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Plant introduction to the West

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From the wild to cultivation

Europe, Britain, the Neo-Europes & beyond

Human transfer of plants aross the Western hemisphere began with the prehistoric transfer of crops across Europe in the Neolithic Revolution. Both economic and ornamental plants were subsequently collected in antiquity during expeditions of exploration or as trophies returned home following military campaigns establishing the pattern of international plant redistribution to follow.

Further introductions followed gathering momentum with the expansion of the great European maritime trade routes beginning in the Mediterranean but later reaching into the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Wardian Case

Wardian Case 1852
Designed by English botanist and physician Nathaniel Ward, this was an effective means of transporting plants, especially for the trade in ornamental and other plants between Australia and England
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

However, the collections of antiquity were just a small trickle before the flood of plant redistribution across the globe that gatthered momentum from about the time of the European Renaissance. Starting in southern Europe political and economic influence gradually shifted across Europe from Italy, Greece and Rome to Austria and the Netherlands, then to Paris and London: that is from southern to north-western Europe, from the influence of the Mediterranean Sea to the new social and economic possibilities that opened up in the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean.

Development of botanic gardens followed a similar path starting in Italian Pisa (est. 1544), Florence (1545) and Padua (1545), Zurich Switzerland (1560), Valencia Spain (1567), Leipzig Germany (1580), Leiden Holland (1587), Montpelier (1593) and Jardin des Plantes (1635, but as the Jardin du Roi in 1597), England’s Oxford Botanic garden (1621), Chelsea Physic Garden (1673), Scotland’s Edinburgh Botanic Garden (1670), Copenhagen Denmark (1600), Uppsala Sweden (1655). It took about 100 years for the botanical Renaissance to make its way north-west across Europe from Italy to Scandinavia and London following the path of political fortunes.

By the late eighteenth century England had established itself as the pre-eminent political and economic power and its position in European horticulture was becoming secure. The English Landscape style and Britain’s years of botanical exploration had set Albion at the forefront of horticulture and plant introduction.

England’s political and economic power has waned but its horticultural supremacy has continued unchecked.

Evolution of a global cultivated flora

See also Cultivated plant globalization.
It now seems of little consequence that the plants grown in our parks and gardens come not only from Australia but also from the Americas, China, Japan, the Mediterranean and indeed, the world.  Australian horticulture is derived from the horticulture of western Europe, essentially that of Britain.[1] The eclectic international mix of ornamental plants introduced to Australia largely reflects the horticultural fashions and interests that have been in vogue in Europe while, in turn, the palette of plants available in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries at the time of Auastralian settlement reflected its own horticultural and cultural heritage embedded in politics, travel and trade.

Geographic periods of 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 cultural periods:

  1. European period to 1560 (Middle Ages & Renaissance)
  2. Near East period, especially bulbous plants, 1560-1620 (Renaissance)
  3. Canadian and Virginian herbaceous plants period 1620-1686 (Baroque)
  4. Cape of South Africa period 1687-1772 (Rococo)
  5. Period of North American trees and shrubs 1687-1772 (Enlightenment)
  6. Period of Australian plants 1772-1820 (Imperialism)

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

  1. Period of tropical glasshouse plants and hardy plants from Japan and North America 1820-1900
  2. Period of west Chinese plants 1900-1930
  3. Period of intensive breeding and selection 1930 onwards

To this could be added yet another more recent phase, a consequence of advanced biotechnology:

  1. Genetic engineering  1990 onwards

From the Middle Ages to Early Renaissance

Early Europe

See also Medieval gardens 450-1100 CE & Medieval gardens 1100-1500 CE
The first period was a time when pleasure gardens were relatively few (mostly monastic walled gardens) although a few plants, particularly herbs, spices and fruits had, in classical times, travelled from Asia along the Silk Road into Europe and others were brought back from Greek and Roman military campaigns following similar campaigns by the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

1560-1620 Renaissance. Near East

See also Tudor gardens 1550-1650 CE.
Mid sixteenth century was the period when the Ottoman empire reached its peak of economic and military power many plants being imported as a result of the Ottoman trade with the powerful Austrians but also through the influence of the Netherlands and Leiden.

Across Europe the stately country house was now replacing the castle and the general ethos was now much more conducive to ornamental gardening.

From the Near East came seeds, bulbs and tubers from south-east Europe to adjacent Asia. From the Balkans and Turkey came the spectacularly colourful, early-flowering, and often fragrant tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, Fritillaria imperialis, and irises as well as anemones and woody plants like the lilac, Philadelphus coronarius, from Turkey came Prunus laurocerasus, the Horsechestnut Aesculus hippocastanum. Variety was limited but numbers large. Flemish-Austrian Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) was an outstanding horticultural botanist and eminent personality of these times his interest in plants leading him first to train in Montpelier France before moving to Vienna, the Frankfurt and then as professor to the University of Leiden where he helped establish a botanic garden. No doubt his work on tulips was a contributing factor to the ‘tulipomania’ that was raging through Europe in the 1630s.[10]

Some plants also flowed in from the Spanish dominions of America arriving via Spain, often plants from upland regions of Mexico, they included the sunflower and nasturtium as well as vital economic plants like maize, tomato, capsicum, potato and tobacco.

Another source was plumbed when from Canada, arriving in Paris very early in the seventeenth century came the conifer Thuja occidentalis the Arborvitae which was soon available across Europe.

It would not be until after the Napoleanic wars that England would take the undisputed leading role in European horticulture, its dominance through this period reflecting the economic and political power of the day.

1620-1686 Baroque. Atlantic America

See also Stuart gardens
The Atlantic seaboard of North America saw three phases of plant introduction, first from French settlements in Canada), then from British settlements in Virginia, but also from Dutch settlements.

Phase one began with French introductions in the first 20 years of the seventeenth century. With Dutch sea power now engaged mostly in the tropics, both East and West Indies especially (but also to the Cape), Paris took on the role of plant introduction from the lakes and forests of Canada. At this stage the plants were mostly perennials such as those in the genera Trillium, Tradescantia, Corydalis, Solidago and Rudbeckia although there was also the tree Robinia graced the rapidly expanding Jardin du Roi which increased from 2133 different kinds in 1636 to about 4000 in 1665, probably eclipsing all other European gardens at this time. In spite of its name this garden was an independent educational and scientific institution with a royal endowment that began its life dedicated to pharmaceutical botany but expanding until its hey-day in the Enlightenment natural history of the eighteenth century when it was the accepted European centre of biological learning and the oldest non-university botanical garden still in existence.[9] New introductions rapidly found their way into the gardens of other European countries, especially those of the English.

The second phase was of English introductions although at this time English gardens had fewer species than those on the continent and the new introductions tended to go into private London collections like those of Bishop Compton at Fulham, and the Tradescants at Lambeth, plants now garden favourites: Magnolia virginiana, Acer rubrum, Liriodendron tulipifera, Juglans nigra. These too were passed on, especially to Holland which, with its own settlements in North America was making its own introductions to the Leiden and Amsterdam gardens notably Aster novi-angliae and Aster novi-belgii and contributing to a third phase of plant introduction to European gardens.[11]

1686-1772. Rococo. Cape of South Africa & North American trees & shrubs

See also Georgian gardens.

Dutch ascendancy

The first European to officially sight the Cape of South Africa was the Portuguese European Bartholomew Diaz in 1488. Ten years later it was rounded by Vasco da Gama in 1499 on his way into the Indian Ocean to establish a new trade route. The Cape was a vital provisioning point through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a half-way stop and provisioning port for the Dutch East India Company ships that were working the spice trade to India and the East Indies. With the increasing political and economic power of the Dutch this strategic post was seized by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 as Holland entered a Golden Age.

Wealthy merchants (like the banker George Clifford who employed from 1735-1737 Carl Linnaeus to make an inventory of the collections in his garden and glasshouses) were now able to impress their influential friends with fascinating new and beautiful exotic plants. The great physicians of the day Paul Hermann (1646-1695) and Herman Boerhave (1668-1738) were successors to the eminent Carolus Clusius (1526–1609), professors at the University and directors of the Leiden Botanic Garden. Though trained in the medicinal use of plants could not now resist the opportunity to accumulate the curious, beautiful and new plants brought to them by traders and explorers. We can hear the stirrings of a plant mania that would soon grip Europe’s social elite in the words of Paul Boerhaave published in 1720 in his Index Alter ‘practically no captain, whether of a merchant ship or a man-o-war, left our harbours without special instructions to collect everywhere seeds, roots, cuttings, and shrubs and bring them back to Holland’ – this was the overwhelming sentiment that would drive Banks and Solander in their voyage with Cook in HMS Endeavour some fifty years later and Banks would later purchase the dried botanical collections of Hermann now housed in the British Museum of Natural History.

Boerhaave’s period was characterised by plant accumulation at Leiden while at Amsterdam the same process was going on under the directorship of Jan Commelin (1629-1692). At the same time the state-of-the-art Dutch publishing houses were making new botanical theory and knowledge available to an eager readership in particular the works of Linnaeus.[12]

The Cape, being one of the world’s most floristically diverse regions, it was the source of plants like succulents (including mesembryanthemums, Crassula, Cotyledon, Aloe, Haworthia, Gasteria), ‘bulbs’ (Oxalis, Haemanthus, Ornithogalum), also pelargoniums (like Pelargonium zonale and P. peltatum), iridaceous plants and many others including Protea argentea: Erica was not introduced until the late 18th century.

Plants brought back to the Amsterdam and Leiden botanic gardens that freely exchanged both plants and seed with other major botanic gardens in Europe where they then passed into private collections.

The once impressive living plant collections in Italian, German and French gardens were now being eclipsed by those in Dutch and English gardens as horticultural ascendancy passed to Leiden and Amsterdam Botanic Gardens before these too succumbed, in plant number and diversity, to the collection accumulated by Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. At its height in 1720 Boerhaave’s index of the Leiden gardens could boast nearly 6000 diffferent kinds. By contrast Linnaeus’s Botanic Garden in Uppsala contained only 987 species in 1748, his successor Thunberg, an avid collector, lists in his 1803 index a mere 2906 species.[13]


Invention of precursors to the modern glasshouse have been to Italy in 1547, its advantages were quickly realised and soon copied in horticultural centres like Leiden noted for its addition of heating but quickly used elsewhere and known as glasshouses, the name conservatory being preferred today. It was sophisticated adaptation of a system previously used by the Romans. Development of the glasshouse was encouraged by a steady flow of plants mainly from the Cape of South Africa but also Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and beyond, the Dutch pioneering the use of heated glasshouses, orangeries and conservatories to protect these tender plants in winter. Glasshouse collections of this period consisted mostly of Cape plants and the old Mediterranean collections.

North American trees & shrubs

After the burst of Cape plants came more plants from Canada-Virginia but this time woody ones. There was now also a gathering communication across the Atlantic between Britain and its settlers on the eastern North American seaboard relating to the serious shortage of ship-building timber in England from 1660 onwards as well as the increasing popularity of landscaped parkland and arboreta associated with country estates.[3] Introductions included the American liquidambars, maples, poplars, ashes, oaks, lindens, horse-chestnuts and more. Plants sent by people like resident John Bartram (who in 1731 founded near Philadelphia America’s first botanic garden) and collector Mark Catesby whose plants would pass into the private English gardens of people like Peter Collinson at Peckham, James Sherard at Eltham and many others.

As English political and economic fortunes rose so too did the fortunes of the landed gentry creating on their estates the English landscape style that would win the admiration of European society. More and more plants poured into England from colonies and protectorates as Britain now assumed European horticultural supremacy, a position it holds to this day.

1772-1820 Early Empire & Australia

See also Georgian gardens.

Introduction of Australian plants to Britain began with the introductions from Cook’s Endeavour voyage with Banks and Solander round New Zealand, New Holland, Tasmania and the South Pacific, causing a great stir. France too mounted its own voyages of scientific exploration that included New Holland as a destination. Australian plants enjoyed a period of popularity in fashionable European gardens from about 1795 to 1835. By 1820 there was a steady and profitable flow of plants to Europe that peaked in the 1830s, diminishing under the challenge of spectacular plants from further new sources which had greater reliability.[4]

Not really suited to the English climate their popularity was aided by the newly developed heated glasshouses with cast-iron hot water pipes that appeared in the early 19th century, replacing hot-air flues and braziers. Meanwhile there was an increase in the number of specialist nurseries dealing with such plants (possibly as many as 100 in Britain[5]

Interest in plants and horticulture did not diminish and commercially successful nurseries Veitch of Chelsea and Sanders of St Albans sent out their own collectors to the tropics – orchids at this time proving exceptionally popular. Private collectors, botanical and horticultural bounty hunters, were becoming more common. As settlers struggled to found the new colony in Sydney the industrial revolution in Britain had produced an affluent middle class keen to emulate the interests of the more wealthy and the technology to do this was becoming available. The early 19th century was a new era of conservatories whose cast-iron hot water pipes produced humidity ideal for the craze of tropical orchids that was under way. Large sheets of glass could now be supported on tough iron frames and plants much more reliably transported for many months and miles in the new Wardian Cases designed by Nathaniel Ward. The era of glasshouses ended in about 1900 and William Stearn suggests the presence of a few tropical plants in most houses to this day is a legacy of this period.[6]

1820-1900 Japan and American hardy plants

See also Victorian gardens.

Life was becoming quicker, more complex, more urban and globally integrated as the Industrial Revolution took hold steamships plied the trade routes and railways built.

A tropical botanica garden was opened at Bogor, Indonesia, in 1817 and more tropical plants were finding their way into the carefully engineered and sophisticated new glasshouses. Botanic gardens had now largely lost their old physic garden character, taking on the more modern role of displaying global plant diversity. There were two more major periods to influence European horticulture that were passed on to the burgeoning gardeners who were finding their feet in Australia: the introduction of hardy plants from newly opened Japanese ports and North America that arrived during the glasshouse boom but later, in the early twentieth century, there was a huge influx of plants from west China.

David Douglas & Robert Fortune
In a romantic era of plant hunting the Horticultural Society of London sent out Scottish gardener David Douglas (commemorated in the common name Douglas Fir) to north America, first in 1823 to the east coast then in 1824 to the west, and again in 1829 to California and Mexico sending back to England an abundant haul of seed and specimens. He was later to die in Hawaii, gored to death after falling into an occupied bear pit.

1900-1930 West China

Another Scot, Robert Fortune was then sent out to China in 1842 and although plants had been sent from China for many years his collections from coastal China surpassed them all. The Dutch gained access to the closed country, Japan, through Phillip Siebold a doctor to the Dutch traders. He gained access to the mainland and its plants in the 1820s. Later, as Japan opened to foreigners between 1854 and 1860 one of the first collectors was John Veitch of the now famous Veitch nursery in Exeter which eventually also opened in Chelsea, London. John Veitch had trained in the Lees nursery at Hammersmith whose Australian plants had probably whetted his appetite for botanical exploration. It was not until the period 1860 to 1890 that the botanical and horticultural riches of inland China were revealed to the west by collectors like Henry, David and the collector Ernest Wilson sent out by Veitch’s nursery in 1902, 1907, 1910 with a huge haul of seeds, dried specimens and 35 cases of living rootstocks and bulbs ­– including maples, liliums, Chinese gooseberry, viburnums, roses and rhododendrons.[7] Wilson was followed by George Forest who made seven expeditions to paying customers, mainly in Yunnan, returning many rhododendrons. He was followed in turn by Reginald Farrer collecting mostly in the more temperate Kansu and other horticultural heroes like Frank Meyer, Frank Kingdon-Ward, Joseph Rock and others. These Chinese collections made a lasting impact on western and Australian horticulture and mark the last major phase of horticultural and botanical colonialism.

Vegetables and crops
Of course plant introduction was not just of ornamentals, food plants and know-how about their husbandry was always of interest.

In the reign of Elizabeth 1 protestant refugees had introduced intensive market gardening in the south-east.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

See also future gardening for references.

With the arrival of Europeans in Australia came a whole ‘plant package’ that included laws concerning land and property ownership, general values and beliefs about the human relationship to the natural world, and the plant management practices and technologies of agriculture and horticulture. This was in stark contrast to the beliefs and practices of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants who had not developed either agriculture or horticulture and who, during their c. 60,000 year presence, had introduced few if any plants from outside the continent. The change was sudden and drastic. In 225 years the continent’s new inhabitants introduced tens of thousands of new plants and commandeered well over half the land surface for crops, pasture and forestry.

Today the total number of botanically described seed plants in the world is estimated to be about 270, 000. At the time of the Roman Empire about 1300 and 1400 different plants had been recorded in the West. By 1613 an attempt by Frenchman Jean Bauhin to calculate the total number of plants in the world put the figure at about 4000, his son Gaspard increasing this number of published species to 6000 in 1623. World-renowned Swedish naturalist of the eighteenth century Carl Linnaeus, in his entire career assembled the names of about 7,700 species of flowering plants. In 1753, less than 40 years before Australian settlement, he believed that the total number of plant species in the world was unlikely to exceed 10,000.

During the eighteenth century period of colonial expansion and descriptive science the number of known plant species in the world would rocket to well over a hundred thousand and in the period between 1731 and 1768 the number of species cultivated in England doubled as plants came in from North America, the Cape of South Africa, Siberia, and the East and West Indies and Britain’s gardens absorbed the influx of new plants.

As the Industrial Revolution increased the wealth of the British middle classes, demand for garden plants created a surge in new plant nurseries. Garden and agricultural plants from around the world assembled in Britain to be redistributed around the globe in an unprecedented fervour of economic botany.

Britain, with a meagre indigenous flora, now has a vast global cultivated flora accumulated from around the world in a tradition of acquisition that has continued to the present day. Of the 3,842 higher plant species that grow in nature on British soil, but outside its gardens, about 50% are naturalised leaving a meagre 1,500 or so indigenous plants (plants native to Britain). The 2013 Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder, essentially a listing of all the commercially available garden plants in the British Isles, proudly lists over 70,000 different plants (species and cultivars). Australia’s equivalent book, The Aussie Plant Finder of 2004, listed more than 35,000 different commercially available garden plants linked to retail outlets. The actual number of introduced plants is likely to be much higher.

In the face of these figures, it perhaps seems paradoxical that in 1977 the Royal Horticultural Society should set up the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (now Plant Heritage) to ‘Conserve Cultivated Plants’. It would seem to any conservation biologist a bizarre twist of conservation thinking in the light of such a depauperate indigenous flora that cultivated plants should generate so much concern, but perhaps not surprising for a country seemingly obsessed with gardening. Clearly the devotion to collections of species and cultivars encouraged by Plant Heritage demonstrates that the plant collecting impulse is alive and well today.

British plant acquisitiveness has been eagerly taken up in Australia where the cultivated flora has arrived largely from the British gardening palette, in the early days fed, in part, through botanic gardens. In spite of having a much richer native flora than Britain (estimated to be over 25,000 taxa) Australia also has thousands of exotic (non-Australian) garden plants, many recorded in the Horticultural Flora of South-Eastern Australia’s five hefty volumes.[14] No equivalent flora covers our northern gardens, so estimates of the total number of Australia’s garden plants remains difficult to assess. Following the English lead, Australia has set about the conservation of garden plants through the Garden Plant Conservation Association of Australia Inc. (founded in 1986 as the Ornamental Plant Collections Association).

Plants at first sucked into Europe would later be dispersed across colonial empires. We are only now beginning to recognise the massive scale of post-seventeenth-century plant redistribution across the planet (much of it the result of British colonial expansion, industry, and interest) and its implications not only for Australia but also for global ecology, global landscapes, and the future.

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