Great plant hunters
Discover the plants - and fungi - discovered by some of Kew's great plant hunters.
What is a plant hunter?
The plant hunter is a very particular kind of person – a keen and knowledgeable botanist with adventure in their hearts; someone who will take risk and go the extra hundred miles to seek out the most unusual and beautiful plants.
Many of this country’s most famous plant hunters existed in the 18th and 19th centuries, travelling for many years at a time, in unchartered territories, looking for the most extraordinary plants to send back to Britain. Often they were looking for species that would bring wealth to their employer or the country in general, but they were also looking for any new species of botanical interest.
Their passion brought us plants that we often take for granted in our gardens today but sometimes cost them their health and even their lives. Just finding the plants was only the beginning – getting them back by ship was fraught with difficulty and losing several years’ work with the sinking of a ship happened to more than a few plant hunters. They were the epitome of the intrepid explorer.
Kew’s great plant hunters
Kew’s first official plant hunter was Francis Masson, sent out to South Africa by Sir Joseph Banks. Among the 1,000 species of plants he sent back were geraniums, Zantedeschia and the famous bird of paradise plant – Strelitzia reginae – named in honour of Queen Charlotte. Masson’s most celebrated legacy at Kew is a specimen of the Eastern Cape giant cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii), brought back in 1775, which now resides in the Palm House and is thought to be one of the oldest pot plants in the world.
Since then many plant hunters have sent plants to Kew – Allan Cunningham, Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Richard Spruce, and Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson to name but a few. Plant hunting continues to this day, albeit in a slightly different form, with Kew’s botanists naming, on average, around 200 new species each year in their quest to document and understand the world of plants for the benefit of everyone.
Not just plants!
It wasn't just plants that were collected on the travels, but fungi too. Darwin's fungus (Cyttaria darwinii), for example, is a parasitic, golf ball-like fungus that was named in honour of Charles Darwin, who collected it in Tierra del Fuego during his voyage on HMS Beagle in 1832.
Find out more about the plants hunters themselves in our Plant Hunters book, exquisitely illustrated with facsimile items from Kew’s archives. Purchase The Plant Hunters, by Carolyn Fry from Kew's online shop.
See our interactive book for iPad The Plant Hunters featured as new and noteworthy on the Apple iBookstore
Learn about some of the plants and fungi that were discovered by Kew’s plant hunters over the last few hundred years by clicking on the images below.
Christmas star orchid
Ascension Island parsley fern
Eastern Cape giant cycad
St Helena olive
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