The perils of plant hunting

Fascinating notebooks telling tales of plague, wild river crossings and sleepless nights in China on the eve of the First World War

Recently catalogued from the Lindley Library is an archive that relates to the early 20th century plant hunter, William Purdom (1880-1921).

Purdom, who hailed from Cumbria, travelled to China in 1909 on a three year expedition co-sponsored by the nursery James Veitch and Sons and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. He remained in China and in 1914-1915 accompanied fellow plant hunter, Reginald Farrer, on an expedition to Tibet and north west China. He later worked for the Chinese Forestry Service establishing a reforestation programme for the Chinese Railway.


An extract from Purdom's notebookThe archive we have comprises of three volumes of  Purdom's notes, dating mostly from his time with the Chinese Forestry Service. It also includes one volume, 1909-1920, recording seeds he sent to Veitch's and plant material sent by Farrer and George Forrest in 1920. One of his introductions is Potentilla fruticosa 'William Purdom' from Shensi province (see below).

Purdom's notebook entries relate to his travels and business as he assessed suitable areas to establish nurseries and examined the potential of different trees. He includes tales of travel on donkeys, plague, rumours of fighting, descriptions of landscapes, communities, crops and collapsed bridges.

Comments such as: ‘Frogs croaked all the night’, ‘This whole question of river conservancy could easily be tackled if the authorities would make up their minds’ and ‘Crossed river on foot, a very nerve racking business,’ convey the discomforts and worries of his journeys.

Potentilla fruticosa 'William Purdom'Purdom died aged 40 of complications following a minor operation at the French Hospital in Beijing. The notebooks were donated to the Library in 2013 by a private donor, who purchased them from an antiquarian book seller in Hampstead in 1976.

View the archive

To view the descriptive catalogue of the Purdom archive, please visit the Archives Hub. If you would like to view the archive itself, please make an appointment at the Lindley Library, London: [email protected]. If you have any questions about this or any other archive please contact the Library at the same email address.


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