This November heralds the start of my new Evening Lecture Series – The Adventures of the Plant Hunters. The first lecture focused on the dawn of the plant hunters following the epic voyages undertaken on the high seas, detailing the treacherous situations the naturalists found themselves in as they circumnavigated the globe. Initially, we looked at the works of Carl Linneaus, the infamous Swedish botanist famed for developing the widely used classification system of binomial nomenclature. Ever wondered why the Latin names of plants and animals are made up of two-parts? This is thanks to Linneaus who constructed their names with the genus and specific epithet, an improved classification system which was soon adopted across the scientific world.
Linneaus, like many of his peers studied medicine, although his real passion was naturalism, a trait which he held in common with many of his counterparts. Indulging in this passion, he spent time exploring the lesser known areas of Sweden and Lapland collecting previously unrecorded plants, animals and rocks. He even affected the same traditional dress as the Sami people making him one of the earliest known ethnobotanists. With a literary legacy, which by the way is readily available online, Carl von Linné, which he became known as once ennobled, proved to be one of the most influential characters the plant world had ever seen.
Following that, I introduced the audience to the lesser known but by no means less important Erasmus Darwin – Charles Darwin’s grandfather. A man of many talents, Darwin was a trained physician, botanist, philosopher, inventor and a major influence on his grandson’s work. An early convert to the binomial system, Darwin together with two companions translated Linneaus’ work to English which took almost seven years to complete. It is obvious when you read about Darwin’s life and his achievements how this inimitable man had such a strong influence on his grandson through early childhood discussions about his theories of evolution. Darwin also held several inventions under his belt from the ‘Talking Machine’, a precursor to Edison’s telephone which was a mechanical larynx made from wood, silk and leather which was said to deceive all that heard it to a steering mechanism for a carriage which went on to be used in automobiles a century later. Unfortunately, many of his musings and inventions were met with suspicion so Darwin was the shining light which history sadly brushed over.
It was around this time that the first major plant hunting expeditions were undertaken. Of course, the main reason for these voyages was to improve upon navigational data such as recording the transition of Venus across the Sun, charting coastlines and pinpointing the location of the magnetic North Pole but the captains in charge of these expeditions understood the need to bring botanists, naturalists and astronomers to improve upon the data collected. The first major voyage we delved into was that of the HMS Endeavour, led by Captain James Cook. This journey would prove to be one of the most important for the discovery of plants and animals, propelling the on-board botanist, Joseph Banks to celebrity like status.
Banks was a wealthy landowner who had an insatiable appetite for the natural world. Whilst fulfilling his
education at Oxford in the Classics he hired a Botanist, Israel Lyons, to lecture him in Botany. After four years he left and spent time at the Chelsea Physic Garden. It was here that he met Daniel Solander, a Swedish Botanist and protégé of Linneaus. Together, they joined Captain Cook on the HMS Endeavour and made one of the most successful botanising teams the plant world had ever seen. They initially travelled to South America and en-route stopped at Madeira where they collected over 1000 specimens in six days. Next stop Brazil which meant crossing the equator. Being gentlemen passengers, Banks and Solander avoided the traditional initiation ceremony of being dunked in the ocean three times by relinquishing their daily ration of half a litre of rum to the crew. A move which afforded them great favour in the eyes of Captain Cook.
After six weeks, the vessel made landfall and to avoid the suspicion of the local Viceroy, who found it unfathomable that seafarers would be interested in collecting plants, Banks and Solander had to steal away in the dead of night to botanise and see what this foreign land had to offer. The ship continued its journey down to the southern tip of Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego but unfavourable conditions meant Cook decided to wait until safe passage was possible. Banks and Solander took advantage of their mooring and put together a team to explore the nearby shores with the ships Astronomer, Charles Green, Botanical Artist, Sydney Parkinson, Solander’s assistant, Herman Spöring and several servants to help carry the load. The intention was to walk as far inland as possible with a view to finding some undiscovered alpines. After discovering the terrain was not for the faint-hearted, the unwavering curiosity of the naturalists proved fatal when they found themselves in the midst of a heavy snowstorm. The freezing temperatures proved too difficult for some of the team resulting in hypothermia and the untimely death of two of the accompanying servants.
With tragedy behind them, Cook decided conditions were favourable for further exploration. They navigated around the Horn entering the Pacific Ocean and on to Tahiti where Cook successfully recorded the transit of Venus across the Sun. The team continued across the Pacific, circumnavigated New Zealand and continued on to New Holland otherwise known as Australia. It was here that the team were overwhelmed with the sheer volume of new plants and animals never seen before. Sydney Parkinson struggled to keep up with the multitude of specimens brought on board with some illustrations containing instructions for colour and detail to be completed at a future date. Cook named the fertile bay surrounded by lush countryside Botany Bay, a name which persists today.
The ship travelled further north charting the eastern coast of the country until it ran aground at the Great Barrier Reef. It was only as a result of Cook’s exceptional navigational skills that they could steer the ship to shore and complete two months of repairs. Although Cook intended to chart the western coast it was decided to continue on to Batavia – modern day Djakarta and on home. Unfortunately, many of the crew including Herman Spöring, Sydney Parkinson and Charles Green succumbed to diseases like dysentery and malaria. The voyage was nonetheless deemed an overwhelming success propelling Banks, probably more so than Cook into the limelight. Banks became an advisor to King George III and over time became the first President of the Royal Horticultural Society. Banks also had a massive influence on the development of Kew Gardens and was the curator of an incredible collection of plants, many of which can be seen at the British National Museum.
I went on to talk about the legacy of Sir William Jackson Hooker, an outstanding botanist and plantsman who became the first Director of Kew Gardens. This was followed by the incredible voyage his son Joseph Dalton Hooker took with Captain James Clark Ross to the Antarctic. Dalton Hooker went on to become one of the most accomplished and published botanists of his time with an exceptional body of publications detailing his work in India and the Himalayas.
This lecture was only the start of a thrilling journey through history following the incredible adventures of the plant hunters. Next week we will be following the story of Charles Darwin and his enormous contributions to the world of natural sciences.
These lectures are open to the public and cost just €10 each which can be paid on the night. Lectures are in the Botany Lecture Theatre in Trinity College Dublin on November 9th, 16th and 23rd from 7 to 8pm so to book a place a please email Hazel at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0863938467!
Happy Gardening Everyone!