Through a strange kind of geographic arrogance, Europeans like to think that the world was a silent, dark, unknown place until they trooped out and discovered it.



Plant Hunting Explorers

John Bartram (1699-1777) was the first botanist to travel widely around North America. He maintained a lifelong hostility towards native Americans after his father was killed in an attack. He found and introduced more than 300 new plants to gardens and landscapes in Europe thanks to his ‘Bartram’s Boxes’ full of seeds that he would send to an associate in London who would then distribute them to gentlemen gardeners.

He was the first person to successfully grow a Venus Flytrap which he called a Tipititwitchet and would show off to his friends with a somewhat bawdy commentary.
Joseph Banks (1743-1820) accompanied Captain Cook on his expeditions and introduced 7,000 new species to Britain. He collected so many plant specimens at one stop in Australia that Cook named the area ‘Botany Bay’. During the Endeavour mission to Tahiti Banks spent three months describing the local flora, making the most of the locals’ lack of sexual taboos, and even got himself a tattoo – he may possibly have been the first European to do so. Banks was so well renowned that, when the ship returned home, he got a bigger and better reception than Cook did. Banks tried to set up a second trip, with a personal valet (who was actually his mistress in disguise), but he couldn’t convince the Navy and instead went on a smaller trip to Iceland, his final expedition.
Archibald Menzies (1754-1842) travelled around the world for three years, circumnavigating the globe twice, in search of plants. He was the first European to climb Mauna Loa in Hawaii (the world’s tallest mountain if you include the underwater part), and he deliberately dropped off citrus seeds on the islands, so that future sailors would be able to replenish their stocks. One evening, while dining with the Viceroy of Chile, he spotted some unfamiliar nuts on top of his pudding. Instead of eating them, he smuggled them out of South America … which is how the Monkey Puzzle Tree - Araucaria auricana – came to the UK.


Kew? Aye!

The UK’s most famous plant collection resides at Kew Gardens in South West London. Kew Park was created by Lord Capel John of Tewkesbury and later  enlarged and extended by Augusta, the widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales. 

With the appointment of Francis Masson in 1771, himself a plant collector, the collection took on a more scientific direction and purpose.

In 1840 the gardens were made a national botanical garden and, under director William Hooker, were increased in size to 121 hectares (300 acres).

Kew currently boasts 30,000 different kinds of living plants, over seven million preserved plant specimens, and a library of 750,000 books and 175,000 prints and drawings.


After Zurich, the flora grows interesting.

Dangerous Job

Robert Fortune (1812-1880) became adept at disguising himself as a Chinese native even to the extent of possessing a fake pigtail – and used this skill to visit Soochow (Suzhou), then closed to Europeans, to sneak plants out of China. He survived shipwreck, attack by pirates, thieves, and bandits, as well as fever.

In 1851 he successfully introduced 2000 plants and 17,000 sprouting seeds of tea into the North-Western Provinces of India, again relying on disguise and passing himself off as a Chinaman.

He was the first Westerner to find out that green tea and black tea are made from the same plant.

In 2000, modern day plant hunter Tom Hart-Dyke was kidnapped by guerrillas in the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia while hunting for rare orchids, a plant for which he has a particular passion. He and his travel companion, Paul Winder, were held captive for nine months and were given up for dead by the British Embassy.

To keep his spirits up, Tom used his time in captivity to design a garden containing plants collected on his trips, laid out in the shape of a world map according to their continent of origin.

When he and Paul were unexpectedly released unharmed Tom put his design into practice within the walls of the family's Victorian herb garden at Lullingstone Castle in Kent.

Deadly Mission

John Banister (1654-1692) was an English vicar who became the first university-trained naturalist to send specimens, illustrations, and natural history data from North America to England. He sent back more than 340 plant species, more than 100 insects, and many drawings of shells, plants, and insects to his associates in England.

Banister was accidentally shot and killed by a member of his own exploring party as he bent down to look at a particular species of plant along the Roanoke River, Virginia, in May 1692.

David Douglas (1799-1834) loved fir trees (the Douglas Fir is named after him) so much that he would walk through rain forests for a month in search of a rumoured big pine.

He suffered from all manner of illnesses, attacks by native American Indians, and hunger which eventually forced him to eat most of his finds. He also had his canoe overturned in torrential rapids but suffered only ‘Melancholy to relate, I lost the whole of my insects, a few seeds, and my pistols.’

Ending a run of bad luck, he managed to fall into a big pit in Hawaii, dug to trap wild bulls (his eyesight was very poor due to years of trekking in snow). Unfortunately, the pit already occupied by a wild and angry bull, and that, sadly, was that.

In Britain in the 13th century, only 140 species of plants were known.

David Hawgood

By the 1630s, more than 100 North American species of tree were being grown in England.

While Ernest Wilson was collecting lilies in south-west China in 1910 he was caught in a landslide and broke his leg in two places.

David Douglas collected redcurrents, lupins, California poppies as well as many of the conifers found in our gardens. 

Claude Aubriet is thought to have been the first artist to accompany a botanical expedition travelling to the Middle East in 1700.

George Forrest, who died of a heart attack in Yunnan in 1932 introduced rhododendrons and camellias to the UK.

Captain Bligh's ill-fated voyage aboard HMS Bounty in 1787 was to pick up breadfruit plants from Tahiti and take them to the West Indies.