The Great Scottish Plant Hunter – Christian Ramsay

Scottish plant collectors and botanists have throughout history, contributed to the greater scientific understanding of the plant kingdom. The exploits of some indeed setting the stage for what we grow in our gardens today. Unfortunately, as is historically too often, there have been many women who, whilst providing great contributions to their field, did not receive the recognition and celebration that surrounded their male counterparts. 

Christian Ramsay was undoubtedly one of the greatest female Scottish plant hunters in her own right; perhaps one of the most talented collectors Scotland has every produced. 

Christian Broun, was born in 1786 at Coalstoun, East Lothian, the only child of the Broun family who were involved in law. Marrying George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie, she assumed the title Countess of Dalhousie. 

Ramsay was a keen botanist and purveyor of the natural sciences and it is alleged she was very talented in her collection and preparation of herbarium specimens along with their curation. Details such as collection dates, location, field notes, and full identifications accompanied her herbarium sheets as did watercolour paintings she personally produced.

In 1816, Ramsay’s husband was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. Christian and her three sons travelled with him to Canada. This provided an excellent opportunity to collect and catalogue plants otherwise unavailable or unknown to Scottish gardeners at the time. Many of her collections were sent back home to Dalhousie Castle in Midlothian. 

During this time, Sir William Hooker had communication with Christian and began to rely on her to provide herbarium material, describing her as “a very zealous botanist”. By 1820, the family moved onto Quebec for George to assume the role of Governor General for British North America. Christian stepped into the role of Governor’s wife and Patron of Literature and Arts. She never strayed far though from her devotion to the plants she studied. 

In Quebec, Christian became friends with Anne Mary Percival and Harriet Shepard. The trio focused their time in the cataloguing of the local flora and again provided material for Hooker, receiving accreditation in his book, ‘Flora boreali-Americana’. 

In 1824, the Ramsay family returned to their home at Dalhousie Castle with many of the plants sent back from North America already in cultivation by this point. Unfortunately plans for extensive gardens at the property were curtailed by bankruptcy. The family relocated to a modest property in Sorrel where they would remain until 1829, when George was appointed Governor General and Commander in Chief of India. 

On the journey to India, Christian again set to exploring and cataloguing the native flora at their stops of Madeira, St. Helena and the Cape of Good Hope, creating her characteristic herbarium sheets and watercolours. In India she continued her work collecting specimens, preparing, and describing them.

Returning home to Scotland, Lady Dalhousie donated her entire Indian collection to the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. The quality of the collection was noted and the Countess was named an honorary member of the society. She was the first female to be granted membership and remained the only female member for some time after she died in 1839. It is alleged that in her hand upon her death was a list of plants she was studying at the time.

One of the plants she sent to the botanist Robert Graham was a new discovery, so he named the plant Asplenium dalhousiae after her. Asplenium dalhousiae isa small fern which is beautiful and very unusual in plant terms having wild populations in both North America and in the Himalaya. 

Asplenium dalhousiae

For her work documenting the flora of India Robert Graham also named the genus Dalhousiea in the Countess’ honour. This genus belongs to the family Fabaceae.

Rhododendron dalhousiae 
Perhaps the greatest accolade the Countess received was the naming of Rhododendron dalhousiae in her honour originally collected by Joseph Dalton Hooker in Sikkim, although its range extends over a large area within the Sino-Hamalayan region. 

Rhododendron dalhousiae

It was described by Hooker as, “the noblest species of the whole race.” This was with good reason as it boasts trusses of four inch, creamy yellow flowers, offering a sensational fragrance and has been used in the hybridisation of some cultivars. Its only downfall is its lack of hardiness rendering it unsuitable to plant outdoors in much of Scotland. With that in mind, it does agree to being pot grown.

It is unfortunate that Christian Ramsay, Countess of Dalhousie, did not live in a time where the work of female plant collectors was as well documented as that of men. I have no doubt that she worked as hard and as systematically as her male plant collecting counterparts, yet she is not nearly so well celebrated.

Three hundred plant specimens collected by the Dalhousie at Sorel between 1826 and 1828 are maintained in the herbarium at Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario and perhaps given the freedom to travel to botanically interesting locations, with the exclusive intent of collecting, would have given Christian the ability to demonstrate how skilled a collector she really was.

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