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Sir Joseph Hooker and the UK Overseas Territories

Pat Griggs
9 December 2011

On the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest botanists of the Victorian era, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, find out about the unique plants that he encountered on his visits to the UKOTs and how this experience influenced his theories on plant distribution, which he later shared with Charles Darwin.

Introducing Joseph Hooker

Joseph Hooker was born in 1817 into a botanical family. His father, William Hooker, was the Professor of Botany at Glasgow University and later became the first official director of the Royal Gardens at Kew. Although Joseph Hooker trained in medicine, he was far more enthusiastic about botany. In 1839, at the age of just 22, he joined the HMS Erebus under the captaincy of James Clark Ross, as it set off to map the Antarctic regions. His official role was that of Assistant Surgeon, but he was able to spend a considerable amount of time collecting plant specimens whilst ashore and making detailed records of them during the long voyages between ports. Among the ship's ports of call were the islands of St Helena, Ascension and the Falkland Islands, now three of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), as well as the South Shetland Islands (part of the British Antarctic Territory).  The plant specimens Joseph Hooker collected during this voyage are held in Kew's Herbarium and those from the UKOTs can be viewed through the UK Overseas Territories Online Herbarium.

Joseph Hooker (1817-1911)

St Helena

In June 1840, HMS Erebus anchored off St Helena for the first time and Joseph Hooker was able to travel up to the central mountain ridge of Diana’s Peak, where he was excited to see a tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica, for the first time. He observed that much of the island’s original vegetation had disappeared, either eaten by goats or overwhelmed by plants introduced as crops or ornamentals by settlers and passing ships. Based on his own findings and those of preceding botanists, he calculated that the island was originally home to about 45 unique plant species.

On St Helena, Joseph Hooker collected a specimen of the fern Dryopteris napoleonis which was named after Napoleon Bonaparte who was imprisoned on the island by the British

Falkland Islands

Nearly two years later, after crossing the Antarctic Circle several times, HMS Erebus sought shelter from the Antarctic winter in the Falkland Islands. At first, Joseph Hooker agreed with Charles Darwin that the islands had ‘a desolate and wretched aspect’. Over the six months that he spent on the islands, Hooker revised his opinion of their botanical interest although plant collecting was not easy due to the short days. At the Governor’s request, he listed the potential uses of island plants, ranging from the value of tussac grass (Poa flabellata) in providing grazing for cattle to diddle-dee (Empetrum rubrum) as a potential source of food if grouse were to be introduced. He also recommended further investigation into the healing properties of the balsam bog plant (Bolax gummifera) and that two plants, little cress (Cardamine glacialis) and the local scurvy grass, Oxalis enneaphylla, would provide a remedy for scurvy, an illness resulting from a shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Joseph Hooker collected this specimen of silvery buttercup from the Falkland Islands and named it Hamadryas argentea

South Shetland Islands and Ascension

From the Falkland Islands, HMS Erebus sailed south, calling at the South Shetland Islands and Cockburn Island, where Hooker listed just 19 species of plant, all of them mosses, algae and lichens, and including two previously unknown moss species. After visiting St Helena again during its return from the Antarctic, the ship stopped at Ascension. In his journal, Joseph Hooker recorded that ‘St Helena has been well designated a barren rock, but it is a paradise compared with Ascension, which ... presented a black conical mass of volcanic matter’.

However, he still discovered plants of interest: ‘I found here and there a little purslane, a minute grass and a Euphorbia. The green peak yielded only one small indigenous shrub and 9 ferns’. He also noted that the garrison of soldiers on the island subsisted on a ‘scanty supply of tepid water, preserved in tanks, and salt meats and ship’s biscuits, varied with turtle’. His recommendations for introductions of fruit trees and other crop plants were implemented by the Admiralty, to provide fresh food and improve water supplies. Hooker did, however, express his concern that the plant introductions would prove harmful to the island’s native vegetation ‘especially to the rich carpet of ferns that clothed the top of the mountain when I visited it’.

This euphorbia (Euphorbia origanoides) was one of the few plants Joseph Hooker saw growing on Ascension's barren volcanic surface

Unique island plants

His visits to these remote islands influenced Hooker’s thinking on global plant distribution, which he discussed at length with Charles Darwin in the course of their correspondence prior to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In a presentation to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1866, just after he had become Director of Kew, Hooker considered the links between island floras and those of their nearest continents. Of St Helena’s 45 unique species, he noted that many of them belonged to unique genera and had no obvious close relatives in Africa or South America. He stated: ‘The botany of St. Helena is thus most interesting; it resembles none other in the peculiarity of its indigenous vegetation, in the great rarity of the plants of other countries, or in the number of species that have actually disappeared within the memory of living men.’ 

In Joseph Hooker's footsteps

Hooker’s concerns about the threats to native island plants from invasive exotic species have proved well founded. Following on from a project looking at South Atlantic Invasive Species, Kew’s UKOTs team continues to work with conservationists in St Helena, the Falklands and Ascension to monitor their indigenous plants and evaluate the risks from introduced species. We are working with our UKOTs partners to ensure that UKOTs native plants are held in safe storage as seeds in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank or can be propagated in native species nurseries for possible return to their natural habitats when conditions permit. 

- Pat -
 


 

Related links

Find out more about Sir Joseph Hooker's expeditions and scientific activities at the exhibition 'Joseph Hooker: Naturalist, Traveller and More' in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

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Comments

20 December 2011
Comment: 
A great scientist in the history of Plant Taxonomy; still no comparison on this planet keeping in view the circumstances of the time. B. L. Bhellum
13 December 2011
Comment: 
Great blog Pat. Really interesting information! Must have been fun to research. Hope that other interested readers get a copy of your book - Joseph Hooker botanical trailblazer.