Rights: The University of Waikato Published 24 September 2010 Download

Te Papa holds the plant collections of Sir Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and William Colenso, 3 of New Zealand’s earliest botanists. Dr Patrick Brownsey explains the significance and value of these collections.

Point of interest: The process Banks and Solander used of pressing, drying, mounting and labelling ferns is nearly identical to the one botanists still use today.



Everything that Banks and Solander found was new, so they were breaking new territory, new ground really. They only found species that were growing around the coast for the most part because they didn’t get very far inland, and it was later botanical explorers who found the plants from the inland areas.

There’s huge scientific value in that collection for all sorts of reasons, but one of the most obvious reasons is that this, of course, was the first European collection of plants, and ferns in New Zealand. No other Europeans had collected plants here before. And all these specimens went back to England. They collected over 300 different species of plants and amongst them were ferns. And because Europeans hadn’t been here before that, it provides a reference point as to what was growing here naturally before European colonisation.

So anything that was collected by Banks and Solander is almost certainly a native species to New Zealand. There are a few exceptions because, of course, Polynesians brought plants with them to New Zealand, but they are fairly easy to identify because they tend to be tropical species, and they tend to be things that were useful to the Māori.

 William Colenso is a very important person. He was brought out to New Zealand by the Church Missionary Society as a printer. In his spare time, he was a botanist, and he collected all sorts of plants, particularly ferns. He was very interested in ferns, and he described a lot of early ferns. And his collections are now based here, although he did send a lot of material to Kew, as well, in England.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
William Colenso image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library
Reference: 1/2-005028-F
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image