History’s Distinguished Plant Persons

by Norman Todd  January 2005


This is the first in a series of short articles on small, often trivial, events in the lives of people who were of consequence in matters of interest to our Society.  We call the people who went out into the wilds to find plants for our gardens, “The Plant Hunters’.  Most of us recognize their names and we have all heard talks or read books about their pursuits.  Looking them up in an encyclopedia will give the broad course of their lives but reading their more detailed biographies often reveals an incident or discovery that seems particularly important in perhaps a parochial way, or is somewhat relevant to contemporary events.  Sometimes they may even be comical or whimsical.


Joseph Banks and Newfoundland 1766

Joseph Banks had an omnifarious mind.  His curiosity and energy spurred him to become intensely involved in so many of the great contemporary issues that one needs a catalogue to list them.  He is known best for having been the botanist on Cook’s first voyage (1768-71); for holding the presidency of the Royal Society for 41 years; for being the principal drive behind the establishment of Kew Gardens; for the founding of New South Wales and for the introduction, from Tahiti, of the breadfruit tree to the Caribbean.  These latter events have led to his being held in disrepute by some because of strong connections to the transportation of criminals and for the establishment of slavery.  He has also been pejoratively characterized as being a Gentleman Amateur of Science.  He certainly did not earn his livelihood from practicing science—he didn’t need to; he was a wealthy man.  But neither did Charles Darwin. Banks wrote ‘…a man is never so well Employ’d, as when he is labouring for the advantage of the Public; without the Expectation, the Hope or Even a wish to derive advantage of any Kind from the Result of his exertions.’


Most of the information for this article comes from Dr. Averil Lysaght’s compendious book Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766: His Diary, Manuscripts and Collections. In the book’s foreword, Joey Smallwood (Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1949-71) rates it as one of the dozen greatest works about Newfoundland.  Averil Lysaght was subsequently and consequently given an honorary DLitt from Memorial University.  (Incidentally, as a 15 year old in New Zealand, Lysaght discovered a new species of moth on Mt Egmont/Taranaki, which was named melanchra averillia in her honour.  The world famous rhododendron garden, Pukieiti flourishes on the western slope of Mt. Taranaki).


The movie Master and Commander was awarded two Oscars in 2003.   The events in the filmed version bore little resemblance to the book.  Personally, I thought it not such a good movie and certainly not as enjoyable as the book.  Its author, Patrick O’Brian wrote another nineteen in a series of 19th century naval action stories. He also wrote an excellent, well researched, easily read biography of Joseph Banks—more easily understood than some of the naval manoeuvres in the Master and Commander books.  In O’Brian’s book, he includes Banks’s entire Newfoundland journal.  In contrast, H.B. Carter’s Sir Joseph Banks published by the British Museum and supposedly the authoritative biography devotes about three (of 671) pages to Banks’s trip to Newfoundland.


Constantine John Phipps had gone to Eton with Banks.  Phipps had left school early to go to sea on HMS Monmouth. His uncle was her captain. Part of the great attraction the navy had for upper class English youth was the possibility of prize money. This could be of staggering proportions.  Phipps, recently promoted to lieutenant, got £2,000, for serving under his uncle, equivalent to about thirty years’ pay.  An admiral could receive about forty times that—an amount that in today’s terms would make Conrad Black, when at his best, a relative pauper.  Compared to Phipps’s £ 2,000, a seaman got £3 14s 9p.


Thereafter, in 1766, Phipps was without a ship and on half pay. Like Banks, he had excellent connections and was conveniently given a ‘naval mission’ to Newfoundland on HMS Niger captained by their friend Sir Thomas Adams. The Grand Banks (the fishing area, not the man) was the scene of constant rivalry and hostility among the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen, as it still is 250 years later. Banks too was able to pull influential strings to allow him to go with Phipps.  Phipps was also a keen naturalist, although more interested in animals than plants.  He was the first to describe the polar bear scientifically.


The Niger spent four and a half months in Newfoundland and Labrador. I have been in St Johns only once. I thought it full of interest and friendliness.  Here is what Banks thought, as recorded in his journal, “It is very difficult to Compare one town with another tho that Probably is the Best way of Conveying the Idea  St Johns however Cannot be Compared to any I have seen  it is Built upon the side of a hill facing the Harbour  Containing two or three hundred houses & near as many fish Flakes interspersed which in summer time must Cause a stench scarce to be supported  thank heaven we were only there spring & fall before the fish were come to the Ground & after they were gone off  For dirt & filth of all kinds St Johns may in my opinion Reign unrivaled ….”


Banks returned with a collection of specimens, many of them never before seen in Europe. These specimens provided an important building block for his famous herbarium.  Banks had recognized the Swede Carolus Linnaeus’ plant classification system as detailed in his Systema naturae (1753) and subsequent writings. Its principal proselytizer in Britain was Daniel Carl Solander, a favourite pupil of Linnaeus.  Solander, in 1766, was working at the fledgling British Museum. At this time he and Banks were socially conversant. This quickly developed into their deep friendship, which led to their partnership on the first great voyage of then Lieutenant James Cook on the Endeavour in 1768. In 1782 Solander suffered a stroke while breakfasting at Banks’s house and did not recover. The ever stoical Banks subsequently unveiled himself a little when he wrote, “Suffice is to say that few men howsoever Exalted their pursuits were ever more feelingly miss’d either in the paths of Science or of Friendship.”


The Linnaean system was based on the sexual arrangement of the flowers’ parts. Banks’ botanical descriptions of his Newfoundland finds—340 of them—followed the Linnaean prescriptions using botanical Latin.  An example of an entry in Banks’ Plant Catalogue (translated) is, “Husbands live with wives in the same house, but have different beds”: i.e. male and female flowers on the same plant.  Another is, “nuptials are celebrated privately.” i.e. flowers are concealed within the fruit.  Such openly sexual language aroused anger in many of Linnaeus’ critics.  But Linnaeus often had the last laugh by naming the most noxious weeds after his most vocal objectors. On the other hand he named many genera for his pupils and friends by adding an ‘ia’ to their names, e.g. Kalm, Lagerström, Alströmer, Thunberg, Magnol, Dahl and Garden.


Banks was diligent in collecting everything he could find —flowering plants, ferns, mosses, seaweed, birds, mammals and insects.  Whether some of the plants were truly indigenous or were the result of naturalization after being introduced accidentally by earlier European visitors caused much debate that in some instances is still ongoing. Banks did find three species of rhododendron, canadense, lapponicum and groenlandicum.  The first of these he introduced into cultivation.


I will close this fragmental snippet on Banks’s life by noting, apropos of nothing that has gone before, that he should be regarded, at the very least, as being an honourary Canadian.  Pierre Berton’s recent death has reminded me of his defining a Canadian as one who could make love in a canoe. In Caroline Alexander’s 2003 The Bounty (a good read), she comments on Banks’s boundless curiosity into all aspects of living things this way.


“With his zeal for new experiences, he had thrown himself into Tahitian life, learning its language, attending burials and sacrifices and dances, endearing himself to its people, even having himself discreetly tattooed.  The happy promiscuity of the Tahitian women was already well known … and Banks’s adventures on this front provided additional spice. Outstanding among the stories that made the rounds of London social circles was the tale of the theft of Mr. Banks’s fine waistcoat with its splendid silver frogging, stolen, along with his shoes and pistol, while he lay sleeping with his “old Friend Oberea” in her canoe: (Oberea was a Tahitian queen).


 Didst thou not, crafty, subtle sunburnt strum

Steal the silk breeches from his tawny bum?

Calls’t thouself a Queen? And thus couldst use

And rob thy Swain of breeches and his shoes?