Hooker and co-author George Bentham collaborated over more than 25 years to publish The Genera Plantarum (1883). With its own model of classification, it has been called most outstanding botanical work of the century and describes 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species.

One could get a feel for Hooker’s love for the most minute details. The Oak Spring Garden Library houses The Flora of British India, in which he describes each flower on his journeys in intense detail: “C. Roxburghii, Clarke; minutely scabrous-pilose, leaves oblong-lanceolate copiously feather-nerved, corymb small, calyx widely funnel-shaped teeth triangular distinct.” Hooker often took specimens back to Europe with him, studying them with care before writing immaculate descriptions.

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Hooker’s illustrations of Rhododendrons stand out as some of the most popular of his career. For example, next to a painting of Rhododendron falconeri, he describes the tree as having a “pale and smooth” bark and “perfect leaves, from eight inches to a foot in length.” Hooker writes, “If not the most showy, this is certainly one of the most striking and distinct of the genus.” This was characteristic of much of his work; his notes would examine a most prominent detail in the reference image provided.

Hooker’s description of Rhododendron aucklandii notes that the plant is named after Lord Auckland, whose patronage Hooker celebrates. “Corolla pure white, tinged with pink, veiny, of a firm, rather fleshy, texture.”

Hooker’s description of Rhododendron aucklandii notes that the plant is named after Lord Auckland, whose patronage Hooker celebrates. “Corolla pure white, tinged with pink, veiny, of a firm, rather fleshy, texture.”

While he traveled the Himalayas, he looked beyond Rhododendrons and took notes on every plant he could get his hands on. One was Talauma hodgsoni, found growing close to the road. Hooker writes, “The flowers are very fragrant and aromatic; though they do not expand much, they are exceedingly handsome, from the rich plum-bloom on the purple outer sepals, contrasting with the ivory whiteness of the inner ones.” As much as he was a scientist, Hooker was a reverent writer, celebrating the beauty of flowers and the complexity of their inner workings.

The Rhododendron hodgsoni is just one plant Hooker recognized for its significance in the study of geographical botany: “This… I have always regarded as the characteristic tree and shrub (or underwood) at the elevation of 10 to 12,000 feet in all the valleys of Sikkim.”

It is no wonder that Joseph Dalton Hooker’s work found its way to the Oak Spring Garden Library. He devoted his life to exploring the world in search of plants that the United Kingdom had never seen before. In doing so, he changed the future of science, just as he had hoped as a young boy attending the lectures of his father, with whom he led and grew Kew Gardens to remarkable heights.

The banner image for this post is Walter Hood Fitch’s original painting of Hooker with his Lepcha collectors in the Rhododendron area of the Himalaya (watercolor over pencil). Fitch Hooker’s apprentice at Kew Gardens and was their sole illustrator until 1877. Over his career, Fitch published over 12,000 images. A prolific botanical artist, Fitch made vast contributions to Curtis’ Botanical Magazine. The Oak Spring Garden Library houses this painting, which was drawn after an illustration by William Tayler.