Books: Green Gold by Hemery

From Living Woods issue 52

MATT LARSEN-DAW immerses himself in the world
of the plant hunters of the 19th century

The Epic True Story of Victorian Plant
Hunter John Jeffrey

Unbound Digital
Paperback: 302 pages
RRP: £8.99
ISBN: 978-1789650235

An epistolary novel about the
life and times of a Victorian
botanist abroad may sound like
a book with niche appeal, but in truth
there is something for everyone in this
intriguing and multi-faceted work of
historical fiction by Gabriel Hemery
(author of the sublime The New Sylva,
which gets a couple of cheeky nods in
this novel).

Green Gold starts with the discovery
of a set of long-lost journals in the
archives of a Boston arboretum,
charting the journey of real-life
Scottish botanist John Jeffrey in his
specimen-hunting mission to Oregon
in the 1850s. The book builds on a
genuine historical mystery – the lack
of any first-hand account of Jeffrey’s
mission, despite the fact that he was
required by contract to keep detailed
journals and to mail copies home
to his backers at regular intervals
along with seeds collected. Jeffrey
never returned, and was eventually
remotely dismissed from service by his
frustrated employers, despite a steady
flow of botanical samples sent back
across the Atlantic over the course of
two years.

Hemery has constructed his
imagined account of Jeffrey’s
adventures around details gleaned
from these boxes of specimens
– notes that recorded dates and
locations, and occasionally insights into
challenges he was facing in pursuit
of his duties. Around these clues
Gabriel Hemery weaves a narrative
that brings to life the real struggles
that John Jeffrey would have faced in
travelling to the New World, deftly
flitting between real letters – mostly
between Jeffrey’s employers in Britain
– and fictional journal entries. He
establishes early on why the journals
were not sent back during the mission,
while also justifying a style that
escapes the restrictions of Victorian
reserve. Isolated and under duress,
John Jeffrey begins to confide in his
journals far more than the details of
his botanical investigations, and at the
same time becomes attached to them
as a source of comfort on his lonely
journey. He wrongly assumes that his
employers will be satisfied by him
sending back the literal fruits of his

While the precise experiences of
John Jeffrey can only be imagined,
the harsh challenges of the journey
he undertook across the Atlantic,
through Canada’s icy wastes and over
formidable North American mountain
ranges, can be gleaned from real
historical accounts.

Jeffrey pursues his challenging
scientific mission with wide eyes
and an open heart, which contrasts
with those seeking their fortunes in
the California Gold Rush. Jeffrey is
portrayed as a pure-hearted man with
a deep connection to nature which
gives him more in common with the
Native American communities he
encounters than with his fellow white
settlers. This is the foundation for a
love story that provides moments
of genuine poignancy, and allows
Hemery to chart the early stages of
Native American oppression from a
perspective more aligned with the
natural landscape in which events are
set than with either of the clashing

Thanks to Hemery’s masterful
characterisation, Jeffrey shines through
the stilted epistolary structure to
emerge as a likeable, believable and
nuanced figure whose exploits feel
immediate and credible. The first
person narrative is immersive, despite
being slightly undermined at points
by an unnecessary and distracting
present-day story of the discovery
and investigation of the journals. A
simple prologue and epilogue would
have been sufficient and would have
avoided interruptions to the narrative
flow. Likewise, although the peevish
letters between employers are a
key part of the book, emphasising
the gulf between their expectations
and the realities of the dangerous
situation into which they have thrust
their young employee, it might have
been wise to resist the temptation
to include so many archive letters
and articles – perhaps presenting
them in an appendix for the history

These are quibbles, however, as
this thought-provoking book leaves
a lasting emotional and intellectual
impact and a new perspective on the
treescapes of our native lands. Like
Jeffrey’s mission itself, this book brings
immediate rewards, but becomes even
better with time and reflection.

Author GABRIEL HEMERY talks about Green Gold
– his novel rooted in the real adventures of 
19th-century plant hunter John Jeffrey

Many readers will be familiar with
the exploits of the celebrated
plant hunters David Douglas
(Douglas fir) and William Lobb
(monkey puzzle and giant redwood),
but fewer have heard of John Jeffrey.
Inspired in particular by David
Douglas, the Royal Botanic Garden
Edinburgh (RBGE) set up the ‘Oregon
Botanical Association’ in 1849 and
were successful in attracting investors
and raising funds to support a threeyear
expedition. Among more than
100 were several plant nurseries, and
prominent individuals and landowners,
including Prince Albert and the Duke of

When Jeffrey set out in1850, there
were high hopes that this 23-yearold
would follow in the footsteps of
the illustrious David Douglas, with
the fruits of his labours paid to the
investors as dividends in the form of
seeds or plants. Yet the odds were
stacked against Jeffrey. The distances to
be travelled across British Columbia
and the Rocky Mountains were
extraordinary, while the territory itself
was challenging due to the extreme
cold, high altitude, and unrest among
Native American tribes. And all this
had to be overcome before Jeffrey
even reached ‘Oregon Country’,
where he was to start his plant
collecting in earnest.

Fate held another card: the impact
of the California Gold Rush. As John
Jeffrey travelled southwards from
Oregon, through Washington and
California, the ’49ers started moving
north in search of new gold fields.
It was a restless and violent time,
and there would have been many
challenges and temptations for the
young explorer, who had never
travelled beyond Scotland before.

Tracking Jeffrey
Jeffrey did not send many letters
home, yet together with the labels
attached to plant specimens and seeds,
I have been able to plot his 10,000-
mile route across British Columbia,
Oregon, Washington, and California.

Despite repeated requests, Jeffrey’s
journals (which he was contracted
to keep in duplicate) were never
received by RBGE. His supporters
became evermore frustrated by his
increasingly scant communications, his
missing journals, and the poor quality
and quantity of some of his botanical
collections. Ultimately, in 1854, John
Jeffrey was dismissed via a notice in
a Californian newspaper! But at the
same time he simply disappeared,
thought to have been murdered in
New Mexico.

John Jeffrey collected at least
400 specimens and the seeds of
199 species, including 35 conifer
tree species. Two plants bear his
name today: Jeffrey’s shooting star
(Dodecatheon jeffreyi) and Jeffrey pine
(Pinus jeffreyi). He is also remembered
by Mount Jeffrey on Vancouver Island,
and by Jeffrey Peak in British Columbia.

The title for Green Gold reflects
the high value of novel plants to
Victorian landowners and gardeners,
and the significance of the clash of
Jeffrey’s expedition with the Gold
Rush. It interweaves facts, taken
from the minutes, letters and plant
labels, with fiction in the form of his
missing journals which I really enjoyed