It was 1814. With Napoleon out of the picture (at least temporarily) and peace at hand, the time had come to establish the Royal Gardens at Kew, once and for all, as the world’s greatest garden. The one at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna threatened to outclass it. William Townsend Aiton, head of Kew, made the obvious move: he got in touch with Sir Joseph Banks to organise a plant-collecting expedition. Within a few months two skilled botanists were en route to the Cape and Australia.
They didn’t get there, but ended up instead in Brazil, where they successfully collected hundreds of new species. This episode typifies the unprecedented, dazzling and often unpredictable achievements of Banks during his long career as a horticultural impresario. Beginning with his own voyages as a budding naturalist in the 1760s and 1770s – after which he never went to sea again – he served as the ‘projector’ (his term) of scores of collecting ventures, inspiring and overseeing the introduction to Britain of many hundreds of hitherto unknown or uncultivated plants. From his mansion in Soho Square, ceaselessly spewing out letters of encouragement and advice, he served as a focus of British scientific life in the late 18th century, becoming what one admirer called ‘the common Center of we discoverers’.