University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Famous British Plant Explorers
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Many of the plants in our gardens originally came from the four corners of the world, and were brought by plant explorers. Knowing a little bit about some of the more famous of these explorers gives us a keener insight into, and appreciation of, our gardens.
It is no coincidence that many of these explorers were British and of the 18th and 19th century. For it was at this time that England ruled the seas and much of the world, and these explorers often accompanied expeditions and sailings to far off lands.
The list should probably begin with John Tradescant, Jr. (1608-1662) who, with his father, introduced many plants to England in the 17th century. The two were gardeners to noblemen and royalty, including Elizabeth I. Many of their travels were to Eurasia and the new colonies in North America. The often seen horse chestnut in England was one of their introductions. The genus Tradescantia (Spiderwort) was named after them.
Joseph Banks (1743-1820) was an English botanist, plant collector, and explorer. His first trips abroad to study plants were to Labrador and Newfoundland with later trips to the South Pacific with the famous Captain Cook. He helped found the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, bringing seeds and plants there from all over the world. In addition, he helped found the Royal Horticulture Society and promoted the study of botany throughout England.
Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was a later English plant taxonomist (someone who studies plant names) and explorer. Some of the countries he visited and wrote floras (flowers and plants of the region) about included Antarctica, India, Nepal, Syria, Palestine, Morocco, and the western United States.
Hooker succeeded his father as director of Kew Gardens, and established it as a top center for scientific research on plants. The herbarium (where dried specimens of plants are catalogued) at Kew is still arranged according to the system he developed.
Robert Fortune (1812-1880) was an English plant explorer who lived about the same time as Hooker. Most of his plant explorations were in China, often funded primarily for the purpose of finding tea plants.
From his four Chinese explorations he sent back such perennials as the popular bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), many types of pompom chrysanthemums, and Chinese anemone (Anemone hupehensis). He also sent many woody plants including the fragrant honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), a forsythia (Forsythia viridissima), and Weigela florida. He was among the first to ship live plants back successfully using the mini travelling greenhouse called a "Wardian Case" after its inventor.
Ernest Henry "Chinese" Wilson (1876-1930) was so nicknamed for his many collecting expeditions to China from his native England. Collecting originally for the Veitch family nursery in England, later he collected for the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. To this day, specimens of some of his original introductions can be viewed at this arboretum in Boston.
Wilson's introductions included many ornamental shrubs, roses, primroses, lilies, kurume azaleas, and much more. In all he discovered 3,356 species and varieties, 900 of which were not previously known! He published his collections and trips, including photographs, in his famous Plantae Wilsonae as well as in numerous other books.
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