From the 17th to the 19th century there were many more Quaker botanists, botanical illustrators, gardeners and nurserymen than would be expected from the number of Quakers in Britain, Ireland and North America. Botany fitted well with their respect for and care of the environment, but there were many other factors.
One reason was that botany did not require university study. For much of this time, Quakers were excluded from universities, but botany could be studied informally by anyone, with a minimal amount of resources.
Furthermore the early days of Quakerism coincided with the development of experiment and observation in science, and these had a natural affinity with Quaker curiosity and open-mindedness. Botany was developing fast, and a key new 18th century tool was the Linnaean system of plant classification, used to this day. Quaker botanists Peter Collinson and James Lee were friends and correspondents of Linnaeus and promoted his system.
Another reason for interest in botany was that being engaged in useful work was a guiding principle for Quakers, and studying plants could certainly be useful. Plants were known to have medicinal value, and many Quakers became apothecaries, skilled in making medicines from plants. Some studied the effectiveness of remedies, or investigated the properties of new and exotic plants. The first Quaker doctor, John Fothergill, was also a botanist.
A vital activity in botany in the early part of this period was collecting and classifying specimens. The richly connected Quaker network, with its many transatlantic links, facilitated this enormously. Quakers travelled widely in Europe and to America and Australia and had contacts in Russia and China. Many travellers took great care to methodically record plants and trees that they encountered, and often brought specimens back with them. Many of the common plants in the British Isles today, such as fuchsias and magnolias, arrived in this way. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, had many trees sent out from Britain for his garden in America. These included fruit trees, nut trees such as walnut and hazelnut, and hawthorns, which were planted alongside the indigenous trees in his garden.
The other factor was the culture of mutual support amongst Quakers. Wealthier Quakers such as Collinson and Fothergill financed projects for less affluent Friends, enabling them to start businesses, or go on expeditions. Collinson was known to be generous both in sharing what he had learnt and in giving plants, bulbs and trees to others. Nurseryman James Lee allowed Sydney Parkinson to spend time at his nursery practising sketching. This helped him to develop his talents as a botanical illustrator. He was selected to go on Captain Cook’s ship HMS Endeavour. Parkinson’s shipmates were amazed by his dedication and hard work.
For all these reasons, there were botanists in America, and botanists in Britain, communicating with each other extensively, and exchanging plants and sharing discoveries. In close contact with the botanists in the Quaker network were many nurserymen, busy supplying the gentry’s new interest in gardens, and often doing some botany themselves. Quakers were much sought after by the gentry as gardeners.
Education was another strand. George Fox proposed a garden school near London in which Quakers Thomas Lawson and Richard Richardson would use plants to teach children. He had seen Lawson teaching Margaret Fell’s daughters in this way. Unfortunately the school was not established, but the study of nature soon formed part of the curriculum in Quaker Schools.
Some shared their knowledge through writing and publishing. In 1787 William Curtis started the Botanical magazine that is still in existence today. Nurseryman James Maddock produced the first florists’ directory. Humphrey Marshall wrote the first account of native American plants. Priscilla Bell Wakefield wrote a highly popular Introduction to Botany, in 1796.
Others created some of the earliest botanical gardens and arboreta. Thomas Story was largely responsible for the early development of arboreta in Britain, introducing rich landowners to the importance of planting trees and providing them with saplings and seeds. In 1728 John Bartram established the first botanical garden in colonial America. In 1776 William Curtis created a Botanic Garden in Lambeth, and soon afterwards John Coakley Lettsom created a garden in Camberwell. In Pennsylvania, in 1798, the Pierce brothers created Philadelphia’s well-known Longwood Gardens.