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).
Although Banks’ voyage lead to rich botanical finds, it was by no means an easy trip; the men suffered bouts of disease, encounters with aborigines, and the ship ran aground in Java. Of the 94 crewmen that sailed out into the English Channel three years earlier, only 52 made it back alive.
Upon Banks’ return to Great Britain, King George III appointed him “Scientific Advisor on the Plant Life for the Dependencies of the Crown.” Banks in turn convinced the King that the world’s greatest collection of plants needed a home at Kew, which had been the pleasure garden of King George’s parents Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Augusta, an avid gardener and amateur botanist.
Banks used his influence and much of his own money to fund more plant-hunting expeditions. His goal was to catalog all of the plants in all of the colonies, and to grow exotic plants at Kew, the best of which he could eventually introduce to the rest of the world.
It was Banks who sent the plant hunter David Nelson to Tahiti to bring breadfruit plants from the Polynesian island to the West Indies; breadfruit, it was hoped, would be an inexpensive manna to feed the British workers in tropical colonies. While Nelson’s mission was not the stuff of high drama, the crew of the ship he sailed on—the notorious HMS Bounty, commanded by Captain William Bligh—provided more than enough. During the infamous mutiny, all of the breadfruit plants were thrown overboard.
Despite the loss of the breadfruit, more than 7,000 species were introduced during Banks’ tenure at Kew, making it the world center for botany and horticulture, a position it maintains to this day.
When the Endeavor ran aground in Java, the crewmen plugged the resulting hole in the ship’s hull with a chunk of coral. While the first concern was saving the ship for the voyage home, the main worry for Joseph Banks must have been his precious herbarium specimens–carefully pressed and dried samples of leaves and flowers assembled in Australia. Other pieces of plants were wrapped in moistened cloth and put into metal-lined chests until the onboard artist Sydney Parkinson could draw them; there were so many specimens, Parkinson could only make sketches, and notes on the colors to be added later. I can barely imagine how pressed plants could survive the cramped and humid conditions on a ship at sea, let alone survive unexpected disaster.
In far more comfortable surroundings, and for craft projects rather than scientific reasons, I press flowers and autumn leaves. I don’t use a fancy contraption with planks of wood and blotter paper, squeezed flat by a screw-clamp or leather straps. I use a much handier contrivance: a retired phone book.
I have recycled about a dozen telephone directories for this job, and it’s surprising how quickly they fill up. For instance, I like to preserve hydrangea, and one flower head yields dozens of florets. Even some thicker flowers turn out fine when pressed and weighted with a few more phone books on top; once dried, they last for years.
On a few occasions, when I’ve needed a flower right away for a project, I’ve pressed the specimen in a phone book and placed the book in the microwave on low power. I check the process frequently to see if the blossoms have dried, and proceed slowly so as not to toast the flower (or burn the phone book – or house).
I’ve made note cards with the flattened specimens, but lately, I’ve turned my attention to fashioning decoupage lampshades with flowers and leaves stuck to tissue paper with artists’ gloss acrylic medium. I carefully cut panels of tissue paper and glue them to a lampshade frame with white glue. When that is dry, I coat the outside with the medium, and as it dries, it shrinks the paper taught. I dab a bit of medium onto the tissue and place a flower on it, then with a soft brush, apply more medium over the flower. When the flower is dry, I first coat the inside of the lamp with gloss medium, and then with matte medium to diffuse light. I then use a 50/50 mixture of gloss and matte medium over the flowers and paper on the outside for a final coat that creates the look and feel of parchment.
Although the flowers and leaves often start out colorful, over time ultra-violet daylight and humidity cause some to fade. To me, a red leaf mellowing to beige or tan remains beautiful through all of its transformations.