“The country is encompassed on all sides with very high mountains, almost perpendicular, consisting of bare rocks, without the last appearance of vegetation; and upon the whole, has a most melancholy effect on the mind.” So wrote Francis Masson just after starting out on his first plant hunting mission in 1772. But, contrary to what you might think, he was not exploring a botanical wilderness but one of the richest plant habitats in the world.
Read on to find out where he was and why he spent nearly 12 years of his life there, exploring, recording, collecting and dispatching seeds, bulbs and plants back to Kew including what is now the probably the world’s oldest pot plant!
In 1771 HMS Endeavour under the command of Captain James Cook stopped at Cape Town on the return leg of its 3 year long circumnavigation of the world. Cook’s crew were exhausted and heavily depleted in number and the stopover was a much needed respite before the journey back to Britain.
With Cook was Joseph Banks, the young and very wealthy Lincolnshire squire who, obsessed with natural history, had paid for his own passage and that of his retinue, and botanised the whole way round the world. Like many of the crew Banks had been ill and hardly got more than a few miles from the small Dutch settlement at the Cape but even to an eye that had been filled with the marvels of the Pacific islands, New Zealand and the great Terra Australis itself, the unique character and extraordinary richness of the Cape’s flora and fauna must have been self-evident.
When Banks finally got back to London he was befriended by George III and ended up advising on, and then effectively running, the the royal gardens. So, when, just a few months later, Cook was commissioned to undertake a second voyage of exploration in the Pacific Banks decided to use the opportunity to collect new plants for Kew. Instead of going himself he consulted William Aiton, the superintendent of the gardens, and they chose Francis Masson for the task. He was to receive £100 a year, payable on his return, and allowed up to £200 a year expenses. We don’t know why Masson was chosen indeed we know little of Masson’s personal life at all except that he was born in Aberdeen in 1741 and presumably had an apprenticeship as gardener in Scotland before he became another of the wave of Scots gardeners who took the high road to England.
Cook and the Resolution set sail in May 1772 but Masson was not going to travel all the way to the South Seas. Instead he had been instructed to remain at the Cape and start work plant hunting there. The Cape was at that time a Dutch colony, originally founded in 1652 as a useful staging point for the ships of their East India Company. It soon became a permanent settlement, and as new settlers arrived from Europe other small towns and many farms were founded but the greater part of what is now the vast Western Cape province was still very little explored by Europeans.
When Masson disembarked he was probably surprised to find that there were two other botanists already at the Cape, and probably even more surprised to find that they were Swedish. The first was Anders Sparrman who had studied medicine and been a pupil of Linnaeus. Sparrman ended up sailing with Cook as his expedition’s naturalist when the Resolution left Cape Town shortly afterwards. The other was Carl Peter Thunberg, another young doctor, who was working for the Dutch East India Company, and slowly working his way eastwards through their various trading posts until he reached Japan!
In the two years following his arrival at Cape Town Masson made three long journeys into the interior becoming the first Briton to travel any distance from the settlement. It was probably through Sparrman and Thunberg that Masson met his first travelling companion, yet another Swede, Franz Pehr Oldenburg.
They set off in December 1772 with an ox-cart and native driver, crossing the plains east from Cape Town, to the new settlements of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek which were set in fertile valleys surrounded by steep almost impassable mountains. Masson notes that Stellenbosch “consisted of about 30 houses forming one regular street with a row of oak trees on either side…which render it very pleasant.” Today it still retains much of its original character.
Then they began climbing into the mountains – decades before the roads were laid and opened – over what is now Sir Lowry’s Pass
and then into the Kogelberg which runs along the coast back to Cape Town. Today that journey can be done in a single long day’s drive. It took them about 6 weeks.
Masson was clearly impressed by what he saw: “These mountains abound with a great number of curious plants and are, I believe, the richest mountains in Africa for a botanist.” And he was right: the Kogelberg has about 2000 species.
On his return Masson explored the mountains around Cape Town with Thunberg, and the following September they set off northwards along the coast before turning back inland. The flora there is nothing less than spectacular, and these days is a major tourist attraction. [Just google Namaqualand for more stunning images] Masson was clearly smitten as the modern observer : “The whole country affords a fine field for botany, being enamelled with the greatest number of flowers I ever saw, of exquisite fragrance and beauty.”
They crossed precipitous mountain passes, reaching the Olifants river at present day Citrusdale on the edge of the Cedarbergs. The road was “rugged beyond description, consisting of broken and flattened rocks …encompassed on each side with horrid impassable mountains.” Later they “looked down with horror on the river, which formed several cataracts inconceivably wild and romantic.”
But their “difficulties” were “largely repaid by the number of rare plants we found here. The bank of the river is covered with a great variety of evergreen trees..and the precipices are ornamented with ericae and many other mountain plants never described before.”
It was on this trip that Thunberg almost died as “he took the ford without the least inquiry…and on a sudden he and his horse plunged head over the head and ears into a pit that had been made by the hippopotamus amphibious, which formerly inhabited those rivers.” Luckily his horse could swim but even so it was a close thing.
From there they trekked over to Swellendam and then went on to the Little Karoo, a vast semi-desert area with its own spectacular flora: “an infinite number of evergreen shrubs, both frutescens and succulent: among the latter we found many new species of crassula, cotyledon, euphorbia, portulaca, mesymbranthemum.”
But the journey got harder and harder: “it might better named the land of sorrows, for no land could exhibit a more wasteful prospect…yet notwithstanding … we enriched our collection by a variety of succulent plants, which we had never seen before, and which appeared to us like a new creation.”
Later, in slightly easier terrain, “we found a new palm. We observed two species; one about a foot and a half in diameter in the stem and about 12 feet high..the other sort had no stem, with the leaves a little serrated, and lying flat on the ground, which produced a large conical fructification about 18 inches long and a foot or more in circumference.” In fact he had found not a palm but a cycad, Encephalartos altensteinnii. Masson collected seeds and even risked taking a baby plant or two.
After that the tracks became even worse, their waggons began falling to pieces, and their servants refused to go further, so it was time to take an easier route back to Cape Town, although still collecting plants en route. Even so it took 5 weeks and despite cutting it short, it had been a successful trip all round. They had been away four and a half months and travelled 2,300 km.
Masson spent the early part of 1774 sorting and dispatching seeds, dried specimens and even some living plants back to Kew. Those that survived were listed in William Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis  and some were illustrated in L’Heritier’s Sertum Anglicum, printed in Paris 1789-92. If you want to see a full list of what reached Kew there are links to these books below – but – even better – you can still go and see the baby cycad he sent to Kew, although it’s no longer quite such a baby!
Hortus Kewensis: https://archive.org/stream/cbarchive_53040_hortuskewensis1789/hortuskewensis1789#page/n1/mode/2up
Sertum Anglicum: https://archive.org/stream/mobot31753000662780#page/n0/mode/2up
The cycad now measures 4 m 23 cm from the base of its stem to the growing point (an average growth rate of only 2.5 cm per year). Housed originally in one of the hothouses it has been in Kew’s Palm House since it was built in 1848. It has only once produced a cone, and that was in 1819. When it did Sir Joseph Banks came to view the plant on what was to prove his last visit to Kew, since he died the following year,
Now at the ripe old age of about 241 Masson’s cycad is probably the oldest pot plant in the world. Of course pot plants need repotting although in the cycad’s case its only about every 20/25 years. After it was done in 1985 it wasn’t done again until 2009. Given that it leans, and has to be supported this is easier said than done! For photos see:
For more about the plant itself see:
Masson and Thunberg also spent more time exploring the Cape peninsula, often in the company of other visitors and amateur naturalists, including Lady Anne Monson, an early plantswoman and collector who was on her way to India. Then in September 1774 they set off for a third long journey of exploration.
This time it was to an area that “has but a barren appearance” but was actually very fertile and so being rapidly turned over to agriculture “producing an abundance of corn and wine” in place of the native flora. They collected “many remarkable new plants” before heading further north out of the Cape Floral Kingdom into the Karoo, an inhospitable desert region where “only collecting what we saw growing along the roadside, which amounted to above 100 plants, never before described.” It was hard work and they seemed glad to be back in Cape Town 3 months later.
Thunberg sailed for the East Indies in March 1775, and Masson sailed back to Britain just a few weeks later. His journal became “An Account of Three Journeys from the Cape Town into the Southern Parts of Africa; Undertaken for the Discovery of New Plants, towards the Improvement of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew”, and was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London after his return in 1775.
Masson had added well over 400 species to Kew’s collections, which helped take it into the leading rank of European botanic gardens. Some of these had already entered commercial production by the time Thunberg returned to Europe about 3 years later, and visited London en route to Sweden. There he met Joseph Banks and also went to see James Lee’s nursery at Hammersmith which was already famous for its range of Cape plants. Thunberg also published a detailed list of Cape Plants in Latin which included a handful of plates, and then published his own Travels in Europe, Africa and Asia. This noted that “Mr Mason, the skilful English [I’m not sure how Masson reacted to being called English] gardener, who accompanied me in both my journeys into the interior part of the almost unknown continent of Africa, has … given a short account of both these voyages,…but as the narrative is very short… it is hoped this part of my narrative not be considered as superfluous.” Thunberg’s Travels can be found in full at:
Between them Masson and Thunberg offered the first proper detailed description in print of the plants of the southern and southwestern Cape. which is the smallest but richest of the world’s floral kingdoms. For more on this and early plant hunting in South Africa generally see the The Smallest Kingdom by Mike & Liz Frazer, another of Kew’s beautifully illustrated and wonderfully informative books, published in 2011.
Once he had returned to London Masson presumably went back to work at Kew but far from resting on his laurels or rather tending to his cycads and crassulas he was keen to be plant hunting again and in a totally new direction. More about that in another post soon…