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For the origins of plant science see Theophrastus; for a summary of the world’s eminent plant people see people of plant science; for a list of the names of eminent Australian plant plant people see plant people of Australia; for a brief world history of plant science see plant science – part 1 and plant science – part 2; for a discussion of Aboriginal plant use see Aboriginal plant use for culture and tools and Aboriginal plant use for food and medicine

Australian botany

Cultural history & introduction to exploration

This article gives and outline of botanical history dealt with in more detail in linked articles (see hyperlinks).

Ferdinand Mueller

Ferdinand Mueller (1825-1896)
Australia’s greatest botanist
Portrait from the 1890s

The most comprehensive history of botanical science in general is that published by Englishman Alan Morton in 1981.[2] A thorough introductory account to Australia’s taxonomic botany is given in the second edition of Volume 1 of the Flora of Australia (1999).[2] Philip Short has assembled papers in History of Systematic Botany in Australasia (1990) while a brief informal summary, including consideration of sustainability, has been given by Stephen Hopper, Australia’s former Director of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (2013).[2]

European plant science was an integral part of the ethos of British colonial settlement of Australia as the culmination of Europe’s Age of Discovery and scientific exploration that was such an important part of the European Scientific Revolution. Settlement occurred during the European Age of Enlightenment when botany verged on being an obsession (called botanophilia) among European intellectuals, royalty and wealthy elite. It was Britain that had finally grasped the European torch of empire as, during the Age of Discovery, it had passed from Portugal and Spain to Holland in a Dutch Golden Age that lasted through the 17th century before the ascendancy of France and Britain and their science.

Britain’s interest in Australian plants was overseen by the internationally renowned Joseph Banks. He had sailed as botanist with Daniel Solander in HMS Endeavour on Cook’s first voyage of scientific exploration to the Pacific, a voyage that captured the imagination of European society. Days were spent eagerly collecting plants at what was called Botany Bay and on returning to London he became de facto Director of Kew Gardens. Banks had a plant vision that included not only the ornamental plant trophies so desired by Europe’s elite but also the national benefits that could accrue from the maximum exploitation of global economic botany. Out of his scientific curiosity and passion for ornamental plants, coupled with his ability to coordinate and administer this world of plants, Banks converted Kew into ‘a great botanical exchange house for the Empire’.[2]

The towering figure of Ferdinand Mueller dominates the story of Australian botany. Though plants for the provision of food was always of first importance for the settlers and economic botany was never far from Mueller‘s attention, it was the exploratory collection, naming and classification of the native flora that occupied most of the time of th ecolonial botanists.

Much of Australia’s botanical history is locked up in the collections of dried specimens housed in its state herbaria. The general significance of these collection is similar for every herbarium and is summarized in a ‘significance assessment’ of the collections in the National Herbarium of Victoria, known as the State Botanical Collection (SBC):

. . . Material in the SBC illustrates many important stories central to global exploration and the discovery of Australia, as well as to Australian inland expeditions in the 19th century, which helped to shape settlement of the continent. It comprises information about the growth of botany as a scientific discipline in Australia, increased botanical knowledge of Australia’s flora (both in Australia and globally), and our understanding of the country’s diverse and changing plant life … The foreign collection includes examples of extinct, rare and endangered material, enables comparative research on the distribution of plants throughout the world, and provides essential risk mitigation against potential losses at herbaria in other countries … The archive comprises comprehensive material on the history and development of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, while the botanical art collection includes artworks from Australia’s finest botanical artists from the 19th to the 21st centuries.[1]

Australia was quickly versed in the new theory of evolution but slow in institutional recognition. In England biologist and palaeontologist Richard Owen had taken a special interest in Australia and the Pacific while bitterly attacking the new Darwinian ideas and he had considerable support from creationists in Australia including people like McCoy, Macleay and Mueller (who always rejected evolution). Change came only with a new breed like Baldwin Spencer and Edward Stirling.

Australian herbaria

Plants stored in herbaria are recorded under a herbarium code so, for example, plants housed at the National Herbarium of Victoria at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria have the code MEL.

ACH Women’s and Children’s Hospital South Australia. ADELAIDE.
AD State Herbarium of South Australia South Australia. ADELAIDE.
ADA Department of agriculture South Australia. ADELAIDE.
ADT Antarctic Division Tasmania. KINGSTON.
ADU University of Adelaide South Australia. ADELAIDE.
ADW University of Adelaide South Australia. ADELAIDE.
AIMS Australian Institute of Marine Science Queensland. TOWNSVILLE.
ANUC Australian National University Australian Capital Territory. CANBERRA.
BRI Queensland Herbarium Queensland. BRISBANE.
BRIP Department of Primary Industries Queensland. INDOOROOPILLY.
BRIU University of Queensland Queensland. SAINT LUCIA.
CAIRNS c/o North Queensland Naturalists’ Club Queensland. CAIRNS.
CANB Australian National Herbarium Australian Capital Territory. CANBERRA.
CBG Australian National Botanic Gardens Australian Capital Territory. CANBERRA.
CFSHB North Coast Regional Botanic Gardens New South Wales. COFFS HARBOUR.
CNS Australian Tropical Herbarium Queensland. CAIRNS.
DAR Orange Agricultural Institute New South Wales. ORANGE.
DMHN The University of Newcastle New South Wales. Callaghan, Newcastle.
DNA Department of Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and sport Australia. Northern Territory. Palmerston.
ECU Edith Cowan University Western Australia. JOONDALUP.
FRI CSIRO Australia. Australian Capital Territory. CANBERRA.
GAUBA Australian National University Australian Capital Territory.CANBERRA.
HO Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery Tasmania. HOBART.
JCT James Cook University Australia. Queensland. TOWNSVILLE.
KPBG Kings Park and Botanic garden Western Australia. PERTH.
LTB La Trobe University Victoria. MELBOURNE.
MBA Environmental Protection Agency Queensland. MAREEBA.
MEL Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. MELBOURNE.
MELU University of Melbourne Victoria. MELBOURNE.
MQU Macquarie University New South Wales. North Ryde.
MUCV Monash University Victoria. MELBOURNE.
MURU Murdoch University Western Australia. PERTH.
NE University of New England New South Wales. ARMIDALE.
NSW Royal Botanic Gardens New South Wales. SYDNEY.
NSWF State Forests of New South Wales New South Wales. SYDNEY.
NT Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts Australia. Northern Territory. ALICE SPRINGS.
PERTH Western Australian Herbarium Western Australia. Perth.
PHARM Southern Cross University Australia. New South Wales. Lismore.
QRS CSIRO Australia. Queensland. ATHERTON.
SYD University of Sydney New South Wales. SYDNEY.
UNSW University of New South Wales New South Wales. SYDNEY.
UWA University of Western Australia Western Australia. PERTH.
VPRI Victorian Department of Primary Industries Victoria. KNOXFIELD.
WAC Agriculture Western Australia Western Australia. PERTH.
WOLL University of Wollongong New South Wales. WOLLONGONG.

Extracted from Index Herbariorum: Part 1 Herbaria of the World []

Collaborative projects
Following the completion of the monumental Flora Australiensis (itself one part of the inventory of plants growing throughout the British Empire) each state tended to follow its own path although in the last thirty years or so that the need for a collective effort has been evident in several areas.

Australian Plant Name Index
Alex George was a botanist with the West Australian Herbarium who worked with Gardner, was chief editor of the Flora of Australia project for many years and was interested in. A member of staff of the Western Australian Herbarium 1959­-1981. From 1981-­1993 foundation Executive Editor of the Flora of Australia when it commenced in 1979. Herbarium of over 17,000 specimens.[1]

The Australian Plant Name Index (APNI) was the inspiration of one of Australia’s most prominent botanists, Nancy Burbidge. It was compiled over a period of 15 years from literature in herbaria and botanical libraries around the world, and published in 1991 as a 4-volume set of 3,055 pages, treating over 60,000 names. Originally compiled by Arthur Chapman of the Australian Biological Resources Study, the underlying database of the Australian Plant name Index was transferred to the Australian National Botanic Gardens in 1991 as its foundation dataset, and as a public-good Internet resource.

Following the formation of the collaborative Centre for Plant biodiversity Research in 1993, APNI was adopted as the standard dataset for plant names for the Australian National Herbarium, and as a key resource for the Flora of Australia program of ABRS.

APNI available at

 Census of Australian Vascular Plants
In 1990 a Census of Australian Vascular Plants was published by Roger Hnatiuk[2] (second Director of the Australian National Botanic Gardens (1990-1992) as a compendium of State lists. It had been first mooted in 1979 as part of the Australian Biological Resources Study. This was the first national census of plants since Mueller’s 1889 Second Systematic Census of Australian Plants which recorded 8,839 species. The 7-volume Flora Australiensis had included descriptions and keys to 8,125 taxa. The new assumed near-comprehensive account recorded a total of 17,590 species of which 1,952 (about 11%) were naturalised aliens.

Flora of Australia
In 1981 ABRS initiated the ambitious Flora of Australia, the first nation-wide Flora since the Flora Australiensis of Bentham and Mueller and mostly federally funded. The history of its gestation as well as an outline of botanists, collectors and early voyagers is outlined in the second edition of Volume 1.

Systematics Agenda 2000
An international team of systematists established basic global goals in 1990 with three key goals: firstly, discovery, cataloguing and description of diversity; secondly, conversion of this information into a phylogenetic classification system; presentation of this work in a practical form. The situation was reviewed in 2009-2010.

Global Strategy for Plant Conservation[3]
This is a product of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) initiated in 1988 to explore the need for an international convention on biological diversity and by 4 June 1993 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio “Earth Summit”)  had 168 signatures to a draft document which came into force on 29 December 1993. The Convention on Biological Diversity was inspired by a global commitment to sustainable development, the conservation of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of genetic resources.

One goal of the Strategy is a world online Flora which includes an assessment of the conservation status of all plants.

The Australian Virtual Herbarium (AVH)
Australia’s major state and territory herbaria house over six million plant, algae and fungi specimens. The AVH provides access to data stored with these specimens provides the most comprehensive account of the distribution of Australia’s flora.  On the AVH web site you can search, map, download and analyse records from the databases of the major herbaria in Australia.[4]

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