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The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are now regarded as the Golden Age of European botany with botanic gardens enjoying a brief period in the political sun as they played a leading role in colonial communication, trade, science, and economic botany.[4][5]

Botany was a true Enlightenment science when it was popular as never before (and would never be again) as it finally extricated itself from the medical faculties of universities to become an academic discipline in its own right. Ornamental horticulture provided a major diversion for royalty, aristocrats and the wealthy gentry of Europe. Botanic gardens swelled with rare and tantalising botanical novelties garnered from voyages of scientific exploration to unknown lands as intrepid botanists and their horticultural assistants harvested the flora of the world.

Heading this plant revolution was the Swedish natural philosopher Carl Linnaeus (1701-1778), founder of the binomial system of plant and animal nomenclature. This period of unprecedented plant popularity was a time when the fashionable indulged a lust for the beautiful, curious and new plants in a craze known as botanophilia, when plants ruled in a way that will never be repeated. Giant plant personalities of these times of botanophilia were Philip Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden, Joseph Banks – explorer, plant collector, ‘Diector’ of Kew Botanic Gardens, President of the Royal Society, Josephine Bonaparte. It was a time when the leading gardens of London, Kew, and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris engaged in keen competition among a close network of explorer botanists and gardeners, plant hunters, and nurserymen.

Colonial empires had been built on economic crops, especially spices, and this era was determined to continue in this tradition, transferring coffee, pepper, cinnamon and breadfruit into the French Caribbean.[6] It was, indeed, the era of ‘botanophilia’ when, as part of a general fashionable pursuit of the natural sciences especially in Britain and France, between about 1760 and 1815 displayed a passion for plants, which included plants that had never been seen before, collected from scientific voyages of exploration from around the globe to decorate the gardens of the wealthy and powerful, flower painting evolving into some of the world’s most outstanding botanical illustration, and the ascendancy of the English landscape style, even in France.[7] (with the possible exception of tulipomania, more a speculative phenomenon) and is unlikely to ever be seen again.

Following the example of the Jardin du Roi in Paris botanic gardens around the world would be transformed from physic gardens displaying medicinal plants to ‘system gardens’ demonstrating new systems of plant classification. Boerhaave, Director of the old Botanic garden at the University of Leiden (Holland) taught hundreds of medical students. There was the emergence of local botanical societies, publication of local floras and all kinds of literature catering for a keen botanical readership, natural history being science for the layman. It was a preoccupation that was to extend into agriculture and forestry and leave a lasting stamp on the subject?

Carl Linnaeus

Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1701-1778)

Bronze sculpture, 1982, by Robert Berks, American (b. 1922) – Chicago Botanic Garden
Enlightenment father of plant taxonomy and nomenclature. Linnaeus established the binomial system of nomenclature for plants and animals that is still in use today.
Here he expresses the curiosity and acquisitiveness of his day. The Golden Plover in the sculpture can fly for thousands of miles and symbolises Linnaeus’s student ‘disciples’ who crossed the world collecting and bringing back plants for him to name.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

The strength of the Linnaean system was that it provided a standardised, simple, logical and transparent method for classifying, naming, describing and cataloguing organisms that was desperately needed at this time when specimens were flooding into Europe from its colonies around the world. Its success depended on its general acceptance and its utility was (eventually) acknowledged and admired by virtually the entire scientific community with the exception of a few doggedly resistant French, German and English botanists and the stubborn Englishman Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Linnaeus had spent a month in England in 1736 trying to convince the skeptical English but without much success, although his abilities were evident to a range of scientists including Sir Hans Sloane and Johann Dillenius, not to mention the influential merchants Peter Collinson and John Ellis.[18] Joseph Banks was a keen supporter of his ‘system’.

It may be wondered why a Swedish botanist should have such influence on the botanists of Europe and especially Britain, on Banks and others.[20]

Botanophilia was part of the European ethos at the time when Cook and Banks discovered the east coast of the continent of Australia in 1868 and the land was settled in 1789


. Leading figures of the Enlightenment have had an influence on botany and horticulture in Australia as much as in Europe and therefore need our attention.

Miller, through his many new plant introductions, voluminous correspondence which included people like John Bartram in America, his wide British and international connections which included Hans Sloane, Linnaeus, and the Royal Society was a key figure in the foundation of the world of Western horticulture at a time when Chelsea, not Kew, was the pre-eminent garden in England. For his legacy of plants he is a founding father of neo-colonial horticulture.

In the world of plants we see in Banks’s 18th century the emergence of a new era of human impact on the environment characterized by resource transfer – trade in both ornamental garden plants and crops. It was a period that, more than any other, laid the foundations of a universal ‘Western’ (Neo-European) agriculture and horticulture:

  • Escalation in numbers of plant nurseries to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent middle class trying to emulate the lifestyles of their social superiors by growing new and exotic plants on larger garden plots

  • Large-scale transference of plants from one continent to another. No longer a few plants and packets of seed to collectors and specialist institutions but large commercial shipments, as from America (Some trade was passing in the other direction but, as yet, on a much smaller scale) to nurseries. Ornamental plants were were brought into Britain from Africa (especially South Africa), Australia and Oceania, China, the Americas (especially North America) and the Far East: it was, in effect, the opening up of global trade. Once in Britain the new plants could be quickly ‘bulked up’ in the new nurseries

  • Introduction of new technologies that streamlined gardening and which form the basis of Neo-European horticulture: conservatory-like greenhouses often adjacent to or attached to the house that greatly extended the range of warm climate plants that could be grown; introduction of plant breeding; pest control; serious study of plant acclimatization


Banks was well aware of the economic advantages of introducing plants of economic value to Britain and of distributing them through the colonies. Precedents of fortunes made and lost through the spice trade that dated back to classical times and the more recent tulipomania would have been fresh in their minds. Accounts of Bligh’s hunt for breadfruit with David Burton and other stories relating to quinine, rubber, coffee, tea, cocoa, new spices and other plants are part of fascinating 18th century economic botany.

But trade needed to be two-way. Settlers in the various new colonies needed food and as they were mostly in climatically similar temperate fertile regions of the globe to Europe, it seemed obvious to export the traditional cereals of wheat, barley and rye along with fruit trees, root vegetables and the like. The story of crop transfer from Europe around the world has been told by Alfred Crosby in his epic Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 in which he describes the distribution and use of similar plants in the ‘Neo-Europes’ (see Crosby 2009).

Socially the distribution of ornamental and crop plants through the British empire in the 18th century appears a necessary (and possibly inevitable) progression of events, but it marked a transition from minor and innocuous trade to a globalization of plants that would have far-reaching and unforeseen environmental consequences – consequences that we are now still digesting.

  • Spread of agriculture and pastoralism, perhaps the single greatest devourer of land and Ecosystem Services. With increased food supply comes increased population and increased food demand in a spiral that is generally only broken when resource depletion applies the brakes or results in population breaks the growth cycle or

  • Associated with the establishment of agricultural and pastoral systems was the infrastructure, population and heavy consumption of resources, most notably water


As major environmental side-effects to agriculture there is:

  • Extinction of species

  • Displacement of indigenous people

  • Spread of invasive organisms – the first stage in the homogenization of the world climatic zones.

Insofar as humanity was ever engaged with nature in a battle for supremacy, to control nature for its own ends, it was in the 18th century that they discovered the means to gain the upper hand as environmental issues which would soon become global were set in train. Banks, well-meaning and in complete ignorance of the consequences of his actions (what would he think if he were placed in the centre of Sydney today?) is a part of this less inspiring narrative. Humans have won (for now).

In Banks we see the close connection between botany and horticulture, nurseries and botanic gardens, even the Royal Society, the English House of Parliament and British high society all linked by the exchange of living and dried plants.

After his death in 1822 Brown leased part of Soho Square home to the Linnean Society, and on Brown’s death the herbarium collections were moved to the British Museum in 1858 and the house demolished in 1937.

Banks is commemorated in numerous geographic names and in many other ways. About 80 species now carry his name .

Banks is credited with the introduction to Europe of the First Australian live plants and seed for cultivation ( ?eucalypt, and wattle and the genus that now bears his name Banksia, named by Linnaeus’s son who had studied the plants in Banks’s home in Soho Square in London where Banks also housed an outstanding botanical library).[2]

Following this expedition he was made a baronet (knighted) in 1781 and was effectively placed in charge of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – a position that was formalized in 1797.

Banks’s was a major supporter of the internationalist nature of science, being actively involved both in keeping open the lines of communication with continental scientists during the Napoleonic Wars, and in introducing the British people to the wonders of the wider world. As befits someone associated with the revelation of the South Pacific to Europe, his name dots the map of the region: Banks Peninsula on South Island, New Zealand; the Banks Islands in modern-day Vanuatu; and Banks Island in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Linnaeus was so impressed with the natural history collections made on the first voyage (although he did not see any of them) that he thought the new continent should be named Banksia in his honour.[3] He was patron to many gardener-botanists sent out from Kew including those sent to Australia such as Peter Good etc. and on the voyage of the Endeavour his experience of living plant care, herbarium specimen collection, and ways of preserving seed viability was passed on to his charges.

Banks’s insistence on scientific representation on major voyages and teams setting off on land exploration no doubt influenced a tradition that would include Menzies on the Discovery, Labillardière on the Recherche, Brown on the Investigator, Darwin on the Beagle, Hooker on the Erebus and many more.

Banks enjoyed dining and was well aware of the economic and culinary benefits that had flower from the spice trade, potatoes and, in more recent times, coffee, cotton and tobacco. We now see in his enterprise the beginnings of globalisation as he persuaded the British government to allocate resources to botanical projects and distribute economically important plants around the world within similar climatic zones not only into Britain but from one to another if Britain’s colonies: exchange between East and West Indies. Botanical curiosity was transformed into global economics.

Politics of the day was disposed in his favour. The American War of Independence left Britain without the important American raw materials needed for its manufacturing industries and America was no longer an export market for British goods. Government desperately needed to develop trade policies and the bureaucracy to manage them. Banks was now ideally situated, acting as key advisor to the Privy Council Committee for Trade and Plantations and on familiar terms with the stakeholders: merchants, industrialists and colonial landowners. Directors of the East India Company asked him to provide both advice and gardeners to assist the cultivation of hemp in England while plantation owners in the West Indies maintained contact believing him to have ‘Knowledge, Philanthropy, Patriotism, & Influence’ that was ‘superior to all others’. When the government planned an expedition to Africa to locate a suitable site for a penal colony he was asked to provide a botanist. [4]

By slightly devious methods he imported cotton from India with details of its cultivation in the hope that Britain could compensate for the loss of trade with America by developing its own supply. A botanic garden was established in Calcutta for the purpose of trading in Asian plants of general public utility, as a testing ground for new plants of economic value for both India and Britain especially the nutmeg and cloves, trade in which was dominated by the Dutch.

Before Phillip left for Australia with the First Fleet he was a regular guest at Soho Square where he received instructions on the plants to take, received seed from Banks and notes on which plants to pick up at Rio and the Cape. Banks’s botanical collector Masson met the Fleet at the Cape, later writing to Banks informing him that the captain’s cabin in the Sirius had been packed with pots of cocoa, coffee, oranges, figs and vines.[5]

Horticultural historian Andrea Wulf summarises Banks’s legacy as follows:

One of the most influential men of the Enlightenment … who was the engine of scientific progress for more than four decades and who believed that science was the future of both Britain and humankind … Banks was generous because he believed that the sharing of knowledge would bring progress … one of the most fascinating men of Georgian England.[7]

‘… he consolidated practical horticulture, systematic botany and imperial expansion into a coherent enterprise. As President of the Royal society, Member of the Privy Council, confidant of King George III and founder of the Horticultural Society, he, more than anyone before or after him, saw how the three elements could bring pleasure and prosperity to a nation.’

Agreeing with Adam Smith’s tenet that ‘commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country’, Banks had steered – stoically and with perseverance – the country in a direction that would shape Britain’s empire, economy and society for the next century. Plants not only changed the English landscape but the very fabric of the nation, contributing to the country’s global dominance and imperial strength.[6]

(extra material) Eighteenth Century Botanophilia
The 18thcentury produced a seismic change in British horticulture both in terms of the vastly increased range of plants but it also resulted in much broader gardening community that included a newly affluent middle class who purchased their plants from large up-market fashionable plant nurseries. From the 1720s to the 1760s exports to America increased four times and to the West Indies seven times creating a wealthy merchant class.

Some American plants had been introduced much earlier by the John Tradescants – the Elder (c. 1570s – 1638), and Younger (1608 – 1662) – who were botanists, naturalists, travellers and gardeners to the aristocracy and royalty. Father Tradescant had travelled collecting seeds, bulbs and natural history curios which were housed in his ‘cabinet’ in Lambeth known as ‘The Ark’, England’s first public museum. Their botanical garden in Lambeth was a celebration of their pioneering work in the introduction of new plants. John the Elder had introduced American plants via his colonial friend John Smith while John the Younger had travelled in person to Virginia between 1628 and 1637. The pair are now buried in the churchyard of St-Mary-at-Lambeth, site of a Museum of Garden History.

Much of the new 18th century trade in American plants was between wealthy cloth merchant Peter Collinson a Quaker and plant importer who became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1728 in recognition of this work. Collinson would receive large shipments of plants from fellow Quaker, John Bartram, who was a resident of Philadelphia who established America’s first botanic garden and was once described by Linnaeus as a truly great ‘natural botanist’. This was business on a grand scale supplying stock to the many new garden nurseries that were springing up in London.

American plants were temperate and easier to grow than the fashionable and delicate South African bulbs, the favoured plants that had preceded the new craze. This influx of American plants transformed the British landscape, replacing the relatively drab browns and yellows of the deciduous native trees with the vivid reds, maroons, and oranges of American maples, the scarlet oak, and liquidambars which were eagerly added to the palette of landscape trees used for the new English Romantic garden style (Le Jardin Anglais) that evolved through the work of Charles Bridgman (1690-1738), William Kent (1685-1748) and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1785) leading to the more considered work of Humphry Repton (1752 – 1818) the last of the great 18th century English landscapers to captivate Europe’s wealthy estate owners.

In the latter part of the century Banks not only transferred the sphere of interest from the New World to Australia but added to the British garden flora thousands of new plants from Africa, Australia and the Far East).

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