The Botanical Mr. Banks

by Norman Todd  October 2000

The name of Joseph Banks cropped up recently in the Newsletter in connection with peonia suffruticosa.Sir Joseph has a monumental connection to a huge number of the plants we grow in our gardens.At a recent meeting we were shown some of the floral treasures of Newfoundland – unjust though it is – a place not often thought of in connection with horticulture.Be it remembered though, that it was Joseph Banks, who is much better known as the founder of Kew Gardens, botanist to Captain James Cook on his first voyage, champion of Merino sheep, father of Australia, friend of George III, Vice President of the Society for the Improvement of naval Architecture, President of the Royal Society from 30 November 1778 until his death on 20 June 1820, who introduced rhododendron canadense to cultivation in 1767.He took it back to England on completion of his expedition to Newfoundland.

R. canadense had been described by Linnaeus as Rhodora Canadensis in 1762, following receipt of herbarium material from the Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm who had traveled in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and southern Canada during the period 1748 to 1751.Peter Collinson of Pennsylvania had been sending seed of eastern North American plants to England for 25 years (1735-1760) but it does not appear that R. canadense was successfully introduced from his shipments.

Banks was a great arranger and organizer.He organized his own instruction in botany at Oxford and even if he did not formally graduate he seems to have learned a lot.He came of age in 1764.His father had died in 1761.Personable and curious, he inveigled an invitation for himself and Constantine Phipps to be passengers on the H.M.S. Niger when it was dispatched on a fisheries patrol mission to keep an eye on the behavior of the French fishermen on the Grand Banks – a name which was no doubt viewed with approbation by the young Joseph.The Niger’s mission also included surveying the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and parts of Labrador and an instruction to improve relations with the Indians and Eskimo.

Banks made good use of his time.The first plant catalogue of his collections from Newfoundland and Labrador listed over 150 species although he undoubtedly collected more than that.(Banks was extremely modest in his need for public recognition of his exploits and he published no record of his journeys.)Averil Lysaght’s monumental volume, ‘Joseph Banks inNewfoundland and Labrador, 1776’, details the disposition and fate of his botanical collections and compiles descriptions of the extensive zoological material.From the very limited perspective of our Society’s interest, we should note that Banks also described Ledum groenlandicum and Rhododendron lapponicum.

The second connection between Joseph Banks and contemporary rhododendron interest is in the use of colchicum autumnalethe autumn crocus.Some new commercial rhododendrons have been ‘genetically engineered’ by the use of cholchinine, an alkaloid drug obtained from meadow saffron or autumn crocus.This affects tissue metabolism and cell division (mitosis) and can be used to increase the number of chromosomes in a plant to give polyploidy.This is claimed to give tougher foliage, flowers with heavier substance, and increased plant hardiness.‘Briggs Red Starr’ and ‘Briggs Northern Starr’ are current popular examples.

Banks’ interest in the autumn crocus stemmed from his terrible sufferings from gout. ‘…The King is sorry to find Sir Joseph is still confined; and though it is the common mode to congratulate persons on the first fit of the Gout, He cannot join in so cruel an etiquette…’Joseph was afflicted with gout for over thirty years.He followed various regimes in the search for relief – Mr. Pittonet’s ginger regime and Dr. Pitcairn’s milk regime among them.This ‘sad companion of old age’ caused Banks to write in 1797 ‘…I am now like a Foundered horse lame when I go out, unsound when I come in & never likely to be any more an useful animal…’Banks’ formidable stamina seems to have kept him going through the next ten years.He found ‘getting on horseback’ and an austere diet beneficial.A friend wrote ‘…Sir Joseph in the last 3 years has eat no animal food, no wine, no spirits, but lives on Pudding and vegetables, and has better health forit…’

The disease was chronic and worsening in the severity of its bouts.In 1810 Banks received a bottle of a French palliative – Dr. Husson’s eau medicinale.Banks did not tell his regular physician, Dr. Home, of this acquisition.One night Home left Banks with a pulse of 94, and gouty lesions on the great toe, ankle, heel, knee, hip, elbow, shoulder and hand – and a gloomy prognosis.Next day Home found Banks with a pulse of 62 and ‘all the joint pains relieved in reverse order to the sequence of their onset.’“I have taken a quack medicine”; Banks said Home chastised him.Whereupon Banks took a second dose which caused a slight nausea and five bowel evacuations but removed all gouty pains.Banks entered the annals of British medicine with his gouty endeavours.His physician, the skeptical Dr. Home, with insistent Banksian encouragement (he, who must be obeyed) began to study eau medicinale.It proved to be that the autumn crocus was the crucial ingredient.In time Home evolved his own concoction using two pounds of the roots of colchicum autumnale in 24 ounces of sherry, brewing it for several days.Banks himself pursued the mystery of the plant ‘hermodactyl’ (evidently colchicum).He received roots from Syria with a French translation from Arabic texts.Husson’s water continued to provide relief to Banks but he suffered debilitating attacks of gout that lasted for ten months of the year over his last five years.All of this is recorded – complete with charts – in Harold B. Carter’s ‘Sir Joseph Banks’, which was commissioned by the British Museum and published in 1988.

I have no idea if colchicum is still used in pharmacology.It would be interesting if some of our medical members could add a comment.There 

are many, many ways in which those matters that were of concern to Sir Joseph have impact on our lives.Many regard him with disgust due to his support for the penal colonies of Australia and the use of his entrepreneurial talents in fostering slavery.However, no one comes any better as a botanist.

Ernie Lythgoe wrote articles for the Newsletter in November and December, 1991 on Banks.Following those I also wrote an article on his trip with Cook but am unable to find a copy.

Postscript to Norman Todd’s Banks article

In response to Norman’s invitation for comment on gout and colchicum, I cannot resist relating my own experience.Some fifteen years ago, I was obliged to put off attending an important business meeting in New York, having suddenly been rendered immobile by an excruciating pain in my right foot.The young intern at the local hospital emergency room easily diagnosed gout, which cheered me a little, thinking of the historic linkage of the disease to the aristocracy.A simple capsule brought almost immediate comfort and I was successful in getting to the post-meeting reception and dinner.In the course of the evening, I mentioned my experience to our chairman, who rejoiced in the noble title of Baron of the Netherlands.“Ah James”, he said,“you’ve properly qualified for the higher echelon of our enterprise: it’s the company disease and our European board is all saddled with it”.Since then, the occasional gout bout has visited from time to time like an old friend, to be quickly dispatched by that same medication.Until this spring when suddenly, it worked no longer.Over a long weekend the disability grew and bloomed with new varieties of hurt and distortion of the flesh.Finally, upon reaching my stalwart GP, I was introduced to a tiny yellow pill – colchisine!Immediate relief ensued, and I have returned to the occasional curious pleasure ofthe ‘noble masochistic illusion’.

And now, to learn of my connection to Sir Joseph Banks, and to colchicum autumnale, possibly genealogical in both cases if one believes in phytomorphism, my elation becomes boundless.

(The Editor).