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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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Big Questions
What Are Those Tiny Spots on Apples?
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The little pinprick spots on apples, pears, and potatoes are called lenticels (LEN-tih-sells), and they’re very important.

Plants need a constant stream of fresh air, just like people, and that “fresh air” means carbon dioxide. Flowers, trees, and fruit all take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. But unlike people, plants don’t have nostrils.

That's where a plant's lenticels come in. Each little speck is an opening in the fruit or tuber’s skin or the tree’s bark. Carbon dioxide goes in, and oxygen comes out. Through these minuscule snorkels, a plant is able to “breathe.”

Like any opening, lenticels are vulnerable to infection and sickness. In an apple disease called lenticel breakdown, a nutrient deficiency causes the apples’ spots to darken and turn into brown pits. This doesn’t hurt the inside of the fruit, but it does make the apple look pretty unattractive. In the equally appealing “lenticel blotch pit,” the skin around the apple’s lenticels gets patchy and dark, like a weird rash. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Read One of the First Eyewitness Accounts of Antarctica
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Stupendous icebergs, live volcanoes, and delicious (if slightly too rich) penguin soup—just a few of the details recorded on one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Antarctica. Written in the 1840s by the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, the Antarctic Journal introduced the southern continent's natural wonders to the world. Now, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project and the Biodiversity Heritage Library have preserved and digitized it for a new generation of exploration junkies.

Born 200 years ago in Suffolk, England, Hooker would become one of the greatest naturalists and explorers of the 19th century. He was a close friend of Charles Darwin and was director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1865 to 1885. But before that, at just 22 years old, he embarked on an epic voyage of discovery to Antarctica.

Chalk portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker by George Richmond, 1855
Chalk portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker by George Richmond, 1855
Public Domain

Hooker served as the assistant surgeon and botanist on the adventure under the command of Captain James Clark Ross, a veteran of seven previous Arctic expeditions. Like all of the Royal Navy’s voyages of discovery at the time, this one had specific orders: confirm the existence of the southern continent, find the south magnetic pole, collect flora and fauna, and chart new geographic features.

Armed with 25 reams of paper for preserving plants, glass greenhouses for live specimens, natural history books, and microscopes—plus a trunk of polar clothing—Hooker set up his tiny field laboratory in the HMS Erebus, the larger of the expedition’s two vessels.

The Erebus and the HMS Terror left England at the end of September 1839 and arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, in August 1840. From there, they sailed south and soon were in view of a rocky land ringed with pack ice and icebergs. Hooker recorded the incredible sights in his journal. "Saw a shoal of whales, and for the first time an iceberg, a most magnificent flat topped mass of ice about 160ft high, and a quarter of a mile long," he reported on December 28, 1840.

The ships skirted ice floes and inched closer to the continent. Mountains funneled massive glaciers toward the sea (which Ross named after himself), while a huge barrier of floating ice—later named the Ross Ice Shelf—created a perpendicular wall rising more than 160 feet above the ocean's surface, extending to the horizon. Hooker noticed rafts of penguins, white petrels, and gulls heading toward a hilly island at the northern end of the ice wall.

"At 8:45, observed the smaller hills on the Island … emitting small puffs of smoke, a discovery which interested us all very much," Hooker wrote on January 28, 1841. "4:30, observed the volcano emitting immense clouds of black smoke rising perhaps 300 feet above it; its margins tinged white by the sun, with a distinct red tinge from the fire below; it was a magnificent spectacle and a most extraordinary one."

The crew had discovered Antarctica's two largest volcanoes, which Ross named Mount Erebus and Mount Terror after their ships.

In addition to the southern continent, the expedition visited Australia, New Zealand, and smaller subantarctic islands. Whenever the ship anchored, Hooker went ashore to collect mosses, lichens, algae, and vascular plants. At sea, he deployed a tow net to capture plankton and other sea life. If the plants were frozen into the rocky soil, Hooker would chip them out of the earth and sit on them until they thawed. "The observations Hooker recorded in this [Antarctic Journal] and numerous other notebooks formed the basis of a flora of Antarctica and also of the wider regions visited," writes Cam Sharp Jones, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project officer at the Royal Botanical Gardens, in a blog post.

Botanical illustration in Joseph Dalton Hooker's 'Flora Antarctica'
Hooker's drawing of Nothofagus betuloides, the Magellan beech, which he collected on the Ross expedition.
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The most colorful passages in Hooker's journal recount the antics of the ubiquitous penguins, which provided the only fresh meat for the crew during the voyage. "At first we had a dozen on board running wild over the decks following a leader … until one day the leader, finding the hawse hole [a small hole in the ship's hull for cables to pass through] empty, immediately made his exit & was followed by the rest, each giving a valedictory croak as he made his escape," Hooker wrote.

Penguins that didn't escape were made into all manner of entrees. "Their flesh is black & very rich & was much relished at first for stews, pies, curries, etc.," Hooker mused. "After a day or two we found it too rich with a disagreeable flavour … except in the shape of soup, which is certainly the richest I ever ate, much more so than hare soup which it most resembles."

After four years in ice-strewn seas, the entire crew was surely sick of penguin soup and longing for home by the beginning of 1843. The Ross expedition returned to England on September 4, having achieved most of its goals. Ross inferred the position of the south magnetic pole, confirmed the existence and character of the southern continent, and charted huge stretches of its coastline. Hooker recorded plant and animal life that was entirely new to science, which he published in his six-volume Flora Antarctica, a catalogue of more than 3000 descriptions and 530 illustrations of plants species he found on the voyage. The Erebus and Terror were freshened up and put back into naval service on the doomed Franklin expedition in 1845.

To commemorate Hooker's roles in exploration and science (and to mark the bicentennial of his birth), the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew is hosting an exhibition of his letters, paintings and prints from his travels, photographs, journals, important botanical illustrations, and even his own belongings. On display through September 17, 2017, Joseph Hooker: Putting Plants in Their Place demonstrates how, through exploration and curiosity, he transformed the study of plants into true science. In doing so, he brought us closer to one of Earth's most remote places.

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