Francis Masson (1741-1805)
Early 18th century botanical collections consisted principally
of dried material, but a growing royal interest in botany meant
living material was both desirable and possible to collect. Francis
Masson, a gardener at Kew, was the first Kew collector to be entrusted
with this mission. He brought us more than 1,000 species.
Joseph Banks arranged for Masson to travel to South Africa
with Captain Cook on his second circumnavigation of the globe.
Prodigious collection ensued, including some of our most cherished
plants: geraniums, mesembryanthemums, and the Bird-of-paradise
Flower (Strelitzia reginae) named in honour of Queen Charlotte.
A later trip to Atlantic islands failed, however – fraught
by war, conscription, and imprisonment. When he finally sailed
home, a hurricane took what remained of Masson’s collection.
His second trip to South Africa was heavily constrained by
a much changed political climate, in which Masson had to
collect clandestinely in forbidden areas. He risked his life
to collect the seed of the Arum Lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica)
in Cape Town while the Dutch were at war with the British. After
dedicating 33 years to collecting plants for Kew he unfortunately
froze to death in North America.
Masson’s most celebrated legacy at Kew is a specimen of Encephalartos
altensteinii, which he brought back from his first plant hunting
trip in 1775. One of the oldest pot plants in the world,
you can discover its knobbly prostrate trunk at the far end of
the Palm House.
Massonia from South Africa is named in his honour.
Fellow of the Linnean Society 1796
On to: Allan Cunningham