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Plant Collectors

People have collected plants for thousands of years, taking them from one locality to be grown in a different locality. Earliest records show Egyptians in 1495 BC collecting fragrant plants from present day Somalia.

It is well documented that the Romans moved plants around different parts of their empire. In medieval times, monks in Europe were known to travel great distances and take plants (particularly medicinal herbs) with them.

European interest in plant exploration accelerated in the mid 1500’s and a pattern has developed since that time where different parts of the world have one by one been discovered as a great source of new plant material; and subsequently explored by a sequence of plant hunters and collectors. The main focus of plant collection has thus shifted from place to place around the world as new areas have been discovered, explored and as the pool of new and valuable species diminished; gone out of favour.

Pre 1560 - most plants that were cultivated in Europe and the UK originated in parts of Europe.

1560 to 1620 - more plants were being brought into Europe from the near east. From

1620 to late 1700’s - plant introductions to Europe from North America

1687-1772 plant introductions to Europe from Southern Africa

1770’s to mid 1800’s plant introductions from Australia

1820-1900 - many introductions to Europe from Japan

late 1800’s to 1930’s – many introductions from inland China

Where were plants introduced first?

Often when a European country established a colony, plants were discovered and collected by that nationality, and introduced first into that country back in Europe. Plants from India tended to be introduced into England. Plants from the Spanish American colonies would have been introduced into Spain; and plants from Indonesia into the Netherlands, etc.

This was not exclusively the pattern though .Elizabethan navigators though interested more in trading gold, through their pursuit of gold, came across the potato in South America, and introduced this all important vegetable to the UK from areas that were not English colonies.

A large number of common garden plants came from central and south American Spanish colonies in the 16th century; including dahlias, cannas, nasturtium, sunflowers, and yuccas.

Important Plant Explorers

Note: This list is by no means comprehensive, but it may provide a broad impression of how plants were discovered, and gradually brought into cultivation.

Pierre Belon (1518-1563)

Spent three years traveling the Eastern Mediterranean and wrote a book that mentions Nerium oleander, Paeonia clusii, Cistus ladaniferus and Prunus lauocerasus

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708)

A French botanist, plant explorer and teacher to many subsequent plantsmen. He explored areas from the Greek Islands through to Persia (Iran), and was the first person to describe both the common rhododendron and the ornamental poppy.

Tradescants (1600’s)

A father and son, gardeners from England, between them visited North Africa, Russia and Virginia, exploring and collecting plants. They were responsible for many introductions to the UK which may have included Matthiola sinuate, Cistus (various types), Purple Cranes Bill, Algiers Apricot, Tradescantia virginiana, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Rhus typhnia, Lireodendron tulipifera, Taxodium distichum, etc.

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1653

An Irish physician and plant collector who studied medicine in London and France, before settling in London. He was responsible for importing a large number of plant species from America into Europe –particularly trees and shrubs. On his first expedition ( to Jamaica in 1687), he returned with 800 plant specimens. He was president of the Royal Society (1727-41). He corresponded with many plant collectors of the day and was instrumental in fostering support for their activities. In 1712 he bought the manor at Chelea (which included the Chelsea Physic Garden (founded in 1673 by the Society of Apothecaries). Sloane provided great support for this garden.

Sir Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820)

Banks was an even greater patron of plant collectors than Sloane.

From 1768-71, he traveled the world as botanist on Cook’s voyages. He introduced many plants to the UK including Callistemon, Tetragona expansa, Banksias and Clianthus puneceus. In 1771 he was appointed scientific advisor to the King, an appointment that made him in effect director of Kew Gardens, a position that enabled him to influence and support plant exploration across the globe. From 1778 till his death he was president of the Royal Society.

Prominent Plant Collectors that followed included:

Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1715)

German physician and botanist worked for the Dutch East India Co. in Japan from 1690-1692. Was the first to describe many significant plants including Hydrangea, Aucuba, Ginkgo, Camellias, Skimmia, etc

Francis Masson

Sent by Kew Gardens to South Africa in the 1770’s

Nathaniel Wallich

Director of Calcutta Botanic Garden from 1815, collected many new plants through the Himalayas, Tibet and Nepal; and was ultimately responsible for many warm glasshouse plants coming to Europe.

French Missionaries in China

Throughout the 19th century, strong French links with China resulted in permission to collect plants there, and subsequently many plants were introduced to France from China

Robert Fortune

Was sent to China from England in 1842, with a “shopping list” of plants to collect He introduced Yellow Jasmine amongst other things

Charles, John and James Vietch (1839-1907)

Working for the Wietch Nursery, introduced plants including Lilium auratum and Magnolia stellata to the UK.

Sir Joseph Hooker


Introduced many Rhododendrons to England, Other introductions included Primulas and Vanda caerulea

George Forrest

Backed by a syndicate he collected plants from Asia on expeditions between 1904 and 1922

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