Margaret’s greatest interest was botany. This was not unusual for the time as women were encouraged to find interest in natural history in the eighteenth century. What was unusual was the Duchess’s depth of knowledge and involvement in botanical research. Margaret had cultivated an impressive, and from today’s perspective, a very distinctive number of friends in the field of science. Margaret employed the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander to catalogue her botanical collections using Linnaeus’s classification. Solander was a student of Carolus Linnaeus and was part of the entourage of Joseph Banks’ trip with James Cook’s first Endeavour voyage. Joseph Banks was known to have brought back new plant specimens from North America for the Duchess. Others included John Lightfoot her personal chaplain and conchologist, Philip Miller the chief gardener of the Chelsea Physick Garden, and Georg Dionysus Ehret a German botanical illustrator who Margaret hired to engrave the native plants in her flower gardens, as well as, teach drawing to her daughters.
In 1766 Margaret was introduced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, through Mary Delany’s brother, Bernard Granville. Rousseau was a philosopher and his interest in botany helped to popularize natural history in eighteenth century Europe, America and Great Britain. Rousseau did not hold women high in his esteem. He believed that they were incapable of abstract thought in the sciences and should instead concentrate on matters of practical reason. Despite his beliefs, Rousseau appointed himself as the Duchess’s ‘herborist’ collecting and preserving plants for her. He seems to have held the Duchess in high esteem as he refers to her as his botany teacher and testifies that her botanical knowledge is far superior to his own.
Margaret lived a full and busy life. She must have loved life as she delved into its mysteries one shell, flower, and art piece at a time. Family was important to her, as well as, all the scientific friends and acquaintances she cultivated in order to pursue and fulfill her life’s objective “to have had every unknown species described and published to the World”, according to John Lightfoot. While she never published any of her findings (she left that to others) Margaret did leave behind notebooks and letters documenting her vast knowledge. The Portland name was given to a moth, a rose and an ancient glass vase, in her honour. It is her vast collections of natural history that she is best remembered and the gardens of Bulstrode that housed them.