Botany is the scientific study of plants. This field of study encompasses terrestrial, freshwater and ocean plants, as well as algae and some non-plants like fungi.
During the 19th century, botany became one of the most popular areas of European science. In part, this was due to the ease with which people could get involved in collecting, preserving and identifying plants. It was cheap and involved very few tools. The Linnaean classification system had been developed, and this helped to make plants easier to identify.
Ferns, in particular, were especially sought after in the Victorian era (1837–1901). Albums of pressed ferns were the coffee table books of the day. The Seuffert album at Te Papa is one example of these books. Another example is HB Dobbie’s ‘blue books’ that had full-sized white silhouettes of ferns on a blue background.
Amateur botanists from this era are an important part of our New Zealand botanical history. Botanists such as Sir Joseph Banks funded and joined expeditions to new lands and collected specimens that still exist today. Other hobbyists, like William Colenso, followed their passion and collected specimens that contributed to the understanding of our New Zealand flora. Still others collected specimens to be made into albums and sold back in England. People were fascinated by plants from newly discovered lands and were keen to find out more about these exotic species.
Botanists are plant scientists.
In the Victorian era when scientific study emphasised natural history collections, botanists collected, preserved and identified specimens. Botanists often worked in the field and were involved in discovering and describing many new species. Today, the collections from this era remain important, but the areas of plant science that botanists now work in are much more diverse.
A botanist today might be interested in structure, growth, reproduction, metabolism, development, diseases, chemical properties, ecologybiodiversity or the evolutionary relationships between taxonomic groups. A botanist may work in a lab, in the field, for an agricultural or food technology company, for a pharmaceutical company or in a museum or botanic garden – in fact, in any enterprise involved with plants. Whatever their work, what links these scientists is their common interest in and curiosity about plants.
Why the interest in plants?
Each botanist will have their own story about how they became interested in plants.
Plants are all around us. They underpin all life on Earth. In particular, plants provide two of the essentials of human life. They provide all our food (either directly or indirectly), and they provide the oxygen we breathe.
Plants also play a role in many other aspects of our life. They provide many of our medicines, are involved in regulating the water cycle and are involved in storing carbon. Plants also provide habitats and food for other living organisms. They provide fibres for our clothes (such as cotton and bamboo) and wood for our buildings and furniture. They provide industrial products (rubber and cork, for example) and are a source of fuel (wood, coal, gas and biodiesel). Plants also create aesthetically pleasing indoor and outdoor environments.
Botany remains an essential study. Plants have a very visible economic role in New Zealand in agriculture and horticulture. We are also realising more about the importance of biodiversity and want to know more about plants that live on Earth. Botany provides tools for investigating and understanding the role of plants in our world.
Nature of science
Technology draws on science and contributes to it. In Joseph Banks’s time, botany was mostly about observing, collecting and describing. In our time, due to advances in both science and technology, botany has become more about experimentation and manipulation. As a result, the role of a botanist has changed significantly.
Meet some botanists – research by botany curators Dr Patrick Brownsey and Dr Leon Perrie at Te Papa provided examples to support the life processes, ecology and evolution concepts within levels 4 and 5 of the Living World strand. They introduce us to the herbarium at Te Papa where over 260,000 plant specimens, including 19,000 fern specimens, are stored and you can find out about the value of early collections and the role of museums.