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New Zealand Plants and their Story


As was shown in the last chapter, if long descent counts for anything, the plants of New Zealand rank high among the aristocracy of the vegetable kingdom. On the other hand, their first historians became acquainted with them only one hundred and forty-one years ago.

Sir Joseph Banks and Dr. Daniel Charles Solander, during the month of October, 1769, found themselves in a new world, whose plant-life was all strange, and where every tree and shrub and herb was a fresh surprise and a great joy. And yet for ages before these intrepid scientists had ventured forth, and for ages, likewise, before the remote ancestors of the Maoris had completed their most perilous voyage, year by year unseen, the alpine meadows of the Southern Alps had decked themselves with a wealth of blossoms, the pohutukawas of the northern cliffs had been each summer a crimson glory, and in the swamps the lurid blooms of the flax had attracted countless bell-birds and tuis with their nectar.

Even from boyhood Banks had shown much taste for natural history. The story goes that, walking along an English lane gay with wild flowers, he exclaimed, "How beautiful! It is surely more natural that I should be taught to know all these productions of nature in preference to Latin and Greek!" From that time onwards natural science was his occupation, and during a long lifetime he devoted his wealth and energies to its advancement. Thus it was that, at his own expense, he presided over the natural-history investigations of Captain Cook's first voyage, accompanying that illustrious navigator, and taking as his colleague Dr. Solander, as well as several assistants.

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Banks and Solander, whose names are always bracketed together in New Zealand botany, investigated only a comparatively few places on the coast. These were: Queen Charlotte Sound and Admiralty Bay, in the South Island; and, in the North Island, Poverty Bay, Tolaga Bay, Anaura, Mercury Bay, the Thames River (near its mouth), and the Bay of Islands. They collected in all 360 species of floweringplants and ferns—a remarkably large collection considering the difficulties they had to encounter—a land without roads, and Natives who at any moment might prove hostile. One of their "finds" deserves a passing word. This is the beautiful shrubby groundsel (Senecio perdicioides), which they collected at Tolaga Bay, but of which no more specimens were gathered for more than a hundred years. But now, since its rediscovery some time ago, it has been introduced into cultivation, and may be admired in many gardens.

Banks caused about two hundred fine folio copperplate engravings to be prepared, and descriptions of more than three hundred plants were written by Solander. Plates and descriptions both are preserved in the British Museum, but, marvellous to relate, they have never been published!