Some history of houseplants and their study

As we begin our new season of houseplant care, I think this would be a good time to explore how we got all of those beautiful foliage and flowering houseplants. They certainly aren’t native to our land. Many of them originated in far-off places around the globe. Think orchids from South America and the Philippines and the islands of the South Pacific. The philodendrons originated in the West Indies. Today, we call that area the Caribbean. And different varieties of our ornamental figs spanned the globe, different varieties originating in the South Pacific and all over Africa.

In today’s world, all this globetrotting would seem quite easy. You simply hop on a plane, go somewhere, hire a local guide and look for different plants. But how would you know if it has already been discovered? And if you did find something, you cannot imagine the trouble you would have getting by the plant inspectors at the airport. They are there to protect us from diseases and insects that we do not already have in our plant world. They are very meticulous. So, even today, it is not a small thing to bring in these plants.

Let’s go back a couple hundred years to see what it really was like. First of all, you didn’t fly, you sailed. You sailed on ships that did not have diesel engines. They relied on the winds and sails. Many of these committed men signed on for voyages lasting six months to two or more years.

We all know about the works of Charles Darwin. He sailed from Plymouth Sound in England in December of 1831 on the HMS Beagle for a journey that was to last two years. It was nearly five years before he got back to England. Of that time, he spent nearly three and a half years on land, studying plants and animals and about 18 months at sea. Then he spent much of the rest of his life writing about his findings. Imagine leaving home for five years on a cruise. I would not do that on one of our fancy cruise ships, let alone a rather primitive sailing ship.

Some years ago, I read a book on the life of Sir Joseph Banks. From a well-to-do British family, at an early age he developed a love for nature, particularly plants. In 1761 he quit Oxford University, without getting his degree, and sailed on a ship to Newfoundland and Labrador to study and gather rocks, plants and animals. Eight years later he was invited to join Capt. James Cook on an expedition to the South Pacific. Cook’s objective was to observe and study the planets, especially Venus. Banks’ goal, with his staff of eight, was to record the natural history of places they visited: the east coast of South America, South Africa, Java, Tahiti and New Zealand. He returned to England two years later with more than 3,600 dried plant specimens, of which nearly half were new to science. Today, we find many botanical names of plants ending in “banksia.”

And yes, a word about those dried plants. On these long voyages, there was no place to grow one or two plants each of the 3,600. Besides, with inclement weather, burning sun and the lack of potable water, they might not have survived the trip. So some plants were collected, hung to dry and then preserved in dry barrels. Many plants were dried by placing them between thick paper and having a weight put on them. That is, basically, how Banks was able to get 3,600 plants back to England on that very small boat.

Enter Dr. Nathan Ward. His journeys were shorter, generally six to eight months, and his collections smaller than other plant hunters. But keeping the plants alive was still a struggle. He developed a miniature greenhouse where he could place his plants and control watering and fertilizer, and prevent wind damage. Scientists named it the Wardian case. He got his plants back safely and versions of this case are still in use in many homes and botanical gardens around the globe.

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