Development of distance trade in Europe, which began in the Middle Ages, would develop into the international trade networks, mercantilism, and colonial expansion that preceded the Industrial Revolution. The outcome was a global economy with a sophisticated financial system of banking, insurance, and investment. Economic botany would play a major part in this complex social transition.
High on the list of socially captivating plants up to about the 18th century were the aromatic herbs and spices, and medicinal plants. Our fascination with these plants probably dates back to their associations with gods and the spirit world. Their scarcity, religious significance, use as food additives, and association with distant paradise-like places guaranteed them high social status as luxury goods accessible only to the rich and powerful in a tradition that dates back to Bronze Age priesthoods and, before that, the shaman/medicine-men of pre-history. These aromata played a major role in Roman, and before that Greek, Egyptian and other civilizations, the use of scents and perfumes in religious observance continuing to this day.
The Age of Plants was launched when Europeans decided to by-pass the Arab and Indian merchant middlemen who controlled the lucrative trade in nutmeg and cloves sourced from a secret location in the East Indies.
The desire to control this trade resulted in a spice race that opened up maritime trade routes westward to the Americas and West Indies, and eastward to India and East Indies generating considerable wealth for the maritime countries of north-west Europe that faced the Atlantic Ocean. Western trade, formerly confined to the Mediterranean, now had unimpeded access to the world through the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. The resulting commerce would eventually create a global economy made famous by Spanish conquistadores plundering the gold and silver of native peoples but affecting peoples’ lives more directly through a circular Atlantic economy that involved trading in new food plants and the African slaves needed to maintain plantations of cotton, sugar, tobacco and rubber. First Spain and Portugal, then Holland, fought to control this trade.
Columbus’s voyages (1492) had opened up an Atlantic ‘Columbian Exchange’ (Crosby 2004) of plants, sometimes grown as plantation crops, and these would transform European cuisine.
Exchange of animals and plants between Europe and the Americas included not only agricultural and horticultural crops but their commensals and diseases in a fusion of Old World and New World biology now known as the ‘Columbian Exchange’(Crosby, 2004), named after Christopher Columbus. During the Great Divergence the western food palette, much of it inherited from the Roman Empire, was enhanced by the horticultural crops that were the spoils of exploration. These included not only vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, but food additives like sugar, beverages like tea, and coffee, but also non-food crops like tobacco, cotton, and rubber – essentially economically important plants not included in the other groups. New World food crops passing to Europe included avocado, cashew, cassava, chilli peppers, cocoa, Jerusalem artichoke, Lima bean, peanuts, pineapple, pumpkin, French and runner beans, squash, sunflower, sweet potato, and vanilla – but perhaps most notably the tomato and potato (Vaughan & Geissler, 1998). In return, Old World crops introduced to the New World (in addition to the traditional cereals) included the apple, apricot, eggplant (aubergine), cabbage, chick pea, citrus, coffee, grapes, mango, olives, onions, peaches, pears, spinach, sugarbeet, and tea. From Africa came sorghum, henna, and watermelons (Vaughan & Geissler, 1998).
Garden plants appear to have been of little economic or environmental consequence in this exchange but there were several important consequences. American trees and shrubs with spectacularly coloured autumn foliage (e.g. maples, liquidambar) would transform European and later world temperate landscapes. The development of a commercial nursery industry to feed the British hunger for garden plant novelty was also popular on the continent as a tradition and enthusiastic hobby to be passed on to the colonial Neo-Europes. Unfortunately ornamental plants occasionally jumped garden fences
Today’s seemingly inconsequential medicinal plants had initiated the establishment of the first Renaissance botanic gardens in Italian universities where plant medicine would be transformed into modern plant science: and today’s seemingly inconsequential spices initiated the global economy.
Clearly there is a close connection between economic botany, plant hunting and exploration, and Cultivated plant globalization.
Cultivated plant globalization
The human relationship to plants has passed through three major phases: as an association with wild nature and wild plants, to the cultural environment of cultivated plants and agriculture in rural environments adjacent to wild nature, to urban-industrial cities societies that have supplemented the life-sustaining energy of food plants with the additional cultural benefits made possible by the use of the concentrated plant energy present in fossil fuels to post-industrial societies.
Globally, wild natural landscapes have been progressively transformed into cultural landscapes. Though the effects of human fires in prehistory cannot be ignored, along with the use of land for agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution, the rate of land appropriation for human use has increased dramatically over the last 300 years during the Great Divergence as the world population has increased from about 480 million in 1550 to 2 billion in 1800 and 7.5 billion in 2018. Today more than half the population lives in cities and by some estimates more than half of the earth’s ice-free land comprises rangeland, pasture, crops, and human settlements. Cultivated plants now cover a significant proportion of the earth’s land surface and, as anthropogenic biomes (anthromes) they are a key global indicator of human planetary impact in the Anthropocene requiring global monitoring and integration with other ecosystems. It is the task of cultivated plant taxonomy to monitor the classification and nomenclature of the cultigens (anthropogenic plants) that constitute the bulk of these cultivated plants.
The study of the historical geography of cultivated plants (the factors that have given rise to their current distribution and species composition) is still in its infancy. The distribution of wild plants proceeds as an examination of biotic and abiotic factors. Spencer and Cross (in press) have accounted for the human factor in plant distribution by relating the historically sequential distribution of six economically important plant groups (cereals and staple crops, spices and medicinal plants, horticultural crops, timber trees, ornamental plants, and naturalised plants) to four broad and interlinked geopolitical historical periods (the Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000-2000 BCE), Bronze Age civilizations and trading networks (c. 4000-750BCE), historic mostly land trade between East and West (c.3500 BCE-1500 CE), and the Great Divergence (c.1550-1914).
Neolithic Revolution – c. 10,000-2000 BCE
The first major phase of plant cultivation modifying plant geography is generally associated with settled communities of the Neolithic Revolution that grew and distributed cereals along fertile river valleys in the Near East, India, China, the Americas around 10,000 to 6000 BCE although plantations of banana and taro in the highlands of New Guinea are believed to date back about 10,000 years. The first gardens and functional urban spaces amenable to plant cultivation are associated with Bronze Age cities where the influence of culture had become more important than that of nature and where the scale of civilization had enabled trade, diplomacy and military conquest.
A few cultivated plants were no doubt distributed during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. In the Americas civilisations were, from about 5500 BP founded on maize, in Europe on wheat c. 10,500 BP in Europe and on rice in Asia c. 7500 BP.
Bronze Age Civilization c. 4000-750 BCEs
Cultivated plant dispersal gathered momentum when agrarian communities turned into urban city-states that engaged in long-distance exploration, expansion, and trade based mainly around Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean in the West, and the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in the East. Exchange between East and West, chiefly in luxury goods, occurred along the Silk Road, this route being especially active during the period of the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty.
Trade between East and West – c. 3500 BCE-1500 CE
A greater range of food plants, along with herbs and spices, were later dispersed along major trade routes between the ancient core civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India, and across the steppes of Central Asia to China in the East.
The Silk Road connecting the Mediterranean with China and Japan was at its height during the great days of the Han dynasty and Roman Empire (c. 202 BCE-220 CE) when there was also a southern offshoot, the Indian Grand Trunk Road which linked to the Incense Route across Arabia and Horn of Africa. Between 1100 and 1430 China was a thriving trading nation before turning inwards, internal trade being greatly enhanced by the completion of the Ming dynasty 1700 km-long Grand Canal which linked the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in 1415.
Perhaps it was with the Romans that plant distribution gathered momentum at a time when historical records become more accessible. Archaeological research has revealed that during the Roman occupation of Britain about 50 new (presumably) food plants (mostly Mediterranean fruits, herbs, spices, and vegetables) were introduced by the Romans to supplement the local food (Van der Veen & Hill 2008). Of these 50 species, 36 (over 70%) are now naturalised in Australia. (check)
An imprecise second phase of cultivated plant distribution occurred between about 3500 BCE and 1500 CE as a cultural diffusion between East and West which had been geographically separated by the inhospitable steppes of Central Asia. Western trading networks had united the Eastern Mediterranean with the great European rivers flowing into the North Sea including an Amber Road into the Baltic. By the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BCE) ships were trading along the Nile, Red Sea, East African and Arabian coasts connecting to trade routes that extended to India and beyond (Cunliffe 2008).
Islamic Golden Age
Between the 8th and 14th centuries there was an Islamic Golden Age as Muslim forces occupied North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle East, to the borders of India, Central Asia, and China, giving way to the Ottoman Turks between about 1300 and 1600. The Ottomans dominated much of world trade and were responsible for the distribution of several major economic crops. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 scholars and merchants fled to the trading Italian city-states of Venice, Genoa where the beginnings of a Western cultural Renaissance were stirring. During the Middle-Ages Islamic culture controlled trade through the Middle East and much of the Mediterranean region including the Iberian Peninsula, so Arab merchants were at this time the primary agents of worldwide plant exchange, several introductions to Europe arrived via Moorish Spain probably including the eggplant (aubergine), lemon (possibly Roman), lime, pomelo, rice, Seville orange (possibly Roman), and spinach (Vaughan & Geissler, 1998).
The Italian city-states were a major influence on global commerce at this time. Around the 9th century Venice was the financial centre of Europe becoming to become, by the 13th century, the most prosperous city in Europe.
After a period of Islamic East-West exchange that followed the decline of the Roman Empire, Western Europe entered an Age of Discovery as maritime trade moved out of the Mediterranean to establish an Atlantic economy while other trade routes reached across the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and Indonesian Archipelago. During the Enlightenment there was a major acceleration in scientific inventory and economic growth. Through the 17th to 19th centuries uncompromising colonial expansion knitted disparate trading networks into a European-led global economy that exported temperate agriculture and forestry to temperate regions of the world, merged the horticultural crops of the eastern and western tropics, and imported ornamental plants on a grand scale (Drayton, 2000; Crosby, 2004). This Western ascendancy, the Great Divergence, was injected with additional impetus as the Industrial Revolution in north-west Europe released the additional power of machinery using fossil fuels, modernizing transport and communication systems, and launching industrial agriculture.
The connecting the great ancient civilisations of East and West, and the later world religions Christianity and Islam, were a minor prelude to the monumental changes in cultivated plant geography that would occur during the relatively brief 400-year third phase, the Great Divergence (c. 1500-1914).
The Great Divergence – c.1550-1914
The period of British Empire between the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 and the eve of World War 1 in 1914 as a critical period for environmental, social, political, economic and environmental history as European people, institutions, technology and biota passed into Africa, India, the Americas, Asia, Australasia and elsewhere accompanied by their domesticated and other biota, but most notably their favoured cultivated plants of agriculture, forestry, and ornamental horticulture. This was the final gasp of colonial plant bounty hunters, adventurers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, and scientific explorers – a continuation of former activity but accelerated by the energy of fossil fuels, the world population over this period doubling from about 1 to 2 billion.
The acceleration of cultivated plant globalization through the Age of Plants has changed the landscape of the world, altering plant geography for all time with the spread of agriculture to new regions of the world, along with industrial-scale horticultural crops, forestry, and the diversity of species available to ornamental horticulture. So great has been the impact that we can add a sixth category to this list of plant groups as a by-product of the others – the spread of exotic plants from cultivation into native vegetation (Spencer & Cross in press). The arrival of maize and sweet potatoes in China probably accounts for some of the population increase from 140 million in 1650 to 400 million in 1850 (Standage 2010, p. 124). Maize and potatoes did the same in Europe, the latter an important ingredient of the Industrial Revolution. Effect of diseases on native peoples.
The biological globalization that occurred during the Great Divergence included both plants (Spencer & Cross in press), and animals (Kisling 1998) including pests and diseases, although It was plants in particular that were at the centre of this period of unprecedented social, economic and environmental change. By far the greatest environmental impact of The history and impact of ornamental plants has received much less attention.
Human plant distribution across the world gathered pace during the 16th century as the search for the source of nutmeg and cloves led to the establishment of European maritime trade routes. Following a western route had led eventually to the Americas and a ‘Columbian Exchange’ (named after Columbus) of socially- economically- and environmentally-transforming plants flowing between the Old and New worlds.
Sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Indian Ocean towards to the Pacific where the source of nutmeg and cloves was finally located in 1512 by the Portuguese in the Banda Islands of the Indonesian Archipelago, prompting the establishment of colonies and trading hubs throughout the tropical East Indies. The result of a hunt for luxury spices, European trading hubs and colonies were soon dotted along maritime trading routes that spanned the world.
Among the plants passing from Europe to the Americas as part of a ‘Columbian Exchange’ were: apple, apricot, banana, eggplant, cabbage, chick pea, citrus, coffee, grapes, mango, olives, onions, peaches, pears, rice, spinach, sugarbeet, tea, and wheat. From the Americas to Europe came: avocado, cashew, cassava, chili peppers, cocoa, Jerusalem artichoke, Lima bean, maize, peanuts, pineapple, pumpkin, French and runner beans, squash, sunflower, sweet potato, vanilla but most notably the tomato and potato. This was the most significant human-related plant impact on the planet since the Agricultural Revolution.
New horticultural plantation crops at the heart of this economic transition were profoundly socially-transforming, a second wave of food and material plants in addition to the cereals and pulses of the Neolithic Revolution – the plant-based beverages tea, coffee, wine, cocoa and, later, cola (Standage 2007) as well as the cotton, tobacco, rubber, and sugar plantation crops associated with the slave trade that had moved the focus of European culture and trade out of the Mediterranean into a highly lucrative circular Atlantic economy with manufactured goods passing from Europe to Africa and the Americas before returning to Europe with cotton and sugar to then repeat the cycle (Musgrave T. & W. 2000; Prance & Nesbitt 2005). Tropical plant products had been added to Europe’s temperate staples.
Modern-era crops were now passing along the new and busy world trade routes. Exchange of horticultural crops between imperial trading hubs in the East and West Indies created a pantropical food source and new exotic fruits and other plant delicacies appeared on European tables. Temperate cereals were introduced by Europeans to arable land in the Neo-Europes of North America, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, South America, Africa, parts of Asia and elsewhere – grown on land that had been seized in a series of colonial 18th and 19th century land grabs. In Australia it took 50 years or so to settle most of the continent’s prime agricultural land that stretched in an arc from southern Queensland through New South Wales and Victoria to South Australia. Though providing food for the rapidly expanding population, these land grabs supplanted natural ecosystems and often displaced indigenous peoples, introducing western industrial agriculture with its crop monocultures and associated commensal invasive biota.
Throughout history scarce natural products have been prized as exclusive therefore expensive luxury items available to a privileged few. This was the case for spices collected in Punt for Egyptian Pharoah Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BCE), the tulips of tulipomania in Holland whose financial bubble burst in 1637, and the spices that prompted the trans-oceanic spice race that unleashed the European Age of Discovery. During the 18th century, Europe’s social elite engaged in polite competition to acquire the world’s plant gems as they were discovered and returned from distant lands as ornamental plants were collected, exchanged, and commercialized on a grand scale across the world through an increasingly vibrant nursery industry.
Wonder & opportunity
On the one hand scientific curiosity was beginning the process of global bio-inventory by accumulating knowledge about the distribution and composition of world vegetation and, on the other, there was the desire to own and compete, both socially and economically – to hoard rare and beautiful objects in horticulture – to own and preserve nature’s precious wonder in a garden, for oneself, one’s country, and posterity. These two motives appear to have driven the distinctly western desire to amass collections of objects and knowledge – in cabinets, museums, botanic gardens and libraries. For the plant world this translated to stacks of dried plants displayed on card as herbarium specimens in herbaria, and the stockpiling of living plant collections in public and private gardens, and displays of the natural order labelled in Latin (the language of learning) in botanical gardens.
It is difficult to quantify the process of plant globalisation. The impact on land and landscape came from the distribution of relatively few different kinds of cereals and other crops. The introduction of species diversity was a consequence of the passion for novelty in ornamental horticulture. In Britain trade in ornamental plants was at first London-based, the number of commercial nurseries increasing from 5 to 15 between 1690 and 1700. By 1760 there were about 42 nurseries in London and 40 in the provinces (Harvey 1974, pp. 4-6). From this time on, the numbers of plants and commercial outlets would explode, facilitated by not only overseas exploration but by the improvement of the canal system, the building of railways, increase in worker leisure time, improved technologies like cartography and shipbuilding, wide use of the Wardian case, and so forth. In 1839 Loudon’s list of 18,000 species in cultivation in Britain would become dwarfed towards the end of the 19th century. The English Plant Finder of 2018 has 72,000 entries although Britain may have as many as 400,000 different kinds of plants (RHS 2015). Plant Finders produced in Australia (2004) and New Zealand (1997) listed 35,000 and 22,000 respectively, both based on 400 nurseries.
Whatever the motivation, the gathering of botanical novelties from around the world enthused gardeners with a vastly increased palette of ornamental possibility that inspired some of the world’s finest botanical art, and it coaxed natural scientists into a phase of unprecedented taxonomic and descriptive botany.
More important than the gathering of global plant diversity in European gardens and conservatories was the impact of changing cultivated plant geography at the planetary scale, both in terms of the land area covered and species composition. Between 1650 and 1850 the world population had doubled and this trend showed every sign of gathering pace.
Following a westward route across the Atlantic Columbus (a Genoese sugar merchant) found the West Indies and Americas, as leading to an Atlantic trade that would encompass Europe, Africa, and the New World. Following an eastern route Diaz first rounded the African cape (1488) and Da Gama extending the route across the Indian Ocean to Calicut and the spice-rich Kerala coast (1498), ?others reaching Malacca in the same year. Antonio de Abreu located the Spice Islands with their nutmeg and cloves (1512) before the Magellan expedition completed the world’s first circumnavigation (1519-1522).
The most obvious presence of cultivated plants in our world, both spatially and in terms of biomass, has occurred through the use of land for food production. The Great Divergence bequeathed us a planet with about 11% of the land surface used for crops (UNFAO, 2015) although this figure can conceal much wider human ecological influence. Human appropriation of planetary net primary production now totals about 25% (Kraussmann et al., 2013). In the current human-centred geological epoch, the Anthropocene, cultivated plants are a key indicator of human impact since they are major constituents of planetary anthropogenic biomes or ‘anthromes’ (see Ellis & Ramankutty, 2008). Though only about 5% of forests (which cover about 30% of the world’s land surface) consist of timber plantations, a far greater percentage is actively managed, enclosed, or semi-natural (World Bank, 2017).
One consequence of the blending of wild and cultivated plants has been the global expense of managing alien and invasive species (which can make their presence felt in unexpected ways).
There are now near-cosmopolitan tropical and temperate urban weed floras and, of the world’s 374,000 species about 44,000 have naturalized beyond their natural distribution (Randall, 2017). The senior author of this paper has noticed that weedy plants growing around the rails of Kew’s tube station in Richmond, London, are almost identical to those growing at Richmond Station, near the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, Australia – a quirky reminder of the human-plant alliance in globalization, and the trend towards floristic homogenization.
Apart from the agricultural cereals of the Neolithic Revolution, it is likely that the first major influx of exotic plants to Britain occurred during its occupation by Roman garrisons (c. 45-410 CE). Archaeological research has revealed that during this period about 50 new (presumably) food plants (mostly Mediterranean fruits, herbs, spices, and vegetables) were introduced by the Romans to supplement the local food (Van der Veen & Hill, 2008). Of these 50 species, 36 (over 70%) are now naturalized in Australia – another striking example of the cultural diffusion of plants around the planet and another signal that plants do not recognize the boundaries of our fields and gardens.
From the Age of Discovery into the Enlightenment
Western civilization, born out of cities trading along the fertile river valleys of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates developed into the Mediterranean civilizations of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greece and Rome. There was a fascination with the mystery of distant lands, the beauty and utility of unknown plant treasures that could be grown in gardens and fields as trophies of human endeavor drove adventurers ever outward. From ancient and classical times plants had featured among the spoils of trade, exploration and conquest. The role heroic conqueror, intrepid adventurer, and curious naturalist would continue into the 20th century in the form of the garden Plant hunter.
Claudius Ptolemy’s (c. 100-c. 170 CE) classical map of the world remained the standard navigational reference for over 1000 years until completely re-drawn during the Age of Discovery when the first circumnavigation of the globe occurred, and the coastlines of the world’s continents were charted. Awareness of this finite world prompted the first steps towards the documentation of the earth’s biota that included printed regional floras of wild plants as an advance on the old herbals. One major exemplary contribution was the completion of what was, in effect, a flora of the British Empire beginning with the Flora of and ending with the Flora of in. .. Estimates of the number of wild plants in the world and ornamental cultivated plants …Wild plant
The outward journey of westerners in search of garden plants has been divided into a several geographic phases: bulbs from the Near East (1560-1620); herbaceous plants from Canada and Virginia (1620-1686); the Cape of South Africa (1687-1772); trees and shrubs of North America (1687-1772); Australian plants (1772-1820); tropical glasshouse plants and hardy plants from Japan and North America (1820-1900); West China (1900-1930) (Stearn 1965, 1971; Coates ). It is these forays into the unknown that have bequeathed us the familiar garden flora of the western world. The phases of economic plants is less secure … medicinal plants, etc.
To 18th and early 19th century Europeans the world still seemed a boundless and bountiful cornucopia of limitless resources and potential, all awaiting the attentions of enterprising merchants, entrepreneurs, adventurers, and scientists. But all too soon planet earth would, in the 20th century, take on the character of a limited and confined space, it would become a global village.
The industrial era changed everything as technology revolutionized daily life in Europe. Engineering created new canals, reservoirs and dams. Wetlands were drained for agriculture. Transport systems were transformed by the combustion engine while railways and steamships were penetrating the inland regions of newly occupied colonial territories from European coastal trading hubs on the continents of America, Africa, Australia, India and elsewhere. Communication engaged more people and travelled faster over longer distances, and this was aided by telegraph and telephone and a now vigorous Republic of Letters. Soon there would be reticulated gas and electricity.
The great seafarers in the Age of Discovery (c.15th to 18th centuries) were, first of all, plant hunters engaged in a spice race, explorers and discoverers second. Australian settlement followed in the wake of 16sup>thand 17sup>th century European exploratory mercantilism as first the Portuguese and Spanish, then the Dutch sought to by-pass the Arab and Indian merchant monopoly of overland and Red Sea spice trade by forging maritime trade routes to the Moluccan Islands in the East Indies (Spencer & Cross 2017). Dutch and Portuguese imperial expansion was eclipsed in the 18th century by that of England and France.
From today’s perspective the Enlightenment addition of art and science to former economic and strategic interests seems unusually admirable as botanists, gardeners, and biological illustrators were given pride of place among naturalists on dangerous scientific voyages to record the lands, organisms and peoples of places formerly unknown to them. In the absence of photographers and TV crews of today it was illustrators who could provide tantalizing glimpses of the exotic and new.
Enlightenment gardener-botanists, following in the tradition of Linnaeus’s ‘disciples’ (and earlier) were despatched into the world from Uppsala, were assisting botanists with the collection and transport of herbarium specimens, seeds, and live plants. Most were trained in Europe’s major botanic gardens, notably by Joseph Banks (1743–1820) at Kew Gardens in London, and André Thouin (1747-1824) at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris (Spencer & Cross 2017) but a few were supported by Edinburgh (and other) Botanic Gardens, as well as wealthy nurseries and patrons.
Information about these gardeners is often sparse, and many perished at sea, but among the better-recorded gardener protégés from Paris were: Félix Delahaye (1767–1829) of the Bruni d’Entrecasteaux expedition of 1791–1793. Delahaye was assistant to botanist Jacques-Julien de Labillardière who published what amounted to the first Flora of Australia based on the collections the pair made in Nouvelle Hollande. In 1792 over the 25 days of the first landfall in Recherche Bay, Tasmania, Delahaye established a vegetable garden as a source of food and propagation material for the indigenous people, and potentially a supply of provisions for future visiting European vessels. On returning to France Delahaye became Head Gardener to Empress Josephine at the Château de Malmaison where he specialised in the care of her collection of Australian plants.
Nicolas Baudin‘s scientific expedition (1800–1804) in the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste, ostensibly to chart the coast of Nouvelle Hollande, make scientific observations and collect natural history specimens, was the grandest and most productive of all the Enlightenment voyages, but extremely costly in human life, only six of the 24 naturalists on the expedition returning home. There was a complement of five gardeners, Head gardener Anselme Riedlé (1775–1801) and assistants Antoine Sautier (?–1801). Also Antoine Guichenot (fl. 1801–1817) who survived to serve on the 1817 voyage of the the Uranie under Louis de Freycinet (who, in 1811, had published the first map of Australia’s entire coastline based on the work of the Baudin expedition), also François Cagnet and one other gardener.
Among Banks’s gardeners were Francis Masson (1741–1805) Kew’s first Enlightenment plant hunter who sailed with James Cook on HMS Resolution to South Africa, landing in October 1772. Masson remained there until 1775 and sent back to England over 500 plant species, in 1776 collecting in Madeira, the Canary Islands, Azores and Antilles ( ). In 1783 he collected plants in Portugal and in January 1786 returned to South Africa, remaining until March 1795 (Coates 1969, pp. 252-259). Anthony Hove was sent to Gujerat, India in April 1787, officially to collect plants for Kew but unofficially to collect seed of cotton. Attention then turned to the Pacific. David Nelson (?–1789) was gardener on Cook’s Third Voyage (1776–1779) and subsequently on William Bligh’s HMS Bounty (1787–1789), surviving a 3800 km journey in a small boat when cast adrift by mutineers, but then dying in Indonesia at Kupang. Peter Good (?–1802) was assistant to Robert Brown, the botanist on Matthew Flinders‘ first circumnavigation of Australia (1801–1803) thus identifying it as a continent who died on the voyage. Then there was the ill-fated George Austin (fl.1780s) and James Smith of HMS Guardian sent to Australia with vital supplies about one year after the First Fleet, but sinking after hitting an iceberg off southern Africa.
This short list of gardener-botanists – there were many more – demonstrates the high value placed on plants at this time. Much of this was a matter of simple economic botany and its search for revenue-generating food crops, fibres, beverages, medicines and structural materials.
As the popularity of spices declined so ornamental plants took over their role as scarce luxury plants that could demonstrate wealth and influence. But this time it was beauty not a connection with the gods that was at stake, as rare plant jewels of distant exotic nature were sought to adorn the gardens of royalty and the social elite.
Gardening & its democratization
Gardens, like cities, require planning, money and labour, infrastructure, and maintenance. When most people have little money or leisure time gardens are an excellent way of demonstrating social status, wealth, and sensitivity to worldly artistic and intellectual predilections of the socially influential. The classical Greeks had pleasure gardens but ‘ … labour in them was despised‘ presumably carried out by slaves in a tradition ‘ … maintained in grand British gardens until the 1920s‘. Heading the list of Europe’s dignitaries during the Great Divergence were Europe’s royal courts from which fashion and favour flowed.
In the 18th century no garden in Britain could compete with the splendour of the Palace of Versailles or the taxonomic work of French botanists at the Jardin du Roi (later Jardin des Plantes) in Paris. This was a golden age of horticultural and botanical art culminating in the genius of landscape architect André Le Nôtre and his masterpiece created for Louis XIV at Versailles, and the botanical illustration of two noted artists, Pierre Redouté, court illustrator to Marie Antoinette and especially his magnificent watercolour paintings of lilies and roses, and Ferdinand Bauer, court painter to the Prince of Liechtenstein, a travelling artist best known for his work on the floras of Greece, Asia Minor and Australia. In times of poverty ostentatious displays of wealth were just as likely to foment revolution as impress. As absolutist governments stirred up revolution people would try to copy their social superiors, gathering some of the society trappings for themselves. In the 19th century social change was well under way as Kew passed to the state in 1841 and, a few decades later, railways took increasingly affluent workers to the countryside, seaside, and football matches. Today garden styles once named after royal courts, Tudor, Elizabethan, Edwardian etc. are now determined by garden celebrities on television, the internet, and popular magazines as a democratic populism.
In the 18th century there was a special excitement associated with maritime exploration and trade – the possibility of windfall profits and discovery of botanical novelties in distant lands. This translated into advances on many fronts – in taxonomic botany, economic botany, ornamental horticulture, and the role and objectives of botanic gardens. The world of plants became a preoccupation of high society including royalty, the wealthy, and leading intelligentsia, this engagement of influential personalities investing botany with a scientific and social prestige that it had never had before, and which it is unlikely to see again. Perhaps the culmination of these times occurred when the influential administrator Joseph Banks was president of the Royal Society from 1778 to 1820, presiding over the worlds largest collections of living and dried plants and the economic botany of Kew Gardens, the leading botanical institution of an empire that spanned the world.
Commercial plant nurseries proliferated, and women now joined men in nature studies and botanical art. Plant treasures from overseas were lovingly described and illustrated in the new garden periodicals. Overseeing much of this excitement were the scientists and gardeners of Europe’s major botanic gardens.
Though small in quantity, ornamental plants were dispersed in great variety to European colonies sharing a gardening obsession as commercial plant nurseries proliferated, and gardening was democratized.
The narrow academic interest in natural history broadened out into a much wider societal preoccupation as the Botanophilia of the 18th century. Spurred on by the Enlightenment’s dedication to science, progress and learning the scholarly approach to plants was now combined with a lust for exotica, the thrill of travel and exploration, the enhancement of aristocratic gardens, and the possibility of windfall profits from new plant products. With an increasing distaste for privilege, especially that of royalty (this was also an Age of Revolutions), there was also an increasing popularisation and democratisation of science, scientific education and gardening.
Botany became the first publicly accessible science as, in the 19th century interest in nature study, plants and gardens would pass from the educated and well-to-do to a much wider public as the consequences of economic botany would transform peoples’ lives. Botany would attract and accept the some of the first female scientists.
By the mid-19th century industrial agriculture could boast sowing and harvesting machines and horticulture had lawn mowers. Improvements in the manufacture of glass and cast iron made the construction of the magnificent Crystal Palace possible for London’s 1851 exhibition demonstrating the British Empire’s economic and industrial progress, and the potential use of glasshouses for protected plant production. The Royal Society and other scientific institutions now connected the scientific community. Photography had begun and the world was on the brink of its first cars.
The role of botanic gardens has been a common link through this brief account of economic botany, plant exploration, plant geography, wild and artificial landscapes, social rituals associated with horticultural crops is now abundantly clear. It is in the broad context of the aims of plant globalisation – of spices and medicinal plants, cereals and staple crops, horticultural crops, timber trees, and ornamental plants – that colonial botanic gardens were born and, since this is reflected in their objectives today, it requires closer examination.
Today’s seemingly inconsequential medicinal plants had initiated the establishment of the first Renaissance botanic gardens in Italian universities where plant medicine would be transformed into modern plant science: and today’s seemingly inconsequential spices initiated the global economy.
Through the 16th to 18th centuries, which included the European Scientific Revolution, the Ages of Discovery and Enlightenment many botanic gardens had changed from Hortus medicus to Hortus botanicus as medicinal gardens became repositories for the flood of plants harvested from around the world during the European colonial expansion. While these plant novelties needed scientific classification and description, they also vastly extended the palette of ornamental plants available to western gardeners, their introduction stimulating the combination of art and science that we associate with today’s botanic gardens.
The 17th century Dutch botany and horticulture admired across Europe during the Dutch Golden Age was surpassed in the 18th century by that of Britain and France. At this time no garden in Britain could compete with the splendour of the Palace of Versailles or the taxonomic work of French botanists at the Jardin du Roi (later Jardin des Plantes) in Paris. However, Kew Gardens, during Banks’s watch from 1773-1820, under his program of imperial economic botany, would become the world’s pre-eminent Botanic garden.
At the time of Australian settlement botanic garden administration across the world was passing from royal patronage to the state. Absolute monarchy was under challenge and, though universal suffrage and fully democratic institutions were some way off, public opinion mattered. During the 19th century, the practice of science became professionalized and institutionalized, including the botany in practised in botanic gardens. But scientific work here was tempered by public impatience with the pursuit of narrow academic interests, leading botanic gardens to adopt thematic collections that leaned towards attractive design and display.
The general character of modern botanic gardens, including the modern functions of HB and CPT, are largely a product of European aspirations developed during this Age of Plants. Their contemporary relevance arises out of the peculiarly Western attraction to the system of science which, as botany, translated into the desire to collect plants in museums, herbaria, and botanic gardens where they could be named, classified, described, illustrated and cultivated as objects of novelty, utility, decoration, and scientific interest. Exploration of new territories and the discovery of the limits of the world’s land masses had increased the urge to catalogue and illustrate the natural world at all scales, from local to global. It was a desire that was embraced most enthusiastically by society as a whole during the Enlightenment with the excitement of its voyages of scientific exploration.
Botanic gardens could engage in a reciprocal exchange of both living plants and seed (the botanic garden International Seed Exchange had begun in the late 17th century, see Spencer & Cross 2017).
This was also a time of accelerating plant globalization, facilitated by botanic gardens, in an exchange that occurred between Europe, the colonial Neo-Europes (Crosby 2004), and the tropics.
It is now possible to list some of the major elements that, in combination, add up to an Age of Plants: the spice race that led to a mostly plant-based Atlantic and subsequently global economy; a second agricultural revolution this time based not on solar agriculture but, in addition, the fossil fuel needed for industrial agriculture; the initiation of modern botanic gardens and plant science aligned with the appointment of botany professors to the medical gardens of university medical faculties in early modern Renaissance Italy; an unprecedented phase of plant globalization resulting from the international dispersal of herbs and spices, the establishment of a Columbian Exchange of biota between the Old and New Worlds; the spread of temperate agriculture to temperate European colonies, the formation of a cosmopolitan tropical crop flora, the development of plantation economies based on socially transforming beverages like tea, coffee, cocoa and cola, the social drugs of tobacco, sugar and rum, and materials like cotton and Rubber; a global phase of European exploration, again based strongly on plants of economic, ornamental and scientific interest that moved first out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic, then into the Indian and Pacific Oceans and opening up of China; an era of intrepid plant hunters; botanophilia.
Plants played a key role in this opening up of the world to the West was crucial, and it is from this phase of history that HB and CPT draw their inspiration.
This, then, is some of the big picture background to Australia’s botanic gardens, their historical raison d’être and early priorities.
Botanic gardens played a significant role in modern era globalization sometimes referred to as the Great Divergence which extended from roughly 1550 to around the time of World War 1 (Pomeranz 2000). This was a period when north-west European countries entered a period of colonial expansion as the West surged ahead of the rest of the world in political and economic power as the cities of coastal Western Europe benefitted from thriving trade, first between the Old and New Worlds across the Atlantic Ocean but then between countries on maritime trade routes across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Colonial expansion culminated in the formation of the British Empire.
The Great Divergence produced a not only a global economy, it was also a period of unprecedented social change in science, technology, the arts, commerce, and more. During this period the world population more than doubled, this growth alone placed a great demand on the world food supply and ultimately on plants as primary producers while also making accessible many countries, peoples, cultures and plant treasures previously unknown in the West. Along with the globalization of Western institutions came that of biological globalization of human commensals – the migration of animals, plants, pathogens and diseases so closely associated with human activity.
Though botanic gardens were a part of the organizational structure that helped disperse various crops around the world their involvement with agriculture today is only incidental.
Botanic gardens, and by implication horticultural botany and cultivated plant taxonomy (and their hybrid, horticultural taxonomy) played a significant role in this social transition contributing to the general process of globalization but especially that relating to the British Empire and its network of colonial botanic gardens.