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Encounters with Naturalists

Number 25 - December 2002

Catherine Ducatillion & Steve Meredith

 Jardin Botanique de la Villa Thuret, France & Botanic Gardens of Adelaide, Australia

Many botanic garden education programmes are no doubt a little like ours – a relatively small budget and minimal staff; but lots of ideas waiting for a chance to be converted into reality. One way to get around these frustrating roadblocks is to 'piggyback' onto the large number of local and national events and celebrations that fill our calendars. Such opportunities not only provide smaller gardens with ready made community, government and corporate partners; but they can also provide a supportive infrastructure for outreach community programmes that are normally beyond the limited resources of most gardens.

Encounter 2002

Encounter 2002 was one such opportunity not to be missed. It was a 3 month series of community events celebrating the chance meeting 200 years ago of the British ship, Investigator, captained by Matthew Flinders and the French ship, Geographe, captained by Nicholas Baudin. At the time of the encounter, both ships were involved in the first European exploration and charting of the coastline of South Australia. Though their countries were officially at war, the captains exchanged important scientific and navigational information accumulated on their voyages.

On board both ships were naturalists, gardeners and illustrators collecting and documenting the diversity of Australian plants and animals that were both strange and new to Europeans. Some of the plant material collected on the voyages was dried and sent back to herbaria in France and England for scientific study, while living plant material and seeds were sent back to Kew Gardens in Britain and the Paris Botanic Gardens. Some material collected in the region was also sent to Malmaison, home of Napoleon and Empress Josephine in France. From here it was subsequently sent to gardens in the south of France for display and acclimatisation trials.

This botanical and historic connection between France and Australia enabled a joint international project to be developed by botanic gardens in each country. The collaboration ultimately involved gardens, herbaria, schools, community organisations and national parks working together.

Encounters with Naturalists

The Botanic Gardens of Adelaide and the State Herbarium of South Australia set up the ‘living’ history project 'Encounters with Naturalists' with the Penneshaw Area School and Landcare group on Kangaroo Island. The project aimed to help students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the local flora of their region by re-creating the activities of the naturalists, gardeners and illustrators who visited their shores nearly 200 years ago.

Penneshaw, a small rural coastal country town on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, was chosen for the project because both ships had anchored in the area. The British had visited and explored the area twice, just before the encounter, from 21-23 March and 1-7 April 1802. One of the pieces of information passed on to the French at the time of the encounter was the presence of water, as well as a safe harbour. However, it was not to be until the following year that the French visited the island from January 7 to February 1. As a consequence of these visits, the naturalists and gardeners from both ships made plant collections and the illustrators drew the plants and animals they saw. The gardeners planted European seeds on the island, none of which appear to have survived. The French released a rooster, two hens and a boar and sow in the hope that they would multiply and provide food for the next visitors (the bay is now known as Hog Bay!). Here the respective crews from both ships also took on board much needed food, water and firewood.

The other ‘French connection’ to the area dated back to Empress Josephine who sent some of the living material collected in the region on to the south of France to assess its suitability to local horticulture. Unfortunately, some of these plants were a little too successful and have shown the potential to become weeds. The Jardin Botanique de la Villa Thuret near Nice has significant southern Australia plant displays. The Garden joined the project and worked with local Jean Moulin School students and the Antibe Horticultural College to mirror aspects of our shared history and mediterranean climate and flora.

One of the main aims of the project was to act as a trigger for a range of environment related practical projects for local school students in Penneshaw and France. Through this process we hoped to develop longer-term positive values toward local environmental issues. Both schools were highly supportive, as were the management of all the organisations involved.

In Australia our project team was made up of nine staff from scientific, horticultural and education services from both the Garden and the Herbarium. Penneshaw Area School had a number of dedicated staff, parents and Landcare volunteers who managed the project from their end. Valuable support was also received from the Kangaroo Island National Parks and Wildlife Office and a local island plant expert.

The project began with our first field trip to Penneshaw early in 2001, a year before the major Encounter 2002 celebrations. This trip began by setting the historical context for the whole school. The early challenge was how to develop manageable field activities for later in the year when we would be working with eighty students aged between five and fifteen. The solution was to have students work in cross age teams with older trained students mentoring younger students. A sequential 12-month calendar of events was developed and aimed at culminating during the official Encounter 2002 celebrations. Our first field work was with older students in late summer, with the emphasis on collecting seed and cutting material for propagation. The associated collection of voucher specimens for this material served as an introduction to the making of herbarium specimens for the following phases of the project.

Later in the year, the same older students visited both the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide and the State Herbarium of South Australia to learn about their work. In the Herbarium they were shown how to mount the specimens they had previously collected, and then introduced to some aspects of the work of the Herbarium through the Kangaroo Island collector’s quiz. The quiz asked questions whose answers were all to be found on Herbarium sheets associated with Kangaroo Island. In this way they were introduced to:

  • the oldest collections from the island
  • rare and endangered species
  • potential and actual weed invaders
  • useful plants on the island
  • the concept of a ‘type’ species
  • voucher specimens
  • the concept of the changing names of plants as our knowledge about them increases
  • the use of microscopes to study plant structure
  • the changing vegetation on the island reflected through Herbarium collections.

Garden scientific staff provided students with an insight into their work with presentations on tissue culture propagation techniques and the value of computer technology in managing plant information. In the garden, students were introduced to the ‘prior knowledge‘ of our flora held by indigenous Aboriginal people long before it was discovered by Europeans.

The main stage of the project occurred in spring during flowering time on the island. It involved the whole school rotating through plant hunters' workshops, field collection work, botanical illustration and seed collection. The school prepared a wonderfully detailed timetable to manage small teams working on these different phases at the same time.

For the fieldwork we identified three different localities, within a ten minute drive of the school, as sites for the students to make their collections. All of the localities were in areas where either Flinder's or Baudin’s expeditions may well have trodden from their anchorages in the Eastern Cove area of the island. The older experienced students assisted younger students with making the collections and filling in modified data sheets.

These collections were to be used in a number of ways: some were to begin the students' own personal herbarium, some were for events involving official Encounter 2002 celebrations, some were to contribute to a local reference herbarium, and some were for a special exchange with students in the south of France. A duplicate of each collection was deposited in the State Herbarium of South Australia.

While in the field it was interesting to reflect with students on how different our activities were compared to the earlier naturalists. We had mobile phones at the ready to communicate with just about anywhere in the world, GPS satellite navigation to pinpoint our position and rapid vehicle transport. Fortunately for us we did not have to experience the explorers’ personal hardships of hunger, fatigue, disease, cramped living quarters and the ever-present dangers that inevitably arise from sailing into uncharted waters and landing on unknown territory.

Two hundred years ago, the work of botanical illustrators was essential in conveying to the people back in Europe just what was encountered on the voyages of exploration. Both the French and the British expeditions had illustrators who were to earn some renown from their depiction of Australian flora and fauna.

During the two field trip days each student received tuition on botanical illustration from the State Herbarium illustrator. Students were soon using pencil sketches and watercolours to record their collections and it quickly became evident that there were many budding young illustrators among the ranks. Their work was later displayed in the local Easter Art Exhibition.

The proposed opening of the new Baudin Conservation Park, near Penneshaw, during Encounter 2002 celebrations provided a perfect opportunity to integrate a revegetation component into the project. Working alongside our staff, students learnt how to collect, record and store seed from those native plants still present in the area. With the guidance of the local Landcare volunteers, students have now propagated and raised seedlings for re-vegetating areas of the park invaded by weeds and overgrazed by the local wallaby population. This has been done with support from the local National Parks and Wildlife office.

In France, the Villa Thuret Botanic Garden chose a fusion of art and science to make the historical connections to Baudin’s voyage to Australia. The garden, created in 1857, primarily as an acclimatisation garden by scientist Gustave Thuret, has a long history of working with Australian plants. The first director, Charles Naudin, worked with Australian botanists and published the first great papers on Australian eucalypts.

Encounter 2002 provided an opportunity to raise awareness within our community of our garden’s Australian flora and the historical connections to the encounter history.

The project started at the beginning of the French school year in September 2001.

Two programs were developed:

  • A series of outdoor sculptural installations titled ‘Regards Croisés’ or ‘Crossing Views’ by Antibes Horticulture College landscape students were developed. The garden was offered to the students to create installations that depicted aspects of Australia’s unique landscapes and indigenous culture as encountered by French explorer, Nicolas Baudin.

Students had the freedom of the garden to create their works as they wished, there were virtually no constraints. They worked alongside an environmental artist who introduced the students to a completely new way of seeing and interpreting the landscape. His guidance helped the students to transform their imaginative ideas into reality. They used the garden with imagination and poetry, but also with intellectual rigour. Many of them discovered a new culture and a new flora. A formal opening celebration gave a social value to their work. Students showed their creations and explained their works to official guests, and also to Jean Moulin school children who expressed their delight through many spontaneous questions. It was a great moment.

  • A specific programme to sensitise children to the Australian environment was developed with teachers from the Jean Moulin Primary School. This included visits by staff to explain the French history of exploration, the uniqueness of the Australian flora and hands on sessions sowing seeds for the Australian plant displays in the Villa Thuret garden.

The students also visited Villa Thuret to learn about the Australian flora. One of the outcomes of this work was that students developed a much better understanding of the differences between indigenous French plants and the introduced Australian ones.

The programme with Penneshaw school helped to open the eyes of students to Australia, in particular Kangaroo Island, and the learning flowed through to geography, history and english studies. The project has been received enthusiastically and both the school and college want to extend the collaboration with Australian students through the internet, school gardens and environmental projects.


The official Encounter 2002 celebrations in Australia in early 2002 brought many aspects of the project to fruition. The Penneshaw students' work formed a major part of the town’s official commemorative event programme. With a backdrop of historic sailing ships and representatives of both the French and Australian navies, students presented their mounted plant specimens and botanical illustrations to French officials, local dignitaries, politicians and VIP’s including relatives of both Baudin and Flinders. This welcoming ceremony, held at historically significant Frenchman’s Rock, the site of the water source 200 years ago, was a special occasion for the whole community to acknowledge the students' re-creation of their botanical history. One Penneshaw teacher commented, “…it really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our students.” Guests were delighted with the uniqueness of their gifts and the historical relevance of the specimens and illustrations.

Just as the gardeners on board the ships sent plants back to botanic gardens in England and France, the material collected on student field trips was also sent 'back' to Adelaide’s Wittunga Botanic Garden which has displays of Kangaroo Island's distinctive vegetation. Students assisted garden staff in planting out the material they had collected a year ago into the Kangaroo Island beds. At the same time, a commemorative plaque was unveiled to acknowledge the project and the students’ contribution to the plant displays.

Other benefits from the project include the donation of a complete set of identified student-collected specimens, to start a regional community herbarium, to be housed in the school library. Since the specimens are duplicated in the State Herbarium, any changes in the names of these plants in the future can be easily checked.

Encounters with Naturalists was an exciting way of bringing history alive and leaving a legacy of environmental understanding. It provided a unique way for plant based institutions to support a regional community that cannot normally access such services easily. The partnerships developed enabled the Gardens and Herbarium to project a greater understanding of their less public role, while within the organisations it encouraged cross departmental collaboration, team building opportunities and an appreciation of the value of education. The international partnership has provided opportunities for ongoing learning opportunities beyond plants.

Most importantly, the project provided a chance for students to re-live their history in a practical way that gave them insights not normally achievable with a traditional garden or classroom based approach. We hope that in at least some of the students we ignited a long-term passion for plants and the natural environment.