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Botanical Discovery in New Zealand: The Visiting Botanists

J. R. Forster and G. Forster — (Cook's Second Voyage)

J. R. Forster and G. Forster
(Cook's Second Voyage)

Soon after the return of the Endeavour, the British Government decided to send a second expedition under Captain Cook with the principal object of finding out whether or not there existed an Antarctic continent. Lord Sandwich, head of the Admiralty, invited Sir Joseph Banks to accompany the expedition. Banks at once began to make elaborate preparations for the trip, but his, equipment would have required a poop deck on the vessel and this, it was stated, would have interfered with its sailing powers. The true source of the trouble, however, seemed to be the Navy Board, as the following passage by Sir John Barrow, who was for many years Secretary to the Admiralty, shows: ‘Such a system was adopted by the Navy Board to thwart every step of his (Banks) proceedings, especially on the part of its chief, the Comptroller of the Navy, Sir Hugh Palliser, whereby his patience was worn out, and his indignation so far excited as to cause him, though reluctantly, to abandon this enterprise altogether.’ Banks was bitterly disappointed but continued to promote the objects of the expedition. He recommended Johann Reinhold Forster for the post of naturalist, and Forster chose for his artist his son George.* Thus

* The Forsters were born in Prussia, their father being English. J. R. Forster was an expert linguist. When he came to England he translated into English many foreign accounts of voyages. He thus acquired a wide knowledge of geography. and supplemented the botany and zoology which already were his main interests

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J. R. Forster (1729–1789)

J. R. Forster

J. R. Forster has the honour of being the first Government naturalist to be appointed to a voyage of discovery.

The two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure, left Plymouth in 1772. At the Cape of Good Hope Dr A. Sparrman, a botanist who had been a pupil of Linnaeus, joined the expedition. After some months of unsuccessful attempts to find a southern continent, Cook decided to steer for New Zealand, and put into Dusky Bay in March 1773.

In Dusky Bay the Forsters devoted much of their time to botanizing, and as this was the first time botanists had collected here they found many kinds of plants strange to them. These included some of the most handsome members of the New Zealand flora, such as Olearia operina, a small coastal tree with purple daisy flowers;Celmisia holosericea and C. coriacea, two large-flowered mountain daisies; Gentiana saxosa and C. montana, the first a coastal and the second a mountain plant, both with large flowers;Cordyline indivisa, the toii, a remarkable plant with large panicles of flowers, and leaves that can be stretched (though they do not return to their normal length);Dracophyllum longifolium, the inanga or grass tree, and another species of the same genus, D. rosmarinifolium, which was not again collected by European botanists until 1887 when Andreas Reischek brought specimens from Chalky Inlet. Other notable plants collected by the Forsters at Dusky Sound were a native broom, Carmichaelia arborea; the page 18
Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium)

Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium)

Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) Both the illustrations on this page are taken from Captain Cook's Second Voyage (published 1777). In that book this drawing is called ‘The Spruce Fir of New Zeeland’.

Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum)
Both the illustrations on this page are taken from Captain Cook's Second Voyage (published 1777). In that book this drawing is called ‘The Spruce Fir of New Zeeland’.

coastal koromiko, Hebe elliptica; the raumakaroa or mutton bird shrub, Nothopanax simplex; the puheretaiko, Senecio rotundifolius; and the southern rata, Metrosideros umbellata.

The Forsters' botanical work was carried out under extraordinarily difficult conditions as they were much cramped for room on board ship, and they had to sleep in the forecastle with the crew.

During this voyage, as on the first, Cook was especially concerned with the health of all those on board his ships. At Dusky page break Sound and elsewhere, he used the young shoots of the rimu for making a liquor he called spruce beer. George Forster records the method of making the beer. ‘In effect, with the addition of the inspissated juice of wort and some molasses, we brewed a very good sort of beer, which we improved very considerably afterwards, by correcting the too great astringency of our new spruce with an equal quantity of the new tea-tree.’ Of tea-tree or manuka Forster says that the leaves were finely aromatic, astringent, and had a particularly pleasant flavour at their first infusion, but when the teapot was again filled with water the infusion was bitter, so that only newly infused tea was drunk.

The ships left Dusky Sound and moved to Queen Charlotte's Sound (we now call it Queen Charlotte Sound). Here the Forsters continued their plant collecting, and many hitherto unknown kinds were discovered. Some of the most notable species which received from Forster the names we now use are Phormium tenax, New Zealand flax; Rhopalostylis sapida, nikau; Hebe salicifolia, koromiko: Brachyglottis repanda, rangiora; Coprosma foetidissima, houpiro; C. lucida, karamu; Aciphylla squarrosa, Spaniard; Leptospermum scoparium, manuka; and Dacrydium cupressinum, rimu.

The plants with antiscorbutic properties — Cook's scurvy grass (Lepidium oleraceum) and wild celery (Apium prostratum) — were abundant at Queen Charlotte Sound, and boatloads were gathered. These, with fresh fish, cleared up the scurvy from which several of the men were suffering. The greens were boiled with oatmeal or wheat for breakfast and with pea soup for dinner. Sow thistles (Sonchus littoralis) and what we now call New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa) were used as salads.

New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia expansa)

New Zealand Spinach
(Tetragonia expansa)

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The Flower and Seed Parts of Rhipogonum scandens(supplejack), from Characters Generum Plantarum. On the opposite page of that book the parts are named:a Flos (flower), b Calyx (calyx), c Stamen (stamen), d Pistillum, (pistil), e Bacca (berry), f eadem dissecta (the same cut in half), g Semen (seed).

The Flower and Seed Parts of Rhipogonum scandens(supplejack), from Characters Generum Plantarum.
On the opposite page of that book the parts are named:a Flos (flower), b Calyx (calyx), c Stamen (stamen), d Pistillum, (pistil), e Bacca (berry), f eadem dissecta (the same cut in half), g Semen (seed).

The Vessels left Queen Charlotte Sound to explore the Pacific, but twice afterwards the Resolution returned to the Sound, giving the Forsters further opportunities to collect plants.

After the arrival of the expedition in England it seems that, on account of ill-feeling against J. R. Forster, he was told that he was not to write an account of the expedition and that he was employed simply as a collector. This was manifestly untrue, and offended Forster so much that he returned to Germany. However, it was unlikely that he would submit altogether to this unfair prohibition. He and his son published at least seven books. Those dealing with New Zealand botany were:

Characteres Generum Plantarum, by J. R. and G. Forster, 1776, descriptions of new genera of plants discovered on the voyage. In this work many new generic names were founded. These include some of the best known among the plants of New Zealand, for instance: Rhipogonum, Phormium, Corynocarpus, Melicytus, Leptospermum, Aciphylla, Coprosma, Brachyglottis.* In the Preface to the Characteres it is stated that Sparrman described the plants and George Forster drew them. Each of the Forsters afterwards copied the descriptions into manuscript books for their own use.

Florulae Insularum Australium Prodromus by G. Forster, 1786, contains short descriptions of the plants collected during the voyage. Many New Zealand species were here described for the first time.

* Specific examples of these genera are mentioned in this bulletin: Rhipogonum scandens (pp. 19, 38); Phormium tenax (pp. 23, 35, 38); Corynocarpus laevigata (pp. 23, 38); Melicytus ramiflorus—mahoe (p. 40); Leptospermum scoparium (pp. 35, 38, 40), and L. ericoides (p. 40); Aciphylla squarrosa (pp. 28, 35); Coprosma robusta (pp. 25, 40), C. australis (pp. 28, 40). C. lucida (pp. 25, 35), C. foetidissima (pp. 35, 43), C. repens (p. 40), C. acerosa (p. 32); Bruchyglottis repanda (pp.23, 35).

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Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigata)

Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigata)

Rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda)

Rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda)

De Plantis Esculentis, by G. Forster, 1786, descriptions and uses of fifty-four species of edible plants observed during the voyage.

In addition to these, G. Forster's A Voyage Round the World, 1777, contains various items of information on useful plants. The original descriptions of the plants of New Zealand, much fuller than those appearing in the Prodromus, were published by A. Richard in the botany volume of the voyage of the Astrolabe, 1832, and ascribed to ‘Forster’.

J. R. Forster kept all his own notes but sold George's paintings to Sir Joseph Banks. The specimens were distributed to the University of Gottingen, the British Museum, the Paris Museum, and some other institutions.

The Forsters are commemorated in the name Forstera, founded by the younger Linnaeus in 1780, for a genus of the family Stylidiaceae. Forstera is a peculiar group of plants with three species in New Zealand and one in Tasmania. The name forsteri has been given to several species of plants, for example, Carex forsteri (a sedge found from the North Cape to Foveaux Strait), Myosotis forsteri (a forget-me-not, also found in the North and the South Islands).