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This article presents an ornamental plant perspective of cultivated plant globalization and is best read in conjuction with the other articles in this section. Botanical exploration in Australia is covered in detail in a series of articles about each individual state including the Australian protectorates.

Plant hunters

The popular understanding of plant hunting relates to the romanticization of 18th and 19th century intrepid European plant collectors, mostly those of the British Empire, who were collecting botanical specimens for herbaria accumulating dried plants for scientific research, including the ornamental plants so popular with the intelligentsia and so desirable for the enhancement of gardens of the wealthy.

The horticultural literature, so dominated by writers, commentators, and enthusiastic gardeners from the United Kingdom, is inclined to present plant hunting as a narrative of garden treasures of the world finding their way into the gardens of the British Isles. With the benefit of hindsight we can now view this activity from a broader global perspective, as an international exchange of plants, not just those of gardens but plants of agriculture and its crops, herbs, spices, and the trees of plantation forestry. 

Historically, plants were novelties with untold commercial potential. Experience with spices taught that they were luxuries on a par with gold and silver. As luxuries their discovery and exploitation inspired adventurers, pioneers, and merchants who would open up the world and shape the future. Plant trophies constitute their own chapter of history.

Cultivated plant globalization

Today the exchange of plants between nations has to pass through stringent biosecurity regulations. It is all too easy for wealthy nations to plunder and profit from the genetic diversity of other nations, what became known through the 1970s and 80s as genetic piracy an issue that was addressed through the United Nations Convention on biodiversity. But before long it was noticed that unwanted plants would often arrive with the more desirable ones, and even some of the more attractive ones would escape from gardens to make themselves at home in the wild.

This has changed our outlook. We can now look back at this phase of human history as a period of Cultivated plant globalization in an Age of Plants that has had both benefits and costs. This was an unplanned, unregulated and socially advantageous redistribution of the world’s botanical bounty but with considerable detriment to the natural environment.

be found thriving even of course plant products have proved useful to all peoples and throughout history so a caution on perspective is required. Exchange is a two-way process and this is easy to forget.

Of the major groups of cultivated plants (cereals, horticultural crops, forestry, ornamental horticulture) the form of cultivated plant globalization that has the greatest environmental impact has been by land management for food. This began with the use of fire by nomads to drive out game and encourage the growth of tender new leafy shoots. Then around 10,000 years ago came the agriculture of the Neolithic Revolution moving out of centres of domestication into the surrounding lands. Around 5000 years ago came walled urban centres with masonry buildings that today we would refer to as cities.

Cities were culturally-derived environments that accommodated thousands of people that required elaborate methods of government and social organization. The scale of their activity facilitated the development of powerful new technology like huge ocean-going ships and well-equipped and trained armies. The layout of these ancient cities, the functional areas for administration, entertainment, business, thoroughfares, cemeteries and burial grounds has remained the same to the present day. It was around this time that, for the first time, we encounter public spaces used as what we would now refer to as parks and gardens.

The desire to carefully design and decorate these spaces was there from the start but would gather momentum during the Age of Discovery when plants were brought back from foreign lands – a trickle at first, but gathering momentum as we pass from the Renaissance to the 20th century.

Plant hunting was a Western diversion following the general pattern of colonial expansion and economic globalization that took place between about 1600 and 1940, the scientific concerns of the Enlightenment, and a determination to take maximum economic advantage of the world’s plant resources. By the onset of the second world war the mission to obtain plants of value had been achieved, the world was more familiar, and cultural interest in the project was on the wane. Some plant exploration would continue but without the spirit of adventure into the unknown that had gone on before.

In retrospect it would seem inevitable that all peoples would wish to share these resources and that this would be accompanied by a globalization of those considered of greatest value. Cultural history would decide which countries would be the vanguard in this process and many pages have been written in about the way in which it was done.

We are yet to assemble meaningful statistics on the numbers of plants involved in this phase of plant introduction to the west.

This account is intended to give an overview and insight into the backgrounds of the people involved, the countries they came from, their objectives and circumstances, approximations of plant numbers involved, and issues relating to cultivated plant geography and globalization. Author Ann Lindsay, for example, claims that ‘A handful of Scots … have hunted out and introduced into the West more plants from around the world than, say, all the other European nations combined[1] as they ‘… brought back hundreds upon hundreds of plants that changed our gardens and commercial forestry enterprises forever. They changed our landscape as surely as industrial giants changed our built landscape …’[2] and she lists in this Scottish Hall of Fame:

Geographic periods of European plant introduction

Eminent botanist and botanical historian William Stearn, building on the work of Gregor Kraus,[8] has observed that plant introduction to European botanic gardens (and thence to the wider community) can be divided into six historical phases loosely corresponding to European cultural periods and garden styles, and the European imperial colonial geographic expansion (most notably that of the British empire):

to 1560 – European period (Middle Ages & Renaissance)
1560-1620 – Near East period, especially bulbous plants (Renaissance)
1620-1686 – Canadian and Virginian herbaceous plants period (Baroque)
1687-1772 – Cape of South Africa period (Rococo)
1687-1772 – Period of North American trees and shrubs (Enlightenment & English Landscape Style)
1772-1820 – Period of Australian plants (Imperialism)

Stearn then added a further three phases dating after Australian settlement:

1820-1900 – Period of tropical glasshouse plants and hardy plants from Japan and North America
1900-1930 – Period of west Chinese plants
1930 onwards – Period of intensive breeding and selection in the West but spreading to the East

To this can be added a further technological (not geographic) phase influencing global plant geography and resulting from advanced biotechnology:

1990 onwards – Genetic engineering

The following is an adaptation of the lists of horticultural pioneers presented in Coates’s Plant Hunters (1969) (compulsory reading for all those interested in plant history; it includes a bibliography of plant travelogues) up to the beginning of the 20th century. Despite what was said earlier, botanists will recognise many of these surnames commemorated in plant Latin epithets. Wikipedia is now an excellent source of biographical information.

There was a revival of Enlightenment collectomania in the 19th century as a wider pubic was drawn into the collection of ferns, shells, insects, birds eggs, and so on.

By the mid 19th century European inland exploration of much of the globe had taken place and railway lines, roads, steamships were opening up the dark unknown recesses of the world commonplace. Scientific work was now being carried out by local scientists not temporary visitors taking their specimens away to Europe so the era of the professional plant hunter was drawing to a close.


Serious ornamental plant collection began in the Renaissance with early interest in the rediscovery of the exotic plants of antiquity and the classical world, essentially the 700 plants listed in the Materia Medica of Dioscorides. Up to about the late 16th century the men with this mission were physicians versed in medicinal plants before the interest became more botanical following the first appointment of botany professors in the universities of Italy in the mid- 16th century up to the mid- 18th century when Linnaeus’s methods for plant naming, description, classification, and cataloguing became accepted across Europe.

Maritime botany

Oceanic travel charted the boundaries of the continents, forging potential maritime trade routes on the way. This was coastal botany as practiced first during the Age of Discovery and Exploration that lasted from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, botany gathering momentum and culminating with the European Enlightenment voyages of scientific exploration which lasted from about 1770 to 1880. Teams of international plant prospectors began with Linnaeus’s ten disciples but including those trained by Joseph Banks at London’s Kew under the inspiration of the avid plant collector Phillip Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden, André Thouin at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and King Frederick at the Palace of Schönbrunn in Vienna. As the Republic of Letters gathered momentum more and more seed was exchanged by mail, notably through the botanic gardens international seed exchange.

Inland botany

Though plant hunting persisted into the 20th century I have only considered the period up to around 1850, by which time most colonies had resident populations.

Hunting schools

There are several important points relating to the introduction of ornamental plants. Firstly, though the initial date of introduction is of interest it is likely that the introduction would have occurred at some later time. And, also, that it may not have been the initial introduction that accounts for the later dispersal of the plant which could just have well have been the result of later introductions. But it is the hardship and adventure of introduction that excites our attention.

Plant hunters were the active ingredients of a mix that often involved much more influential collectors. It was the collectors at home that were pulling the strings. A number of people stannd out. For example, Philip Miller though not a travelling plant hunter was a prodigious accumulator. Through his own collection of plants at the Chelsea Physic Garden and his influence on Joseph Banks, he was a major initiator and driver of the cult of plant collection in Enlightenment Britain. Between 1730 and 1770 he increased the number of species in the Chelsea garden from about 1,000 to 5,000.[3] The focus of plant collection then shifted to Kew, William Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis of 1789 constituting an inventory of most of the plants then in cultivation in England totalling about 5,500.[4] This was an invaluable horticultural record that included Linnaean Latin diagnoses (much of it was written by botanists Solander, Dryander and Brown) and annotated with dates of introduction etc. It included ‘… almost all the species then cultivated in England’ (Stearn 1961, pp. cvii-cviii). The 1813 edition of Hortus Kewensis had swelled to five volumes and over 11,000 species including about 300 from Australia indicating the further impact of Banks’s acquisitiveness (Turrill 1959, pp. 20-21, 23-24; Drayton 2000, p. 125). Banks’s collectors introduced some 7000 species into cultivation during the reign of George III (OCAG p. 71). From this time on, totalling the number of species in cultivation in England becomes difficult to estimate as collections become more diffuse. Loose present-day estimates can be made from the RHS Plant Finder.

Linnaeus’s disciples

Carl Linnaeus, was a fanatical collector as well as taxonomist, sending out at least 17 ‘disciples’[6] into Europe, the Americas, Africa, China, and Oceania.

Christopher Tärnström, China (1746); Pehr Kalm, North America (1747–51); Fredric Hasselquist, Izmir, Egypt etc. (1749–52); Olof Torén, Surat and Guangzhou (1750); Pehr Osbeck, China (1750–52); Pehr Löfling, Spain and Venezuela (1751–56); Daniel Rolander, Suriname (1755); Anton Rolandsson Martin, Spitsbergen (1758); Carl Fredrik Adler, East Indies, China and Java (c. 1761); Pehr Forsskål, Egypt and Yemen (1761–63); Göran Rothman, Tunisia and Libya (1773–76); Johan Peter Falk, Russia (1768–74); Daniel Solander, Australia etc. (1768–71) and Iceland (1772); Anders Sparrman, China (1765–67), South Africa (1771–72 and 1775) Oceania etc. (1772) Senegal (1787); Carl Peter Thunberg, South Africa, Japan etc. (1770–79); Andreas Berlin, Guinea (1773); Adam Afzelius, Sierra Leone (1792–96).

Linnaeus’s tradition of botanical exploration would be emulated by the Enlightenment’s leading powers, France and England.

Scottish collectors

Philip Miller (1691-1771), William Forsyth (1737-1804), William Aiton (1731-1793), Francis Masson (1741-1805), William Wright (1735-1810), Peter Good (?-1803), John Fraser (1750-1811), Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), George Don (1798-1856), David Douglas (1790-1834), Thomas Drummond (1793-1835), John Jeffrey (1826-1854), David Lyall (1817-1895), Thomas Thomson (1817-1878) and Robert Fortune (1813-1880).

Following the departure of Roman garrisons, gardening in England was virtually unknown. The Germanic Anglo-Saxons did not have the time or interest to restore or emulate Roman gardens, or to create their own. Some Romanesque order arrived with the monastic gardens spawned by Charlemagne’s (742-814 CE) Capitulare de Villis but, beyond the vegetables and orchards, the emphasis was on medicinal, aromatic, and culinary herbs. Anglo-Saxon words associated with plants emphasise their utility, not beauty. The Normans then brought castles, abbeys and more monasteries. Here Latin was spoken and the monk in charge of the orchards, vineyards, vegetables, and herbs was called a hortulanus or gardinarius while the plot of large estates used for similar purposes was sometimes called a kitchen garden. Flowers were occasionally used in the Church to evoke Eden or in courtyards. Suggestions of floral courtly gardens arrived from France with the gardeners of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen to Henry II (1133-1189), followed by the idea of a ‘pleasure garden’ and Norman influences derived from the Moorish Islamic gardens of Andalusia and Granada (Uglow 2005, p.39). Excavations of medieval cottage gardens of the 14th to 15th centuries indicate a few exotics from continent, some brought back from the Crusades. But gardening was becoming more institutionalized with the formation of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners (1345), the first commercial nurseries known as ‘impyards’, and the first gardening book in English The Feate of Gardening by Jon Gardyner (c. 1440) – although it was practical fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs that held most attention. Tudor and Elizabethan royal gardens of the 15th and 16th centuries imported the art of formal geometric design from the continent, but with little addition to the plant palette.

By the early modern period it was mostly the Atlantic seaboard countries of north-west Europe that had gained prosperity and influence by means of Atlantic trade, imposing their culture on the world, and importing plants in quantity. This phase of history is therefore interpreted from their perspective – the perspective of the rich and powerful: but also the countries that were the most internationally active botanically. By the end of the 16th century some of the foundations of modern plant science and horticulture had been laid: text books (printed herbals), the selection of garden variants, herbaria, botanic gardens, (but not in Britain), styled gardens of royalty and the wealthy social elite employing head gardeners and labourers, plant nurseries.

This, then is the background of plant introduction to the British Isles which can, for convenience, be divided into four historical phases prior to the early modern period: the cereals of the Neolithic (c. 4000-2000 BCE), mostly medicinal plants and culinary herbs of the Romans (45 BC-401 CE) about 70 species including some roses, plants introduced by the Anglo-Saxons (c. 500-1066) including those of the Crusades, and introduction by the Normans (1066-1455).

wo important social changes then take place between the 14th and 16th centuries – the Age of Discovery (when Europeans sail out to explore and chart the continents of the world) and a revival of classical learning called the Renaissance at the end of which came a Scientific Revolution that continued into the late 18th century as an Age of Enlightenment. This was a period when the number of plant introductions rapidly increased along with their description, and classification.

Through much of the 17th century many of the early modern botanic gardens were in a state of transition from Hortus medicus to Hortus botanicus as interest shifted from medicinal plants and physic gardens to plant diversity, its nomenclature and classification, and the fascination of plants introduced from foreign lands. In 1600 the population of England was 4.2million and London about 200,000.

At first the effect on the land of these non-native introduced ornamental plants was negligible: they were few in both number and kind, and they occupied little space. But before long their variety greatly outranked that of the cereals, horticultural crops, herbs and spices that preceded them. (numbers) Gardening, with its fashions in garden styles and plants, became progressively more socially inclusive as a recreational past-time. From antiquity it had been a diversion of royalty and the wealthy elite but during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as royal and aristocratic wealth and influenced decreased, so gardening became more and more the activity of everyman supported by increasing numbers of commercial plant nurseries, travelogues describing the plant wonders from distant lands as well as garden literature, and links to botanical science. Botanic gardens were becoming more ‘public’ in both their ownership and role.

It was ornamental horticulture that, at the last minute, added the botanical variety to the massive human redistribution of natural vegetation that had occurred since the Palaeolithic. This second phase of human influence on plant geography began with European maritime exploration, first by adventurers and pirates but then from merchantmen and ships on government business. Plants at this time warranted dedicated collectors – sometimes botanists wishing to advance science by naming, classifying, and describing the world’s vegetation, and sometimes gardeners hunting for treasures that could decorate the nurseries and gardens of Europe, often they shared their duties and goals.

The hunters

The men (it was almost exclusively men who did the plant hunting: women, in classical style, either managed the garden estates where the plants would first appear or, if of more socially lowly order, were bound to the house in other ways) were a mixed bunch: naturalists, surgeons, assorted clerics and missionaries, consular officials, plant bounty hunters, employees of governments, botanic gardens, horticultural societies and prominent nurseries, and intrepid adventurers and explorers. Money was also to be made from the publication of their adventures.

Because botanists were academics familiar with the written word and elevated in social status, we tend to hear more of their achievements and exploits than we do of the lowly gardeners. The naming of a plant new to science is followed by the name of the botanist who described it, not the name of the gardener who risked life and limb to collect it.

Jardin des Plantes collectors

Joseph Martin (fl.1788–1826) a gardener who worked at the Jardin du Roi in Paris sent by Thouin to collect on the Ile de France, Madagascar, Cape and Caribbean

Jean Nicolas Collignon (1762–?1788) French gardener on the French La Pérouse expedition to the South Seas, 1785–1788, on the flagship Boussole

Pierre-Paul Saunier (1751–1818) a French gardener who, in 1785, accompanied the botanist André Michaux to North America where he assisted in the establishment of a garden for the French crown

Félix Delahaye (1767–1829) a French gardener who served on the Bruni d’Entrecasteaux expedition (1791–93) which was sent by the French National Assembly to search for the missing explorer La Perouse

Anselme Riedlé (1775–1801) A French gardener on Nicolas Baudin‘s scientific expedition (1800–1804) in the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste to chart the coast of New Holland (Australia), make scientific observations and collect natural history specimens. He was Head Gardener in a team of five gardeners on this expedition

Antoine Sautier (?–1801) an Assistant Gardener who served on Nicolas Baudin’s scientific expedition (1800–1804) in the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste to chart the coast of New Holland (Australia), make scientific observations and collect natural history specimens. He was a member of a team of five gardeners that served under Head Gardener Anselme Riedlé. He died at sea on 15 November 1801.

Antoine Guichenot (fl. 1801–1817) a French Assistant Gardener who served on Nicolas Baudin’s scientific expedition (1800–1804) in the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste to chart the coast of New Holland (Australia), make scientific observations and collect natural history specimens. He was a member of a team of five gardeners that served under Head Gardener Anselme Riedlé. He survived to serve on the 1817 voyage under Louis de Freycinet).

François Cagnet a French Assistant Gardener who served on Nicolas Baudin’s scientific expedition (1800–1804) in the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste to chart the coast of New Holland (Australia), make scientific observations and collect natural history specimens. He was a member of a team of five gardeners that served under Head Gardener Anselme Riedlé but became ill and abandoned his ship when he landed at the Ile de France. Gardener Merlot also disembarked at the Ile de France.[7]

George Samuel Perrottet (1793–1870) was a Swiss-born French botanist and horticulturalist from the Jardin des Plantes. In 1819-21 he was employed as a naturalist gardener on an expedition commanded by Naval Captain Pierre Henri Philibert. Perottet’s duties on the journey involved collecting plants in Réunion, Java, and the Philippines for re-plantation and cultivation in Guyane.

Kew collectors

Banks’s collectors are too numerous to mention in detail, the best known are:

Francis Masson (1741–1805) (see above) Kew Gardens’ first plant hunter; sent from Kew by the newly appointed Sir Joseph Banks (who had declined the offer to join the expedition due to disagreements about his requirements) in 1772 on James Cook‘s second circumnavigation of the globe in HMS Resolution, but leaving the ship at the Cape in October and remaining until 1775. He completed three major expeditions (the second with Linnaeus’s disciple Carl Thunberg who was working for the Dutch East India Company). In 1776 he went to Madeira, Canary Islands, the Azores and the Antilles. In 1783 he collected plants in Portugal and in January 1786 returned to South Africa, remaining until March 1795. For seven years, from 1797, he was collecting in North America. Altogether he introduced about 1000 species new to the British Isles. A specimen of the cycad Encephalartos altensteinii returned to Kew from South Africa in 1775 can be viewed in the Kew collections.

Anthony Pantolean Hove was a Polish-born gardener and plant collector sent to Gujerat, India in April 1787, officially to collect plants for Kew but unofficially to collect seed of cotton. He was sent from Kew Gardens to Maratha territories in northern India to secretly obtain cotton plants which could then be distributed to plantations under British control. Kew used colonial gardens to cultivate coffee, oranges, bananas, pineapples, almonds, cochineal cactus, chaulmoogra, ipecacuanha, cinchona and mahogany. Apart from Botany Bay the British Government had considered Das Voltas on the Namib coast of SW Africa as the possible site for a penal colony. In January 1786 Hove was included as botanist in a secret Admiralty survey, disguised as an inspection of forts and settlements, in HMS Nautilus under the command of Thomas Boulden Thompson. He is commemorated in the Australian genus Hovea. Jill Kinahan; ‘The impenetrable shield: HMS Nautilus and the Namib coast in the late eighteenth century’, in Cimbebasia 12: 23-61, 1990.

Robert Cross see

HMS Guardian which was sent to the British of New South Wales in New Holland (Australia) in 1789, about one year after the First Fleet. Plants were supplied by Hugh Ronalds, a nurseryman in Brentford.[8]

Henry James Murton (1853-1882)  who had joined Kew as a gardener in 1873 became Superintendent of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1875 to 1880

Richard Oldham (1837-1864) was RBG Kew’s last full-time botanical collector. Appointed a Gardener at Kew in 1859 he collected in Eastern Asia in 1861, and in Khasia Hills, India, 1861-62. He died at Amoy, China on 13 November 1864.[12]

Collectors sent to Australia included George Caley (1770–1829) who was an English botanist, horticulturist and explorer sent in 1799 (arriving at Port Jackson in April 1800) by Banks on a salary of 15 shillings a week, to collect plants and seed for Banks and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; William Baxter (died c. 1836) was an English gardener who collected in Australia on behalf of English nurserymen and private individuals. Surgeon collectors included John White, Denis Considen, and Archibald Menzies. Seed collectors were paid and profiteering was practiced in both animal and plants.(Finney, 1984)

Resident collectors included David Burton and George Caley, while among the collectors on voyages there was Archibald Menzies of Vancouver’s voyage and David Nelson on Cook’s third expedition and Bligh’s breadfruit voyage. Caley claimed that king took credit for all of his collections (Barker & Barker p. 53). he is known to have also supplied seed to Colvill. Then there was Peter Good the gardener assistant to Robert Brown on the Flinders‘s HMS Investigator who collected much of the seed grown for public display at Kew. Banks also supported market gardener George Suttor. William Paterson arrived in Australia in 1791 and collected for Banks, Lee & Kennedy, and Colvill, compiling a rudimentary account of the Norfolk Island flora before returning to England in 1797. The last of Banks’s appointments to Australia was King’s Botanist Allan Cunningham (1791-1839), former assistant to William Aiton, sent out in 1814 and arriving in Australia in 1816. He had been sent out with James Bowie, the two men collecting plants in Brazil for two years before separating, Bowie travelling to the Cape where he worked for seven years. Cunningham can be described as the leading botanist in Australia in the first half of the 19th century following in the steps of the great Robert Brown. For 17 years Cunningham collected, an explored, in inland NSW, Qld, coatal eastern, northern, NW and SW Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Timor, Mauritius and Norfolk Island.[7] His collections introduced hundreds of new species to cultivation in England, his dried collections now held in at least 26 institutions around the world.[7] He to posterity the diaries demanded by Kew, and a prodicious correspondence.[7]

Catalogues of Kew’s living collections increase from about 600 species in 1769 to about 11,000 in 1813 indicating the introduction of approximately 10,500 species under Banks’s influence (Turrill 1959, pp. 20-21, 23-24; Drayton 2000, p. 125).

This second phase of plant globalization is divided into about nine periods as exploration out of Europe spread to ever more distant lands.

Needless to say this is a Eurocentric, more specifically Anglocentric, account of global plant movement resulting from the deliberate accumulation of plants for horticulture. Nevertheless this urge to collect does seem to have arisen from a uniquely European compulsion (fascinating in itself) to assemble plants and other natural objects in museums and herbaria, in botanic, public, and private gardens.

Geographic regions

European planting gathered momentum with the Age of Discovery and exploration that culminated in the botanophilia that characterised the Age of Enlightenment and Age of Plants.

Plants also passed out of Europe into and between the many colonies where mostly temperate crops were imported for food and familiar garden plants introduced to unfamiliar surroundings.

Near East

Apart from the classical worlds of Italy and Greece there were the lands of the ancient fertile crescent and Mesopotamia – today’s eastern Mediterranean including Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. Travelling in the Near East (the Levant) meant entering land that, from the 16th century and for several hundred years, was largely occupied by the Ottoman Turks.

Turkish Empire

1546 Pierre Belon (1518-1563) – Physician – France – England, Germany, France, Italy. Then a three-year tour of the Middle East, as a physician, that included Crete, Constantinople, Greece including the islands of Imbros and Lemnos, Rhodes, Egypt and the Nile, Palestine. He did not collect plants or seed but recorded his experiences in Les Observations (1554)

1573 Leonhardt Rauwolf (1535-1596) – Physician – Germany – as a physician seeking authentic medicinal plants. Travelled in Syria, Iraq, and visited Jerusalem collecting herbarium specimens. We know little of his plant introductions (probably few)

1675 George Wheler (1651–1724) – Gentleman scholar – England – ‘simpling’ in Constantinople, Greece (and islands), Turkey (Smyrna, Ephesus etc.) Journey into Greece (1682) recording 180-200 plants and sending specimens and seed to Ray, Plukenet, and Morison.Travels published in Spon Voyage d’Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce et du Levant (1679)

1700 Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) – Professor Jardin du Roi & physician – France – collected in the botanic gardens of Spain, Portugal, Holland, and England, then Crete, 33 Greek islands, Constantinople, the Black Sea, Turkey, Egypt and Africa. He collected 1356 plants and many seeds were raised in the Jardin

1782 André Michaux (1746-1803) – Botany student – France visited English gardens in 1779 and, impressed with the variety in cultivation, returning with many to grow in France. Travelled to Iraq, Syria, Persia, Caspian Sea returning many plants and packets of seed before setting off for America

1787 John Sibthorp (1758-1796) – Professor of Botany at Oxford – England – set out to find the 300 or so plants listed by Dioscorides that had not been found in modern times, like the Grand Tour of the classical world popular as part of a liberal education c. 1660-1840. With artist Ferdinand Bauer he travelled to Italy, Greece (and its islands), Crete, Turkey, and Constantinople. He set out again in 1787 and returned with about 2000 species, about 300 new to science, then back again in 1794.Though a botanical collector he also sent seed back to the Oxford Botanic garden, credited with 14 new introductions. He bequested publication of the superlative 10-volume Flora Graeca (1806-1840) with Bauer’s plates

1874 Henry John Elwes (1846-1922) – Wealthy scholar – England – Greece, Constantinople, Crimea, Himalaya, but botanising mostly in Turkey

North America

John Bartram (1699-1777) – Farmer, physician, naturalist – America – was a critical figure in the development of horticulture that occurred as a result of the European occupation of North America. Farmer Bartram, whose father William had migrated to America, travelled widely to provide fellow Quaker Peter Collinson in England with some of the first plants and seed transported back to England as the gentry competed for the new prizes from overseas, George III rewarding him with the title ‘Royal Botanist for North America’ with a stipend of $50 p.a. In keeping with the times his interests lay mainly with medicinal plants and he is noted for establishing America’s first botanic garden on 8 acres of his own land which he filled with his collections from eastern North America. Collinson became, in effect, Bartram’s agent in England the two exchanging books, specimens and natural history artefacts – the plants passing to dignitaries like Lord Petre of Essex, the Duke of Richmond and Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden who acted as advisor on American trees to the English aristocracy. After becoming ‘Royal Botanist’ his specimens were also sent to Edinburgh and Kew. Via Collinson Bartram provided plants to 21 nursery gardeners and 124 individual customers including Charles Hamilton of Painshill Park in Surrey which now holds the John Bartram Heritage Collection of North American trees.[14] Among Bartram’s contacts were Benjamin Franklin, distinguished physician John Fothergill and Linnaeus whose student Peter Kalm paid him a special visit in America earning Bartram a place in the Swedish Academy of Sciences. He died in 1777 apparently worrying about the future of his garden as British troops advanced towards him during the American War of Independence.


Egypt as a land of desert and intense cultivation has limited flora to offer the gardener. Coates (p. 32) points out that most of the plants of interest in the region were described by Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BC) when he travelled as far as the First Cataract (there are six shallow points – cataracts – along the Nile, the first of these being the site of today’s Aswan Dam) in about 450 BCE. Arab-held Egypt was prohibitive until Algeria was taken by the French when a flood of 48 botanists worked there between 1830 and 1850 (p. 32).

North Africa

1749 Frederick Hasselquist (1722-1752) – Linnaean student – Sweden – travelled in coastal W Turkey, E gypt, and Palestine

1761 Pehr Forssköl (1732-1763) – Linnaean student – Sweden went on Danish expedition to Alexandria, Egypt, Red Sea, S Arabia

1798 Alyre Raffeneau Delile (1778-1850) – botany student – France – botanist among many scientists on Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. He made descriptions of Lotus and Papyrus and became Director of the Cairo botanical garden, wrote the botanical sections of Travel in Lower and Upper Egypt (1803) by Dominique Vivant

1827 Philip Parker Webb (1793-1854) – wealthy dilettante – EnglandA botanical grand tour of Corfu, Patras, Athens, Constantinople and the plains of Try then Smyrna, Malta, Sicily. The more serious collecting in France, Spain, Gibraltar, Tangiers, north Africa, Portugal, Madeira, his most productive work being in the Canaries. A botanist, he nevertheless introduced plants to the family garden in England and sent seed to his local nursery

Iberian Peninsula

Spain was separated from Europe by the Pyrenees and, from the first occupation of 711 CE to the end of the Moorish Kingdom of Granada in 1492, by the Moorish occupation. Consequently, though Spain was the last country in Europe to be exposed to botanical exploration, it was possibly the first to receive a professional horticultural collector.

1607 Gullaume Boel – physician – Holland collected for William Coys, Parkinson, and Clusius both seed and dried plants, also possibly collected in Germany

1611 John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570s –1638) – traveller and collector – England little recorded but he was an avid collector of plants and travelled in Spain

1751 Peter Loefling (1729-1756) – Linnaean student – from Sweden spent unproductive time in Spain to be followed by another student in 1760 Claes Alstroemer who send back plants and seed to Linnaeus

1783 Francis Masson (1741-1805)– Kew gardener of Banks – England Kew’s first plant hunter, lived in Lisbon from 1783-1785 travelling into Spain

1825 Philip Barker Webb (1793-1854) – previously mentioned, visited Spain at least five times

Scandinavia & Russia

The cooler climates of Russia and Scandinavia have not produced the numbers of plants popular in the gardens of the more temperate and heavily populated regions of Europe but they are nevertheless well represented.


Scandinavia, not noted for its horticulture, produced the great naturalist Carl Linnaeus who travelled to Lapland

1732 Linnaeus – Naturalist – Sweden expedition to Lapland that produced Flora Lapponica (1737) and inspired future collectors


The early botanical exploration of Russia was completed mostly by Germans.

1618- John Tradescant – naturalist collector – England collected around Dvina and Archangel

Johann George Gmelin (1709-1755) – Professor of Medicine, naturalist – Germany joined Kamtschatka expedition

George Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746) – German physician-naturalist pioneer of Alaskan natural history sent out by the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences. on Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition, which had left Saint Petersburg in February 1733, meeting Gmelin in Yeniseisk in January 1739. Gmelin recommended that Steller take his place in the planned exploration of Kamchatka which he did. Steller reached Okhotsk and the main expedition in March 1740 as Bering’s ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul, were nearing completion. Most of his botanical finds were published in Gmelin’s Flora Siberica (1747-1769). Plants and seeds were sent to the Botanic Garden of the Academy founded by Johann Amman a protégé of Englishman Hans Sloane

Samuel Gmelin (1744-1774) A German with a medical degree from Leiden & Peter Pallas (1741-1811) also a German with a degree from Leiden who had spent time in England and the Hague. Together, and at the bidding of Catherine the Great (1729-1796), over a period of several years the pair explored most of the Russian Empire. Pallas published an extensive account of his findings in his five-volume Travels … (1802-1803)

Johann Albert von Regel (1845-1909) a Swiss-Russian physician and botanist who studied medicine in Germany and Russia. From 1877 to 1885 he made botanical collections in Turkestan and the Pamir region of Central Asia delivering herbarium specimens and seed (later mostly successfully cultivated) to his father, botanist Eduard August von Regel (1815-1892) at the Saint Petersburg Botanical Garden


India was the medicinal plant epicenter of antiquity, touched by early modern Europeans around the time that a Portuguese medicinal garden was established at Goa as the Portuguese empire dotted its coastal trading outposts around the world, and especially India which connected with trading routes to the East Indies. Indian history is dominated by the impact of the Moguls from central Asia and, later, the British Raj and activities of the British East India Company up to independence and the formation of an independent Pakistan in 1947 and Burma (Myanmar) in 1948. The botanic garden at Calcutta (est. 1786) served as a base for study of the Indian flora and to explore various avenues of economic botany.

Among those communicating with the Hookers at Kew during the British Raj were Charles Parish (1822-1897), a chaplain with the British East India Company stationed at Moulmein in British Burma who sent living and herbarium specimens to Kew along with botanical illustrations, his own herbarium eventually presented to Kew in 1872. He made a significant contribution to studies of the orchid flora of Burma[11]

Western Europe’s richest source of garden plants has been Japan and China. Japan, angered by the cruelty and selfishness of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries closed its borders to both foreigners and Japanese themselves desiring to leave – beginning in 1614. Limited trade continued with the Chinese and Dutch with unofficial trade both into and out of the country.

Initial plant collections were made by employees of the Dutch East India Company who arrived with the southwest monsoon in August and left with the northeast monsoon in November.

Engelbert Kaempfer(1651-1715) – Germany – Physician-botanist– returning himself to publish the successful Amoenitates Exoticae (1712)

Carl Peter Thunberg (1775-1828) – Sweden – On his travels he visited a nursery, buying up as much as possible storing them on a Dutch merchantman and returning then via Batavia to the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam. His Flora Japonica (1784) had less impact that Kaempfer’s publication but his notes were published by Hans Sloane as History of Japan (1728). Phulipp

South America

von Humboldt (1799-1804); Bonpland (1799-1804); Peoppig (1832); Spruce (1857)

The South American zone of interest stretches from Mexico and the tropical Panama Isthmus through to the West Indies and Caribbean through South America to the tip of Patagonia. This was territory rich in blood-sucking and stinging creatures, steaming jungles with clinging lianes and hooked tendrils, fevers, on the plains there were Indians and in the jungles were head-hunters and cannibals – this environment was an open challenge to intrepid adventurers and writers of the romantic travelogue. Scientific expeditions were mounted by many countries covering topics that ranged well beyond botany. Hunters were not always temperamental loners and misfits living in a constant state of acute disheveled and dirty deprivation: the 19th century expedition was often well-equipped to maintain the wining and dining tradition of the society to which the participants were accustomed. Sir William Hooker, for example, wore his usual clothes when botanizing . . . a top hat, high collar, also the ‘fobs and seals and watchchain (Whittle, p. 118) of his class’ while walking extraordinary distances. Part of this was unashamed social one-upmanship – the desire to outdo others with the number and novelty of plants recovered and consequently the splendour of their gardens and glasshouses. There was money and prestige involved so the men involved were not always blackguards – they were astute and intelligent businessmen and academics.

Joseph Hooker, the first major botanical explorer who had earned his spurs on the Ross Antarctic expedition in HMS Erebus and Terror, like many explorers, indulged a degree of hero-worship . . . placing a copy of Darwin’s Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle (1839) under his pillow at night.
Philibert de Commerson in Brazil, Charles Darwin, Löfling Mutis, von Humboldt, Wied-Neuwied, Eschwege, Orbigny & Tschudi.
1735 – Academie des Sciences
1866 – Richard Spruce

Von Hagen, V. 1949. South America Called Them. Robert Hale

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian naturalist-explorer who laid the foundations of for the discipline of biogeography, stimulating young explorers with his writings on Romantic philosophy. With Aimé Bonpland (1773 -1858), stimulated by the account in the Madrid Museum of Martín de Sessé y Lacasta and José Mariano Mociño’s botanical expedition to New Spain, they set off themselves. Between 1799 and 1804 they explored widely in the Americas Humboldt publishing his account in about 20 volumes over a period of 21 years. Over the 5 years the pair collected around 12,000 plant specimens. They also confirmed the Casiquiare Canal connection of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers.

Brazil gained its independence from Portugal in 1822 and this opened up the country, among the first of a new cohort of explorers being Richard Spruce who remained in the country from 1849 to 1864 and is best known for his provision in 1857 of 637 seedlings and about 100,000 seeds of the anti-malarial quinine plant Cinchona pubescens for the establishment of plantations in India, Sri Lanka and Sikkim although the Dutch had also established substantial plantations in Java.

Eduard Poeppig (1798- 1868) was a German botanist-explorer trained in Leipzig before setting off for Chile in 1826, returning in 1832 after exploring Chile, Peru and Brazil with a collection of natural history specimens that included around 17,000 plants specimens. He reported his work in the three-volume Nova genera ac Species Plantarum quas in regno, Chiliensi, Peruviano, ac Terra Amazonica, anni 1827-1832 lectarum which included 31 new genera and 477 new species, the first two volumes achieved in collaboration with Stephan Endlicher. John Lindley in 1837 decribed the water-lily genus Victoria, named after the young Queen Victoria, and based on specimens returned from British Guiana by Robert Schomburgk. It would become a Victorian-era botanical treasure nurtured in the pools of heated glasshouses around the world, including those of in Adelaide Australia where Robert’s brother Moritz Schomburgk was the director.


Cunninghame (1698); Ternstroem (1735); d’Incarville (1740); Osbeck (1750); Torin (1753); Haxton, Main (First Diplomatic Mission) (1792); Kerr (1804); Abel(Second Diplomatic Mission) (1816); Potts (1821); Parks (1823); Fortune (1843); Jean Soulié (1860-1900); David (1862); Delavay (1867); Henry (1881); Potanin (1884); Paul Farges (1892-1903); Wilson (1899); Forrest (1904); Meyer (1905); Purdom (1909); Kingdon-Ward (1911); Farrer (1914); Rock (1922).

The two greatest geographic contributors to Western gardens have been the 18th century introduction of North American plants, the autumn-foliage trees transforming the English landscape and, later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries plants from China would increase rapidly in numbers. Though the Chinese plains were cleared of natural vegetation in very early times, the vegetation of the mountains remained largely untouched until the late 19th century. Overland trade between East and West began in antiquity (see Silk Road) and gathered momentum as a consequence of Arab intermediaries, Syringa x persica and Hibiscus syriacus being early introductions to the West. Trade with the West was sometimes regarded as either not wanted or not needed and in 1755 the borders were closed to foreigners so that at the time when the West was seeking new plants the only people with access to the country, up to the 19th century, were missionaries, diplomats, merchants, and those on brief stop-overs. A little trade was permitted through Canton and Macau.

James Cunninghame (fl. 1608-1709) Scottish surgeon with the British East India Company who travelled and collected in South-east Asia. 800 paintings were completed in Amoy, Formosa with specimens sent back to James Petiver (c. 1665 – c. 2 April 1718) was a London apothecary, a fellow of the Royal Society as well as London’s informal Temple Coffee House Botany Club. He corresponded with John Ray and some of his notes and specimens were used by Linnaeus in descriptions of new species. In 1670 he spent two years on Chusan Island communicating with Leonard Plukenet and Hans Sloane. Dying at sea on his way back to Britain from Calcutta he had returned about 600 plants including the first camellia including a few that were grown from seed, some of his specimens also found their way to William Sherard at Oxford University

Pierre d’Incarville (1706-1757) – a Parisian Jesuit who studied with Bernard de Jussieu After 5 years in Quebec was sent on a mission to China in 1740 going to Macau then Pekin in 1742, taking trips into the mountains corresponding not only with France but also Phillip Miller and Peter Collinson in England. On presenting a specimen of the sensitive plant Mimosa pudica to the emperor he was granted access to all the Imperial Gardens but died shortly after. He also accepted plants from Europe in his Garden of Perfect Brightness in Cochinchina (Vietnam). He returned over 300 plant specimens to Europe but many were not described for over 140 years. From his seeds which went to (at least) Paris, London, and St Petersburg, were grown popular garden plants like Ailanthus altissima, Cedrela sinensis, Platycladus orientalis and Sophora japonica.

Peter Collinson urged Linnaeus to extend d’Incarville’s work, Linnaeus responding by sending out two clergymen on a free passage with the Swedish East India Company – Tärnström and Osbeck.

Christopher Tärnström, China (1703-1746) Linnaeus’s first Apostlewas sent on an expedition to China but dying of tropical fever in 1746 without sending back a single specimen

Pehr Osbeck (1723-1805) Linnaeus’s student in Uppsala travelled to China in 1750, his primary task to collect a tea plant for Linnaeus. He spent four months in the Canton region Guangzhou, about 600 of his collected plants included in Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum (1753) but he did not collect the tea plant. Returning to Sweden in 1752 he eventually published a travelogue in 1757 Dagbok öfwer en ostindisk Resa åren 1750, 1751, 1752 translated into German in 1762 and English in 1771. In 1758 he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science

After the closure of China’s borders to foreigners in 1755, embassadorial expeditions were sent to improve trading arrangements (although the East India Company transported plants from Canton from 1757). The first (1792-1794), with Banks assisting, included two ‘botanic grdeners’, David Stronach and John Haxton. George Staunton (1737-1801) was the naturalist, a Fellow of both Linnean and Royal Societies. Staunton’s gardeners collected about 220 specimens and 7-8 novelties including Macleaya cordata and Rosa bracteata. A second expedition, supported by Banks, was sent with Physician Clarke Abel (1780-1826) the Kewtrained gardener being James Hooper at the standard rate of £100 p.a. He assembled many living plants and 300 packets of seed but much was lost when the ship ran aground before the trip home which included an audience with Napoleon on St Helena. Abelia chinensis (A. x grandiflora) was one of the few survivors. Hooper became Director of the Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens, Bogor, in West Java, leaving in 1816.

Well before the 19th century, plants depicted in Chinese paintings, textiles and ceramics had caught the eyes of European plant collectors. Captains of East India Company tea-clippers putting in to Canton (Guangzhou) were begged to bring home. Foreign officials could live in Canton while the merchant fleet was visiting, otherwise they were to live on the island of Macau. Better-known among these were John Livingstone, Thomas Beale, and John Reeves (a company tea inspector) who were all keen gardeners that lived there for more than 20 years, Reeves especially opening an immediate communication with Banks and returning 100 living plants to the Horticultural Society when on leave in 1816, and many plant illustrations completed by Chinese artists now known as the Reeves Collection.

1700-1755 Coastal ports and environs

Benjamin Torin had become a resident in 1753 and in 1770 returned to Kew a cargo of plants that included Daphne odora, Osmanthus fragrans, Cordyline terminalis and Murraya exotica (now M. paniculata). John and Alexander Duncan who were surgeons in the company in the years 1782-1796 so sent plants to Banks at Kew.

Even in the early 19th century the British demand for Chinese plants greatly exceeded supply. This prompted the appointment of gardeners specific to the task. Gilbert Slater (influential in the company, owning several of its ships) who wanted specific plants for his Essex garden, sent out three gardeners, the only one to return being his Scottish foreman James Main. Banks sent William Kerr and The Horticultural Society sent John Potts and John Parks.

1780-1825 Macao & Canton

James Main (c. 1775-1846) was a Scottish botanist-gardener of Edinburgh. His trip to China, overseen by Banks, was funded by wealthy plantation owner George Hibbert (1757-1837) a Fellow of the Royal Society (1811) and Linnean Society whose gardener Joseph Knight was probably the first to cultivate Proteaceae in England. According to chronicler Loudon ‘The collection of heaths, Banksias, and other Cape and Botany Bay plants, in Hibbert’s garden, was most extensive, and his flower-garden one of the best round the metropolis’. He is commemorated in the genus Hibbertia. Main also experimented, for the Loddiges nursery, with different methods of plant storage aboard ship. He met up with Kew’s Masson at the Cape, and in Canton with Stronach and Haxton but was not allowed to visit the famous Fa Te nurseries. By this time he considered the camellias bred in Europe superior to those available in China. His ship, HMS Triton, set sail for England in 1794 with the members of the second Macartney expedition. Main had made many plant collections including a host of live plants but a collision in the Channel meant that he had no record of what happened to his and other plants but survived as assistant writer to Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine.

William Kerr (d. 1815) Scottish gardener at Kew sent to China by Banks in 1804 as the first resident professional collector, remaining for 8 years and returning to Britain from Canton, Macao, Cochinchina, and Manila. Kerr established European plants in China, sent plants to not only Kew but Calcutta and St Helena, eventually appointed superintendant of the Colombo botanic garden in Ceylon where he died in 1814, probably a consequence of opium addiction. In Macau alone he supplied samples of 238 plants new to European gardeners and science (129 of wild species he collected himself). Banks was especially interested in the use of plants for cordage and fibre.(C. pp. 98-101).

From the Horticultural Society came John Potts in 1821-2 returning after one year and followed by John Parks in 1823-4 who returned with chrysanthemum and Camellia reticulata varieties and Aspidistra lurida. Both were assisted by Reeves and Beale in Macao.

The events of the Opium War of 1840-2 put an end to collecting for about 20 years. But the British had taken Hong Kong, occupied the beautiful islands of Chusan, and gained trade access to Amoy, Foo-chow, Ning-po and Shanghai. Reeves, who had returned to England in 1831 persuaded the Horticultural Society to reinvigorate the collecting.

1843-1860 Northern China

Robert Fortune (1812-1880)[9][10] a Scotsman employed in the hothouse of the Society gardens in Chiswick after extensive training at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh volunteered and was given an extensive list of possible introductions compiled by Reeves and paid the standard £100 p.a. setting up base in Hong Kong where he was assisted by the well-established sons of Reeves and Beale, the latter Thomas Beale having a fine garden in Shanghai.(C. p.102) His explorations were mainly around the treaty ports and north China. He returned with a fine collection of plants, accepted the post of Curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and published his travelogue Three Years Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China (1847).

His second visit to China was as an employee of the East India Company seeking to procure tea varieties for the plantations that were then being established in India but he managed to collect plants, housed temporarily in Beale’s garden including seed of the funeral cypress Cupressus funebris. No longer answerable to the Horticultural Society his plants were distributed to nurserymen.

A third, less eventful trip for the company lasted from 1852-56, then a fourth, again related to tea, from 1858-9 for the American Government. With the Indian rebellion and winding up of the East India Company in 1858 the plantations deteriorated along with Fortunes teas which were eventually replaced by the Indian Assam variety.

Bretschneider estimated that he introduced about 190 new species and varieties of which about 120 were new and probably ignored the many garden cultivars.

Coates (p. 110) remarks that Fortune was a man of his times: he deplored heathen Buddhism trusting in the success of Christian missionaries; he was devoted to Queen and country while being convinced of his own moral superiority – that Chinese were his superiors in number only; in his journals he did not mention his wife and family or any correspondence with them.

1860-1922 Western China

War broke out again between China against England, France, Russia, and America in 1857, concluding in 1860 and opening yet more ports to trade. Access to inland regions launched a new phase of horticultural exploration that moved from northern into Western China.

Armand David (1826-1900) French naturalist who went to Pekin as a missionary in 1862. Interest in his specimens, mostly zoological, sent to the Paris Museum of Natural History prompted his three scientific expeditions into Mongolia – 1866, 1868-69, 1872-74. Returning to France he found more than 80 species grown from seed collected by him and growing in the Paris Museum gardens. His collections included many species of rhododendron, gentian, and primula. He is commemorated in the genus Davidia. Director Franchet hadreceived1577 specimens from him, about 250 new to science and published in Plantae Davidianae (1884)

Jean Delavay (1838-1895) a French missionary who collected plants for Henry Hance of the British consular service in Canton and Hong Kong. Returning to Paris in 1881 and meeting David and the Director of the Paris Museum René Franchet, Delavay was persuaded to send future collections to Paris. This initiated a flood of specimens as Delavay sent 200,000 specimens of more than 4000 species, about 150 new augmented by those of other missionaries Farges (c. 4000; 1892-1903) and Soulié (c. 7000; 1890-1905). On a second visit Delavay was stationed in near Tali-fu in Yunnan. It is likely that more garden plants were introduced to the West by Delavay than by any other botanist.

Paul Farges (1844-1912) French missionary on the NE border of Szechuan from 1892-1903 sent specimens to the Paris Museum and, like Delavay and Soulié, sent seed to nurseryman Maurice de Vilmorin (whose nursery was in a Paris suburb and estate that was a former hunting lodge of Louis XIV of France) .

Jean Soulié (1858-1905) a medical missionary who collected on the border of Tibet.

In the period 1860 to 1900 Russia undertook several scientific expeditions: Przewalski and Komarof in Turkestan, Tibet and Manchuria and Potanin to Mongolia. Potanin made two horticulturally important expeditions to Western China in 1884 and 1893.

Grigori Potanin (1835-1920) student political rebel he redeemed himself to be financed by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society to Western China from 1884 to 1886, taking his botanist wife who helped prepare the haul of 12,000 specimens representing about 4000 species. A second expedition was mounted in 1893 with about 10,000 specimens collected as well as seed and drug plants.

Augustine Henry (1857-1930) was an Irish medical student from Belfast who became a Medical Officer and Assistant Inspector of Customs in 1881, first in Shanghai and then Ichang in 1882. His official recording of medicinal plants generated an interest in botany, correspondence with Kew, and the collection of specimens. In the first year he sent 1000 specimens including 10 new genera to Director Thistleton-Dyer who found funds to support a couple of expeditions which produced a rich harvest for later Western gardens. He also gained the assistance of Chinese collectors.

Ernest Wilson (1876-1930) was a gardener trained at Hewitt’s Nursery Solihull and Birmingham Botanic Gardens then in 1897 to Kew The Harry Veitch nursery in Coombe Wood employed him for 6 months and on the advice of Thistleton-Dyer sent him out to China in 1899 via America’s Arnold Arboretum where he was to learn about plant transportation and meet the famous Professor Sargent. Though instructed to concentrate on obtaining seed of Davidia he collected many more horticultural gems mostly in the steps of Henry. In a second season of collecting (1901) he sent back 35 cases of bulbs and roots, and over 900 herbarium specimens, returning to Coombe Wood in 1902. A second trip to the West followed but when he returned in 1905 the Veitch nursery was in decline, winding up in 1914. In the meantime a third expedition was sponsored by Harvard University and Sargent, emigrating to America to eventually become Keeper of the Arnold Arboretum. A fourth expedition followed in 1910. His novel introductions number over a thousand. His travelogue appeared in 1913 A Naturalist in Western China.

Private patron Arthur Bulley (1861-1942) a wealthy cotton broker had followed the exploits of Henry who stimulated his interest in garden plants. In 1904 he approached Isaac Balfour, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh to suggest a collector – that man being:

George Forrest (1873-1932) a Scotsman trained as a chemist who roved in Australia before joining the herbarium staff at Edinburgh where he worked for two years before setting off on his Chinese assignment in 1904. Forrest managed to employ teams of people during his exploration, which enabled him to send back 200 pounds of seed of 400-600 species and about 3000 herbarium specimens. He was able to exploit the craze for rhododendrons that was sweeping Western horticulture at this time, the English Rhododendron Society founded in 1915. His Chinese journeys spanned 28 years specializing in rock garden and alpine plants, especially primulas and rhododendrons but he also introduced camellias, magnolias, lilies, gentians and Himalayan poppies. His impact was vast across Western horticulture. He died on the last of his journeys in 1932, this expedition alone amassing at least 300 lb of seed representing 400-500 species.

Arthur Bulley now required another collector and this time Balfour recommended:

Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958) an Englishman who had taught in Shanghai and had experience on expeditions. His life of botanizing for 50 years included around 25 expeditions through Tibet, North Western China, Myanmar and Assam (NE India) He began work on the North-West border with Assam in 1911 at Atuntse trying not to encroach on Forrest’s territory and always prone to attack from rebels collecting 200 samples, 22 of these new to science, along with 76 different species of seed. He returned in 1913 mapping as he went, exploring the upper Yangtze and moving into Tibet later exploring parts of Burma. In 1921 he returned to China for a third time, returning eventually to England in 1923. He and Forrest had collected mostly the plants of Yunnan and Szechuan. To the north William Purdom, following in the steps of Wilson, had collected in 1909-12 for the Veitch nursery business and Arnold Arboretum, making asecond journey in 1913-14 with Reginald Farrer.

William Purdom (1880-1921) was an English gardener trained in Brathay Hill Gardens Westmorland and the London nurseries of Low & Sons and H.J. Veitch and Co. then for six years at Kew from 1902-8 as sub-foreman of the arboretum nursery. Records of him come largely from Farrer, the reports mostly on collections made in the year 1911.[13

Reginald Farrer (1880-1920) an Oxford University educated Englishman from London who had explored the European alps with gardener friends including E.A. Bowles. Farrer met Purdom in London in 1913 asking to be included on his expeditions into Tibet seeking alpine plants in the high country to the north of the region being explored by Forrest and Kingdon-Ward. They took the new Trans-Siberian railway to Pekin before heading north. Farrer was working on his 2-volume The English Rock Garden (1938). They returned to Pekin in 1915, Farrer returning to the Ministry of Information in the war and Purdom joining the Chinese forestry service. Farrer collected live plants as well as seed, some overwintered in the grounds of the British embassy. Early on the pair heard of another collector, the American Frank Meyer.[13]

Frank Meyer (1875-1918) had trained in Amsterdam at the Botanic Gardens before moving to the Missouri Botanic Garden under David Fairchild of the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction. Meyer was thus searching out economic plants for the American Department of agriculture, mostly in cultivated regions of the north He completed three expeditions, the first in 1905, and died on the fourth in 1921. He possibly introduced as many as 2000 species and varieties of plants including cereals, fruits, timber trees and, in smaller numbers, ornamental plants.

In 1923 American David Fairchild sent another collector to the Orient:

Joseph Rock (1884-1962) an Austrian who had held professorships in both Botany an Chinese at the University of Hawai again an economic botanist for the American Department of Agriculture he explored in Indo-China, Siam, and Burma, moving on to China in 1922 remaining there for 27 years collecting mostly around Likiang in the periods 1922-4, 1925-7, 1928-30 and 1930-3. He returned to America vast numbers of seeds that included close to 500 species of rhododendron returned to the Arnold Arboretum. Seed was distributed to other institutions by Sargent.

This flurry of late 19th and early twentieth century collecting was halted by the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Chinese Civil War (1946-1950) and effective closure to foreigners through most of the communist years. Many plants were collected at once and did not survive so Western horticulturists still regard China as a potential source of ornamental plant novelties.

Clarke Abel

Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), William Paterson (1755-1810), George Caley (1770-1829), George Bass (1771-1803), Allan Cunningham (1791-1839), Charles Fraser (?-1831), William Baxter (fl.1823-1829), Ronald Gunn (1808-1881), James Backhouse (1794-1869, James Drummond (1784-1863), William Swainson (1789-1855).

The modern era scientific description of plants, to all intents and purposes, began with Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum of 1753. This is taken as the starting point for plant names by the international code of botanical nomenclature. Plants were, of course, described before that time but as ‘phrase names’ which were simply short descriptions of the plant. The great strength of Linnaeus’s work was its systematic approach: it provided a standardised method of presenting plant names in extended lists. One of his accepted conventions was the use of a ‘binomial’, a two-word unique identifier for any plant. Linnaeus had not invented the binomial but he universalised its use.

The application of a communally accepted name to an object is very powerful and there is a degree of arrogance in scientific nomenclature because it implies that nothing was known about plants before they were given scientific names. Giving a scientific name to a plant seems to, so-to-say, bring it into existence. On the other hand it is intended as an international, not local, means of communicating about plants and it makes a deliberate attempt to avoid confusion by being accurate and precise and provide an accepted means of amendment over time.

Describing a plant involves two parties – the plant collector and the plant describer. Today these parties are often the same person but in the early days of Australia this was rarely the case. Collectors came from all walks of life. Sometimes they were a botanist but they may have been botanical bounty hunters, say, or perhaps gardeners or Aboriginals assisting explorers on land or sea.

A full formal botanical name today consists of the Latin binomial (generally in italics) followed by a standardized abbreviation of the person who first described it and a reference to the place where they published the description. Latin was the universal (western) language of scholarship at this time so it provided an effective means of communication between scientists.

The plant often known as Old Man Banksia, Banksia serrata, was first collected at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770, by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, naturalists on the British vessel HMS Endeavour during Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific Ocean. A species description was not published until April 1782, when Carolus Linnaeus the Younger (Linnaeus’s son) described the first four Banksia species in his Supplementum Plantarum. So we have:

Banksia serrata L.f. Supplementum Plantarum 1782

L.f. is the standardised abbreviation for Linnaeus fils – son of Linnaeus.

The early days of botanical collecting in Australia have been described many times. Here I shall simply provide a check list of early collectors and a check list of publications where the first descriptions appeared. Many of the early collections were held at Banks’s house in Sloane Square London where they were catalogued by two of Linnaeus’s students Daniel Solander and George Dryander. But most of these were formally described by other botanists, sometimes based on plants in this herbarium but also from subsequent collections.

Major publications including botanical descriptions of Australian plants, in chronological order:

1810 – Prodromus Robert Brown
1826 – Sweet Hortus botanicus

The language associated with acquiring plants from unfamiliar geographic regions gives us an insight into attitudes and motivations. We find the plants themselves called loot, booty, botanical bounty, or plant treasures. The collectors themselves (who were missionaries, civil servants, nurserymen, botanists and gardeners, and explorers) were almost exclusively men described as plant hunters, adventurers, intrepid explorers, even bounty hunters. The plants were collected for their beauty, rarity, curiosity, and botanico-scientific interest to be protected in museums, botanic gardens , private gardens, dried in herbaria (other motivations).

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019


The British Empire enjoying exotic lands, exotic people, and exotic plants.
Portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker, Director of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in Sikkim with his Lepcha collectors.
Pine forest at 9000 ft: Kanchenjunga in the background.
Mezzotint by William Walker (1791-1867) from a painting by Frank Stone (1800-1859).
Tree trunk on rhs swathed with Rhododendron dalhousiae and other epiphytes.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Shyamal – Accessed 13 February 2018

Joseph Hooker - plant hunter
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