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The florilegium and 18th century botanical art

18th-century botanical art

Banksia serrata engraving

In the 1700s, botanical illustration was used to accurately record plants that were collected in the field. In a 1785 article botanist Joseph Banks described how he, Daniel Solander and artist Sydney Parkinson recorded the specimens of new plants they found on the voyage of the Endeavour:

From 4 or 5, when the cabin had lost the odour of food we sat til dark by the great table with our draughtsman opposite and showed him in what way to make his drawings, and ourselves made rapid descriptions of all the details of natural history while our specimens were still fresh.

The flowering plant Banksia serrata is one of a genus of plants named after Banks.

Right: Banksia serrata is plate 285 of Banks' Florilegium. Photo: George Serras.


Details of leaves from a Banksia serrata

Botanical drawings typically show both sides of a plant's leaves, which vary in colour, shape, composition (how the leaves are arranged on the stem), margin (the shape of the edges) and venation (the pattern of veins).

Banksia serrata was named for the saw-like edges of its leaves: 'serrata' means 'saw' in Latin. The drawing shows that the leaves vary in colour, and that they crowd together at the upper end of the branches.

Banksia serrata flower buds at the end of a branch, surrounded by saw-like leaves.

Left: Banksia serrata flower buds at the end of a branch, surrounded by saw-like leaves. Photo: Julian Robinson.

Fruits and seeds

Detail of seeds from a Banksia serrata

Fruits and seeds also help taxonomists to classify a plant.

Banksia serrata has distinctive hard, woody follicles (dry single-chambered fruit) often grouped together to resemble cones. They open spontaneously, or in response to extreme heat or smoke. This helps the banksia regenerate in the event of a bushfire. Artist Sydney Parkinson has drawn them here both open and closed.

Banksia serrata seed pods opened by a bushfire

Left: Banksia serrata seed pods are shown here opened by a bushfire.
Photo: Gary Warner.


Detail of a flower from a Banksia serrata

Carl Linnaeus's system classified plants according to the number and arrangement of the reproductive organs found in the flower of flowering plants. A plant's class was determined by its stamens (male organs), and its order by its pistils (female organs). Some of Linnaeus's critics considered this emphasis on reproductive organs immoral.

As you can see in the botanical plate, Banksia serrata has silvery grey flower spikes. The flower heads are made up of hundreds of tiny individual flowers grouped together in pairs. The 'hairy' bits are actually old, withered flower parts.

A New Holland honeyeater drawing nectar from Banksia serrata in flower

Left: A new Holland honeyeater draws nectar from Banksia serrata in flower.
Photo: Julian Robinson.

Diagram showing the parts of a flower

Left: Based on a diagram by the British Broadcasting Corporation.


Stem of Banksia serrata

Another distinctive feature of each flowering plant is the stem. Plant stems vary in colour, texture and flexibility. They can be hollow, chambered or have continuous pith (spongy cells inside the stem). They can also have thorns or spurs.

Banksia serrata has a single, stout trunk with gnarled grey bark. Its crooked form has given it the nickname 'Old Man Banksia'. The fire-retardant bark can be up to 6 centimetres thick and is cork-like in texture.

Banksia serrata single, stout trunk with gnarled grey bark.

Left: The bark of Banksia serrata. Photo: Matthew Stevens.


Detail of the blank background from a botanical drawing

Have you noticed that the drawing has nothing in the background? Botanical drawings were usually drawn from specimens rather than in their natural habitat. The Linnean system of classification was not based on the context of each plant, or the knowledge of local people.

Banksia serrata

Left: Banksia serrata is the most common banksia on the east coast of Australia, growing from Wilsons Promontory in Victoria to Maryborough in Queensland.
Photo: Toni Smith.

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