Thanks to botanists both amateur and professional, plant specimens have been sent out of Bermuda to be carefully dried, stored and labeled in herbariums in Europe and North America since the 17th century. Herbariums housing Bermuda collections include those in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, the Natural History Museum in London and The New York Botanical Garden.

While many visitors come to our island to enjoy the unique lushness of the Bermudian landscape, most of us know that the vast majority of our trees and plants consists of “foreigners,” species introduced from countries all over the world. Oleander, for example, first arrived from Charleston in 1790, thanks to a Mr. Lightbourn in Paget; bougainvillea arrived in 1874, possibly from Gibraltar, and the Indian rubber tree came from Asia at the request of Governor Turner’s wife.  

What many of us don’t think about, however, is that ever since the eighteenth century, numerous plant specimens have been sent out of Bermuda to reside in places abroad. They’re not exactly alive and well, but they are carefully dried, stored and labelled in herbariums in Europe and North America, including those in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, the Natural History Museum in London and The New York Botanical Garden.

These Bermuda plant collections are important because they can be examined by scientists who have never visited the island to discern which species are endemic to Bermuda, which have been introduced and which have disappeared thanks to urbanisation, disease and the proliferation of invasives. They also prove that Bermuda had some part to play, however small, in Britain’s growing enthusiasm for discovering international natural history, an enthusiasm that in the Victorian era paralleled the growing British Empire. This article, then, will look at a few of the botanists, both amateur and professional, who contributed Bermuda specimens to herbariums abroad.

Left to right: Sir Hans Sloane, Sir Jospeh Banks, Dr. Nathaniel Lord Britton and Governor J.H. Lefroy.

The earliest Bermuda collection dates back to 1699 when John Dickinson sent specimens to apothecary James Petiver (1658–1718), who had a private practice on Aldersgate Street, London. In addition to being a pharmacist, Petiver was also an entomologist and botanist; as an inveterate collector, he would engage captains and surgeons of ships to bring home specimens and seeds of plants, as well as birds, stuffed animals and insects from Europe, America, Africa and, of course, Bermuda.

Dickinson’s name pops up frequently in the Bermuda Government Archives as well as the history books. He was born in 1640, the son of Robert Dickinson of the Southampton Tribe. According to Jill Collett in Bermuda Her Plants and Gardens, he was a shipowner and trader who owned a shop in St. George’s near Bridge House; he may have built Verdmont in Smith’s Parish. Dickinson was also involved in politics. He was an opponent of Governor Day, and in 1707 he became speaker of the assembly. How he met Petiver is unclear, although it seems likely his shipping interests had something to do with it. Whatever the case, he dispatched dried specimens of plants to Petiver and entered into correspondence with him. We know this because Petiver referenced Dickinson in his own letters to other correspondents.

Dickinson sent specimens of at least seven species. They are: Darrell’s fleabane, endemic, which Dickinson labelled “hen hogweed” with the note “it grows amongst bushes and flowers in February and March”;

Bermuda sedge, endemic, which became so rare it was not collected again until Dr. Nathanial Britton found it in 1905; Bermudiana,endemic, and now our national flower; Bermuda maiden fern, endemic; St. Andrew’s Cross,endemic; smaller yellow meliot, naturalised; and burr grass, of which Petiver amusingly wrote, “My kind friend Mr. John Dickinson sent me this from Bermuda where it is called ‘love grass.’ I suppose from their prickly seeds, wch may stick to our cloaths like our Burdock or Clivers wch last that reason is cald Philanthrops.”

However, it is likely that Dickinson sent far larger numbers of specimens than have been preserved, since Petiver wrote in 1700, “To Mr John Dickinson I am obliged for some Plants he has lately sent me from Bermudas (besides two Collections some years ago) with assurances of larger performances.” Petifer also refers to the “Cedar of Bermudas from whence my kind friend Mr John Dickinson sent it to me in Berry.”

So what happened to Petifer’s collection? A contemporary of Petiver was Sir Hans Sloane, who came to London from Ireland at 18 to study medicine. But he was also a passionate scientist, eventually becoming president of the British Royal Society, which met to witness experiments and discuss scientific subjects. He became a fanatic collector, and by the age of 21 he had formed his own herbarium. Unlike Petiver, he did travel, to France and later to Jamaica where he was the Governor’s personal physician. During the 15 months he was there, he compiled a collection of Jamaican flora and fauna, while, incidentally, discovering chocolate, which he introduced to England on his return. When Petiver died in 1718, Sloane bought his herbarium, allegedly for £4,000, a colossal sum in those days. In his introduction to the Natural History of Jamaica, Sloane describes the state of Petiver’s collection: “He did not take equal care to keep them but put them into heaps with sometimes small labels of Paper where there were many of them injured by Dust, Insects and Rain etc….”

Perhaps that’s what happened to some items in Dickinson’s collection. But Sloane, according to Roy Vickery, a scientist working in the museum in the year 2000, “… was a complete fanatic—he collected everything. I mean he’d collect the pips he spat out if he happened to be eating an apple. There really are a lot of scraps in his herbarium and that was true even when he put them together.”

Sloane lived to the grand old age of 93 and left his collection to the crown for £20,000, after which it became the founding collection for the British Museum and later the Natural History Museum in London. Today the Sloane Collection can be seen in the Natural History Museum, where its 336 volumes of dried plants, plus animal and human skeletons and artefacts from the ancient world, are stored.

There is magic to viewing bits of plants that were living in Bermuda over 300 years ago, although their age is sometimes difficult to believe. Take Dickinson’s two specimens of Bermudianas, for example. Their flowers are so perfectly cupped and are such a rich dark purple, it’s strange to think they were growing in Bermuda, possibly in the garden at Verdmont, sometime in the late 1600s.

Dickinson, of course, was not a botanist. François André Michaux, on the other hand, most certainly was, and he was the first botanist to comment on Bermuda’s vegetation. In 1806, he was returning to America from France when a British man-of-war took his ship as a prize. He spent eight days in St. George’s, and his observations about vegetation, particularly about Bermuda cedars, were published in Paris during the same year. However, he never sent dried specimens abroad.

Some 39 years later, a Mr. A.W. Lane, arriving on the island aboard the HMS Illustrious, did spend time drying about 100 specimens, which he sent to the Royal Gardens at Kew. He also composed a list of 127 species, many of which were indigenous to Bermuda, and presumably presented it to the governor. We can assume this because on July 8, 1845, Governor Reid apparently presented this list to the Bermuda Public Library he himself had founded in 1839. But when botanist Nathanial Lord Britton tried to find it in 1912, it was missing.

Lane’s Bermuda specimens were probably the first contributed to the herbarium in Kew, but as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wore on, more and more specimens from the island were sent there. Kew’s history dates back to the ancient Roman presence in England, but during the eighteenth century its royal gardens attained botanical significance. King George III took particular interest in them, and at his request, Sir Joseph Banks became their unofficial director in 1773.

Banks was an explorer (he financed James Cook’s first expedition to the Pacific), and he also had his own herbarium in Soho Square. Story has it he once pressed specimens between pages taken from the first-edition proofs of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In 1841, botanist Sir William Jackson Hooker took over as the first official director, and he started Kew’s herbarium. In 1865, his son, Sir Joseph Hooker, succeeded him, and Sir Joseph was still director when Governor J. H. Lefroy took up his post in Bermuda in 1871.

Lefroy took a great interest in horticulture, experimenting by importing numerous plants into Bermuda from New York. His attempts at growing asparagus and strawberries were not successful, and he was frustrated by the general lack of knowledge about what would grow and what would not. As Terry Tucker quotes in her forward to the 1981 edition of Lefroy’s Memorials, in December 1871 he imported “a skilled gardener named Middleton and a labourer called Payne” from Kew. But Lefroy said, “These two men were a great expense to me and certainly not worth it. The colony was too backward in matters horticultural, and the climate, soil and productions too entirely different from what they had been accustomed to at Kew, so they did very little good, and had, in fact, their work to learn. I had very much hoped for some improvement in the treatment of grapevines, oranges, Eugenias, and other semi-tropical fruits, but I found they knew nothing about them. Middleton stuck with us to the end, but I soon sent Payne home.”

However, Lefroy’s importation of ornamental plants was successful; many can still be seen in Mount Langton Gardens, including the bougainvillea that to this day tumbles over the wall on the drive to Government House. During his governorship, he continued his association with Kew by sending them a large Bermuda botanical collection (he also sent one to the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University). He also asked Bermuda’s first postmaster, William Bennet Perot, to compile a list of Bermuda plants. That list, expanded by Middleton and the Honourable J. H. Darrell and now located at Kew, was subsequently privately printed, but it includes annotations by Lefroy. Many of the plants listed are marked by an asterisk to indicate, as the introduction says, “[they are] only known as introduced, chiefly at Mount Langton and are not established; some of them for example—the Bread Fruit are said to have been tried and failed before.”

No doubt Lefroy with his profound interest in meteorology and geography was delighted that the HMS Challenger expedition, which travelled the world from 1872–1873, chose to include Bermuda in its itinerary, arriving there in April 1873. In his account of the voyage, Sir C. Wyville Thomson, professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh and chief scientist aboard the ship, specifically mentions Lefroy and “the kindness with which he did everything in his power to make our visit pleasant and profitable.”

The main purpose of this enormously expensive expedition (it cost the British government ₤200,000, the equivalent of ₤10 million today) was of course oceanographic; it was the first undertaken by any nation in the world to explore scientifically the deep ocean and in particular to dispel the notion that the lower depths of the sea were utterly lifeless. However, the five scientists aboard were also interested in the flora and fauna of the countries they visited. One of them, Henry Nottidge Moseley, was given permission by Lefroy to stay at the camp of the engineers at Paynter’s Vale, which he was told was in the “middle of the best botanical district.” Moseley duly collected and dried from Bermuda’s gardens and waysides about 150 specimens, which he sent to Kew.

Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton.

Some 27 years later, two eminent botanists visited Bermuda: American Nathanial Lord Britton and his wife, Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton. They had both previously crossed the Atlantic and visited the Royal Gardens. In fact, Kew had made such an impression on them that they were determined that New York should have an equivalent institution. As a botanist and professor at Columbia College in New York, Britton was able to start an appeal in 1889. His college pledged its herbarium and generous funds while its president, Seth Low, together with philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and financier J. Pierpont Morgan, joined the board of directors. In 1896, Britton was appointed director in chief, and in 1902, The New York Botanical Garden was officially opened.

Bermuda was fortunate that during their series of visits to Bermuda between 1898 and 1916 the couple made an exhaustive study of Bermuda’s plants. As a bryologist, Elizabeth Britton studied mosses, liverworts and other nonflowering plants, while her husband focused on flowers. They published extensively in natural-history journals, but their work culminated in Nathanial Lord Britton’s invaluable and definitive work, Flora of Bermuda, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1918 and now a classic. While studying Bermuda’s plant world, the pair would send dried species back to Kew for cross reference and identification. And like the botanists visiting before them, the famous Brittons were familiar figures in Bermuda’s best-known gardens and countryside.