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Captain Cook’s Daisy

New York Botanical Garden

This dried-out daisy (Chiliotrichum amelloides Cass.) might not look like much, but it tells the story of one of history’s most ambitious journeys. It was collected by botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during Captain Cook’s first voyage in 1769. Though the goal of the ship Cook commanded, the HMS Endeavour, was primarily to document the transit of Venus from Tahiti, the ship also acted like a floating science lab for more than budding astronomers. Banks and Solander boarded the Endeavour in 1768 with an ambitious goal: Document everything they could about the plants they encountered as they circumnavigated the globe.

At every stop, Cook’s crew of botanists conducted one of history’s most incredible scientific studies, braving harsh conditions and an inhospitable landscape to collect specimens of an estimated 100 previously unknown plant families and at least 1000 unknown plant species. (Yes, Botany Bay is named after Cook’s crew of frenetic plant collectors.)

Banks and Solander plucked this daisy in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South American mainland. When they returned to English terra firma in 1771, the pair became instant celebrities. (Sydney Parkinson, the young botanical illustrator who accompanied them on the voyage, tragically died of dysentery on the trip home.) Everyone wanted accounts of the journey and the seemingly untouched landscapes encountered by Cook and his men, but they also became charmed by something else: the flowers, plants, and botanical specimens the explorers had brought home.

Banks was lampooned as “The Botanic Macaroni” for his fashionably foppish embrace of floral collecting, but the moniker didn’t seem to bother him much. He ended up becoming Britain’s preeminent botanist, advising the king on the makeup of the now-famous Kew Gardens and dispatching seemingly countless explorers to the ends of Earth in the name of science.

But Banks’s reputation came at a cost: the fame of Solander, who died young and whose achievements were eventually buried beneath the weight of Banks’s botanic fame. Solander may have had a stronger scientific legacy if the massive Florilegium, a 34-part book featuring over 700 plant drawings and descriptions from Cook’s first voyage, had been printed during his lifetime.

Despite the sad story of Solander and Cook—the latter was famously attacked and killed by Native Hawaiians on his third voyage—the men and their captain helped spark a flower frenzy throughout Europe. Flower collection hadn’t exactly been Cook’s initial goal—the botanical aspect of the expedition was foisted on him as a condition of commanding the journey. Though Cook often differed with the botanists who overran his boat, they seem to have developed an eventual rapport. Fueled by specimens that had never been seen before, the plant obsession they set in motion lived well into the next century and prompted the development of botany as a serious science.

Once the botanists brought their precious specimens back to England, they were dried and pressed. The specimens eventually made their way into collections the world over—a rare remaining glimpse into one of history's greatest botanical adventures. The daisy that helped start it all is tucked into a folder in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, a repository that’s home to nearly 8 million plant specimens. It may be nearly 250 years old, but the dried, pressed flower is expected to bear testimony to a swashbuckling era of scientific exploration for centuries to come.

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New Tolkien-Themed Botany Book Describes the Plants of Middle-Earth
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While reading The Lord of the Rings saga, it's hard not to notice J.R.R. Tolkien’s clear love of nature. The books are replete with descriptions of lush foliage, rolling prairies, and coniferous forests. A new botany book builds on that knowledge: Entertainment Weekly reports that Flora of Middle-Earth: Plants of J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium provides fantasy-loving naturalists with a round-up of plants that grow in Middle-earth.

Cover art for botanist Walter Judd's book
Oxford University Press

Written by University of Florida botanist Walter Judd, the book explores the ecology, etymology, and importance of over 160 plants. Many are either real—coffee, barley, wheat, etc.—or based on real-life species. (For example, pipe-weed may be tobacco, and mallorns are large trees similar to beech trees.)

Using his botany background, Judd explores why Tolkien may have felt compelled to include each in his fantasy world. His analyses are paired with woodcut-style drawings by artist Graham Judd, which depict Middle-earth's flowers, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and shrubs in their "natural" environments.

[h/t Entertainment Weekly]

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125 Million Years Ago, One of the World's Very First Flowers Bloomed
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Ferocious dinosaurs roamed the Earth during the early Cretaceous Period (145 to 100 million years ago), but beneath their giant feet, a tiny—yet important—evolutionary movement was beginning to take root. During the previous Jurassic Era, the world had been filled with ferns, conifers, and cycads, and nary a flower bloomed. This changed around 125 million years ago, our fossil records show, when one of the word’s very first flowers, Archaefructus liaoningensis, sprouted in what is now northeastern China. This preserved plant marks the beginning of angiosperms, which are fruiting plants that rely on animals to spread their capsule-enclosed seeds.

In the video below, PBS Eons explains why angiosperms were so important to early life on Earth, and how they took over the world to eventually account for more than 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial plants.

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