Chapter one
History of botanical exploration

The popular image of taxonomy is of a rather dry form of science that takes place among dusty shelves of herbarium cabinets in museums and universities. In reality, the human drama behind the discovery, description and growing of orchids is often a combination of the best (and worst) of popular fiction. Books such as The Orchid Thief (Orlean 1998) and Orchid Fever (Hansen 2000) have transfixed readers with their gritty tales of exploration, jealousies and conflicts between taxonomists (those who describe and classify living organisms).

The collectors that stocked the herbaria of the world with specimens of Cape orchids include some of the most colourful and eccentric personalities ever to have walked the Cape mountains. The lives and exploits of some of the numerous celebrated botanists and naturalists associated with southern African orchid discovery and research, from the 17th century to the present, are recounted in separate framed biographies throughout the book. These include Alfred Bodkin, William Burchell, Johann Drège, William Harvey, Sir John Herschel, Louis Leipoldt, John Lindley, Peter MacOwan, Rudolph Marloth, Francis Masson, Rudolph Schlechter and Carl Thunberg.

This chapter is an historical overview of five periods in Cape botanical history.

The Dutch period (1652–1771)
The Swedish period (1750–1800)
The Lindley era (1830–1850)
The Bolus era (1874–1911)
The late twentieth century

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Carl Peter Thunberg
William John Burchell
Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871)
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William Henry Harvey
Peter Macowan
Louis Leipoldt
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Cape Town and Table Mountain in 1772. Oil on canvas by the English painter, William Hodges (1744–1797), the official artist on the second voyage of Captain James Cook. Iziko William Fehr Collection; accession no. CD 21
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With its unfailing nearby spring, the wild but hospitable ‘Heerenlogement’ or ‘Gentlemen’s lodging’ was so named by travellers along the old route through the Sandveld, about 300 km north of the Cape of Good Hope in the direction of Namaqualand. Explorers, including Van der Stel, Thunberg, Masson and Paterson, camped on the level area below the rock-shelter. In the overhang, the names of many more, such as Zeyher and Levaillant (as ‘F. Vailant’), were chiselled into the rock. To the right of this panel are faded paintings in red ochre made by the San several thousand years ago. From an overhead rock-crevice grows a gnarled wild fig, Ficus salicifolia var. cordata, which is probably the same hoary old tree described by Levaillant during his visit there in 1783
Click to enlarge Francis Masson, an energetic gardener on the staff of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, was, in 1772, the first official plant collector to be sent abroad from England. During his travels at the Cape, Masson is said by John Bellenden Ker to have met an anonymous Dutch soldier described as an ‘artist of great skill as a designer of the objects of natural history’. Reproductions of the soldier-artist’s illustrations of Cape orchids were used to complement a series of articles by Ker, published between 1818 and 1820 in the Quarterly Journal of Science, [Literature,] and the Arts. The two plates figured here, the originals of which are now housed in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum, London (BM), are among the first scientifically accurate published illustrations of Cape orchids and are published in our book for the first time
From the History chapter