Giant trees and plant hunters

Man has long been aware of the bounty offered by plants and trees as a source of food; timber for building; fuel for cooking and heating; medicine; objects of beauty or fragrance; or simply because of the novelty of their unusual nature – like the Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula) or the Sensitive plant / Touch-Me-Not (Mimosa pudica). Britons and other Europeans roamed far and wide across the globe in search of exotic plants and trees (and in this age of bio-diversity still do). However, plant gathering expeditions are not new. The first recorded trip was carried out by the ancient Egyptians. Carvings on the walls of Queen Hatsheput's palace at Luxor are said to depict one such trip around 1500 BC.


Tulips, long associated with the Netherlands, were actually known to have passed through the Persian (now Iran) and Ottoman (now Turkey) empires before reaching Europe. As Turkey straddles both Europe and Asia, the first unquestionably European tulip reportedly bloomed in Bavaria, Germany in 1559 (there is a rival claim by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Austrian ambassador to the Ottomans, who claims to have sent bulbs back in 1554). Dutch tulips are widely considered to have been imported from Turkey around the 16th Century. Again, there is debate as to who is actually responsible but a number of sources credit Charles L'Ecluse (also known as Clusius), who was a major influence on European gardening and also thought to have introduced now common favourites like anemones, irises, narcissus and lilies.

Robert Cecil, who built Hatfield House, sent his gardener, John Tradescant the Elder, on plant hunting trips to Netherlands, Belgium, France and further afield between 1611-14. Among the many plants, trees, seeds and saplings he brought back was Plush or Velvet Anemone (Anemone pluchee), which first grew in England at Hatfield.

Today, India is the world's largest producer of Chillies, and South Indian cooking in particular is known for its fiery seasoning. However, chilli peppers (Capsicum family) are native to Central and South America, where they had been cultivated for centuries. Christopher Columbus is considered to be the one who introduced them to Europe in the 15th Century (although there are indications that it may have been brought across at an earlier date). Later, they were introduced to the Asian subcontinent by Portuguese colonists at Goa. The  Portuguese are also credited with introducing Pineapple, Papaya (or Papaw), and Cashew to India.

Bounty of Breadfruit

Breadfruit, which were discovered by Europeans during Captain James Cook's voyages, had been identified as a cheap and nutritious food source for slave workers on the plantations in the West Indies. Although called a fruit, its high starch content means it is usually cooked before being eaten. There are two closely related types of Breadfruit. The Tahitian variety – Artocarpus communis, also known as A. incisa and A. altilis – is actually thought to have originated in the Malay archipelago. The other, Treculia africana, is native to Africa. Both belong to the family Moraceae.

Captain William Bligh's ship, HMS Bounty, was being used to transplant Breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies when it was seized by mutineers led by Fletcher Christian on 28 April 1789. Captain Bligh, who had taken part in Captain Cook's third and final voyage, is generally depicted as the villain of the story particularly in film versions. However, while he had a harsh tongue, he is reported to have ordered far less floggings than other captains.

Cast adrift by the mutineers, in an outstanding feat of seamanship he successfully navigated around 3,500 miles (5,633 km) in an open boat to Timor in the East Indies. In 1792, he successfully carried a cargo of Breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies (and stone breadfruit decorate his grave, which is a few steps from the Tradescants' grave – originally St Mary's Church, Lambeth, it is now home to the Museum of Garden History).

Later, he saw active service under Admirals Duncan and Nelson. In 1805, he became Governor of New South Wales, Australia. After handing over to Lachlan Macquarie in 1810 he returned to England. He was promoted to Vice-Admiral in 1814, and died in 1817.

Ironically, it appears that the plantation workers initially refused to eat the unfamiliar breadfruit. Although today it is a staple food in the West Indies and many other places in the tropics.


Men behind the tall trees

As we have seen, the movement of people has had a direct impact on the movement of plants and trees. As far as the story of the two North American species of Sequoia is concerned the credit for their introduction to Britain mainly goes to the intrepid Victorians. While not everyone listed below were plant hunters (or Victorian or even British) they all made a contribution.


Archibald Menzies

Thought to be the first European to describe the Coastal Sequoia (Sequoia sempervirens) in the 1790s.

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Veitch family

Their nursery business hired brothers William and Thomas Lobb (and a number of other famous plant hunters), and introduced the 'Wellingtonia' to Britain.

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Dr Albert Kellogg

Founder of the California Academy of Sciences who passed on the news of the discovery of the Giant Sequoia by Augustus Dowd to William Lobb.

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William Lobb

First of the famous Veitch nursery plant hunters. He brought the seeds and plants of the Giant Sequoia back to Britain.

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John Lindley

Famous botanist and editor of The Gardener's Chronicle. Published the first description of the Giant Sequoia and named it Wellingtonia.

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