Paying Homage to the Botanists

DAAs I write about each plant, I love to read as much about it as I can. I have a good library of botanical reference books and then there is the bottomless pit of knowledge known as the internet.

One thing that has piqued my interest is learning more about the botanist(s)  who first named and described the plant.  Usually in reference material the citation looks something like this –

Drymophila cyanocarpa R.Br.

The almost-insignificant notation “R.Br.” (following the plant’s genus and species name) refers to one of the greatest naturalists – Scottish-born Robert Brown – who ended up naming so many of Australia’s plants. He was 29 when he was appointed by Sir Joseph Banks to be the naturalist for Captain Matthew Flinders’ voyage aboard the “Investigator” to Terra Australis, (1801-1805).

So what about Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, author of “Flora Tasmaniae”…? During my research I stumbled across a wonderful book – “Darwin’s Armada” –  written by Iain McCalman, which has a very thoroughly-researched biography of Joseph Hooker. Fortunately our local library had a copy, but I enjoyed it and referenced it so often, I bought my own epub copy.

The book is structured as 4 sections, each describing the southern hemisphere expeditions of naturalists –

  • Charles Darwin, 5 year journey aboard the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836
  • Joseph Hooker, 5 year journey aboard the HMS Erebus with Captain James Clark Ross, polar explorer extraordinaire,from 1839 to 1843. The HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Britain’s first icebreakers, voyaged to Antarctica, the main purpose of the expedition to study magnetism and find the south magnetic pole. Hooker collected many plant specimens from stops along the way, including Tasmania.
  • Thomas Huxley, 5 year journey aboard the HMS Rattlesnake from 1846 to 1850
  • Alfred Wallace

These men were all friends, and Hooker, Huxley and Wallace were Darwin’s allies and advocates of the theory of Natural Selection. What inspires me is the hardships these naturalists endured during their long and arduous expeditions. Years away from home and family, living in cramped quarters with poor lighting, often suffering sea-sickness and other illnesses, with poor facilities for storing their hard-won botanical collections some of which were lost during violent storms… And, they were naturalists, not only botanists. So during the brief landfalls of the expedition, they had to study not only plantlife, but animals, geology, indigenous people, etcetc.  Furthermore, they often also had other tasks. Hooker was originally appointed to the expedition as assistant surgeon.

I can highly recommend this un-put-downable book if you are interested in the history of some of Australia’s early botanists.

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3 Responses to Paying Homage to the Botanists

  1. Robyn Mundy says:

    Graat post, Marg! It must have been an incredibly difficult but thrilling time aboard those early exploratory voyages! So many new discoveries! My family has a small claim to botanical fame. My great great (not sure how many greats) grandfather was Tasmanian botanist Ronald Gunn.
    Thanks for the book recommendation!
    Robyn x

    • marg1953 says:

      Thanks for your comments Robyn.. There is a lovely section (several pages in fact) on Ronald Gunn in the book. Before Joseph Hooker met up with him in Tas, Ronald Gunn had been corresponding regularly with Joseph’s father Sir William Hooker, and collecting botanical specimens to send to him. From the book (Darwin’s Armada) – .. “By the time Joseph Hooker met Ronald Gunn in August 1840, the self-taught colonial botanist had come a long way.. //.. Hooker had taken instantly to Ronald Gunn. The two men formed a friendship that was to endure throughout their lifetimes.. // . . Hooker could recall ‘no happier weeks’ than those spent wandering in the bush and clambering up mountains with Gunn to collect plants to dissect in his friend’s library.”
      How exciting to have such a family connection!
      Marg x

      • Robyn Mundy says:

        That’s a fascinating excerpt: all news to me who, shamefully, knows very little about this ancestral botanist. Thanks for taking the time to share the extract. –Robyn

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