The Flower Chain

The Early Discovery of Australian Plants



In The Flower Chain, the author pieces together the history of the European discovery of Australian plants. Several introductory chapters cover the development of botanic gardens, the role of plant collectors, the development of classification systems and the evolution and adaption of our flora to fire, climate and soils. Subsequent chapters deal with the explorations of the Dutch, Dampier, Cook, Banks and Solander, and Spanish, French and Russian expeditions, and finish with the exploration of Matthew Flinders. Other chapters deal with Banks’ role in the settlement of Australia and the introduction of plants to cultivation in Europe. Ours is truly a fascinating botanical history, well told by Jill Hamilton in an easy style backed with excellent illustrations. The number and variety of Australian plants which were grown in England in these early years is staggering, over 170 new species by 1800, yet around 100 were also lovingly cared for by Josephine Bonaparte in her estate at Malmaison, outside of Paris. Why this French interest in Australian plants?

It would indeed be far-fetched to suggest that Napoleon was primarily responsible. But it was certainly his interest in science and his promotion of it that saw French science pre-eminent after the Revolution. At 15, he had applied to join the La Perouse expedition as an assistant astronomer but was not accepted; this reached Port Jackson just after the First Fleet. He was a member of the Mathematical and Physical Class of the Institut National and knew most of the important botanists and natural historians of the period. But perhaps most of all, his interest in science was the spark that ignited Josephine’s passion for natural history and led her to develop one of the most famous gardens in Europe, Malmaison. Here, black swans, emus and kangaroos roamed freely and the gardener Delahaye who had voyaged to Australia, tended her thousands of exotic plants. The famous voyages of D’Entrecasteau and Baudin led to major collections of Australian flora and fauna, as well as seeds and living plants, and substantial published works naming and describing them resulted. For instance, on the Baudin expedition, there were 25 scientists including three botanists and five gardeners. The eucalypt, the emu, the wombat and the platypus were all described by French scientists and many hundreds of Australian plants named; many species were grown in France before they were cultivated in Britain. And it was the Bonaparte’s patronage of Redouté which allowed him to produce some of the most beautiful paintings of Australian plants ever seen, many of them illustrated in these two books.

Jill Hamilton’s text is engaging and packed with fascinating information about a facet of the history of the Australian flora that few of us know. The books are enhanced by superb illustrations and contain detailed bibliographies and a listing of the ten major books published in France between 1789 and 1833 with the number of Australian plants contained in each. I highly recommend both. Perhaps my only criticism is that I don’t believe she has given sufficient credit to English Botanic Gardens and private nurserymen for introducing Australian plants to cultivation. Also, she plays down the role of the English nursery of Lee and Kennedy in providing plants to Malmaison, even during the Napoleonic wars. The British horticultural magazines of the period also featured illustrations of recently introduced plants so that her statement on the ABC Radio programme Ocram’s Razor of November 14, 1999 “more illustrations of the Australian flora were published in Paris during the 16 years of the Napoleonic era than in the 90 years in Britain after Captain Cook’s discovery of the east coast of Australia in 1770″ needs to be treated with caution. Over 1200 Australian plants were grown in Britain during this period and perhaps three quarters were illustrated in horticultural magazines. They may not have been as good as Redouté’s perhaps but nevertheless indicate that interest in Australian plants was just as alive in Britain as in France.

Reprinted from the December 2000 issue of Growing Australian, newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Victoria).

Reviewed by Tony Cavanagh