Europe’s obsession with Chinese flowers through the centuries

Among the most unexpected exports from China to Europe in the late 18th and throughout the early 19th centuries were live plants destined for botanical gardens and burgeoning numbers of private horticultural collectors. Wealthy Chinese merchants in early 19th-century Canton – now Guangzhou – who were then among the richest men in the world had standing contracts with local nurseries to supply their homes with a wide variety of flowering plants throughout the year.

Plants at the time, considered rare and unusual by Western standards, were sent to Europe, and those that survived the lengthy sea voyage became prized collector’s items. Demand for new varieties steadily grew among botanical connoisseurs. In time, recognition grew among businessmen that the transport of exotic plants from China to emergent European markets was potentially profitable. Plants were packed in wooden cases with span roofs, which would be unscrewed and removed in fine weather to allow exposure to sunlight and fresh air.

A common early mistake was to take pots ashore at St Helena, in the South Atlantic, when ships made landfall to take on fresh water and food, undertake repairs and rest the crews. A sudden growth spurt in potted plants that this change precipitated could not be sustained when the vessels departed northwards and led to numerous fatalities.
Saltwater was the mortal enemy of plant shippers. Constant sponging with fresh water was required to remove traces of salt from foliage and stems. Good-quality tarpaulins to keep off salt water were a solid long-term investment.

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