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Plant export & import

Collections by Banks and Solander gave impetus to the botanophilia that swept European society in the latter half of the 18th century. 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 for collector desirability: they possessed a unique beauty and mystique, they were scarce, and they were from a distant and exotic source. Their commercial appeal was obvious as the social elite competed to include Australian plants in their collections. 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 energized by explorer travelogues and the exquisitely illustrated botanico-horticultural journals that promoted the new plants . . . publications like Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and Edwards’s Botanical Register.

Australian plant exports

Though the Dutch were the first Europeans to visit Australia, and the French had made substantial plant collections, it was the settling British that would exploit the plant resources of its colonies to the full. The Australian flora, though it yielded nothing of food value (including herbs and spices), it had an original beauty that would enhance any garden. With the arrival of the first settlers their novelty diminished and plants began to flow in the opposite direction – into, rather than out of, the new colony.

Today at least 60% of the Australian continent is devoted to Agriculture – listed as either pasture or rangeland. Fortunately it is still possible to gain an impression of former pristine landscapes from remnant vegetation. In contrast, countries like Britain, though enjoying the formal mozaic greenery of agrarian countryside, have little impression of what their land would have looked like before human intervention.

Plant introduction to Australia before European settlement appears to have been minimal – perhaps a few plants brought in by traders exploring south from the islands to Australia’s north, perhaps visiting from Sulawesi, Timor, and the Torres Strait Islands.

First recorded European plant collection

The first (dry) plant collections returned to England from Australia were made by buccaneer William Dampier on a second government sanctioned visit to the continent in the Roebuck in 1699. On his return Dampier presented his specimens to the Royal Society but they now reside in the Department of Plant Sciences in Oxford (Mabberley 2019).

Plants returned to Kew

Plant introduction to Australia began in earnest with the arrival of the English First Fleet in 1789.

Nelson (1983) and Cavanagh (1990) have described the period of Australian plant propagule export from 1771 to 1800 when some 170 Australian species were introduced to England. Nelson (1990) also outlines the heyday of Australian plants that lasted from about 1800 to 1835 – not only in England but across continental Europe – in the wake of scientific voyages (see also Elliot & Jones 1980, pp. 14-30). Most of the Australian plants grown on the continent at this time 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 Australian seedlings were raised at Kew, the plants becoming more generally available by 1795 so, by 1806, Kew had accumulated a fine Australian collection. Botanist Robert Brown assisted in the compilation of an inventory of plants grown at Kew, and in edition two of William Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis (1810-1813) his Plantae Novae Hollandiae in Horti Regio Kewensi crescentes . . . included 95 species, including 16 Banksia and 10 Acacia. By the 1820s Australian plants were available in the provinces and other botanic gardens in Europe. Later Australian collectors at this time, who maintained the Kew tradition of returning plants to London, included George Caley (1770-1829), George Suttor (1774-1859), 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).

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 approximately as follows (from Cavanagh) 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 early days of botanical collecting in Australia have been described many times. Here I shall simply provide a short list of early collectors and a checklist of the major publications where the first descriptions of Australian plants 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.

Literature of a more or less scientific character was being disseminated through, not only scientific publications published in Latin, but also illustrated travelogues and botano-horticultural periodicals specializing in botanical illustration.

Interest wanes

But by 1835 the one-time distant and mysterious New Holland plants had become mundane. After all, New South Wales was a penal colony where ‘free settlers were sending plants and seeds home to their friends’ (Cavanagh 2002). The allure of novelty had passed, and difficulties in their cultivation were becoming apparent, including the damage caused by humidity resulting from the piped hot-water heating systems used in the new stove houses (Cavanagh 2002).

Frustrated with their performance, European gardeners shifted their affections to more responsive subjects from other distant lands, attracted by new plant hunter celebrities like the Scotsmen Thomas Drummond (1793-1835), David Douglas (1799-1834) and Robert Fortune (1812-1880) (for the latter see Watt 2017) and, later, Kew director Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) himself. 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, California, the Amazon basin, Japan, China, 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 other foreign plants, perhaps even more spectacular, like waterlilies and orchids, were now in vogue, their demands met by using new glasshouse technology.

So, from Cook’s voyages about 10 Australian native species were in cultivation in England (and beyond) before the First Fleet arrived in Sydney in 1788 (Mabberley 2019, p. 59). While between 1771 and 1800 the total number had increased to 170 (Nelson 1983; Cavanagh 1990). By 1855 this number exceeded 1200 (Cavanagh 2002) before rising to around 3000 to 3500 species in recent times (Cavanagh 1990).

We do not know, but can only surmise, that the number and kind of Australian plants that have passed to parts of the world other than Britain is similar in number.

Plants imported

The European preoccupation with overseas novelty, and the Australian desire to meet this need, can obscure the preponderance of plants flowing in the other direction. In the early days of settlement both plants and animals were imported in large numbers, mainly from Britain, and often without a written record. Australia exported ornamental plants while importing large numbers of both ornamental plants and the commercial species of (mostly) temperate agriculture, horticultural crops and forestry including all the historically assembled fruit, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices popular in Europe. When looking beyond ornamental plants we agree with Geoffrey Blainey’s sentiments that ‘A long book could be written about the growing and eating of vegetables and fruits in Australia’ (Blainey 2003, pp. 261-282, p. 282). An authoritative account of the history of introduction and cultivation of these plants, including a reliable botanical check list, would be a valuable contribution to Australian plant history.


Agriculture took 6000 to 8000 years to find its way from the Fertile Crescent to northwest Europe (Cunliffe 2013). Within 50 years of European settlement Australia’s prime arable land had been secured for western-style agriculture as the plants, people and practices of the western world overtook a continent 25 times the size of the British Isles. Ferdinand Mueller’s suggestion that ‘an endless number of plants of the whole temperate zone and . . . many from the warmest parts of the globe can be acclimatized in our latitudes’ (Mueller 1857a) did not take long to come to fruition. The human-use proportion of total Australian land today is classed as 54% livestock and grazing, 4% agricultural crops, and 2% forestry (ABARE 2016). From the earliest days, botanists have viewed the influx of plants associated with European settlement as a distinctly mixed blessing: ‘The new residents of Port Jackson brought with them European, South American and Cape plants, thus initiating an invasion of aliens’ (Nelson 1990).


Some further numbers will help place native, naturalised and cultivated species in perspective. Australia has a total native and naturalised vascular flora of about 29,000 species. The naturalised flora makes up about 13% (~3,750 species) and of these naturalised species about 60% are garden escapes (Groves et al. 2005). Randall (2007) estimates that 26,242 vascular species have been introduced to Australia (2,739 or about 10% of these are now naturalised) of which 25,448 (or 96.9%) are currently in cultivation. There are no confirmed records of Aboriginal introductions. For comparison, the Hawaiian Islands around 2005 had an estimated cultivated flora of over 8000 vascular plant species (just a few native) with the early Polynesian settlers bringing an estimated 25-32 species to the island. Hawaii has about 1400 native plants of which about 90% are endemic and an additional 1600 naturalised species (Staples 2005; Imada 2012).

Nursery industry

The historical availability of plants in Victoria has been recorded in a database of old nursery catalogues and a comprehensive database of native plant cultivars is being compiled by the Australian Cultivar Registration Authority. The independently produced nation-wide Aussie Plant Finder was published around the time of the electronic point-of-sales Greenlife Database maintained at the RBGV. Computerised stock lists are maintained at all Australia’s city botanic gardens and a combined stock list compiled by the Council of Heads of Australian Botanic Gardens is available online (CHABG 1992).

An account of official, mostly agricultural, plant introductions to Australia has been written by Burt and Williams (1988). Importation began with the First Fleet in 1778. Apart from food supplies, livestock and grain many plants taken aboard en route from the Canary Islands, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town (where King’s Botanist and Kew’s first major plant collector Francis Masson gave a helping hand). Among the first exotic plants to arrive in Australia from Britain was a geranium that was blooming in the cabin of naval officer and Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth aboard HMS Lady Penrhyn of the First Fleet just prior to arrival at Botany Bay (recorded in his diary) (Crittenden 1986, p. 9).

Already by 1804 Robert Brown could list 29 non-crop alien species growing wild in the Sydney district (Groves 2002).


Acclimatisation societies flourished in the mid-19th century. Acclimatisation was essentially a European and British Empire creation. The first such society in Australia (with Mueller vice-president) was the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria (Gillbank 1986) established in 1861 (probably emulating those in Europe, the first set up in Paris in 1854 and London around 1861) and New Zealand in 1864 (Burt & Williams 1988 p. 257).

Australia shared with America a 19th century conservation movement that deplored the destruction of old growth forests although their motivation was more to improve nature by reforestation and afforestation rather than to preserve it. Mueller’s later links to California, another settler-society, was part of a ‘Trans-Pacific Exchange’ with the west coasts of North and South America, facilitated by the faster steamships of the 1870s that plied the route from Sydney to San Francisco after the gold rushes (Tyrrell 1999). Other plants were introduced from the nearby islands. Pacific island labourers, known as kanakas, were ‘blackbirded’ to Queensland as cheap labour to work the sugar-cane plantations, and they introduced tropical vegetables. It took until the mid-19th century before a formal record of the introduction of new plant species and their associated pathogens was instigated. The first noxious weed legislation was enacted in South Australia in 1851 and Victoria in 1856. It took many years to officially recognise that Australia needed a plant introduction clearing house but in 1926 a Plant Introduction Section was set up by CSIR (now CSIRO) to facilitate the coordination of state agricultural department activities.

Ornamental plants

Ornamental plants were another matter – not conventionally regarded as ‘economic plants’ which is a commercial category generally reserved for timber trees, and plants for pasture, crops and fodder, including poisonous and weedy plants. A database of these economic plants was, in 1993, maintained by the CSIRO Information Services Branch in Melbourne and it comprised 4107 species, subspecies and varieties (Lazarides & Hince 1993).

We know about the introduction of ornamental plants to Australia mostly from government reports and botanic gardens lists, popular horticultural literature, and nursery catalogues (see, for example Brookes & Barley 2009) and the recent production of ‘Plant Finders’ and assorted databases linking plants to retail nurseries. Using the English RHS Plant Finder as a model, the last Aussie Plant Finder contained 35,000 entries (Hibbert 2004) and the New Zealand Plant Finder 22,000 entries (an on-line version in 2018 claimed 50,000 entries) (Gaddum 1997), both incorporating the stock of about 400 nurseries. The Australia-wide Greenlife Database maintained at RBGV for about a decade (c. 1993 to 2001) included about 45,000 entries (c. 15,000 species) (Spencer 1995). All these databases have proved too labour-intensive to maintain and are being superseded by automated online databases.

We have no reliable estimates of the number of different plants introduced to Australia. This is partly due to historical changes in taxonomy and uncertainties about nativity, but mostly because plant lists fail to distinguish between species, cultivars, and infraspecific taxa, and those plants originating from within and without the country.


Randall (2007) estimates that 26,242 species have been introduced to Australia (2,739 or about 10% of these are now naturalised) of which 25,448 (or 96.9%) are in cultivation. To this he adds 11,119 Australian native species in cultivation bringing the total number of cultivated species to 36,630. Of the Australian native species 606 have naturalised outside their native ranges. Excluding cultivated native species this gives a historical ratio of plant imports to plant exports of about 8:1. Of the 18,000 or so Australian native species about 2,000 are commonly cultivated in Australia (Dawson, 1999 p. 109).

For comparison, in New Zealand a lack of knowledge of cultivated plants – their number, identity and location – compounded difficulties in biosecurity management (both pre- and post-border) and general horticultural practices (Dawson 2011). New Zealand responded with a Plant Collections Register launched in 2015 (Dawson 2015) an it was reported that in addition to the tally of 3046 native species and 2618 fully naturalised species, there is a list of living plant collections and database of more than 40,000 names of exotic plants (including cultivars, common names and synonyms) derived from nursery catalogues and horticultural literature.

Archaeological research has revealed that during the period of Roman occupation of Britain about 50 new food plants were introduced by the Romans – mostly Mediterranean fruits, herbs, spices, and vegetables – presumably introduced to enhance the local food (Van der Veen & Hill 2008). Of these 50 species, 36 (over 70%) are now naturalised in Australia – a striking example of plant globalisation demonstrated through both the deliberate and accidental dispersal of cultivated plants – the cultural diffusion of cultivated plants around the planet.


The flow of socially, economically, and environmentally transformative plants between Australia and Europe has been mostly in one direction – from Europe to Australia. Just a trickle of meticulously recorded, illustrated, pampered and trumpeted ornamental plants passed in the other direction. Most of the plants new to Australia arrived unheralded, from the temperate and Mediterranean northern hemisphere to the temperate and Mediterranean climate regions of the southern hemisphere, although there were a few crops from what was rapidly becoming part of a new cosmopolitan tropical flora of horticultural crops.

The exchange of plants between Europe and Australia was part of a continuing acceleration of plant exchange between European countries and their colonies. The exchange occurred between nurseries (see Nurseries and networks), botanic gardens, and the social elite, and it engaged botanists and gardeners as part of the process of plant globalization.

Many lives were sacrificed in the pursuit of ornamental plants, reminding us of the powerful attraction of new countries and people, and the lure of adventure 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 commercialization, and the patterns of human dispersal, as well as the role of newly-introduced plants within local and world horticulture.

The increasing use of vernacular names, the conversion of Kew to a public institution, the erosion of aristocratic wealth, and the instigation of publicly salaried scientists were all part of an ongoing democratization of society in general and science in particular. This is also demonstrated through the merging of horticulture and science notably through the use of garden periodical illustrations as type specimens when herbarium specimens were either purloined or lost.

First published on the internet – 5 September 2020
. . . revised 4 March 2021


The First Fleet arrives in Port Jackson, 27 January 1788.
Wash from Journal ‘A Voyage to New South Wales’ by William Bradley, an officer on HMS Sirius.
State Library of New South Wales Safe 1 / 14 Op p.65
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 4 March 2021

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