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South Australia


South Australia[1] after settlement in 1836 grew quite rapidly, becoming a crown colony in 1842: it was never settled by convicts. By 1850 the population numbered about 38,000 people. Very quickly the Adelaide Plains were cleared of vegetation, coastal swamps were drained and the trees in the Lofties cleared to the extent that flash flooding became a concern.[2]


Basedow, Calvert, Elder, Horn, Madigan, Tietkins

Early colonial (1836-1859)

James Backhouse, Joseph Whittaker

There are few early records of the vegetation except for accounts by nurseryman and Quaker missionary James Backhouse who collected in all colonies including Norfolk Island between 1832 and 1838 also writing on botany, the Aborigines and other matters before visiting Mauritius and South Africa from 1838 to 1841. In South Australia collecting on the River Torrens to Enfield, the Lofties and coast around Port Adelaide. Then from 1839-1840 Derbyshire gardener Joseph Whittaker collected over 300 different kinds of plants from Mount Barker, Mt Lofty Ranges, Port Adelaide, Holdfast Bay and Encounter Bay this collection being purchased by Sir William Hooker.

John Bailey

John Bailey, whose father was a nursery proprietor and seed merchant in Hackney, London, became the first Colonial Botanist for the colony in 1839 and was also charged with supervising the establishment of the Adelaide Botanic garden, sending plants and seed to the renowned London nursery Conrad Loddiges and Sons (where he may have once worked) which dealt in South African bulbs and New Holland plants but he left no publications or record of any collections in the Adelaide area and with uncertain finances his official position only lasted until 1841, the site being used mostly for providing fresh produce. Sadly even Mueller during his initial five-year stay in the colony from 1847-1852, although a prolific collector, wrote no account of the plains flora.

Hans Behr

The early German influence in South Australia was strong. Hans Behr (Behria and about 40 species) a German medico-naturalist visited South Australia twice, in 1844-1845 and 1848-1849 making collections from the Light, Murray and Onkaparinga rivers also Gawler, and the Barossa and Flinders Ranges, his collections being returned to Germany for description by eminent German botanists and eventually returned to Australia in the “Sonder Collection” purchased by the National Herbarium of Melbourne. The first recorded collection of a land plant by Ferdinand Mueller was of Helichrysum leucopsidum, the first of many thousand specimens of land plants, and during his 5-year stay in the Colony his collections ranged over most of the state including a trip alone to the poorly known central Flinders Ranges in 1851. His collections were returned to Europe to be described in England by John Lindley and in Germany by a cohort of leading botanists. Important amateur collectors encouraged by Mueller in South Australia included Charles Stuart (species of Acacia, Baeckea, Grevillea and others), [put in?] Heinrich Heuzenroeder, Edmund Sealey and Bannier, and other collections of this time included Ludwig Schulzen (Lasiopetalum schulzenii), William Hillebrand, Ferdinand Osswald, Johann Blandowski (Helichrysum blandowskianum).

Captain Samuel White was an avid collector in outback South Australia and the interior in what is now the NT his collections assisting with the Black’s later Flora of the state.

Johann Tepper & Ralph Tate

Prussian Johann Tepper collected widely from around the state but was an entomologist at the Adelaide Museum from 1888-1911. Ralph Tate was first Professor of Natural History at the University of Adelaide extending collections into the interior, he was “probably the greatest botanist to come to South Australia since the Mueller period”.[3] After Mueller and Tepper the most extensive collections in South Australia were those of Annie Richards from 1873-1894, including many lichens. Mueller’s sister Clara Wehl, and her daughter Louisa, sent many plants to him from Lake Bonney and Mt Gambier over the period 1881 to 1887. Over a period of six years from 1893 to 1899 Jessie Hussey sent over 2000 plants to Mueller from the Port Elliot district including many marine algae.

Early to mid 20th century

John Black

Richard Rogers, a lecturer in forensic medicine at the University of Adelaide was an orchid specialist who described many new species and publications on the family.

When Scotsman John Black[4] arrived in Adelaide age 22 it was with a background as a banker in London and Edinburgh. In his new home he farmed at Port Pirie for five years before becoming a journalist with the Adelaide newspapers Register and Advertiser and also reported for Hansard. Then, in 1902, after the death of his mother and on receipt of her legacy he retired early to dedicate time to botany. Among his initial publications was the landmark The Naturalised Flora of South Australia in 1909, the first book on the topic in Australia. In 1914 he received a further legacy from his sister Helen, who had been married to Richard D’Oyley Carte, well known for the production of Gilbert and Sullivan Operas at the Savoy Theatre in London. Richard had employed her as a secretary in 1877, the year John left for Australia. Helen D’Oyly Carte had immersed herself in the business affairs of her husband and, ‘while working as an equal, came to surpass him in her grasp of detail, organisational ability, diplomacy and acumen’.[5] In 1920 Black was requested to produce a Flora of South Australia, the first such compendium since that of Schomburgh and Tate and, at the age of 65 he started work. The project was completed in four parts between 1922 and 1929 with an updated second edition from 1943 to 1952 the last part completed by Enid Robertson in 1957. His substantial herbarium was bequeathed to the University of Adelaide and then placed on permanent loan to the Adelaide Herbarium in 1954, it includes specimens from many of the early collectors in South Australia.

The period between the two world wars saw ecological work intensify, an eventuation of great benefit as many of the areas covered by these early collections were soon to be cleared. Outstanding among the ecologists was Theodore Osborn Professor of Botany at the University of Adelaide (later Sydney and Oxford Universities) and Joseph Wood, from the same Botany Department.

Other collectors and keen botanists included Ernest Ising, describing more than 50 new species and specializing in the Chenopodiaceae. John Clelland, Professor of Pathology contributed not only botanical collections but papers on a range of natural history topics including notes on a number of “botanical traverses by motor car”. While Arthur Lucas and Florence Perrin published the much-needed “Seaweeds of South Australia” in two parts, the first in 1936 and the second (posthumously) in 1947, only being superseded as late as 1984 Flora of Australia).


The first herbarium assembled in South Australia by Richard Schomburgk, Director of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens from 1865 to 1890, was donated to the University of Adelaide in the 1930s to join collections of Tate, Tepper and Black, and his books were donated to the Public Library in 1932. At the University Botany Department collections were further enlarged and combined with those of the Waite Institute under Constance Eardley, Curator from 1933 to 1949. In 1953 a State Herbarium was established at Adelaide Botanic garden under the Directorship of Noel Lothian. Hansjoerg Eichler was appointed the first permanent Keeper and in 1955 the University collections were sent there on permanent loan enlarged again in 1957 by specimens from the South Australian Museum. Eichler expanded the staff, building collecting base and library being succeeded as Chief Botanist by John Jessup in 1975. In 1989 phycologist Bryan Womersley retired, the algal herbarium of about 80,000 specimens being also transferred to the State Herbarium. By 1990 the specimens numbered about 700,000.[6] Substantial collections also include over 10,000 specimens of Ray Alcock a weed officer based on the Eyre Peninsula.

In 2013 State Herbarium botanist Peter Lang calculated the numbers of vascular plants growing in the wild in South Australia: 4,940 taxa (= species, subspecies & varieties) of which 1,267 (25.6%) are naturalised alien plants (weeds) while a further 232 taxa (4.7%) are questionably naturalised i.e. which have escaped from cultivation but it is not known if the wild populations will persist. Including questionably naturalised taxa the total number of aliens is 1,499 (30.3%), about one third of plants found in the State.

Waite Agricultural Institute

In the early 1930s the Waite Agricultural Institute was established under the aegis of the University of Adelaide – whose emphasis was on agricultural and weedy plants – its longer-serving Curators being Constance Eardley (1933-49) (also a lecturer in taxonomy at the University and publisher) and David Symon (1957-1985), the collections now being housed in the State Herbarium. Important collections were those of Albert Morris from the Broken Hill region and Symon’s Australia-wide collections. When the Waite Institute was closed down in 1985 the collections passed to the State Herbarium.

Publications and journal

Journalist John Black retired early, taking up botany as a hobby and at the age of 65 undertook the writing of a Flora of South Australia which was published in four volumes between 1922 and 1929. This followed the former A Handbook of the Flora of Extratropical South Australia, 1889 by Ralph Tate. Like Mueller, Black inspired others to join in his botanical enterprise and he had many helpers.[7] Black’s work was to remain the standard botanical reference in South Australia for more than 50 years and Black continued working on its improvement until his death in 1951 aged 97.[8] A Supplement was produced by Eichler in 1965 and a substantial multi-author re-write was carried out for a four-volume fourth edition in 1986. A census of the State’s plants was published in 1993 as A List of the Vascular Plants of South Australia, Edition IV. Other major contributions include the Flora of Central Australia (1981) and in 1983 the beautifully produced Flowering Plants in Australia by Brian Morley and Helmut Toelken. The State Herbarium’s taxonomic work is published in the Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens dating from 1976.

At the instigation of Noel Lothian between 1953 and 1955 a State Herbarium was built in the Adelaide Botanical Garden with Hansjoerg Eichler appointed the first Keeper in 1955.

Recent and contemporary botanists

Bill Barker (Hakea, Scrophulariaceae, Stackhousiaceae), Robyn Barker (Acanthaceae, Hakea, Malvaceae, Zygophyllaceae), Bob Chinnock (ferns, Myoporaceae), John Conran (Commelinaceae, Malvaceae), Hansjoerg Eichler (Apiaceae, Ranunculaceae, Zygophyllaceae), Laurie Haegi (Hakea, Solanaceae), A.A. Munir (Verbenaceae),Tony Orchard (Acaena, Haloragaceae), David Symon (Cassia, Solanum, Solanaceae), Helmut Toelken (Crassulaceae, Hibbertia, Kunzea), Paul Wilson (Rutaceae), Bryan Womersley (marine algae).

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