Native plant export & scientific description
The plants of New Holland (the name ‘Australia’ was not generally accepted until the 1820s though used by Lachlan Macquarie in official documents before this) met all the necessary criteria – they possessed a unique beauty and mystique, they were scarce, they were from a distant and exotic source – their commercial appeal was obvious. There can be little doubt that much of the impetus for botanophilia stemmed from public interest generated firstly by Cook’s (and others) Pacific voyages combined with Banks’s social influence and the plant obsession emanating from Kew. Public fascination was energised by voyager travelogues and exquisitely illustrated botanico-horticultural journals promoting the new plants.
Cavanagh (1990) and Nelson (1983) have described the period from 1771 to 1800 when some 170 Australian species were introduced to England, Nelson (1990) outlining the heyday of Australian plants that lasted from about 1800 to 1835 in both England and across continental Europe in the wake of the scientific voyages (see also Elliot & Jones 1980, pp. 14-30). Most of the Australian plants on the continent at this time also originated from Britain, arriving during the Napoleonic era (Duchess of Hamilton & Bruce 1998), with just a few from France (Nelson 1990).
In 1772 the first seedlings were raised at Kew, the plants becoming more generally available by 1795. By 1806 Kew had accumulated a fine Australian collection. After a visit to Kew, Brown listed among others, 16 species of Banksia alone (see his Plantae Novae Hollandiae in Horti Regio Kewensi crescentes … cited in Nelson 1990). Australian plants are also listed in the second edition of Kew’s plant catalogue, Hortus Kewensis, of 1810 and by the 1820s Australian plants could be seen in other botanic gardens and the provinces. Later collectors who maintained the Kew tradition of collecting and returning plants to London included the Cunningham brothers Allan (1791-1839) and Richard (1793-1835), Charles Fraser (1791-1831), Ronald Gunn (1808-1881), William Baxter (fl. 1820s-30s) and Philip Gidley King (see Barker & Barker 1990).
But by 1835 the distant and exotic New Holland plants had lost their mystique – coming from a penal colony called Australia where, now, ‘free settlers were sending plants and seeds home to their friends’. The allure had passed as difficulties in their cultivation were now apparent, including the damaging humidity produced by the piped hot-water heating used in the new greenhouses (Cavanagh 2002).
Frustrated with their performance, European gardeners had moved on to more responsive subjects from other distant lands and were following the new plant hunting celebrities like the Scotsmen Thomas Drummond (1793-1835), David Douglas (1799-1834) and Robert Fortune (1812-1880) (for the latter see Watt 2017), and Kew director Joseph Hooker (1817-1911). These men, and others, were providing the eager gardening public with plants that were easier to grow – from Hawai’i, Havana, Texas, the Argentine pampas, China, California, the Amazon basin, rhododendrons from the Himalayas, and so on. Many of these new plants were ‘beautiful hardy plants that flowered profusely out-of-doors’, they did not ‘sulk’ like plants from Australia (Nelson 1990). Yet others were plants whose demands could be met by new technology, like waterlilies and orchids.
Between 1771 and 1800 some 170 Australian species (in 84 genera and 39 families) were introduced to England (Nelson 1983; Cavanagh 1990) with over 90% of these collections made in the Sydney region. Numbers and dates of introduction are approxiamately as follows (from Cvanagh) 1771 (5), 1774 (3), 1780 (1), 1789 (32), 1790 (28), 1791 (11), 1792 (18), 1793 (19), 1794 (16), 1795 (4), 1796 (9), 1797-1799 (1), 1800 (18). By 1855 the number exceeded 1200 (Cavanagh 2002) before rising to around 3000 to 3500 species in recent times (Cavanagh 1990).
The acceleration of plant exchange between nurseries (see Nuresries and networks, botanic gardens, and the social elite, but also botanists and gardeners as part of a process of plant globalization.
Many lives were sacrificed in the pursuit of plant ornaments, this reminding us of the powerful attraction of colourful adventurers and natural wonders. From today’s perspective it also reminds us of the role of horticultural botanist in not only finding ways to satiate the public desire for plant diversions but also the more formal need to record the dates of plant introductions, their subsequent commercialisation and pattern of human dispersal, as well as their role within local and world horticulture.
Scientific description of Australian plants in the 16th and 17th centuries
The 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 international agreement in a 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’ – the Latin for ‘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 collectors (in order of birth):
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).
Major publications containing Australian plants
1789 – Hortus Kewensis – William Aiton. 1st edn
1805 – Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen– De Labillardière
1810 – Prodromus – Robert Brown
1810 – Hortus Kewensis – William T. Aiton. 2nd edn by William’s son who followed him a head gardener at Kew
Around the 1770s, during the period of matime voyages of scientific exploration and when Banks was effectively director at Kew, there was an acceleration of plant exchange between nurseries, botanic gardens, and the social elite, but also botanists and gardeners as part of a process of plant globalization
Literature of a more or less scientific character was being disseminated through not only scientific publications in Latin but also illustrated travelogues and botano-horticultural periodicals specializing in botanical illustration
The use of vernacular for what was, essentially, scientific, the conversion of Kew to a public institution, and the erosion of aristocratic wealth were all indicators of the democratization of society in general and science in particular. This is also demonstrated through the mergig of horticulture and science notably through the use of garden periodical illustrations as type specimens when herbarium specimens were either not taken or lost