Bold Botanists Originally broadcast in five parts on Lyric FM's Quiet Quarter in 2005. Copyright Berni Dwan 2005, 2015
Sir Joseph Banks
It’s a dull early summer evening in suburban Dublin. I'm in my favourite room - the back garden; having just emerged from my second favourite room - the greenhouse – the perfect place to sit with a glass of wine and a good book. There’s plenty of greenery of course; every shade and hue you can imagine. The flowers on the apple, pear and plum trees have been replaced with miniature fruits; their day has yet to come. Mad marigolds appear randomly any which where, just the way I like it. The bean poles are ready to be embraced and climbed by impatient tendrils. Volunteer potato plants appear in the most unexpected of places. The herbs are ungovernable. So, all is good then, and it is on an evening such as this that I am eternally grateful to the intrepid plant hunters who scoured the four corners of the earth to make our little corners all the more colourful and interesting. If it wasn’t for them, the only source of colour in my humble yard would be the motley collection on the clothesline.
The plant hunters to which I allude were as brave as any warrior; braver indeed, as most of them battled alone. Their resourcefulness was astounding; their tenacity was enviable, so please do not conjure up images of Victorian ladies bringing home their latest specimens from a walk in the country to add to their pressed flower collection – or bespectacled men of the cloth excitedly discussing the different varieties of lichen to be found in the parish environs. These were not the valiant troopers who brought such colour and variety to our gardens. It is no exaggeration to say that the 18th and 19th century plant hunters risked their lives, and indeed some did lose their lives, in pursuit of the plants we now take for granted.
Although people have been collecting and propagating plants since time began, nobody was really sent on an official plant-hunting mission until the 17th century. In an age when travelling to the next town or village was enough to fill you with equal measures of foreboding and delightful anticipation just imagine what it must have been like for Englishman, John Tradescant who in 1618 was invited to join a plant hunting expedition to Russia.
Not only was Tradescant interested in plants, he was interested in anything he had not seen before. First on his ‘to see’ list was the fabled Rose Island in the Dvina Delta but the sweet perfume was lost on Tradescant, who had no sense of smell. “And who have the sense of smelling say they be marvellous sweet,” he lamented in his diary. Lacking a sense of smell though proved to be a blessing on another somewhat pungent occasion when he met a group of Lapland fishermen dressed in recently harvested sealskins. Tradescant was the only one who could get close enough to speak with them while his fellow travellers retched at a distance as the whiff of rotting seal flesh carried on the breeze.
While doing the main business of his trip – botanising - he collected the yellow cranberry, red, white and black currants, some different varieties of bilberries and strawberries, a geranium and a giant sorrel. In fact it was a miracle that he arrived back in England with anything to show for his troubles. Torrential rain ruined part of his collection, the ship’s boys stole the berries, and seawater killed some of his living specimens.
In 1621 Tradescant got an opportunity to travel around the Mediterranean. This time he came home with plants that are now considered native to this part of the world - lilac, narcissus and crocus. By the end of his travels, John Tradescant’s house in Lambeth, widely known as `The Ark', was full of curiosities brought back by him or given to him by other travellers. His son, John the Younger continued the family tradition in the New World, where he was sent in 1637, “to gather all rarities of flowers, plants, and shells.”
Out of ‘The Ark’ was born Britain’s oldest public museum. The Ashmolean would never have been established if it was not for the Tradescant’s ‘Closett of Rarities’, which was presented to the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole. When it opened in 1683, even the word ‘museum’ was new to the English language, being described a few years later in the New World of Words as a ‘Publick Place for the Resort of Learned Men'. Learned women were obviously still regarded as a curiosity that the ‘publick’ was not yet ready for.
The first professional collector who was sent on a plant hunting expedition from Kew Gardens was Francis Masson. Luckily, the expedition coincided with Cook’s second voyage around the world, and Masson was given a berth on the Resolution. Arriving in Cape Town in October 1772, Masson was an innocent abroad and he desperately needed the help of a more seasoned adventurer. He found this in Franz Pehr Oldenburg, a Scandinavian mercenary. From Masson’s perspective, Pehr’s résumé was impeccable. Service with the Dutch East India Company, a good knowledge of the country, fluent in Dutch as well as some native dialects – he would be the perfect teacher for Masson.
Several months after his arrival, Masson went botanising alone on Table Mountain, where he had his first real experience of danger, an experience that would become routine. I’m not sure exactly how risky it was for Masson to wander off alone with nothing but a clasp knife to protect him, but almost being taken hostage by an escaped chain gang of convicts seemed to be pretty bad luck. Obviously not resigned to their own grisly fate, the convicts needed a prominent hostage to negotiate their freedom. Although not long in South Africa, Masson had learnt enough about the resolute Dutch settlers to realise that they would let him die rather than bargain with convicts. With only the aforementioned clasp knife he used for gathering specimens, he spent a somewhat anxious night hiding in the undergrowth listening to the clanking of chains and angry voices. Being more agile than a group of men chained together though, he gathered his courage and made a run for it, slipping away to safety just before daylight.
Masson was as restless as Lemuel Gulliver. On returning to England, the daily humdrum of Kew Gardens proved tedious so in 1778 he set sail once again, this time to collect in Madeira, Tenerife, and the Azores. He then trawled the islands of Barbados, Antigua, St. Eustatius, St. Christopher, Nevis, St. Lucia and Grenada. While in Grenada, French forces attacked the island and unbelievably, Masson was drafted into the local militia. Even though he was captured and imprisoned, and lost almost his entire collection in a hurricane off St. Lucia he was still not happy to settle back at Kew on his return to England. In 1785 he embarked on a second trip to the South African Cape. The round trip lasted ten years, and after only two restless years back at Kew he set sail for North America in 1797.
Unfortunately his ship was captured by French pirates, who much to Masson’s relief thought it better to transfer the crew to a German vessel travelling to Baltimore instead of killing them. The trip to Baltimore was not pleasant though, the daily menu never veering from black bread and rancid water. When they docked in New York Masson made his way to Canada where he botanised and collected with his customary zeal.
After spending many years in Africa and the tropics Masson could not get used to the frozen Canadian winter. At sixty-six he was probably just not strong enough to withstand the biting cold and his health suffered. He died a rather lonely death in that disagreeably cold climate in December 1805 and was buried on Christmas day. He had introduced over four hundred new species to Kew Gardens, copper-fastening its position as a premier botanical garden. His magnificent drawings and watercolours can be seen in the British Museum while his contribution to plant diversity and colour in this rather grey part of the world can be seen in every garden and window box.
Starting his botanical journey as a humble clerk [although not as 'umble' as Uriah Heep I suspect] in Kew Gardens, Cunningham arrived in New South Wales in 1816, and joined an expedition led by Lt. John Oxley, the Surveyor-General, into the country west of the Blue Mountains. On a round trip of 1200 miles, the exploration party was constantly under threat from Aborigines – never managing to predict whether each successive band would be friendly or hostile. If your nerves remained intact, survival in this unforgiving terrain also demanded a steady shot and a strong stomach. Anything that had a pulse was fair game for the pot, and the men survived on a diet of emu, kangaroo, kangaroo rats, and dingo, washed down with semi-rancid water. Dead horses were fed to the dogs.
Cunningham then joined a naval expedition that was to explore and survey the north and north-west coasts, under the command of Lt. Philip Parker King, and it was a welcome change from slogging through the outback wilderness with its alternating floods and drought. His last letter to a colleague at Kew Gardens reveals how the business of plant hunting in the early nineteenth century slowly depleted all of your physical and mental resources: “I am now exhausted in subject and literally in body, I therefore close, begging you, my dear sir, to receive this letter from the hands of a poor, decrepit, prematurely old traveller.” Cunningham died of consumption in Sydney in 1839, missing an opportunity to join the third voyage of the Beagle to continue a survey of the north-west coast of Australia. A much bigger giant of natural history, Charles Darwin, had been a passenger on the second voyage of the Beagle.
A few years later one of Cunningham’s successors, a somewhat younger David Douglas, would feel a similar desolation. In 1826, after one year in North America, the twenty-seven year old wrote: “I am now here, and God only knows where I may be next. In all probability, if a change does not take place, I will shortly be consigned to the tomb.” Indeed, he almost was despatched to an early tomb on several occasions during some encounters with the Native Americans. Sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, these encounters were always colourful. Luckily for Douglas, his diplomatic skills were on a par with his botanical skills, and he averted several battles between the natives and his travelling companions.
While they understandably mistrusted the growing bands of European explorers, the Native Americans were also intensely curious about their strange habits. They called Douglas ‘Grass Man’ because of his preoccupation with gathering plants, a preoccupation they could not fathom.
When they saw him imbibing an effervescent drink they were convinced he was drinking boiling water, and concluded that an evil spirit possessed him. They were similarly fascinated and terrified when he lit his pipe using a magnifying glass and the rays of the sun.
Plant hunting was never going to make you rich. The £100 annual stipend set in the 18th century still held in the late 19th century. When Douglas’s clothes were reduced to rags he could not afford to replace them. At one stage he was reduced to wearing a shirt, a pair of stockings, a nightcap and a pair of old mittens. But just in time to save his decency he was gifted a pair of deerskin trousers.
On his last expedition, Douglas decided to stop off in Hawaii on his journey home, mainly to satisfy his curiosity about volcanoes. One morning he stopped to have breakfast with an ex-Botany Bay convict who made his living from trapping wild cattle in deep, camouflaged pits. After successfully negotiating so many dangers during his plant-hunting career, Douglas seems to have miscalculated his balance when looking into one of the pits. Later that day his mangled body was found in a pit with a wild bullock – a lamentable end to a remarkable career.
Sent to China by the Horticultural Society of London in 1843, Fortune [the man famously commissioned by Britain to "steal tea from China"] experienced the same suspicions and mistrust from the Chinese that Allan Cunningham had experienced from the Aborigines and David Douglas had experienced from the Native Americans. The Chinese in the coastal areas were more hostile with good reason, since for generations they had endured the selfish behaviour of money grabbing Europeans, especially in connection with the damaging impact of the opium trade on Chinese society. Further inland they tended to be friendlier. “Generally the traveller is not exposed to insult; and the natives are quiet, civil and obliging”, wrote Fortune. Not only was he expected to survive on the meagre salary of £100 a year, Fortune was also subjected to some crass penny pinching that would have warmed the heart of Ebeneezer Scrooge. He was instructed to sell his firearms on leaving China and return the money to the Horticultural Society, and if he failed to sell them he was reminded of his obligation to return them.
It was in Chu-shan, a large island off the mouth of the Ningpo River, that Fortune first met Buddhist priests. The priests protected their food supplies from wild boars by digging deep pits and partially filling them with water, and carefully camouflaging them. Any animal or human that fell in would drown. Fortune almost incredibly met a similar fate to that of David Douglas in the wild bull pit in Hawaii. “I stepped unawares on the treacherous mouth of one of them, and felt the ground under my feet actually giving way.” Fortuitously, he survived by grabbing onto a sapling to haul himself out.
Having acquired a reasonable command of Chinese, Fortune also became adept at passing himself off as a native [handy when you were smuggling tea plants out of the country!] He first tried his luck at Soochow, a city near Shanghai, closed to Europeans by order of the Celestial Emperor. It was risky though, because even if you fooled the people you couldn’t fool the dogs who were apparently very good at picking out foreigners no matter how well disguised. “These animals manifest great hatred of foreigners, barking at them whenever they see them and hanging on their skirts until they are fairly out of sight of a house or village where their masters reside”, wrote Fortune.
While the bite of an angry or even a rabid dog was a hazard in China, it was the mosquitoes that held their own special terror in the Amazon Basin. When the suitably named plant hunter, Richard Spruce, sailed up the Orinoco River to a township romantically named Esmeralda in the 1850’s there was no loud barking to encourage a hasty exit. While it lived up to its name looking every bit the tropical paradise with a profusion of plants, something was not right. All doors were closed and there was no evidence of life. Spruce ignored the incongruity and began collecting as usual. It was only when he took a break from the oppressive heat to wipe the sweat from his face that he realised the cause of the unnatural tranquillity. His hand was covered with blood and the crushed bodies of well-fed mosquitoes. The inhabitants of Esmeralda, he discovered, were prisoners in their homes until darkness fell.
In the Andes, Spruce was one of the explorers who collected the seeds and seedlings of the quinine producing Red Chinchona tree. These were subsequently planted in India, producing a million trees and saving many from malaria.
Sir Joseph Banks
Certainly the wealthiest and perhaps the most flamboyant of the eighteenth and nineteenth century plant hunters, Sir Joseph Banks was determined from an early age to record the flora of the British Empire, and that covered a lot of landmass not to mention ecosystems, during his long career. It also included if not embraced, countless indigenous tribes whose cultures and practices could seem harsh to the slightly less toughened Europeans.
The very young and very enthusiastic Banks arrived in Newfoundland in 1766. On this first self-financed trip Banks learned that when the Newfoundland Indians scalped a man, they took all of his hair and the skin of his face down to the upper lip. While he could avoid a scalping by steering clear of the ‘Indians’, he could not avoid the fishiness that permeated everything on the island. “As everything here smells of fish, so you cannot get anything that does not taste of it. Hogs can scarce be kept from it by any care, and when they have got it are by far the filthiest meat I ever met with. Poultry of all kinds, ducks, geese, fowls and turkies, infinitely more fishy than the worst tame duck that ever was sold for a wild one in Lincolnshire. The very cows eat the fish offal and thus milk is fishy.” Not surprisingly then, he was delighted to find a really good Newfoundland chowder recipe.
Labrador and Newfoundland were merely the entrée for this most auspicious and famous plant hunter. On his return to England Banks predictably succumbed to boredom, but luckily Tahiti and the South Seas beckoned. The main purpose of the expedition was to observe the transit of Venus. The ship was the Endeavour, James Cook captained it and the rest is history. Banks successfully persuaded the Royal Society to back him as the official naturalist on the historic romp.
Unlike his indigent successors, Banks’ wealth and privilege meant he could use his own private means to finance his expeditions. Responsible for feeding his own party, by the time Endeavour left Tahiti for New Zealand his private stores were impressive – seventeen sheep, five fowls, Tahitian hogs and Muscovy ducks, an English boar and a sow with a litter. Cook prevented scurvy by feeding the crew sauerkraut, but this unfortunately was no cure for the venereal disease that appeared in many sailors after high jinks in Tahiti.
Another problem on board was weevils, and the ship’s biscuits were alive with them. “I have often seen hundreds, nay thousands shaken out of a single biscuit”, wrote Banks, who improved the problem somewhat by baking them in an oven. True to his nature though, Banks never missed an opportunity for discovery, and he identified five varieties of weevil on the offending biscuits.
Earlier in Tahiti they had already been persecuted with swarms of flies. “The flies have become so troublesome ever since we have come ashore that we can scarce get any business done for them….” Baiting a plate with a mixture of molasses and tar didn’t trap a single fly but it did attract the attentions of a native Tahitian who thought it might make an effective ointment. Banks watched: “The gentleman had a large sore upon his backside to which the clammy lineament was applied, but with what success I never took the pains to enquire.”
Observations like this showed that many plant hunters were also natural anthropologists and ethnographers. Their hazardous journeys changed the landscape of our grey northern European countries and added greatly to our rather mundane diet. Notwithstanding, I am inclined to believe that the colour of their adventures far surpassed the colour of their botanical finds.