I had read about Banksias, seen pictures of tiny marsupials lapping nectar from Banksias, but it was on the wildflower tour that I first came in contact with this odd, fascinating, iconic Aussie flower in the wild. There are 76 species of Banksia, all but one of which are indigenous to Australia—and most of those species (60 of the 76) are found in the corner of Western Australia through which I was traveling.
Banksias are wonderful plants with tough, spiny evergreen leaves and pillar-like flower spikes that are made up of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of tiny flowers grouped together in pairs. The flowers’ colors range from yellow to red, but include rust, brown, orange, gold, and even purply gray.
The genus Banksia was named for botanist Joseph Banks, the first European to collect specimens of the plants. That was in 1770, and Banks was one of the scientists traveling with Captain James Cook on the voyage that first charted Australia’s east coast.
Banks was only 25 when he set off with Captain Cook on what would be one of the most important voyages of discovery in history, a voyage that would last from 1768 into 1771. However, he was already an experienced and respected scientist, and this was not his first voyage.
Banks was wealthy, and he poured a great deal of his personal fortune into outfitting Cook’s voyage. He also rounded up a formidable group of scientists and artists to help him with the task of keeping track of everything. While the primary purpose of the voyage was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun (James Cook having been selected for the mission because of his skill in astronomy), it was the voyage’s secondary purpose that motivated Banks’s participation. They were to explore everything they could in the South Pacific, and record everything they learned about the plants and animals.
Banks excelled at this task. Even while under sail, he was busy recording everything he saw: birds, fish, porpoises, and even seaweed hauled onto the ship. Everywhere the ship made landfall—South America, Tahiti, New Zealand—Banks would write about the birds and animals and collect every plant species he could possibly get on the ship, while others drew or painted his discoveries. But it was in Australia that Banks would make some of his most famous discoveries. Nowhere else had they seen so many unfamiliar plants.
The ship pulled into a bay on the coast of what is now New South Wales, and Banks and the other scientists traveling with him went ashore. In a relatively short amount of time, they had collected such huge numbers of specimens of plants never seen before by Europeans that Captain Cook decided to call the spot Botany Bay. In eight days, they amassed one of the greatest collections of plants ever made.
When they at long last returned to England, the extent of Banks’s research and collecting was so great that his fame almost overshadowed Cook’s for a while—though only in scientific circles, not in naval ones.
Banks would not have the opportunity for another adventure of such magnitude, but his life remained remarkable—and his influence was wide ranging and rather surprising. He was a friend of both King George III and Benjamin Franklin. His belief that the breadfruit he’d seen in Tahiti could provide a good, cheap source of nutrition led to his backing the ill-fated voyage of the H.M.S. Bounty, known almost solely for its mutiny. (A second voyage, also championed by Banks, was successful in collecting breadfruit and establishing it in the Caribbean.)
Banks was one of the eight founders of the Royal Horticultural Society. He built up the royal pleasure grounds at Kew into to one of the world’s greatest botanical gardens. And he played a key role in recommending and establishing Australia as a prison colony (which may sound unkind, but compared to the horrific conditions of prisons of the day, was actually viewed as an improvement, and an opportunity for people to start over.)
Sir Joseph Banks died in 1820, leaving his library and huge collections of specimens, engravings, drawings, botanical paintings, and manuscripts to London’s Natural History Museum, where many of them may still be viewed today.