Joseph Banks – the Plant Hunting Frenzy


I continue my tale of the English conservatories and the exotic plants grown in them. Joseph Banks, 1795, triggered the tropical plant hunting frenzy when he travelled to Haiti. He brought back thirteen hundred specimens plants and influenced other plant collectors. David Douglas was inspired to walk across North America in the 1820’s and collect samples. The Douglas fir is named after him. Captain Wilson brought plants back from China. Most of these samples were in the form of seeds, or corms or dry rizomes and roots.

The hardest part was keeping the actual plants alive on the trip back to England and Dr. Ward did a first test of his Wardian case, in 1833. He sent two specially glazed cases filled with British ferns and grasses to Sydney, Australia. They were essentially small trunks turned into greenhouses with a compost layer on the bottom, which could be watered and adjustable shutters. On a good day at sea, these cases could be carried up on deck and opened to let in sunshine and fresh air. A number of Australian plants that hadn’t previously survived the trip arrived back in England in good condition.


The craze for exotic plants blossomed. Joseph Paxton, 1826, became head gardener at Chatsworth for the sixth Duke of Devonshire. He took glass houses to a new level when he built the great conservatory there. I am enclosing a picture of what it must have looked like in one of the grand glass houses. My second novella takes place in this interesting time period.

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