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Earth Dr Reese Halter's Blog



Almost 250 years ago British plant hunters set out by sea to explore the rich plant diversity of our planet. Many of the plants that are now at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew are in fact an integral part of the history of urbanization.

The founding father of plant hunters was Sir Joseph Banks. In the mid 18th century he was one of the wealthiest men in Britain and his passion was botany.

In 1768 he joined Captain James Cook aboard the HMS Endeavour for a three-year epic journey which circumnavigated the globe.

In the south Pacific he collected 125 new plants, including gardenias and a jasmine. He found 40 new plant species in New Zealand; and over 330 new plants as well as a genus named in his honor – Banksia in Australia.

When Banks returned to England in 1771 he brought back 1,300 new species and 110 new genera.

He befriended King George III and convinced him that the Royal Garden at Kew should be the most diverse collection of plants on the globe.

Sir Joseph Banks established economic plant transfers and was rightfully so credited with playing a vital role in Britain’s emergence as a world power.

Kew’s first official plant hunter was Francis Mason. In 1774 he joined Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution and set sail to explore South Africa. Amongst his treasure trove of 400 plant species that he collected over two years was the striking bird-of-paradise flower.

In 1825 a Scotsman named David Douglas set forth across the Atlantic on behalf of the Royal Gardens at Kew to explore America and western Canada. From his base in Vancouver, Washington his exploration by foot, horse and canoe, over a three-year period, took him as far north as Hudson’s Bay, northwest to Fort St. James, B.C. and south into California’s Monterey – an astonishing 11,185 miles!

He found over 360 species including 20 new genera of plants. Douglas discovered and named the tallest of all the pines – California’s sugar pine, ponderosa pine, grand fir, noble fir, amabilis fir and Monterey pine.

David Douglas changed the face of the Victorian landscape with the introduction of so many conifers, perhaps more than any other individual. Douglas-fir was named in his honor. It is hyphenated because it is not a true fir or Abies.

The second director of Kew was another Scotsman named Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. He brought back dozens of spectacular and fragrant species of rhododendrons from the Himalayas. Many wealthy landowners bought rhododendron seeds and planted tens of thousands of plants across the British landscape.

In 1843, Robert Fortune was sent to China on behalf of the gardens at Kew. He brought back yellow-flowered winter jasmine and winter flowering honeysuckle.

Robert Fortune undertook a remarkable feat whereby he moved 17,000 tea seedlings from the Chekiang province and planted them in the foothills of the Himalayas. He successfully established Assam and Sikkim as northern India’s principal tea exports.

John Veitch founded a nursery in Devon in 1803, which was run by family members up until 1929. Hundreds of plant hunters were dispatched around the globe to feed the insatiable demand for exotic plants.

By the mid 1850s fifty percent of Britain’s population of 22.3 million lived in cities with over 50,000 denizens. Britain was the world’s first urban society with middle class. There was a huge and ever-growing demand for nursery plants.

Today we all owe a debt of gratitude to the early plant hunters who explored uncharted territories, braved the elements of the great outdoors, and floated at the mercy of the winds and currents to bring so many exotic plants, which are now commonplace throughout  the world.

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Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning broadcaster and distinguished biologist. His latest books are The Insatiable Bark Beetle and The Incomparable Honeybee

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Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2013. All rights reserved.


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