Linnaeus – Making a start in this country before Botany Bay

I happened to be watching Gardening Australia on ABC TV recently and was surprised to learn that a plant from this country had been ‘named under our modern system of scientific nomenclature” in 1768. That is, before James Cook and Joseph Banks sailed north along the East Coast in 1770.

FROM GARDENING AUSTRALIA (Josh Byrne is presenting):

SERIES 29 | Episode 21

Within the Western Australian horticultural family, I’d often heard of the name Alex George and how his knowledge of Australian flora was legendary. Keen to meet him, I did some digging and was surprised to find out he lives just a stone’s throw from my place.

“This one’s Synaphea spinulosa from the Proteaceae family,” he tells Josh. “It’s an interesting plant for me because it’s one of the first two Australian plants named under our modern system of scientific nomenclature named in 1768 by a botanist in Holland. That’s as big as it grows and it’s a good one for the garden because it suckers, so it will spread slowly, but stay fairly compact.”

Very good picture by MainlandQuokka (copyleft – Creative Commons )

File:Synaphea spinulosa subsp. spinulosa.JPG


The Dutch botanist is given as Nicolaas Laurens Burman, who classified the plant Polypodium spinulosum. He did not name it Synaphea spinulosa.

It was renamed Synaphea spinulosa by Robert Brown in 1810 “from the Greek name for union or connection, describing an anomaly in the structure of the flower.” (

This 1768 instance is one those of us interested in the renaming process in this country should know. The actual plant used for the classification is still in existence, although who collected in is not certain.

Alex George raised this in the Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter Vol. 89 1996:20-21:

“It is possible that the first Australian plant specimens collected by Europeans, and the first to be named under the Linnaean system of nomenclature (in 1768), were gathered by Vlamingh or one of his crew. These are Acacia truncata (Burm. f.) Hart. ex Hoffmannsegg and Synaphea spinulosa (Burm. f.) Merrill. The types of both are sterile and bear no collection details. In the protologue, Burman gave the locality as ‘ex Java’-presumably he received them among other collections from the East Indies. He considered them to be ferns, naming the acacia as Adiantum truncatum and the synaphea as Polypodium spinulosum. During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries a number of Dutch ships touched on the Western Australian coast but there is no information on whether any crew member gathered specimens. Synaphea spinulosa is common along the lower west coast between Bunbury and Kalbarri and is highly variable, but the type matches closely specimens collected later from the coastal plain either side of the Swan River. Acacia truncata occurs from Leeman to Bunbury.” ( )

There is information on Willem de Vlamingh in Peter Macinnes’ book “Curious Minds : The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists.” 2012: 16-19. Basically, Willem de Vlamingh arrived in what is now the Perth area in 1696 while searching for a missing ship (Ridderschap van Holland). Three ships reached what they named Rottnest Island and then sailed onto the mainland and the Swan River – Zwaanenrivier – and the all important Black Swan. They did not directly interact with any First Peoples.

See and. while there check out the extent of Dutch visits to the West Coast of this country.

This 1768 Linnaean classification marks the comparatively recent start of the European process which has displaced indigenous systems of classification and naming.

Beyond this European process, which was based on a hierarchical reasoning process which regarded certain features of plants as significant, lies the very different cosmology of First Peoples – and into which plants (and much else) are assigned a position in dual- sided systems of categorisation. We have a lot to learn about what First Peoples regarded as significant.

I am yet to find any First Peoples material about this plant.

What I intend to take up next is the European realisation that whiteness is not a defining characteristic of swans – and relate that to the speculation of Charles Darwin, while in this country in 1836, regarding two creations.

Bruce Reyburn

23 August 2018

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