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"It is a real adventure to find a new flower"

Isobel Wylie Hutchison's sketches of wild flowers

Isobel has her own file in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. It was started in 1922 when Sir Arthur William Hill was Director there and holds the correspondence, he had with Isobel over his 19-year term, alongside various clippings of her travels. For Kew, Isobel’s arctic explorer credentials were overshadowed by her tenacity as a botanist.

From the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew archive

As a child Isobel’s playgrounds the gardens of Carlowrie Castle - 32 acres, complete with Victorian glasshouses, giving her plenty of scope to explore and document the natural world. By 1917, while WWI still raged, she had enrolled herself for a course at Studley Horticultural College for Women in Warwickshire, where she qualified as a naturalist.

By 1923 Isobel was on a chaperoned Grand Tour of Europe and the Middle East. Such educational travels had become a popular way to learn about art, architecture and antiquity, but for Isobel it was also a chance to study foreign flora and fauna. In Palestine she collected seeds of cypress and oleander which she propagated at Carlowrie. For 40 years the sale of these plants helped support the hospice of St Andrew’s Church in Jerusalem, while deepening her love of plants and her passion to venture further afield to find them.

Little did she know that her curiosity for nature would be her future passport to Greenland, where she landed in 1927, as the first Scotswoman in the country. Travel there required a permit, which she obtained with the backing of the Royal Horticultural Society, allowing her transit so she could study the native plant life. For Isobel the freedom found on her adventures outweighed the risks. In her book North to the Rime-ringed Sun, she writes “I never take any chances, God always blazes my trail. I should not be here now if He hadn’t.”

Isobel's travels in Greenland and the Arctic. Images from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society archives

It was her trip across Alaska (1933 – 1934) that proved most exciting for the botanical gardens who reaped the rewards of her finds. There she discovered a white-flowered variant of the dwarf fireweed, later named in her honour by Kew: Epilobium latifolium L. var. album Hutchison. On this same trip she also discovered the pale poppy, Papaver alboroseum and the Aleutian islands yielded artemisia borealis or boreal sage. “Up and on I climbed, filling my press with specimens, trailing white saxifrage, whose bright-green cushion made a rock-garden out of the slopes above a little stream golden with mimulus, and covered the mossy hollow where a bird had made her nest and laid in it four blue eggs… The constant hush of the air in the spruce boughs was like the sound of falling water.” Travelling in the Aleutians, from ‘Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia’ by Isobel Wylie Hutchison

Today the USDA Forest Service in Alaska recognises the pale poppy species as ‘sensitive’ because its numbers are small enough that population viability is a concern. Such status currently prohibits the collection or disturbance of this photogenic little plant, but there were no such concerns or protections when Isobel braved the harsh conditions of the region to retrieve it. Sketched and documented each find was a treasure in its own right, but also contributed to her understanding of the environments which sustained the local people.

Epilobium latifolium L. var. album Hutchison / River Beauty

The 1930s were a time of economic crisis for Britain, particularly in industrial areas in Scotland where the average annual wage was around £150. Women earned considerably less. The files at Kew reveal that in 1934 Isobel was paid £10.10.0d (equivalent to around £765 today) for 308 plant species. It’s likely that Isobel would have done her ‘flower collecting’ for free, but it was lucrative enough to fund her future adventures and allow her to maintain her independence. In her lifetime she collected thousands of plant specimens, preserving and labelling each one to ensure they survived their long sea journey to British museums and societies. It’s testament to her dedication that the beauty she captured in prose, poetry, painting and planting, survive to inform and delight us to this day.


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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