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Some Australian plants in cultivation in England by 1800

Brian Halliwell

There is uncertainty as to which Europeans discovered mainland Australia. It may have been Portuguese mariners during the 16th century or Dutch sailors in that following. In 1697, a Dutchman, Captain Willem de Vlamingh was searching coastal areas near to what is now Fremantle, looking for shipwrecked sailors. This search took him up the Swan River where some plants were collected, probably the first to come from New Holland. Two herbarium specimens from this collection now in the herbarium of the botanic garden at Geneva are Acacia truncata and Synaphea spinulosa. William Dampier, a former buccaneer who became a Royal Naval Officer, had visited Western Australia in 1688. On a second visit in 1699, he did some plant collecting.

Some of the earliest species cultivated in England

Click on thumbnail images or plant names for larger images

Crowea saligna
Crowea saligna

Olearia tomentosa
Aster tomentosus
(Olearia tomentosa)

Myoporum debile
Myoporum debile
(Eremophila debilis)

Angophora hispida
Metrosideros hispida
(Angophora hispida)

Sprengelia incarnata
Sprengelia incarnata

Lambertia formosa
Lambertia formosa

Goodia lotifolia
Goodia lotifolia

Grevillea buxifolia
Grevillea buxifolia

Styphelia viridis
Styphelia viridiflora
(Styphelia viridis)

Isopogon anemonifolius
Isopogon anemonifolius

In 1642, Abel Tasman had sailed from Batavia on a voyage of exploration. He was to discover Tasmania which he called Van Diemans Land after the governor of the Dutch East Indies. He landed on Van Diemens Land and the crew spent time exploring and may have collected plants. Sailing eastwards, New Zealand was discovered although there was no landing. Tasman followed the coastline of the North Island sailing on into the Pacific Ocean before returning to the Dutch East Indies northwards of New Guinea.

The Lords of the Admiralty in London in 1769, appointed James Cook to captain HMS Endeavour to take a party of scientists to Tahiti to observe the passage of the planet Venus across the sun. As supercargo. Cook had young Joseph Banks, a wealthy amaleur naturalist who was a member of the Royal Society. Banks' party included, in addition to personal servants, a professional botanist Daniel Solander and Sydney Parkinson who was an artist.

When astronomical observations were completed. Cook had instructions from the Admiralty to proceed onwards into the southern Pacific Ocean. HMS Endeavour sighted New Zealand on 6th October 1769. Banks and his party were the first Europeans to see and investigate the flora of this unknown land. From New Zealand, Cook sailed westward and was to land In Australia near to what is now Sydney in Sting Ray Bay. So rich in plant species was this area that Banks was to rename it Botany Bay. Throughout the trip Banks was collecting plants and seed, Solander preparing botanical specimens and Parkinson drawing plants as well as zoological specimens and the landscape.

HMS Endeavour returned to London early in 1772 and later in the same year Cook set out on a second voyage to Australia.

In 1775 he made a third trip but whilst returning was killed on Hawaii in 1779. Banks did not accompany Cook on these later voyages but arranged for a naturalist and artist to accompany each trip. Seeds, plants, herbarium specimens and drawings from these later voyages came back to Banks.

In 1772, plant collections and drawings made by Banks' party created great interest, not only amongst scientists, but also amongst gardeners. Seed was given to Kew and the Chelsea Physic Gardens and some also went to nurserymen and to keen amateurs. After such a long voyage some of the seed proved to be non-viable and plants raised from viable seed were considered tender and would be grown in greenhouses. In the 17th century, winter protection was provided in orangeries heated by charcoal braziers which were to be replaced by closed stoves and, later, underground boilers. Architectural orangeries were to be replaced by less attractive but more practical greenhouses. These were lean-to structures built against south-facing walls, made of substantial timbers and with small panes of glass. The importance of light for successful cultivation was not to be appreciated until late in the following century. The boilers produced hot air that passed through ducts under floors and up flues in walls producing a very dry atmosphere.

There has always been rivalry amongst gardeners. It has been considered a status symbol to be able to grow new and unknown plants. The wealthy English landowners were excited by these new Australian plants, totally unknown to gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere, and wanted to grow them.

In 1775 Lee and Kennedy of the Vineyard Nursery, Hammersmith - then a village outside London - offered for sale the first Australian plants, Casuarina quadrivalvis (Allocasuarina strlcta). In 1785, they offered: Banksia oblongifolia, B.serrata, Fabrica laevigata (Leptospermum laevigatum) Lambertia formosa, Melaleuca armillaris with an addition in 1789 of Metrosideros hispida (Angophora hispida). In 1790; Crowea saligna, Grevillea buxifolia, Podolobium (Oxylobium) trilobatum, Styphelia viridiflora (S.viridis) and Westringia rosmarinifolium. Offered in 1792 were: Bossiaea heterophylla, B.scolopendrium (B.schopendria), Daviesia ulicina, Mirbelia reticulata (M.rubiifolia) and Sowerbaea juncea. For 1793 was Aster tomentosus (Olearia tomentosa), Bignonia (Tecoma) australis, Myoporum debile (Eremophila debilis) and Sprengelia incarnata and for 1796 Boronia pinnatifida.

James Lee was especially interested in Australian plants and, at his own expense, sent out David Burton to collect seed and plants for the firm. In about 1737 Lee published a 4 page pamphlet entitled 'Rules for Collection and Preserving Seed from Botany Bay'. Although Lee and Kennedy might have been the leading nursery dealing in Australian plants in the London area, they were not the only one.

It was in 1788 that Arthur Phillip arrived with the first fleet in New South Wales to set up a penal colony at Port Jackson. Perhaps Lee's pamphlet was intended for settlers, military, warders and their families, as well as convicts who would become free men when their sentences expired. Seed collected by these early settlers from the Port Jackson area included Acacia linifolia, A.juniperina, A.myrtifolia, A.verticillata, Eucalyptus resinifera, E.robusta, Goodia lotifolia, Isopogon anemonifolius, Platylobium parvislorurum, P.formosus and Pultenaea retusa.

In addition to many well known genera which have already been mentioned there were others, although their introducers are unknown or uncertain. Leptospermum lanigerum, that is hardy over most of England, had come in 1774. Probably the best known species of this genus in English gardens, L.scoparium, with New Zealand and Australian distribution, arrived in 1772. The species had come first from Australia but the coloured flower forms, now more popular, were selections of the New Zealand form made in the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Pittosporum is an evergreen genus of shrubs that, though occurring in the Northern Hemisphere, has more species in Australia and New Zealand. Pittosporum undulatum had arrived in 1739 and P.revolutum in 1795; both are Australian species. Humea elegans (Calomeria amaranthoides, incense plant, came in 1800. This substantial biennial was grown in conservatories for its strongly aromatic foliage. Another conservatory plant that is grown as a house plant where there is plenty of room is the Norfolk Island pine, Araucaria excelsa (now A.heterophylla) which had arrived in 1793. The genus Metrosideros is mentioned frequently but it is doubtful if any species listed remain in that genus today. M.hisplda is now Angophora hispida and M.citrina, M.salignus, M.lophanthus and M.viminalis, all introduced before 1800, are now classified in the genus Callistemon.

The dominant tree in Australia is Eucalyptus. In the 19th century there was much interest in the genus by foresters in temperate regions of both hemispheres for timber. No species was hardy enough in Britain for forestry and the hardiest species, mostly Tasmanian, grown for their ornamental foliage and bark were later arrivals. By 1800 there were in cultivation in Britain; Eucalyptus corymbosa, E.marginata. E.obliqua. E.piperata, E.resinifera and E.robusta. These must have been an embarrassment to 18th Century gardeners with their rapid growth in relatively small greenhouses.

In 1795 Catherine II of Russia made a request to King George III of England for a collection of plants. Seeing a diplomatic advantage, George III commanded Joseph Banks, who had become unofficial Director of Kew Gardens, to select plants from the Kew collection to send to Russia. Almost 500 plants in 226 species were assembled for Catherine. In this collection were some from Australia: Pultaenea daphnoides, Platylobium formosum, Mimosa (Acacia) myrtifolia, M. (Acacia) suaveolens and Metrosideros (Callistemon) citrinus. The consignment, sent in the ship Venus which had been modified for the plants, was accompanied by a Kew gardener, George Noe; it arrived in St. Petersburg on 8 August 1795.

Catherine had developed an interest in horticulture and created gardens, with greenhouses, around the Imperial Palaces; some of the garden supervisors were Englishmen. When plants arrived in St. Petersburg, she visited them daily and personally drew any that came into flower. She did not have long to enjoy them, for she died in 1796.

It is perhaps fitting as an end to this article that I quote from a letter Catherine had written to Voltaire in 1772: "I love [the] distraction [of] the gardens in the English style - their curving lines, the gentle slopes and the pond-like lakes. My Anglo mania predominates over my Pluto mania."


  1. Aiton, W.T. 1810-1813, Index Kewensis, Second edition
  2. Carter, H. B., 1974, Sir Joseph Banks and the Plant Collection from Kew sent to the Empress of Russia in 1795
  3. Dampier, W. A., Voyage to New Holland, edition 1939
  4. Hereman, S. (editor) 1868 Paxton's Botanical Dictionary. Second edition.
  5. Steam, W. 1984, The Introduction of Plants to the Gardens of Western Europe (supplement to the Australian Garden Journal)

From Eucryphia, newsletter of the Australian Plants Society, Tasmania, September 2002. Note that the plant names used in the article are those originally published and may not coincide with current taxonomy - where known, current names have been indicated.

Brian Halliwell of Halifax, England is a long-standing member of APS Tasmania and has contributed to the Society's newsletter many times.


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Australian Plants online - March 2003
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants