In the autumn of 1768, Captain James Cook and his ship HMS Endeavour set sail from England with a very special passenger aboard. It was the British custom in that day for well-to-do young adults to complete their educations by taking the “Grand Tour” of the European Continent, but 25-year-old Joseph Banks had greater aspirations. Banks, inspired by his correspondence with the Swedish Professor Carl Linnaeus of Upsula University, the greatest botanist of all time, was more interested in nature’s creations than the accomplishments of antiquity. “My Grand Tour,” Banks declared, “shall be around the globe” to study the wonders of the plant world. He paid what was considered a fortune at the time, £10,000 (equal to nearly one million pounds today), for passage for himself and nine crewmen aboard the Endeavour. Linnaeus’ star pupil, Daniel Solander, joined Banks on a trip that was to become one of the greatest botanical expeditions in history.
By April 28th, 1770 the Endeavor had traveled half-way-round the world. They entered a cove Cook deemed safe for anchorage, and Banks and Solander went ashore to gather specimens from the Eucalyptus forests and from the marshes nearby. Banks, his naturalist comrades and the sailors from the Endeavour saw so many incomparable plants during their excursions that they christened the harbor Botany Bay, the name it still has today, as the harbor of Sydney, Australia.
Back in England, botanists and horticulturists awaited reports from the Endeavor and news of Banks’ findings. And find plants, he did: 110 previously unknown genera and 1,300 species. In eight days, Banks’ team had amassed one of the most expansive collections ever made.
Those of us who have cool-temperate greenhouses, care for indoor plants, grow tender perennials, or live in warm climate zones of North America will recognize the names of many of the plants Banks came across, including the familiar houseplant Norfolk Island pine, a tree that towers to 100 feet in its homeland. Banks also noted Cyathea and Dikinsonia tree ferns, and the flowering shrubs Hebe, Leptospermum, Pittosporum, and Protea, whose other-worldly flowers seem to have stepped out of an episode of Star Trek. Linnaeus was so impressed with Banks’ discoveries that he recommended the island continent be called Banksia after the young botanist; it was not, but a genus of 75 shrubs with spectacular bottlebrush flowers, leathery leaves and odd woody fruits were honored with the Banksia name (botanical illustration, above).