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Tuatara: Volume 32, April 1993

Botany of the Early French Voyages

page 64

Botany of the Early French Voyages


The contributions to botanical knowledge of New Zealand resulting from French voyages from 1769 to the settlement at Akaroa in the 1840′s are evaluated. Translations of general comments by the French botanists on aspects of the flora and vegetation of New Zealand are provided.

It is clear that a certain amount, perhaps a considerable amount of national rivalry was involved in the voyages of discovery. Scientists, however, like to believe that science is international with the shared common purpose of advancing knowledge. This is not a new idea. Montagne in his introduction to the botanical account of D'Urvilles last voyage says

“When the noble emulation which reigns between great nations such as France and England, both placed at the forefront of civilisation, has for its purpose only to expand knowledge and does not degenerate into a jealous and deplorable rivalry, it can only be eminently useful to science and the whole of humanity.”

Both the earliest French and British voyages visiting New Zealand in the 1760′s and 1770′s were not as productive botanically as they might have been. Extensive and very valuable plant collections were made on Cook's voyages but the accounts of these from the first voyage were prepared, but never published and the published botanical results of the later voyages were mostly very inadequate. No plant collections appear to have been made during the two French visits in the same period. Crozet in his journal from Marion du Fresne's ill fated voyage did provide some general comments on the plant cover of the Bay of Islands as well as some geological speculation which has turned out to be remarkably far sighted.

“Might not the subterranean fire, which formerly burned and vitrified so much matter in New Zealand, have also by several shocks detached this island from new Holland or from the Austral lands or from some other continent?”

He comments on the widespread occurrence of bracken fern which we now know would have largely followed destruction of forest by fire. He also remarks on some of the larger forest trees, possibly pohutukawa and northern rata and certainly kauri which he terms the “olive-leaved cedar”. He was very impressed by the size of these trees, their abundant resin and the quality of the wood which he judged “very suitable for making ships' masts”.

He also commented on the fact that even in winter he did not see “a single tree shed its leaves”.

It was not until 1824 that another French expedition visited New Zealand. This was the first of 3 voyages involving Dumont d'Urville, although on this occasion the commander was Duperrey.

By now there was a strong emphasis on scientific discovery. Unlike British voyages no scientists as such were included but some of the officers and particularly the surgeons were also reputable scientists. For instance D'Urville would have regarded himself as much a botanist as a navigator.

As far as Botany was concerned observations were made of the vegetation and plant specimens were collected. The latter are mostly preserved for later study by drying and pressing to make what are known as herbarium specimens. The plants page 65 or plants pieces are interleaved with absorbant paper — newsprint or better, blotting paper — and built up into stacks which are then subjected to pressure with straps or weights. The paper absorbs the mositure from the plants, so must be changed at perhaps daily intervals until the specimens are completely dry and flat and able to be mounted on cards with labels giving information about the specimen. Such specimens if kept from certain insects that like to eat dry plants can last indefinitely. The Paris Herbarium has in its cabinets about 5 million herbarium specimens from all over the world.

Some of the collectors had some artistic ability and sketched living material, but most of the often handsome illustrations in the published accounts were made by artists at the Paris Museum aided by the sketches and notes of the collectors.

There was little about New Zealand plants in the publication on Duperrey's voyage, perhaps because many of the species at the much visited Bay of Islands had already been described. In his journal René Lesson was rather unimpressed by New Zealand vegetation partly because he was seeing it at a place where the forests had been greatly reduced by fire.

“The season of our visit was not a good one for collecting botanical specimens. The flowering season was over, and although there was vegetation, it was verdant only in ravines and damp places; on the mountain sides it took on a reddish appearance from the closely packed mass of a fern with edible roots. The forms of vegetation are few and monotonous; very different from the splendour and profusion of tropical plants. In their uniformity and dreariness they are nothing like the plants of New South Wales, resembling rather the vegetation of Chile. Some hills are covered with trees of medium height, with dull grey foliage like an olive tree (probably pohutukawa J.D.). Large trees, birches and pepper plants grow in the sandy bays. I found no edible fruit, apart from a kind of small bluish plum (tawa or taraire) which the plump pigeons swallow whole. The korarou and the Phormium grow in damp places, while an Oxalis and a small daisy were the only plants flowering on the turf at the time. Trees which because of their hardness and their great size, are most suitable for maritime construction, are found in the interior of New Zealand. This timber and the linen plant (Phormium) are the most commercially desirable products”. “There seems to be little variety in the vegetation of the bay region. I was there in autumn of these parts at a time when the flowering season was partly over; my herbarium was enriched by only 5 or 6 plants with their flowers. There are scarcely any trees, except in the gullies, but as the soil is composed of a deep layer of humus, the trees there attain the most majestic proportions. The hill tops are bare of shrubs, and from a distance they seem to be covered by bright green turf, owing to a thick growth of fern 2 or 3 feet high. As one goes inland, vegetation increases, the bush is thicker, trees of very hard red and black wood rise on the slopes, and the soil is kept damp by a carpet of the pretty kidney-shaped trichomane.” “Vegetables planted by Marion du Fresne grow abundantly.”

The second voyage of D'Urville, this time as commander, visited more localities in New Zealand in 1827 — the northern part of the South Island and points on the eastern North Island coast and in Northland, including the present site of Auckland, and finally again the Bay of Islands. Extensive plant collections were made mostly by A. Lesson (younger brother of R. Lesson), and on their return A. Lesson and A. Richard, a notable botanist at the Paris Museum, prepared and published in the account of the voyage a detailed account of the vegetation of New Zealand as well as descriptions of 380 species of which 41 were illustrated. The account was entitled “Essai d'une Flore de la Nouvelle-Zelande”. About this Cheeseman later commented “This is the first publication dealing with the flora of New Zealand as a whole, and possesses considerable merit, so much so that it is regretted that so little use has been made of it by New Zealand botanists”.

page 66

As the authors had seen several localities in New Zealand including some where the forests were in their original state they were more favourably impressed by the flora and vegetation than was R. Lesson.

“Among the many countries visited by the Astrolabe, during its voyage of circumnavigation, there is none more interesting than New Zealand, a region little known up to now from the point of view of geography and natural history. The researches of the officers and naturalists, under the command of Captain D'Urville, have given results of great importance. Confining ourselves to that which specially concerns Botany, the plant collections made by M. Lesson the younger, pharmacist of the expedition, added to those Captain D'Urville himself managed to collect amongst more important activities which occupied his time have enabled us to gain a much better understanding of the original vegetation of New Zealand.

If one reflects on the few localities that have been explored by naturalists, and above all the short time that their excursions have lasted, one will easily understand that there still remain many species to be discovered. Furthermore, we do not pretend to have made a complete Flora of New Zealand, but simply an essay in which the plants that have been observed up to now have been brought together.

Independently of the species we have observed ourselves and which belong to the collections made by Captain D'Urville and Lesson the younger during the last voyage of the Astrolabe we have had at our disposal a great number of type specimens, collected by Forster himself, which form part of the rich herbarium of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris. These original specimens have been very precious for us, in giving us the means of naming with certainty, by direct comparison, a part of the species collected on the voyage of the Astrolabe. But an advantage no less important which will be appreciated and shared by all botanists is that we have had access to Forster's manuscripts. It is known that a large number of the species mentioned by this botanist are often known only by the simple diagnostic phrase, which he gives in his Prodromus. Furthermore several of them are so uncertain that they have been omitted in the lists of some authors. We have been able by this means to remove the doubts concerning several of these species, either by ourselves making detailed descriptions from the original Forster specimens, when we had them in front of us, or by publishing the manuscript descriptions for the species we do not hold or of which we have only specimens that are too incomplete or in too poor a state. We have been careful to acknowledge these borrowings; either by citing Forster's manuscripts or by indicating by the symbol † the species described by the voyager.

Before giving an overview of the relations of the vegetation of New Zealand with those of various regions of the globe we are going to sketch, from the notes of M. Lesson and verbal information furnished by Captain D'Urville, the general appearance of the country. It is traversed by mountains which are progressively higher the further they are removed from the coasts. At Astrolabe Harbour (Tasman Bay) these mountains attain a great height and several are covered with snow. Near the anchorage they rise almost vertically from the little sandy beaches of the shore. Once one has attained the summits one can easily go from one to the other, and one can enjoy from the heights of these peaks an entrancing view. Most of them are covered with ferns, several with trees and shrubs. The humus layer is often very thick; this soil is blackish, light, still filled with plant debris and watered by a large number of torrents and streams.”

“We said above that the humus layer was generally thick: this probably applies only to the littoral explored by the navigators, as the crests of some mountains they climbed had a thinner layer which could only support ferns and lichens; some small trees form sparse tufts on the eminences of Tasman Bay. In Hauraki Bay and its various arms, where several islands were discovered by Captain D'Urville, only page 67 one, named Green Island, was entirely covered with green trees. This island was volcanic, like those in the vicinity but the latter are without high vegetation. A short distance from this group of islands is the large island Ika-na-Maui, where immense forests rise up, full of interlaced lianes and shrubs which make them impenetrable. It is in these forests without doubt that there are trees of gigantic dimensions as the canoes of the natives are up to 50 or 60 feet long by 3 or 4 wide and all in one piece. Going 3 or 4 miles from the coast we saw large, low lying spaces, probably swampy, covered with a great mass of green trees which appeared to belong to the conifer family. Dacrydium cupressinum, Podocarpus dacrydioides and several other green trees, whose descriptions we will give, probably form the basis of these aggregations. Astrolabe Harbour, in Tasman Ban is one of the places where MM. D'Urville and Lesson made the most abundant collections. What we are about to say about the vegetation of this locality will suffice to give a general idea of that of the whole of New Zealand, because these diverse regions are similar to each other, with the exception of some plants which seem to characterise some regions, but which might well occur in other parts of the archipelago which is still not completely explored. The vegetation of Astrolabe Harbour is very beautiful, although the number of cryptogamic plants almost equal the seed plants. The European is surprised to discover here some plants of his own country or at least closely related species. For example one finds here wild celery (Apium graveolens) with which one can make excellent salads; crucifers (Nasturtium sylvestre) similar to those of our fields. Calystegia soldanella covers the edges of the sea along with linen flax, senecios, veronicas, euphorbias etc. In truth, several edible plants, such as the cabbage, the potato, etc., have been introduced by the Europeans; but among those the latter have certainly not brought, are Typha angustifolia, Scirpus lacustris, Triticum repens, Plantago major, Alsine media, Ranunculus acris, (most of these are in fact introduced. J.D.) and several other plants equally useless. On the other hand some plants peculiar to New Zealand grow abundantly in these localities. Such are, among others, Phormium tenux which the Europeans have named New Zealand flax because its fibres furnish a very tough cord excellent for making fabrics. This plant grows everywhere, on the mountains as in ravines. It is abundant in Torrens Bay.

Ferns are remarkable for their number and diversity. One sees them above all in the shade of forests where a spongy soil, composed of plant debris, favours their growth. They reign there almost alone as their great abundance chokes the few phanerogam herbs which try to establish there. One finds a great number of them on the stems of trees, where they develop in the manner of parasites, in ravines, and as far as the almost bare rocks of the mountains. Lichens are, after ferns, the most abundant cryptogams. They grow on soil, rocks and trees. The crawling stems of certain polypodiums and other ferns are often garnished with these lichens, above all in moist places; for example, in the vicinity of cascades.”

Following D'Urville's second voyage there were two further visits to the Bay of Islands by French expeditions — La Place in 1831 and Dupetit-Thouars in 1838, but little of botanical significance seems to have resulted.

Decaisne in Dupetit-Thouars described and illustrated a few New Zealand species. One of these is something of a mystery as it is an attractive daisy shrub from the Chathams—Olearia semidentata and so far as I can discover the venus did not visit the Chathams. Perhaps the specimen was given by someone on a whaling ship at the Bay of Islands that had come from the Chathams although the name of the collector — Pfihl — is certainly not French.

D'Urville's third and last voyage reached New Zealand in 1840. This time the Auckland Islands to the south of New Zealand were visited, as well as Otago Peninsula, Akaroa and inevitably the Bay of Islands. It is of interest that the Auckland Islands were also visited that year by the eminent English botanist page 68 Joseph Hooker who was later to make important contributions to New Zealand Botany.

The published botanical results of this voyage were not so extensive as those of the second partly due to the death of Hombron, one of the botanical collectors, before the account had been finished. However, one important contribution was the publication of several new species of seaweeds and mosses from the Auckland Islands.

This was the last French voyage of discovery to visit New Zealand but this was not the end of the early French contribution to New Zealand Botany. The French colony was established in Akaroa in 1840 and the surgeon with the support vessels, Etienne Raoul, was also a keen botanist.

“The corvette L'Aube, on which I embarked as surgeon major, left Brest under the orders of M. Lavaud, captain of vessel, the 19th February 1840, and after two stops, one at Sainte-Croix de Ténériffe, the other in Senegal, arrived at the Bay of Islands on the 11 July. The very advanced state of the season and the abundant rain only permitted me to collect at that time some well known species in the environs of Kororareka, Pahia, Waitungui. L'Aube left the Bay of Islands the 31 July and on the 15 August lowered anchor at Akaroa, Banks Peninsula, from where it did not depart until 21 November 1841. The first stay, encompassing a complete series of seasons enabled me to collect many botanical specimens in their diverse states. During a second appearance of the Aube at the Bay of Islands, from 2–13 December 1841, I augmented with a good number of species the limited collections made in 1840. After returning to Akaroa on the 26 January 1842, after a short voyage to New Holland, L'Aube was replaced by L'Allier, onto which Lavaud carried his flag and of which the health service was confided to me. L'Allier did not leave Akaroa until the 11 January, 1843 and made its return to Europe, stopping for a third time at the Bay of Islands. During these different excursions to the Bay of Islands and especially during the long sojourn at Banks Peninsula I was able to gather most of the species, to describe and draw in fresh conditions most of them, which make up the Flora of this part of the South Island, up till now little explored.

On my arrival in France, in October 1843, my collections were deposited in the Museum of National History of Paris, and at the request of MM. Brongniart and de Jussieu, the Minister of Marine authorised the work which I prepared under the supervision of M. Decaisne who oversaw the classification of the herbarium specimens and their analysis and willingly corrected the deficiencies in my notes on a subject of which I had not made in advance a sufficient study.

My plants have been compared with Forster's, contained in the museum, and with some of those used by M. Richard for his work on the Vegetation of New Zealand.”

As an evidence of the international character of science he warmly acknowledges the assistance and advice of Joseph Hooker during a visit he made to the Paris Museum and who later sent specimens from Kew for comparison with Raoul's specimens.

“J.D Hooker, to whom the flora of the antarctic regions is so well known, pointed out to me, during his visit to Paris, several new species in my herbarium, and later sent me a series of specimens from New Zealand compared by him with Forster species kept at the British Museum. The result of this double comparison is that under the same name there exist in the Museums of Paris and London different species collected by Forster himself. These identification errors have resulted in some errors on the part of botanists who have consulted one or other of these herbaria; thanks to the goodwill of M. Hooker I have corrected them. 1 am equally obliged to MM. J.D. Hooker and Taylor for the determination of my lichens, liverworts and mosses, which M. Léveillé has kindly described.”

The result of Raoul's work was a handsomely illustrated book — “Choix de page 69 Plantes de la Nouvelle-Zelande” in which a number of New Zealand species were described and named for the first time. As Raoul was the only resident early French botanist in New Zealand I would certainly like to know more about him. Perhaps there are a journal, reports, letters, in archives somewhere.

After completing his book Raoul was sent to tropical Africa for medical work, but he later returned to his home town of Brest where he died at the very early age of 37.

Belligny was another botanist in the Akaroa colony. He had been on the staff of the Botanical Gardens in Paris and although he did not produce any publications he sent back specimens of plants (including seeds), birds and insects.

The early French contribution to New Zealand Botany was clearly considerable. Consulting Allan's more recent account of the New Zealand Flora I have determined that although only about 10 early French botanists actually visited and collected in New Zealand a total of 55 French botanists were subsequently involved in the describing and/or naming of New Zealand native plants.


Decaisne, M.J. 1845 in Dumont d'Urville, J.S.C. — “Voyage au Pòle sud et dans l'Océanié”.

Decaisne, M.J. 1864 in Du Petit-Thouars — “Voyage autour du Monde sur la frègate la Venus”.

Raoul, E.F.L. 1846. Choix de Plantes de la Nouvelle-Zelande. Paris.

Richard, A. and Lesson, A., 1832. Essai d'une Flore de la Nouvelle-Zèlande in Dumont d'Urville, J.S.C. — “Voyage de Découvertes de l'Astrolabe”.