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Outstanding Plant People


The people discussed in this article are set within a broad social and botanical context. Wider and more detailed discussion of historical themes are available elsewhere on the site (see ‘history’ tab in main navigation menu) including an extended discussion of the history of plant science.

Plant personalities

In this series of articles devoted to ‘plant personalities’ I have selected a short list of people I think have made a lasting contribution to global collective plant knowledge and the way that we humans relate to plants today.

The people I have chosen have played a significant role in determining both the kinds of plants that we encounter in our daily lives and the way that we interact with them. These are the plants that we eat, drink, wear, smoke, use as medicines and structural materials, and cultivate in our parks, gardens, forests, orchards, vineyards, market gardens, plantations, and fields. Each person is set within their historical social context, the evolving role and status of plant practitioners in general, and the institutions where they worked.

There has, over the course of history, been a shift in the focus of plant study from plant utility (the many uses of plants, most intensively studied as plant medicine), to inventory and description (botany), then experimentation (plant science). This process begins in prehistory with the discovery of the many ways in which plants can benefit human existence (plants in relation to humans), the major intellectual emphasis being on plant medicine. This Interest in the medicinal properties of plants was a global phenomenon that required specialist knowledge and skills.

There then followed a phase of plant inventory, a stock-take of the plant resources that were available, regardless of their use. This entailed the naming, description, and classification of plants as a study of the plants themselves (plants in relation to plants). Though rudimentary forms of plant description were evident in all the world’s ancient written cultures it was in Renaissance Europe that the technical terminology, established in Latin, found a sufficiently high degree of development as to warrant the title ‘botany’. This systematization of botanical knowledge in Europe was further stimulated by the influx of plants from outside Europe that occurred during the Age of Discovery and after. This was the time, in the mid- sixteenth century, when botany diverged from medicine to become an independent discipline, as the students of university medical faculties studied both living plants in university physic gardens, and dried specimens stored in herbaria. At around the same time, intrepid mariners were setting out across the world from the ports of northwest Europe, engaged in a spice race that would lead, ultimately, to a global plant exchange and world economy.

Then, in the early 19th century, botanists, mainly in Germany, adopted a more experimental approach to their subject, extending the description of plant structures to a consideration of function – of plant development, reproduction, and physiology (e.g. photosynthesis, water relations, nutrition etc.), and including environmental studies that would soon become known as ecology. The arrival of plant science now included a much fuller account of the relationship between plants and their environment (plant in relation to environment).

The historical acceleration in social change, as it affected the human relation to plants, is most marked during the Age of Plants. The Age of Plants, from roughly 1550 to 1950, was a 400 year period of acceleration in social complexity, global interconnectivity, and global interdependence as the Atlantic coast cities of northwest Europe profited from trade with the New World and Far East. Exploration and trade, along with discoveries in economic and ornamental botany reached their height during an 18th century European obsession with plants known as botanophilia, a time in history when plants received more political attention than ever before. Botanophilia was the zenith of the Age of Plants, a grand intellectual and cultural celebration of the world’s flora brought back to Europe by maritime adventurers. It was a celebration of its beauty when displayed in palaces and aristocratic country estates; its culinary variety enjoyed as newly introduced condiments, spices, foods and drinks; its scientific diversity displayed in botanic gardens, museums, and herbaria; its description in encyclopaedias, dictionaries and journals; and the utility of newly-acquired fibres, dyes, and medicines that flooded into Europe at this time. This was the European discovery, exploitation, and enjoyment of the Earth’s botanical bounty on the ultimate geographic scale, these benefits passed on gradually to the lowlier sectors of society, before the crucial role of plants in human existence has become increasingly obscured within the socio-economic fabric of the complex industrial societies of Informatia.

Here, then, are a dozen or so personalities who have, in various ways, helped to define our plant world – not only the plants we encounter from day to day, but the attitudes and beliefs we bring to our experience of them. They lived in Ancient Greece, Sweden, Germany, France, England, and Australia.

The list includes five ancient Greek philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Epicurus. From today’s perspective this may be viewed as an overemphasis on figures who lived through a brief historical period that is divorced from us in both tenor and time. I hope that the articles on these men persuade you that they are worthy of inclusion in the gallery, demonstrating how small and simple beginnings can have extensive long-term ramifications.

Then there are five leading social and scientific plant personalities from the golden years of botanophilia at the height of the Age of Plants. These were leading figures during the European Enlightenment, an exciting period of intellectual exuberance and travel: Philip Miller, Carl Linnaeus, Daniel Solander, Josephine Beauharnais, and Joseph Banks.

From the early 19th century, the beginnings of plant science proper and the period of European colonial consolidation come today’s familiar role of the public-salaried scientist, rather than the former bounty hunters and men of independent means. Both are included in people from this period: Charles Darwin, Robert Brown, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, Alfred Russell Wallace, Alexander von Humboldt and, in Australia, Ferdinand Mueller. Admittedly, two of these men are supporting characters – Solander and Huxley – while Mueller is of local significance to Australia.

As support to these leading characters I have included over one hundred short biographies of eminent horticulturists and botanists from the ancient world up to the 19th century. Beyond this date the numbers and selection criteria become too many and too complex.

I have also included a simple list of Australian plant taxonomists extending up to recent times.

Historical context

Europeans and Aborigines are modern humans of the same genetic stock that populated the world after migrating out of Africa about 75,000 years ago. Australia was settled about 65,000 years ago, Europe about 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. From an Australian perspective It is a sad fact that, although Aboriginals have occupied Australia for around 65,000 years and Europeans for only 250, the recognized and celebrated people of the past reflect the dominant cultures of the present. How many Europeans in Australia today could name a single pre-European settlement Aboriginal?

This sad state of affairs reflects not only arrogant European indifference and lack of cross-cultural communication but the absence of a written Aboriginal record and the loss of oral tradition following decimation of its people at the time of European settlement. This is all the more tragic because Aboriginal interaction with the plant world would have been intimately interwoven with the ecology of the land and the directness and intensity of daily life experience in a way that European agriculture and science could not possibly capture.

As it is, the gallery reflects a traditional Western Eurocentric historical emphasis with its predominance of white Anglo-European males.

Only in recent times has a concerted effort been made to assemble and explore the depth and range of Aboriginal botany (see Plant use (tools & society) and Plant use (tools & medicine). Today the history of 50 millennia of Aboriginal-plant interaction on the Australian continent is therefore largely lost, along with the names of outstanding individuals. These years are therefore viewed through the narrowed perspective of Europeans and their history.

European ideas, customs, values and beliefs that shaped Australian attitudes to the world of plants is discussed in detail elsewhere.

All this I add as a reminder that history is what is passed down to us – it is not a fair and reasonable portrayal of what actually happened. There are many unsung heroes and much omission.

Social organization

Scientific, economic, and technological development often proceed together and when enacted on a wide geographic stage, as the sophisticated social organization needed to maintain empires, it produced vast cities and trading networks whose complexity left them vulnerable to decline.

Countries with economic and political power have the resources to support further development and to demonstrate their power by providing public monuments while also supporting the arts, science, and technology. In Europe of the classical era, Plato observed, these trading centres were scattered around the coast of the Mediterranean ‘like frogs around a pond’.

By the 6th and 5th centuries BCE peoples across the world had entered what we now call the Axial Age (c. 800-200 BCE), subjecting their beliefs to critical examination and developing new social structures. In this period of intellectual gestation we see the emergence in the East of Chinese Taoism and Confucianism, Indian Buddhism and Jainism, and Persian Zoroastrianism. From the Mediterranean region was emerging not only the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam but also a special mode of analytic thought. Chief among these men (these societies were all male-dominated) were the Ionian or pre-Socratic philosophers who were engaged in a critical re-appraisal of all aspects of human knowledge and activity, challenging long and entrenched conservative traditions of thought. Ionia was a small 150m-long coastal strip on the western coast of Today’s Turkey opposite the island of Samos and with vibrant trading towns of Miletus, Ephesus, and Priene. No doubt the interchange of ideas through trade and the advent of (classical-style) democracy reinforced the feeling that, regardless of supernatural beliefs and the activities of gods and priests humans could, by careful observation and the use of reason, begin to not only understand the workings of the physical world and, by its careful management, forge their own destiny.

In the Middle Ages the power derived from money and trade passed to the city states of northern Italy, like Venice, Genoa, and Bologna which accessed goods from the Silk Road. It was here that the first botanic gardens appeared, but the lure of highly lucrative spices had launched fresh trade with the New World across the Atlantic alongside the expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the 15th and 16th centuries. Changing political fortunes led to a 17th century Dutch golden age when Holland absorbed many of the spoils garnered by the Iberian countries. Into the 18th century it was France that set the social and scientific agenda, its botany and horticulture based at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, the magnificent landscape garden created by La Nôtre at the Palace of Versailles, and the Château Malmaison garden established by Josephine de Beauharnais just outside the city. It was, however, Britain that finally established its military supremacy at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 securing a foundation for the vast Victorian era empire that encompassed a quarter of the world’s population.

Following early botanical work in the botanic gardens of Italy the tradition spread across Europe and, though the Spanish and Portuguese developed herb gardens on India’s west coast it was the Dutch whose botany, based at the gardens of Leiden and Amsterdam, and encouraged by the activities and collections of the Dutch East India Company, would draw in plants from around the world with botanists from Holland being the first European botanists to study plants from the tropics.

The gallery of plant people matches well this pattern of waxing and waning civilizations, empires, and cities.

Social hierarchy

In post-Scientific Revolution Europe, the world of learning was essentially a male domain. It was through the world of botany, a ‘soft’ science, domestic management, horticulture, and botanical illustration that women became acquainted with the world of botany. From classical times it was the role of women of status to manage the home (or estate in the case of the wealthy), while the man of the house was occupied with public affairs. Ancient Greek males, especially, regarded manual labour with disdain: it was the lot of slaves. This attitude was maintained for many generations.

At the time of the Enlightenment with its excessive respect for antiquity, classical influences were still strong among the educated and influential. The selection of Josephine Bonaparte in this series of articles reflects this tradition. Today we easily forget the importance of social ‘position’ through most of history, and the deference of lower classes to their social superiors. Josephine’s garden at Versailles, her collections of plants from distant lands, her roses and lilies, all this influenced fashions and tastes across the European aristocracy and intelligentsia. These trends would then filter down to the general populace.

From the early 19th century I have selected Alexander von Humboldt. In the first half of the 19th century his field science (now called ecology) complemented the laboratory-based German experimental plant physiologists as the study of plants moved into a third phase . . . beyond plants as medicines, and descriptive structural botany (as nomenclature, classification, and description), to plant science proper – the experimental study of plant function (as physiology, development, reproduction, and ecology) all, after the mid- 19th century, falling under the general rubric of evolutionary biology.

Australia played its part in changing the social circumstances of the 20th century as, in 1902, it was the first country to permit women to stand for parliament and the second (after New Zealand) to allow women the vote.

The people described here were all from privileged wealthy and/or educated elites. Importantly, we forget what a momentous social transition has occurred recently (last 100 years) as many societies across the world have adopted democratic and egalitarian values.

Until recent times urban societies were strongly hierarchical. Following the Age of Revolutions (c. 1789-1848) there has been a growth of egalitarianism that would have seemed very strange to our forbears. Their world was one where you were born into a fixed station within society, and this determined the way you dressed, spoke, and related to other people. Decisions affecting peoples’ lives flowed from relatively few important individuals ‘downwards’ to the general population. As liberal democracies have become more entrenched across the world, so major decisions have tended to flow ‘upwards’ from the people. School history was about elites of various kinds – kings, queens, and so on – because it was they who tended to exert influence over everybody else. Almost all the people described here lived in rigidly structured societies. Horticulture and science through the Age of Plants, and as Agraria transitioned into Industria, have followed the progressive transfer of wealth, power, land and knowledge from royalty, nobility, the landed gentry, and the intellectual elite to the ‘lower’ orders of society. This process of increasing democratization and egalitarianism has addressed social exclusion based on race, religion, gender, property, and education, in a trend that continues today.

Today, leading academics trained in universities are distributed across the world when once they would have been outstanding individuals from powerful countries whose students sought them out to serve an apprentice-like period of training in their company. We have undergone a feminist revolution, fathers are no longer the authoritarian decision-makes in the family . . . and so on. All this is relatively recent social change.

Classical Greece

The classical era of ancient Greece was a time of unusual intellectual honesty as all aspects of life and existence were pared back to the simplest foundations in the attempt to find solutions to the great problems of the universe and human existence. To do this required an extraordinary independence of mind in the face of customary religious and other beliefs, social traditions, charismatic individuals, and the many other factors that can divert our minds from independent thought.

The Greek thinkers, with their diligent application of reason, delivered unprecedented results in mathematics, science, law, art, literature, architecture, astronomy, psychology, politics, ethics, science and more. Though they too stood on the shoulders of others: if we want to know what makes Western science and society tick then we must look to these people and this period in history. This simple truth was recognized by the powerful Roman Empire that followed and later generations weaned on a classical education.

Western education today has moved beyond its narrow Greco-Roman heritage to take on a more global perspective. But the profundity and universality of Greek thought has left an indelible footprint on Western society and the cultures that it has influenced.

For botanists the Greek heritage really begins with the legacy of plant science coming down to us from Aristotle and Theophrastus at the Lyceum in Athens. Plants were studied independently of the folk-medicine that held sway before them and continued for over a millennium after.

The Greek philosophers were an analytic branch of a wide movement of introspection that occurred across the world during what has been called the Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE) during which there was not only a blossoming of religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism but also rebellious philosophy that re-examined the place of the individual within society and the universe. In Greece the educational institutions of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum became the prototypes of our current universities as places of learning and research based on libraries full of manuscripts.

Greek learning was adapted by the more practical and less theoretical Roman society which, through its empire, laid the foundations for European society, then through European society to the European colonies, to form a Western tradition that was dispersed across the world during the Age of Discovery and European colonial expansionwhich culminated in European colonization and subsequent Westernization of much of the world.

Naturalistic (non-supernatural and therefore proto-scientific) explanations of the world were explored by pre-Socratic philosophers (physiologoi) in western Anatolia (today’s Turkey) mostly at Miletus and Ephesus and other communities in coastal southern Italy including the famous Pythagorean school. Their ideas probably harked back in part to the early civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia but it was the musings of the pre-Socratics that served as challenges for the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle of ancient Athens in the Golden Age of Greece.

For many years study of ancient Greece and Rome formed the core of the Western education system known as the ‘classics’, influencing European leaders for many generations through its literature, science, philosophy, heroic military triumphalism. ethos of the classical world and their overall influence can be felt today in our science, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, logic, engineering, ethics, politics, economics, law, architecture, sculpture, literature, art, education and much more.

Plato believed in a transcendental or subjective world independant of the material world, a world of ideas or Forms (eidos), what later became known as Platonic Idealism. His ideas would be united with those of Christianity by Medieval theologian St Augustine and later by Florentine Marsilio Ficino who translated his works into Latin at the Platonic Academy in Florence. Plato’s careful reasoning produced a roadmap for philosophical debate that has continued to this day including a carefully crafted metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political theory, and theory of education. It even included a mystical four-step path to transcendental Enlightenment. His student, Aristotle, used the term ‘Form’ in amore natural way to mean that which defines things, especially living organisms, the life principle that gives them both ‘potentiality’ (today we might call this the genetic make-up) but also ‘actuality’ or changing functionality through nutrition, motion, growth, ageing, sensation and all those processes that enable survival and reproduction including, in conscious organisms, emotion, the will and intellect (nous). This was all directed at what he called the ‘final cause’ of the organism … its goal, purpose, or meaning … the reason for its existence. His thinking would be incorporated into Christianity by the Medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle is often said to be the first true scientist. For biologists it is not his ethics, logic, and politics that attracts so much as his ‘Invitation to Biology’.

For our purposes, it was Plato’s successor Theophrastus, the originator of plant science, who is of special interest. Theophrastus was part of a Greek culture that was part of the world-wide introspection of the Axial Age. Theophrastus’s curiosity led him to study plants for their intrinsic interest not just for the use that could be made of them. He worked on their classification, structure, function, reproduction, relationship to the land, and geographic distribution in addition to their various uses. The botany of Theophrastus and zoology of Aristotle represent the climax of natural history in antiquity. At the Lyceum (which, with Plato’s Academy, served as the model for today’s universities) Theophrastus inherited Aristotle’s garden and plant collection. The garden was associated with an educational institute with a library where there was research and lectures; it was situated within a designed sacred landscape (of a kind that probably dated back into prehistory) dedicated to the God Lykos. Some of the cultivated plants had been collected in foreign lands, like those returned from military campaigns by Alexander the Great (the first ‘Westerner’ to observe tropical vegetation) who had been tutored by Aristotle. As a living collection it was used by Theophrastus for botanical instruction and, although similar gardens had been developed elsewhere in the ancient world, its combination of characteristics mean that it can legitimately claim to be the forerunner of the botanic gardens familiar to us today. Though plant and animal trophies had been collected from distant lands in former times, those sent to Greece likely stimulated the later establishment and goals of zoos and botanic gardens

Theophrastus observed the changes that can occur to plants when under human care and selection, his writings Causa Plantarum and Historia Plantarum (presumed to be his lecture notes) suggested almost every aspect of modern botany including observations on plant sexuality and what we might today call genetypic and phenotypic variation, the way cultivated plants had sometimes acquired characteristics that differed from those of wild plants.

Libraries in Greece were among the earliest stores of knowledge being also places of learning and research. From the gymnasia of ancient Greece , the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, have evolved the modern university.

Alexander was; encouraged the distribution of plants and animals by sending back specimens from his military campaigns.

Greek thinking influenced social behavior of later Europeans and the attitudes to plants of the early Australian settlers. Persian gardens seen by Alexander and his generals inspired the creation of luxurious Hellenistic gardens that were later emulated and developed by wealthy Romans who passed on their gardening traditions to Europe through their vast empire, and eventually to Britain during the Roman occupation from 45-410 CE.

Botanists of both the early Herbals and Enlightenment were well aware of Theophrastus and his work. At first this was descriptive medicinal botany but during the Enlightenment it would include aspects of his acquisitive economic botany by which he had hoped to serve the people of ancient Athens. Through people like Linnaeus (who honoured Theophrastus with the title ‘Father of Botany’) the botanic gardens of Leiden and Amsterdam, Joseph Banks at Kew, and Andre Thouin at the Jardin des Plantes the social value of plants for economic botany would playing an important role in European empire-building.

While Theophrastus was mostly an academic botanist Philosopher Epicurus was eccentric outsider who designed a beautiful ‘home garden’ on the outskirts of ancient Athens as a ‘pleasant and peaceful place’ referred to by the later Roman pastoral poets as a locus amoenus. Greek society was directed towards wealth, acclaim, fame, and power. Much more than today masculine heroism played a large part in all this – the pursuit of a peaceful life was contrary to all these values. Instead Epicurus valued close friendship, the freedom that comes with financial independence and self-sufficiency, and the rejuvenation we gain from meditation and reflection. The Garden was a retreat from the clamour of clashing human egos and a sanctuary from the rat-race. His own age was ravaged by warfare and undoubtedly the Epicureans were followers of the utopian and romanticised theory of the past as outlined in Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 750 BCE) in which ‘The first humans were a golden race who lived in harmony with one-another in perfect peace and leisure in an eternal spring, and were beloved of the gods‘. When all have gained wisdom cities themselves will be unnecessary and laws will become redundant as all people will naturally cultivate justice. His age, he believed, sought unnecessary luxuries in distant lands, drowning in abundance as gold was chased and money invented. Cities, so much admired by Aristotle, were perceived by Epicurus as imperfect places where people sought wealth and power until, exhausted by strife and motivated by fear, they had ‘agreed to be bound by restrictive laws and coercive justice‘ and, as Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (99-55 BCE) later said, ‘hence fear of punishments taint the prizes of life‘. For all his skeptical Romanticism Epicurus has struck a chord to the present day.It is ancient Greek culture that digested and synthesized, in a brilliant way, the wisdom of the ancient world that had emerged from Egypt to its south, and Mesopotamia and its offspring to the East. The origination and depth of insight into so much of contemporary western culture, the many branches of its art and science, find their source here. The first canon of free thought, minimally fettered by religious and ideological assumptions, is expressed most fluently through the work of the pre-Socratic philosophers.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

Together these philosophers represent a mode of thinking about and structuring the world that has persisted into the modern age: they symbolize a culture with well articulated ideas about, among other things, art, architecture, literature, ethics, politics, the law, mathematics, astronomy, logic, and the process of reasoning itself. In Plato (c. 424-348 BCE) we confront the spiritual and transcendental side of our nature, that part of us that became associated with Christianity. In Aristotle (384-322 BCE) we have an advocate for the materialism and empiricism that underlies modern science. Indeed, Aristotle may be called the founder of science: he was succeeded as Head of the Lyceum (the educational institution he established himself) in Athens by Theophrastus (c.371-287 BCE), the indisputable founder of modern plant science whose work would not be eclipsed for another 1200 years.

Socrates, it is true, is not noted for his science and biology: in fact we have nothing that that he wrote: all we know about him is what has been reported by others. But he is included as an important symbolic reminder of a tradition that made the ancient Greeks so effective: the tradition of critical thought unconstrained by religious belief, subjective bias, tradition and custom, social authority or simply a feeling of certitude. He was, as it were, a spokesman for the pre-Socratic philosophers who probably voiced ideas that had in turn passed imperceptibly from earlier civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant – like the star charts that the Greeks inherited from Egyptian and Babylonian astronomers.

The intellectual world of the ancient Greeks, as exemplified by our five great thinkers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Epicurus was later adapted by the more practical Roman society which, through its empire, laid the foundations for European society, its colonies, and eventually Western society as a whole. European leaders-to-be were for many generations educated in the classics, the literature, science, philosophy and ethos of the classical world. Europe inherited from the Greeks and later Romans not only The Greeks were a culture with well articulated ideas about, among other things, art, architecture, literature, ethics, politics, the law, mathematics, astronomy, logic, and the process of reasoning itself.a tradition of intellectual rigour but their system of economy, justice, and politics, even social attitudes concerning the role of women and sexuality, education, the structure of society, and sport.

In Plato (c. 424-348 BCE) we confront a spiritual and transcendental system of ideas, that stream of Western history associated with Christianity.

In Aristotle (384-322 BCE) we have an advocate for the materialism and empiricism that underlies modern science. Indeed, Aristotle may be called the founder of science: he was succeeded as Head of the Lyceum (the educational institution he established himself) in Athens by

Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BCE)

Theophrastus , the indisputable founder of modern plant science whose work would not be eclipsed for another 1200 years.

These Greek critical thinkers were representatives of just one stream of intellectual exploration that was taking place across Afro-Eurasia during the Axial Age (c. 800-200 BCE). In an unprecedented period of introspection the known world was taking mental stock in a movement that included not only the Mediterranean philosophers and developing Abrahamic religions but, in China, Taoism and Confucianism, in India Buddhism, and in Persia Zoroastrianism.

In The Republic and Timaeus Plato constructed an intricate and compelling edifice of thought, a toolbox for understanding and coping with the world. But his intellectual architecture, the framework around which he build ideas, has remained with us to the present even though the detail has been re- worked by subsequent generations.

Much of the foundation of Western science came to us through ancient Greek thinking and Plato especially would provide the bedrock of all subsequent Western philosophy including those aspects of his thought incorporated into Christianity by St Augustine. We may not agree with his overall thesis today but the clarity, depth and breadth of thought expressed in The Republic over 2000 years ago is truly stunning: it laid out a roadmap for philosophical debate that has continued to this day with its carefully crafted metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political theory, and theory of education. It even included a mystical four-step path to transcendental enlightenment.

Plato was a Rationalist. The world of Being, the world of Forms, could only be accessed through reason and logic. He is also associated with what became known as ‘idealism’, maintaining that ‘truth’ was abstract and transcendental (like the truths of mathematics, and the idea of the Forms) and it existed more clearly in our minds than in the natural world and only insofar as it approximated the ‘idea of the Good’. The world of sense experience was unreliable and illusory. It would take the genius of Aristotle to provide an alternative more earthly and scientific ourlook on the world.

Theophrastus studied plants for their own interest as well as their utility – investigating their classification, structure, function, reproduction, relationship to the land, and geographic distribution as well as their medicinal, agricultural and other practical uses. He observed plant variation under human care and selection, distinguishing what today we might call genetic and phenotypic variation, while foreshadowing almost every aspect of modern plant science.

This detached curiosity so evident in western science – the desire to extirpate the least subjective bias – does seem to be a particularly ancient Greek theme and is not always regarded as a virtue, Romantic movements in particular seeing it as a lack of humanity.

Theophrastus inherited Aristotle’s garden and plant collection at the Lyceum, some collected from military campaigns such as those of Alexander the Great (the first ‘Westerner’ to observe tropical vegetation) and his generals or introduced by other people. Used by Theophrastus for botanical instruction this collection, though similar gardens had been developed elsewhere in the ancient world, can claim to be a major forerunner of the modern Botanic garden. Persian gardens seen by Alexander and his generals inspired the creation of luxurious gardens that were later emulated and developed by wealthy Romans who passed on their gardening traditions to Britain during the Roman occupation.
Theophrastus’s description of the social value of plants for economic botany and the methods of their collection were likely emulated by later botanists and explorers notably Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks.

Following the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity Christian medieval scholastic theologians transposed Plato’s ideas into Christianity aligning his adeas with the world of Christian revelation. Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) in a school of thought that later became known as Neoplatonism, converted Plato’s worlds of Being and Becoming into the worlds of Heaven and Earth and the Form of the Good into God. Plato’s ‘soul’ (his tripartite mind) also belonged to the world of Forms because though invisible and capable of self-reflection it ruled the body. As ideas are not physical things they must belong to a spiritual realm which is more real than the material realm. As Forms were immutable then the soul too must be immortal, passing from the world of Becoming into the world of Being at death. For St Augustine Plato’s eternal world of Being, or heaven, was the place in the afterlife supporting the immortality of the soul. Plato’s objective morality became God’s law. Following Plato’s conviction that the world of sense-experience was unreliable, Christianity portrayed the physical world of experience as an inferior, imperfect or ‘fallen’ world, a wretched place totally unlike the perfect, eternal and transcendental world of God. Similar analogies were made in Islam and Judaism.

Plato’s works remained available after the fall of Rome while Aristotle’s thought was temporarily lost. Transcribed into Arabic by Islamic scholars Aristotle’s cogitations were later recovered by Christians during the Crusades, the depth of Aristotle’s thought being immediately recognised. Early Christian thinkers maintained that the consequence of reason had been a rag-bag of different viewpoints on all aspects of life resulting in chaos and confusion. Only faith could provide certainty and be our true support in life. Reason was condemned. When Aristotle’s works were rediscovered in th West they too were reconciled with the gospels through the ‘scholasticism’ of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 CE) and his monumental work Summa Theologica that would become so influential in Christianity. Aquinas pointed out that God created not only the natural world but also the human faculty of reason. With St Thomas Aquinas reason was once again permitted a place in intellectual life, Aquinas supporting his position by noting that reason could be used to discover and celebrate the order and wonder of God’s Creation (a view that became known as ‘natural theology’). Only through Aquinas’s admission of reason did science become acceptable within that early Christian world. Christianity then incorporated Aristotelian ideas (he was known as ‘The Philosopher’) like his teleology, into the Christian idea of God’s purpose or plan.

For both Plato and Aristotle existence entailed a plan and therefore a supernatural agency. Plato thought that the order we see around us in the universe must have an ‘organising principle’. Aristotle also saw purpose and design in everything around him and referred to this as telos (see Meaning & purpose) with God the prime mover or initiator of the universe.

Though acknowledging a spiritual world, Aristotle is most closely associated with ‘analytic empiricism’ which maintained that it was possible to obtain true statements about the natural world by means of careful observation and analysis (break-down and classification) combined with the use of rigorous logic. He did not share Plato’s disdain for the material world. A scientifically-based bitter resentment of Plato for his transcendental religiosity, philosophical idealism and subjectivity, and authoritarian politics is not helpful as I hope you agree. Without Plato we would almost certainly have not had Aristotle.


Epicurus lived at the same time as Theophrastus but little is known of any interaction between these two men. He was an outsider. Not only did he reject the entire pantheon of Greek and other gods but he lived away from the public eye in a kind of commune with his friends that included women and slaves treated as equals on a property called The Garden, possibly the first ornamental garden established in Athens. He was no doubt an escapist and his science could not match that of his contemporaries but his garden and insights provided relief from Greek intensity and the tumult of human striving. Strangely it was Epicurus, rather than the other philosophers, who appealed to the subsequent Roman culture.

Classical studies, once core curriculum for the well-educated, are now unfashionable. There are of course other and important contemporary matters in education but this cannot erase the significance of the Greek contribution to the Western world. The Greek philosophers form the trunk of today’s Western tree of knowledge and Western perceptions, a tree that is steadily absorbing the rest of the world within its politics, science, and medicine.

History is of course much more than the story of the great and famous. For most early settlers life was about survival and practical day-to-day realities, not the fancy ideas of intellectuals, scientists and the nobility. Nevertheless, the contribution of these thirteen and other people and their acquaintances undoubtedly helped to mould the environment in which the new settlers lived: society was ruled from the top much more than it is today. By looking closely into the lives of particular individuals we can at least get an inkling of what it was like to live in their world. This section of the web site also includes a ‘Roll of Honour’ extending the list of people who have contributed in a significant way to the world of plants in Australia: it includes people from many backgrounds, from botanists to agriculturists, botanical artists to politicians.

We cannot stand in the shoes of those who went before us: we see their world through a mass of historical fact and fiction, constantly judging them with the values of the present and the wisdom of hindsight. But what was it actually like to live in these distant times? Here I will make a limited attempt to describe what I think are some of the major social differences between our own times and those of the people discussed. A first difference is that today, with so many more people (especially since the population explosion after World War II), an established body of scientific knowledge, and many academic disciplines and social roles the contribution that any one individual, like personal authority, has become more diffuse than in the past. This is why we are unlikely to experience again such giants of history like Aristotle, Darwin and Ferdinand Mueller whose presence was far more noticeable in history’s formative years.

Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, & Enlightenment

With the decline of the classical world came Christianity which, like Platonic transcendentalism, had its own truths that were not of this world. However, thinking slowly came down to earth, finding its feet again with the Renaissance and eighteenth century Enlightenment as a classical revival and return to science. Pre-eminent natural scientist of this period was a Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who set out with the modest ambition of, first, providing a universal naming system for the living organisms of the world and, secondly, beginning a descriptive catalogue of them all. His favourite student was Daniel Solander, who he hoped would marry his daughter. Instead Solander travelled to England, deciding to become assistant to Joseph Banks on Cook’s first voyage of scientific exploration around the world in HMS Endeavour in 1768. Banks and Solander would capture the European imagination with their amazing plant discoveries at Botany Bay setting off a plant frenzy, a ‘Botanophilia‘ that would enthrall European high society and scientists alike. Banks subsequently had a special relationship with Australia as he became de facto Director of Kew botanic gardens in London which he transformed into a hub for the economic botany resulting from the interaction between the many outposts of the burgeoning British empire. Linnaeus and Banks were towering figures in the natural science of the day and have left an indelible impression on the botany of Australia. Linnaeus had extended the Aristotle’s groundwork by providing an agreed way of putting order into the natural world, and especially the plant world, without which communication and knowledge accumulation was barely possible, a lasting legacy to biological science.

After the ancient Greeks open-minded philosophy would not return to the West for about 1200 years until the Renaissance when the intellectual battle-lines were clearly drawn. There were those following the transcendental Platonic tradition of innate ideas (the Rationalists) and those who followed Aristotle’s tradition of earthly observation (the Empiricists). These two schools of thought arrived at a stale-mate. Rationalists needed to generate objective truths from ideas untainted by experience (that is, from a priori ideas) this was a tall order). Meanwhile empiricists like John Locke and David Hume, who maintained that all meaningful ideas must be traced back to experience, had to confront the subjectivity of sense-experience, the ‘egocentric predicament’, an equally difficult problem. Only with Immanuel Kant would come the suggestion that our brain structures, or filters, our sensory input and that this is why we perceive the world the way we do – this filter was the a priori aspect of our ideas: it was a fusion of the Rational and Empirical positions so philosophy could move on.

So we can now see how Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the other ancient Greek philosophers had a profound influence on the future character of subsequent religion, education, science, politics, law, economics, social structure, morality, sexuality, sport and much more. Their influence on the history of ideas cannot be doubted. No education is complete without a knowledge of their contribution to the modern world and plant people will add to this trio Theophrastus, Aristotle’s heir at the Lyceum who laid the foundations of plant science. In our admiration and deep respect for their intellectual rigour we should not forget our social differences – these men lived in a strongly hierarchical society that supported slavery and denied women political and legal rights, Aristotle even describing women as ‘incomplete men’.

The vital link between human nature, reason, morality, science, and sustainability will be explored in the other articles of this section.

In post-Scientific Revolution Europe the world of learning was essentially a male domain. It was through the ‘soft’ science of botany and botanical illustration that many women were introduced to science. From classical times the social hierarchy determined that wealthy women should manage the family estate while the man was occupied with affairs of state.

Following Greek tradition, men of status regarded any form of manual labour as demeaning. At the time of the Enlightenment, with its deep respect for the social conventions of antiquity, these traditions were still strong. The selection of Josephine Bonaparte in this series of articles reflects this tradition. Her garden at Versailles was admired by the European aristocracy and intelligentsia, admired and emulated by fashionable society that would then filter down, in simplified form, to the general populace.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)

On weekends the egocentric Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, Professor of Botany and Director of the Uppsala Botanic Gardens, would lead a devoted band of natural history ramblers out of the botanic gardens into the Swedish countryside preceded by banners and fanfares from French horns. His passion for the natural world and desire to categorise it has left us with the legacy of his fundamental division of the natural world into three basic groups, plants, animals and minerals from which we get the expression ‘animal, vegetable, or mineral?’

Linnaeus lived at a time when medicine, botany and horticulture were all closely related and he considered himself privileged, through his work, to be revealing to people the miraculous design of the natural world that had been placed there by its Creator. His aim was to name and describe every plant, animal and mineral in the world and his achievement was to lay the structural foundations of a system of classification and nomenclature that would allow later scientists to work together towards the goal that he could not possibly have achieved himself.

At a time when Britain and France were becoming the major European powers he managed to win over most of the scientific world to his ‘system’. He was well aware of the momentous role that plants could play in the future of humanity and sent his ‘Apostle’ students to the Americas, South Africa, Iceland, Egypt, Oceania, China and elsewhere to bring back natural history specimens and plants of economic value.

Linnaeus was an older contemporary of the wealthy English gentleman Joseph Banks. The two never met but Banks admired and supported Linnaeus’s ‘system’ and Linnaeus knew all about Banks’s famous voyage with Captain Cook to New Holland and the stunning collections made at Botany Bay (although he never saw any of these). This was because his favourite student ‘apostle’ Daniel Solander, who Linnaeus hoped would marry his daughter, was Banks’s botanical assistant on the voyage.

Linnaeus was undoubtedly the founding father of the closely integrated world of 18th century natural science.

Philip Miller (1691-1771)

Philip Miller was Head Gardener and plant collector at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London who did not get along with Linnaeus although his period in office signals a major period of plant introduction that changed the British landscape and opened up horticulture and gardening to a newly affluent British middle class exciting Joseph Banks and serving as vanguard for the drive toward the global plant interchange that would transform the world landscape.

As Head gardener of London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, Miller added state-of-the-art greenhouses and converted the former Apothecaries’ physic garden (a garden of medicinal herbs) into what was possibly the most extensive plant collection known to the world at that time. He presided over these gardens before Kew had become established as a public collection acting as mentor to the young Banks one of the many eminent visitors to the Chelsea Physic Garden. With an encyclopaedic and unrivalled knowledge of plants he was able to publish the Gardener’s Dictionary, a compendium of the many plants cultivated in Britain at this time, running to many editions and, for over 100 years, the standard reference on cultivated plants in Britain. Well-known as an advisor to the wealthy on all matters horticultural he was a key figure in the acquisition of new and curious plants from around the world and in the promulgation of horticulture. Unfortunately his curmudgeonly attitude meant that his meeting with the younger Linnaeus in ?1737 had not gone very well and he had resisted Linnaeus’s nomenclature, only grudgingly taking it up in 1768 in the 8th edition of the Dictionary, his surly attitude finally and sadly leading to his dismissal from the Chelsea Physic Garden after decades of service.

Miller died in the year that the Endeavour returned laden with plant collections from the east coast of New Holland so, like Linnaeus, he never saw any of the plants returned from Botany Bay.

Well known and respected throughout Britain and Europe Miller’s standing in the world of horticulture must be placed alongside the botanical stature of his contemporary Linnaeus.

Joseph Banks (1743-1820)

Joseph Banks was an Enlightenment entrepreneur, explorer, Director of Kew Botanic Gardens, and naturalist on the Endeavour; through his contacts and management of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew he built on Miller’s tradition of plant introduction by creating the global networks necessary for a colonial economic botany that underpinned the largest empire the world has seen and accelerated the process of neo-colonial crop homogenisation, horticulture, and a global weed flora.

Banks, more than any other person, linked Australia to the European world, not only in terms of its natural history, and botany in particular, but also in terms of its political and other appointments.
Joseph Banks masterminded and oversaw unprecedented volume of trade in both ornamental garden plants and crops. During his watch we witness the emergence of ‘Western’ (Neo-European) agriculture and horticulture. This took several forms: a rapid increase in numbers of commercial plant nurseries to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent middle class trying to emulate the lifestyles of their social superiors by growing new and exotic plants on larger garden plots; the large-scale transference of plants from one continent to another – no longer a few plants and packets of seed to collectors and specialist institutions but large commercial shipments, like those from America. Ornamental plants were imported to Britain from Africa (especially South Africa), Australia and Oceania, China, the Americas (especially North America) and the Far East: it was, in effect, the opening up of global trade by the world’s largest empire. Once in Britain the new plants could be quickly ‘bulked up’ in the new nurseries. New technologies that streamlined gardening included conservatory-like greenhouses that greatly extended the range of warm climate plants that could be grown. There was the introduction of plant breeding, pest control, and the serious study of plant acclimatization.

Banks was an entrepreneur, recognising the commercial gains to be made through well-organised economic botany as plants passed between Kew gardens and British colonies and outposts dotted through temperate and tropical climes. This was a period that included Bligh’s hunt for breadfruit and other stories relating to quinine, rubber, coffee, tea, cocoa, new spices and other plants. Botanical curiosity was transformed into global economics.
Most importantly trade was two-way. Settlers in the various new colonies needed food and as they lived mostly in temperate fertile regions it seemed obvious to import the traditional cereals of wheat, barley and rye along with fruit trees, root vegetables and the like. Maybe the distribution of ornamental and crop plants across the British Empire in the 18th century was part of an inevitable progression of events, but it marked a transition from minor and innocuous trade to a globalization of plants transport that would have far-reaching and unforeseen environmental consequences – consequences that we are now still digesting.

The spread of agriculture and pastoralism across the neo-Europes has been the single greatest devourer of land and Ecosystem Services. With increased food (energy) supply has come increased population and food demand in a spiral that is still with us along with increasing population, infrastructure and heavy consumption of resources, most notably water. This follows a well-known pattern: displacement of indigenous people; spread of invasive organisms as part of global biotic homogenisation; and extinction of species.

Insofar as humanity was ever engaged with nature in a battle for supremacy, to control nature for its own ends, it was in the 18th century that they discovered the means to gain the upper hand as environmental issues which would soon become global were set in train. Banks, well-meaning and in complete ignorance of the consequences of his actions (what would he think if he were placed in the centre of Sydney today?) is a part of this less inspiring narrative. Humans have won (for now).

In Banks we see the close connection between botany and horticulture, nurseries and botanic gardens, even the Royal Society, the English House of Parliament and British high society all linked by the exchange of living and dried plants. He is credited with the introduction to Europe of the first Australian live plants and seed for cultivation and was a major supporter of the international science, being actively involved in maintaining communication with continental scientists during the Napoleonic Wars, and in introducing the British people to the wonders of the wider world. Linnaeus was so impressed with the natural history collections made on the first voyage (although he did not see any of them) that he thought the new continent should be named Banksia. He was patron to many gardener-botanists sent out from Kew including those sent to Australia such as Peter Good etc. and on the voyage of the Endeavour his experience of living plant care, herbarium specimen collection, and ways of preserving seed viability was passed on to his charges.

Banks’s insistence on scientific representation on major voyages and teams setting off on land exploration no doubt strengthened a tradition that would later include Menzies on the Discovery, Labillardière on the Recherche, Brown on the Investigator, Darwin on the Beagle, Hooker on the Erebus and many more.
Before Phillip left for Australia with the First Fleet he was a regular guest at Soho Square where he received instructions on the plants to take, received seed from Banks and notes on which plants to pick up at Rio and the Cape. Banks’s botanical collector Masson met the Fleet at the Cape, later writing to Banks informing him that the captain’s cabin in the Sirius had been packed with pots of cocoa, coffee, oranges, figs and vines.
Banks was an Enlightenment scientist whose desire to improve was a two-edged sword. The ripples of his influence steered Britain in a direction that would benefit empire, economy and society, changing lives and landscape. Now that Banks has ‘gone global’ we see that benefits have travelled in tandem with costs.

Josephine de Beauharnais (1763-1814)

French socialite and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte together with her gardener-explorer Félix Delahaye epitomise the social whorl that was a part of the remarkable era of botanophilia – the romance of plant hunting in distant lands, the competitive accumulation of live plant collections by the wealthy and influential (especially women), all coupled with an insatiable desire by Enlightenment scientists to describe them, cultivate them, and illustrate their beauty. Banks sent her roses – but not in the carriageloads that he demanded for Catherine the Great of Russia.

With the passing of Napolean came the passing of French influence in the world. French claims to land in the antipodes included the Marion Dufresne claim to Van Diemen’s Land in 1772 and Louis St Allouarn’s claim to the west coast of New Holland in the same year, followed by Napoleon’s Baudin expedition which claimed the south coast of New Holland under the name Terre Napoleon. Without subsequent settlement all these claims were to lapse.

Paradoxically, France at the time of Empress Josephine was caught in a frenzy of ‘anglomania’, the fashionable set seeking out English fabrics, teas, even assuming English manners – eating roast beef, wearing riding coats, enjoying horse-racing … and setting up gardens in the romantic English tradition, á l’anglaise, in preference to the formal rectilinear parterres so popular in France at the time.[10]

In common with the rest of European society, France’s Enlightenment intelligentsia and social elite were also in the grip of ‘botanophilia’ an obsession with natural history that was focused firmly on plants. As, in France, a hopeful Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, Botanophilia beamed out as a tantalizing intellectual ideal that held the imagination of Europe’s Enlightenment elite – in a way botanophilia symbolized the culmination of human achievement to that time through the innocent combination of botany and horticulture: an unlikely coupling of science and beauty that rose above the politics of the day.

Like Joseph Banks, Empress Josephine was a key link in the European network of social connections that included royalty, aristocracy, the wealthy, intellectuals and scientists, nurserymen, garden designers, gardeners, botanists and government officials. Because of her position she was able to set the fashionable trend of the day and in so doing play a key role in delineating the future path of botany and horticulture by advancing the ideas and practice of: plant introduction; exploration; plant hunting; plant exchange; acclimatization; garden design; hothouse cultivation; botanical description; botanical illustration; and science above politics.

British Empire & colonial Australia

Robert Brown (1773-1858)

Brown had made many astute and detailed observations on plant affinities and penetrated more deeply into plants with his microscope than many of his contemporaries. He made detailed studies of protoplasmic streaming, fertilization and pollination, his studies of pollen grains revealing a strange, apparently random and jittery movement of particles suspended in a fluid, a phenomenon named after him as ‘Brownian motion’. In an 1825 paper he noted the fundamental distinction between the exposed seed of coniferous plants (gymnosperm = naked seed), and how in flowering plants seed was contained within the fruit (angiosperm – enclosed seed), then in 1831 he observed the cell nucleus (his term). In 1833 he was awarded one of the eight prestigious foreign memberships of the French Academie des Sciences. His colleagues regarded him as an authority on plant geography and was lauded by von Humboldt as ‘Botanicorum facile princeps‘. He always maintained contact with Australian botany, his last work being the appendix to Charles Sturt’s Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia. He kept a close control over the collections; much of his material was never published and the next major work on Australian plants, George Bentham’s Flora Australiensis 1-7 (London, 1863-78), was not commenced until after Brown had died.

It is the scale of Robert Brown’s collections and the descriptive output of Bentham and Mueller that stand out in the early history of Australian botany. He had established his scientific reputation by emphasising the experimental aspects of the study in addition to the descriptive approach of his day, championing a ‘natural’ system of plant classification to replace Linnaeus’s ‘sexual system’ (as Linnaeus had predicted, and long after the French) but making many astute and detailed observations on plant affinities and penetrating more deeply into plants with his microscope than many of his contemporaries.

Sadly his later years were clouded by disagreements between the botanical division of the British Museum and Kew Gardens. He resisted the tradition of patronage, dilettante botanists and the perception of botany as a leisurely hobby, doing this by successfully lobbying for state-paid botanists at the British Museum working hard to create a Royal Society with greater emphasis on ‘science’ and less emphasis on ‘gentlemen’. Consequently He clashed with the influential Lindley, author of the Gardener’s Chronicle and, since he was seen as usurping, to a degree, the status of Kew as the premier botanical institution, he also lost the support of a former admirer Director Joseph Hooker.

This was all part of the changing times as the religious hold on universities decreased, the professional scientist achieved respectability, and experimental science began to replace the old natural history.

Brown’s achievements in Australian botany would not be eclipsed until the arrival of Ferdinand Mueller in the 1850s.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Though Darwin himself was inoffensive his theory was an affront to the beliefs of his day. It seems likely that his lifelong ailments, and long procrastination in publishing his theory, were a manifestation of his dread of the inevitable reaction that greeted his life’s work – the papers dubbing him ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ and pointing out the arrogance of his challenge to natural theology’s intelligent design by a divine creator. Cartoonists had a field day lampooning the degrading implication that humans were related to monkeys.

The theory of evolution, descent with modification under natural selection, was in many ways the culmination of Enlightenment science: it created a new grand narrative because it placed humans within nature rather than separate from it and challenged the idea of human moral superiority within the universe. Like Aristotle he was a great theoretician who spent many hourse dissecting, observing and analysing the natural world itself. By about 1870 his new grand narrative, the reality of evolution, was broadly accepted but Darwin’s claim for natural selection as its engine remained controversial until the modern evolutionary synthesis of the period 1930-1950. No longer able to resist its explanatory power the various Christian churches moved from a literal interpretation of the Bible as its historical content now became metaphor and allegory. To this day not all are convinced, believing that the Christian story is essentially correct or that there is (or need not be) conflict between the two accounts of the nature of the world. Darwin had sent the internationally famous Melbourne botanist Ferdinand Mueller a personal copy of On the Origin of Species but Mueller died in 1896 still believing in the immutability of species.

For natural scientists the theory of evolution neatly combined into a unifying and coherent theory anomalous information that had steadily accumulated in biogeography, geology (notably its fossils, geological strata, and much-extended time-frame), embryology, and studies of artificial selection in the domestication of animals and plants. It placed humans within a branching evolutionary tree that dated back many thousands of years, and a geological time frame of eons that, less than 200 years ago from today, most people believed was no greater than about 6,000 years. Under the influence of Thomas Huxley natural theology was now challenged by what became known as ‘naturalism’ which asserted that only the natural world and natural laws exist: that there is no credible evidence for spiritual or supernatural forces.

Ferdinand Mueller (1815-1896)

Ferdinand Mueller was by today’s standards a workaholic, describing more than 2,000 Australian plant species and producing more than 2,000 publications. Many of his articles provided perceptive commentary on matters related to botany and horticulture – such as the role and function of botanic gardens, papers on economic botany and even conservation. In 1857 he produced a review of exploration in Australia which followed the theme of geographical research promoted by the popular and influential von Humboldt a fellow Prussian that he admired.[10]

The exploration was to continue throughout his life, both within and outside Victoria. In 1880 he told Alphonse DeCandolle he had “travelled on horseback and on foot 28,000 English miles [45,062 km]!”[11] this was in all states and through the continent’s major vegetation types, possibly a greater distance, and certainly more varied, than any other explorer in Australian history including Leichhardt, and a feat that will never be repeated.

Much of his time was spent battling government bureaucracy and, as an eccentric, he was mercilessly lampooned by both the public and press for his ever-present scarf (he had a dread of tuberculosis), love of meringues, and a steady flow of English neologisms spoken in a rich German accent.

Mueller was profusely decorated, becoming a baron in 1871. He was always a prominent and contributing figure in both academic and public life. With a well-established international reputation he was, without doubt, Australia’s most outstanding botanist and one of Australia’s greatest ever scientists.

Australian botany & science

Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) was part of a new world order in natural history, the era of reduced influence of patronage, the introduction of public museums, and the arrival of government scientists. He was the first major botanist to produce a substantial account of the Australian flora.

Ferdinand Mueller, though European was the most outstanding of Australian resident botanist explorers and academics. Born in European himself, bridged the divide between the era of European colonial influence and control on colonial administration, science and politics, to a colony with its own identity, institutions and scientists.

The reasons why this ‘select few’ were chosen requires some explanation. The following brief introductory account of the lives of these people sets the scene for more detailed accounts of their lives and a summary of their contribution to today’s plant world. It was these people who, with their friends and colleagues, laid the foundations of Enlightenment botany and horticulture – creating the neo-European Australian horticulture and botany that we know today.

Then & now

In this introductory article I will attempt to cover what I think are some of the more obvious general differences that we would notice if suddenly transported into the worlds of the people I have discussed.

Society & social hierarchy

Perhaps the most immediate and striking difference we would notice would be the ranking of people within society. From the earliest civilizations people have been organised into rigid strata of social status, a situation that would only change in England after the levelling influence of two twentieth century world wars combined with the erosion of the gentry and aristocracy and the greater role played by women in society and other factors.

Differences in social status would be marked in not only displays of wealth and property ownership but also in dress, language. Social position was in most cases immediately evident through not only the manner of speaking and general bearing. Higher status entailed the observance of many social protocols and procedures from formal introduction to an elaborate general etiquette and table manners. Your existence was determined by your place in society. The educated were markedly different from the ill-educated. Ferdinand Mueller, Director of the botanic gardens in Melbourne when writing to Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens in London would sign off, ’Your humblest and most dutiful and obedient servant.’ Social deference was expected and willingly given. Social hierarchy has been with us from the times of the earliest civilizations indeed its presence in primates and the ‘pecking orders’ that occur throughout the animal kingdom suggest that this may be hard-wired (see Moral psychology). In modern society social rank more than ever before, is based on merit, skill and ability rather than heredity and tradition. Today we no longer attend to thrones, bowing and curtseying, and making sure that our written names are preceded and succeeded by as many titles and letters as possible, and our clothes decorated with tier upon tier of medal. Mostly we are content with confusion over who should go through a door first and respect everyone equally. It is tempting to think that hierarchy, though possibly innate, occurred as a means of enforcing social order and that its minimisation today is an indication of social maturity.

The people discussed in this article demonstrate the direct lineage of social hierarchy from the Greeks and Romans to the Western tradition. Aristotle’s will contained instructions for the futures of at least twelve slaves. Joseph Banks on his voyage in HMS Endeavour took a staggering personal retinue of eight servants including musical entertainers, two Negroes, and greyhounds. This was a world of conspicuous wealth, privilege, and status. In the Greeks we see a male world emphasising honour, physical prowess, and military achievement. To fight to the death for your people was expected and to refuse would be cowardice. Great military heroes of the classical world were part and parcel of the classical education of the West’s administrative elite. Napoleon styled himself ‘Emperor’ and Queen Victoria was ‘Empress of India’. (pride,dignity)

Today we shun rather than respect excessive wealth and privilege: we can envisage warfare as an unpleasant necessity, but hardly an honour. For most of us a personal insult today can be ignored or managed. More and more we treat everyone with respect, not deference. Not so long ago an insult it would have meant pistols at dawn. Today we have learned to aquiesce rather than resist placing less emphasis on honour, pride and dignity.

Today we recognise that social hierarchies are man-made, not God-given or part of the natural order, and therefore distinctions and rankings between people are based more on practical necessity than the presumption of moral or social superiority or inferiority.

Today social hierarchy is tolerated, not blindly accepted or encouraged.

Science & technology

Science and technology have transformed our world. This is a commonplace: it is not that we need to remind ourselves that we can communicate with people on the other side of the world in a fraction of a second, and of the recent origin of cars, aeroplanes, computers, telephones, televisions, smartphones, X-ray machines, and gene technology … the difficulty is more in coming to terms with the fact that less than 200 years ago men could not view every rock on the world surface through Google Maps but instead set off on horseback to try and discover Australia’s vast inland sea. Transport and communication has brought everyone closer together and also made us more the same. Science is not necessarily the saviour of humanity but modern medicine, for example, speaks a practical, universal and acceptable language to all nations; the same cannot be said of religion.

Moral improvement

Man’s inhumanity to man has always troubled us. Perhaps the most stark reference to this comes to us through the Christian notion of the ‘fall’ and original sin. Here was a claim that humans were imperfect creatures. Perhaps an acknowledgement of human imperfection was at the heart of the desire to improve other races. Our greatest awareness of human fallibility probably comes through the desire to contain our capacity for violence. Thrown back into the world of yesteryear violence would never have been far away, throughout society and on a scale we can barely imagine today as those with socially-acknowledged power over others took advantage of that power. Beatings and beltings were part of both home and school life as discipline was meted out to both children and wives. Use the cane and other forms of corporal punishment by headmasters, teachers, and parents was socially sanctioned. Capital punishment was the norm. Bullying and cruelty was rife and frequently used against children and animals not to mention the deformed, weak, and different. We only need to remember the maritime traditions of pirates, mutineers, official keel-hauling and flogging with the cat-o-nine-tails to realize that we now live in a very different world.

Today, on average, we live longer, healthier, and better educated lives than ever before in human history. Though this is always precarious, we also live in a genuinely morally improved, less threatening, less violent and more secure world.

Education & knowledge

Historically the benefits of an education would have been immediately apparent. We forget that literacy was the fortune of the few. Most of us can trace ancestry back to people who signed marriage registers with a ‘mark’. Only a generation ago doctors, lawyers and teachers looked and sounded different from the general mass. Today, for the first time in history, it is remarkable that when I speak to someone in the street they may be the prime minister, a shopkeeper, a doctor, a headmaster (school principal), or a gardener – and I may be unable to distinguish between them. Communication of information and people across the world means that the Director of Kew Botanic Gardens in London is quite likely to come from colonial Australia (Joseph Banks would turn in his grave).

Another recent consequence of education has been the impact of accumulated knowledge. As individuals we have probably learned about the world in much the same way as our parents: we might characterise knowledge today as just different from knowledge of the past. But a more apt way of thinking about knowledge is as a literally ever-increasing and accelerating number of recorded facts and information about the world. At the time of Aristotle the number of disciplines studied by philosophers would have been in the tens. Proliferation of disciplines has followed until today there are thousands and growing fast. This is truly astounding. The English Wikipedia alone contains 4,650,000 articles and dwarfs the work of encyclopaedists like Classical era Pliny, Enlightenment era Diderot, and the massive works of the twentieth century like Encyclopaedia Britannica. Knowledge, once the province of an elite group of people entered only through the careful cultivation of connections has now become, in principle, much more democratic.

Drowning in torrents of information has changed our world in serious ways. It is now impossible to have an in-depth knowledge of a wide range of disciplines so nobody can claim wide-ranging academic authority; as a corollary our times are characterised by guarded academic ‘silos’ and a resistance to multi-disciplinary studies; training becoming rapidly specialised; a tendency for universities to be based much more around fund-raising, vocational training, and commercial sponsorship than former ideals of understanding and researching our world. The presumption seems to be that we now understand the world, we just need to ‘run’ it more efficiently?

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Together these individuals convey to us something of the European and British heritage as it emerged ultimately from the Mesopotamian core, and especially as it relates to a colonial Neo-europe like Australia.

As pointed out at the start of this article, influences on the path of history are many and interwoven in complex ways. However, we can draw strong links between these people and the following: the origin and character of science and especially biology and botany. The first confluence of ideas that influenced the subsequent development of universities and botanic gardens as they are today.

Collectively they indicate how closely the rich and powerful of Europe were connected, how they would both compete with and emulate one-another in their ideas, aspirations, pastimes and pleasures.

Banks academic institution and finance house etc.

In 1690 there were 15 nurseries in London, in 1760 there were 30, then ???? over ?200 (see Wulf).
Exchange of natural products and resources on a world scale – start of a global economy.

Following the ancient Greeks human interest in plants lapsed back into the old medicinal and utilitarian preoccupations for well over a millennium until the re-awakening of interest in the classical world that took place in Renaissance Italy. Here were the first great formal gardens constructed by the Medici and the equally formal medicinal gardens that are generally taken as the early modern starting point for botanical gardens, the first dissociation of botany from medicine being marked by the first appointment of Professors of Botany to the medical faculties of universities which generally included the management of an educational geometrically-divided formal medicinal garden. The first of these gardens were at Pisa, Padua and Bologna.

With the new printed Herbals plant description improved and as European colonial expansion began and more and more plants flooded into Europe’s botanic gardens descriptive botany became desperate for someone who could synthesize and organize the plant kingdom in a way that would meet general approval. Linnaeus was that person.

Linnaeus’s system of classification followed the principles of Aristotelian logic which was taught in secondary schools all over Europe. Arranging things into classes was called classification, and the subsequent segregation of these classes was then called logical division. The group to be divided was the ‘genus’ and the parts into which it was divided were the ‘species’. ‘Genus’ and ‘species’ were therefore terms from Aristotelian logic acquiring their specialized biological usage from Linnaeus’s predecessors, in particular John Ray and Tournefort. The binomial expresses both resemblance and difference at the same time: resemblance and relationship through the generic name — difference and distinctness through the specific epithet (by convention the second word in a binomial is the ‘specific epithet’, the combination of genus and species being called the ‘species name’).

The strength of the Linnaean system was that it provided a standardised, simple, logical and transparent method for classifying, naming, describing and cataloguing organisms that was desperately needed at this time when specimens were flooding into Europe from its colonies around the world. Its success depended on its general acceptance and its utility was (eventually) acknowledged and admired by virtually the entire scientific community with the exception of a few doggedly resistant French, German and English botanists and the stubborn Englishman Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Linnaeus had spent a month in England in 1736 trying to convince the skeptical English but without much success, although his abilities were evident to a range of scientists including Sir Hans Sloane and Johann Dillenius, not to mention the influential merchants Peter Collinson and John Ellis.[18] Joseph Banks was a keen supporter of his ‘system’.

Botanical historian Alan Morton, though praising Linnaeus’s contribution to classification and nomenclature, draws attention to its theoretical limitations:

Linnaeus was the master of the botany of his time, and his influence on the development of botanical science powerful and lasting … his work demonstrated the success of his improved methods of description, diagnosis and nomenclature, and made detailed systematic observation the guide and criterion in taxonomy. … In his theoretical ideas, on the contrary, Linnaeus was a man of the past who never escaped from the restricting circle of idealist-essentialist thought in which his early high school training had confined him. This was the background to the contradictory statements in the Philosophia, to his narrow view of botany, his blindness to the advances in plant physiology and anatomy, [and] his unquestioning acceptance of special creation.

Though a deeply religious and conservative man, his scientific skepticism was prepared to challenge the wisdom of his day, the following quote hinting at the theory of evolution and some conflict between his scientific and religious beliefs, as he was convinced of the divine special creation of immutable species:

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