Although the Māori people had named many of the plants found here, from the scientific point of view botanical exploration began when Captain James Cook first dropped the anchor of HM barque Endeavor in New Zealand waters. This was just one of Cook’s ports of call on his epic Voyage of Discovery to the South Seas. On board the ship were the noted amateur naturalist Joseph (later Sir Joseph) Banks (in red coat) and the eminent botanist Dr. Daniel Solander. Completing their party were three artists as well as a number of personal servants. His father had left the young Banks a fortune. With it he financed the botanical side of the expedition from his own pocket. Throughout his life he used this money in any way he could for the advancement of science.
Cook anchored in the lee of Motu Arohia (Arohia Island) in the Bay of Islands on 29th November 1769 where the ship remained for one week. It was long enough for the small party of botanists to collect 85 species of plants new to science. Meticulous drawings were made of many of the plants found in New Zealand. Later copper plates were engraved to transfer these pictures into a monumental work to be known as Banks’ Florilegium. After some twelve years and escalating costs it appears the project was abandoned as Banks developed other interests.
In the years that followed Captain Cook made two further journeys to the South Seas at the behest of the British Admiralty. On board for the second voyage were father and son J R & G Forster to act as botanist and artist. The Forsters continued to make important finds in our area. A book published in Germany in 1776 first made reference to New Zealand plants.
The British were not the only ones exploring this distant land of New Zealand. In 1822 the corvette Coquille sailed from Toulon in France to the South Seas. Captain Duperey anchored in the Bay of Islands for a month. The Executive officer on board Dumont d’Urville, was botanist and P A Lesson his assistant: both have their names commemorated in some of our local plants. Later their ship was refitted and renamed L’Astrolabe, returning here in 1827 when even more species were found and added to the growing New Zealand list.
The experienced Cunningham brothers, Allan and Richard were here in 1826 and 1839, and 1833 respectively when they spent much time in Northland. Not all of the naturalists coming here were professionals. Cornishman William Colenso was a missionary printer and J D Hooker assistant surgeon to the British Antarctic Expedition. The latter was here in 1841. On his return to England, Hooker, now Sir Joseph Hooker, succeeded his father Sir William Hooker as Director of the garden at Kew. He corresponded with several New Zealand botanists publishing their findings in two volumes, dedicated to them with the words “This work, which owes so much to their indefatigable exertions”. These proved to be of great value to the emerging New Zealand-based naturalists.
With the mission station established at Kerikeri, a centre became available for exploration further inland. There are now some two and a half thousand plants on the New Zealand list. Many of these grow here in the north of the country and were first named scientifically from our area. Almost two hundred different kinds may be seen in “The Discoverers’ Garden”.